Dallas — In July of last year, the Dallas Morning News published an op-ed piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks. In it, he addresses national data points that support his thesis: “we’ve stopped making progress on racial segregation.” Citing poverty data used in reports by Bradford Wilcox and the American Enterprise Institute and Raj Chatty, Brooks’ commentary on the country’s progressive efforts toward racial and economic equality paints a grim picture.
Considering Dallas’ tumultuous history, steeped in racial tensions and unfair economic legislations, the implications of these national numbers directly relate to DFW and our story of segregation, which I would assume is why DMN published Brooks’ article. In another report by Cullum Clark, published by the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, Clark finds that “Dallas remains among the most economically and racially segregated cities in America, in part reflecting the heritage of Jim Crow.”
Now that that’s been said…
In its most recent program, the Verdigris Ensemble sought to capture an image of Dallas by sourcing material directly from the citizenry. Over the course of the 2018-2019 season, they received nearly 1000 written responses to the prompt “Dallas is…,” garnered a robust collection of original poetry by local writers and conducted interviews with four community representatives. The idea was to set these texts to music through a compositional collaboration with New Jersey-based composer David Ross Lawn, ultimately culminating in Faces of Dallas, which was performed last weekend at Arts Mission Oak Cliff. The concert, part of the Soluna Festival, also featured the work of two young composers from the ION Young Composer Competition, a program started by Verdigris in order to stimulate creative development and professional mentorship for young local musicians.
It was all a very romantic idea, with a well-intended goal of lifting up the voices of all the various communities of Dallas. By curating a wealth of perspectives and personal insights, artistic director Sam Brukhman has tapped into a special, mixed-media approach toward understanding our city. Musically, I might say that this series brought out the best of this group. Tonally and technically, their skill level was on full display, with a bright and effective blend that was, in and of itself, very moving. Furthermore, Lawn’s compositions were warm and endearing, colliding in convincing cohesion with beautiful watercolor portraits of the featured interviewees by local artist Stephen Zhang.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that the attempt fails to account for the larger picture. The pitfall with Faces of Dallas is that it relies heavily on the specific narratives of individual people—so-called “community representatives”—whose personal stories are meant to inform audience members of entire cultural-ethnic groups’ view of the world.
The process, on paper, seems sound and reasonable enough—to properly capture a community’s voice, one should source voices directly from that community. What was missing was crucial context. In defining what Dallas is, especially as it may relate to diversity, it’s important that this city’s historical narrative is a part of the conversation. Without it, we are left with a rosy view of Dallas, resting on the perception of progress and evolution, a notion that belies decades of explicit legal segregation on economic and racial lines. It leaves a warm and uplifting impression but pays no mind to the fact that in the ’60s and ’70s, the city government obliterated a huge swath of historic black neighborhoods for the sake of “urban renewal.”
It isn’t up to the Verdigris Ensemble to undo all of the city’s sins. The issues of segregation and economic inequity do not start and end with any one committee, especially not an arts organization. Instead, what the group does accomplish is a stimulation of the conversations that need to be had. I just hope that their latest project has engaged patrons to start on the right foot and has not encouraged us to continue resting on our laurels.