Obama’s inauguration: What would Malcolm and Martin say?ROBIN WASHINGTON: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., are arguing. It’s Jan. 20, 2009, if dates are kept in the spirit world, and the subject is Barack Obama, who is about to take the oath of office as president of the United States.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., are arguing. It’s Jan. 20, 2009, if dates are kept in the spirit world, and the subject is Barack Obama, who is about to take the oath of office as president of the United States.
A celestial flutter rises and trails off, into which King’s deliberate voice invades the void.
“Brother Malcolm,” he begins. “There is something wonderful that has just happened.”
“Brother Martin,” Malcolm replies. “You know there’s going to be trouble.”
Or so it goes as channeled through the imagination of Jean “Rudy” Perrault, and further distilled by Betsy Husby’s cello and the piano of Alexander Chernyshev.
“I’ll tell you,” each side of the duo continues, making his point. Or perhaps in the triplets of notes they’re sparring: “We made it … They hate him … Audacious … We’ll fight on … Obama …”
However listeners fill in the instrumental blanks, the conversation is both lilting and powerful, born in political shock.
“I was very skeptical about Obama’s first election. I didn’t think that people would actually do it,” says Perrault, director of orchestras for the University of Minnesota Duluth, just hours after returning home to Duluth on Saturday after visiting his native Haiti.
When America did do it, the composer says, it affected him deeply, and became the obvious subject of a cello and piano sonata commissioned of him by UMD colleagues Husby and Chernyshev.
“I thought, ‘What would Malcolm X and Martin Luther King think about this?’”
Though the 2008 election was decided by a groundswell of Americans of all walks of life upset with the economic mess left by President Bush, it was also rooted in the groundwork laid by Malcolm X and King, Perrault says, even if their approaches were vastly different.
“Malcolm was not nonviolent and more militant,” Perrault describes the Black Muslim leader, notorious for advocating against racial oppression “by any means necessary.”
In contrast, Nobel Peace Prize winner King “was more soothing, loving,” Perrault says.
“That harmonic language is how I differentiate them. Malcolm is the more dissonant chords, not necessarily palatable or easy on the ears. Martin is more harmonious, though there’s still some dissonance, still some tension.”
What the two would actually say about Obama’s inauguration — the first or second — is entirely speculative. Only one instance is documented of them meeting publicly, shaking hands on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during debate on the Civil Rights Bill in March 1964. By then, Malcolm had made his hajj to Mecca, reshaping his worldview and that of whites in particular, no longer deeming them blue-eyed devils.
Though always advocating brotherhood, King, too, in later years would shift to a broader focus, against poverty afflicting all people. And, like Malcolm, he, too, would be shot down in his prime just as he made the change.
Other artists have imagined their conversation; most notable is “The Meeting” by Jeff Stetson, a drama broadcast on American Playhouse in 1989.
“I wonder if I caught some of it,” Perrault muses, explaining his work quotes from influences as disparate as Richard Strauss’ “Thus Sprach Zarathustra” to “Nkosi Sikelel,” the African National Congress theme incorporated in the anthem of a multiracial South Africa. A little “Fiddler on the Roof” is in there, too.
“I don’t know where it comes from. It’s part of my being,” Perrault says of his multicultural musical tapestry, though it makes perfect sense if you consider it was written by a Haitian for Chernyshev, a Russian Jewish émigré who came to Duluth in 1991, and Husby, a born-and-raised Duluthian and principal of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra.
Since its premiere in April 2009, “Brother Malcolm” has been performed around the world. Perrault twice took it to Duluth’s Russian sister city of Petrozavodsk, Husby says, and she and Chernyshev played it in another sister, Japan’s Ohara-Isumi City, last year.
“Two weeks ago, the three of us went to Fargo-Moorhead,” she says of a performance where Perrault dissected it for the audience. “People loved the piece. They cried.”
“We cried ourselves when we played it,” adds Chernyshev.
On Monday, they’ll perform it at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at the DECC, sometime following President Obama’s inauguration that begins at 10:45 a.m.
And Duluthians will have a chance to cry, too.
Robin Washington is editor of the Duluth News Tribune. He may be reached at email@example.com.