Interracial Relationships in Oscar Movies and Orchestras
by Barbara Steinberg, reacting to the above article in the New York Times
As coincidence would have it, Alfred Uhry, author of “Driving Miss Daisy,” was my drama teacher in high school. I won the role of Viola in Twelfth Night, but wasn’t allowed to play it, because my father had just died, and I had skipped school for 6 weeks. I was too far behind in my other work, so I ended up playing a minor role.
Alfred was mentioned in a New York Times article the other day about this year’s Oscar nominations. Movies like “The Upside” and “Green Book” tell stories about interracial relationships, where the distance between the two main characters is bridged by a contract of employment. One look at the posters tells you which character was employed at the other’s patronage.
The article goes on to say that many movies and television shows were “light advertisements for the civilizing (and alienating) elements of white wealth on black life.” Civilizing???
Then something stood out.
“Any time a white person comes anywhere close to the rescue of a black person, the academy is primed to say, ‘Good for you!,’”
While working on the radio documentary “Bernstein’s Black America,” I was asking my dear friend Terrance McKnight to highlight the alliance between Lenny and my father, Benjamin Sternberg, founding artistic director of the Symphony of the New World.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to include the letter Bernstein wrote to the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation that secured funding for the Carnegie Hall premiere on May 6, 1965, but Terrance said reverentially, “You know Leonard Bernstein held a fundraiser for the Black Panthers in his Park Avenue apartment.”
Lenny lived on Park Avenue. If he was going to hold a fundraiser in his home, his address would follow. But Terrance did not say Lenny’s home. He said, “his Park Avenue apartment.”
I felt his comment was almost like the acceptance of the transactional nature of class difference inherent in racial inequality, portrayed in “Driving Miss Daisy” and this year’s Oscar-nominated movies. Of course you knew who lived Park Avenue, and who was there to benefit from the fundraiser.
The blurb for “Bernstein’s Black America uses a neutral tone: “To raise money for civil rights organizations, he also hosted jazz in the afternoon at his house.”
Lenny also marched in Selma with Harry Belafonte, and hired Sanford Allen to integrate the New York Philharmonic in the 1960’s. This isn’t about Lenny. This is about how African Americans accept help from white people without losing their dignity, and about white people who commit to civil rights because the inclusive nature of the term is obvious.
The late 60’s was a time of “limousine liberals,” and Jewish landlords, who mercilessly exploited their black tenants in Harlem. I think my father was misinterpreted as a white Jew who came to rescue black people, which was horribly false.
My father put his soul into the Symphony of the New World because he wanted to change the world. His catch phrase was, “I’m not a white liberal. I’m a white radical,” meaning I’m not a hypocrite. The mission of this orchestra is the core of my being. I’m real.
He did not hire black musicians personally. The Symphony hired them professionally, as the tax records in the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture show.
Appearing on Jack O’Brian’s “Critics Circle (WOR Radio, 196😎, the host asked my father, “What is the proportion of blacks in the Symphony of the New World?” My father answered: “About 40%. We have 36 black players. Actually 66 black players have gone through our orchestra, but 14 of them are now in other symphonies, and another dozen have gotten so busy with work in New York that they can’t play the concerts.”
When Jack O’Brian asked the same question of the other conductor on the panel, he answered, “I couldn’t say how many black people were in the orchestra because we go by color of sound not by color of skin.”
An article by Joan Peyser appeared in the New York Times on Sunday, Dec. 26, 1967. Ronald Lipscomb is quoted as responding to my father’s catch phrase by saying, “What we need now is a black orchestra. We are happy to be here, but this should be seen for what it is: a middle-class operation with integrationist ideals, having no relation whatever to the mass of black people.” Some colleagues agreed. “Only a white man could have found the money and backing to make this orchestra work.”
I don’t know why integrationist ideals have to be the sole property of the middle class, but ok.
I spoke with Ronald Lipscomb. When he came to school on the Monday after that article appeared, his friends looked at him strangely. “Why did you say that?” they asked. “What?” he was confused. Then they showed him the article. He was shocked. “I never said that,” he told me. He felt Joan Peyser needed an angry-black-man character for her story, and she chose him. He was horrified.
In addition, the tableau that comes to my mind most distinctly was my father crying at our desk in a nook off the living room after hanging up the phone for the 15th time. It was a conversation with another wealthy black potential donor, who declined to give money to fund the Symphony of the New World. “Why wouldn’t a black person support this?” he asked, as bewildered despair filled his eyes. I saw him take off his glasses and wipe away the tears. He was working so hard. My mother held him. I was 6 and didn’t understand what was going on, but I had never seen him cry before.
I would never dispute that there was racism at the major foundations, but that memory tells me that black people could have absolutely raised the money to start the Symphony of the New World, and the foundations would have had to follow. My father wasn’t a front. The people he loved weren’t transactional friends. The cause for which he gave his life for was still one for which he would give his life.
He resigned in 1971 because, according to a New York Times article by Donal Henahan on July 15, 1973, “members accused him trying to change the objectives of the orchestra.” My personal opinion is that they were lying, and my father resigned because he lost a personal power struggle with Kermit Moore. What was it about? I still don’t know.
Four months before he died on January 29, 1974, he was rejected for a professorship at Rutgers University, because a letter was sent in opposition to his hiring, calling him a racist. Rutgers University cannot find the letter. A letter telling my father the news is in the Schomburg collection. I’ll never forget how his eyes closed into his jaundiced face when my mother read it to him. It was the last blow. His body was rife with pancreatic cancer. I’d like to to see that letter. I want to know who signed it.
Unlike the Oscars, where people’s humanitarian views are celebrated with rhinestone-studded sincerity, sometimes the world kills a dreamer, but he’s not the only one. Integration will come to the classical stage and to the board room. Terrance and I want to tell the story of this orchestra, but we can’t get the funding.