Race and Music: A Portrait of Professor Naomi André
Claire Swadling (United States)
Dr. Naomi André is not your run-of-the-mill academic. A professor of Women's Studies and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, André studies the intersections of gender, race, identity—and opera.
André cites her childhood as having a heavy influence on her unique academic interests. Growing up as the only child of a single mother, André's primary interest was bound to overlap with that of her mother's: music. Her mother was enrolled in The Juilliard School before making the difficult choice to drop out. However, she never completely gave up music. As a result, young André found melodies harmonizing her life. From cassette player bops to classical concertos, she was never lacking rhythm. Soon, André started piano lessons and learned to accompany her mother; her lifelong journey began.
As time went on, it became clear that André was gifted both academically and musically. In our interview, she described her 1970's self as "nerdy and bookish," an introverted and studious child. She excelled at her Quaker boarding school, eventually landing her a spot at Barnard College. Thinking to combine her passion for the auditory arts with academia, she declared a music major. She recalls her days in New York with wistful bliss, recounting subway transits to 66th Street followed by an opera with friends. With her passion for music stronger than ever, André packed her bags for graduate school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Around her time at Harvard, André realized that the questions she wanted to ask weren't being answered. The conservative field of music was focused on penning biographies of composers and genre settings. However, André had different concerns that weren't being addressed. For example, why weren't there more women composers in opera? Where were all the people of color? Reflecting on these questions, André inquired, "Do we take the evidence as reason, or do we say there's a larger contextualization?" Listing famous composers like Mozart and Mendelssohn, she noted how their gifted sisters were denied recognition because it was considered unfit for them to pursue their melodic interests. In her quest to answer these questions, she adopted an interdisciplinary approach.
Accordingly, André started teaching at the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance at the University of Michigan but later transferred to their College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Her nuanced subject matter brought her an interesting opportunity teaching at a women's prison. At a local corrective facility, André helped incarcerated individuals explore Women and Gender Studies. She was gratified to learn that one inmate, when in André’s class, didn't feel like she was in prison anymore. This reinforced André's desire to spread her love of cultural studies.
Today, André's work is rooted in both academia and theater. She works with multiple opera companies, as well as academics, to conduct her research. In 2019, she was honored as the inaugural Scholar in Residence at the Seattle Opera.
In addition to these influences, her heritage plays a significant role in her work. When asked about her views on social unrest today, André told me about the "white supremacist mold" that we find ourselves in, and how even she, a Black woman, gradually internalized this. She asserts that not being proactive results in acceptance of the hand we're dealt. "It's important to see how human we are," she says, hoping that our shared humanity can unite us. She believes that art is especially important for driving acceptance and change. By showing the world that African Americans can be in opera, she hopes to increase diversity in her field and the larger world. For too long, there has been a need for minorities to separate themselves from the mainstream in order to be themselves.
"Oppressed people are very good at knowing what the white world is but also knowing the Black world," she says, describing W.E.B. Dubois's concept of double consciousness. Despite these efforts to fit in, many minorities are still forced to deal with stereotyping. André recalled an incident in which a teacher at Harvard had expected her to know the name of a famous gospel singer because of her race. She was frustrated that her musical acumen was distilled down to her skin color. Similarly, many people were surprised to discover her extensive knowledge of classical composers. "We're all equally far from Mozart and his time," she emphasized. "No one has a special connection to him at this point." She had to "drop the codes that [she] knew things” periodically, becoming discouraged by racism in academia.
André’s journey certainly has not been easy; she told me there were many years in which she would have advised people to steer clear of the field. However, today she opts for a more optimistic view. One of her role models is activist Nikole Hannah-Jones, director of The 1619 Project, an ongoing New York Times initiative that compiles essays and creative writing on slavery and its aftermath. André admires those who are actively seeking change and believes that is the only way we can achieve peace.
Through her studies of race and music, Professor Naomi André advocates for a more diverse and accepting world. As she continues to achieve success with her research, she hopes to simultaneously create wins for inclusion. She is fighting not only for representation in musicology but for what the world needs the most: harmony.