A Man to Know

I have a note on James DePreist in today’s Impromptus, but I’d like to write a touch more about him here on the Corner. We are powerless to pick who is well-known and influential and who is not. The culture throws up its heroes and role models, I suppose. Lena Dunham is famous: She’s the actress who made that sex ad for Obama. Beyoncé is famous. In the space of two weeks, she starred in what may be this country’s two greatest rites: the presidential inauguration and the Super Bowl. She lip-synched at the one and did a kind of strip act at the other. The First Lady — Michelle Obama, not Beyoncé — tweeted her enthusiasm: “I am so proud of her!” Of course.

A couple of seconds ago, I wrote, “We are powerless to pick who is well-known and influential and who is not.” That is not quite true. We may be powerless as individuals, but, collectively, we have all the power. We determine our culture. We have the kind of culture we want, and deserve. If a disgusting sex ad for Obama is successful — that’s because We the People want it to be so.

James DePreist was known by a small slice of the population. He was a conductor, and, as I say in my column, he overcame significant odds. He was black — the nephew of Marian Anderson, the great contralto. Very, very few blacks were in this area of music when he came along (and this is still true). When he was in his 20s, he got polio, and was thereafter confined to a wheelchair. He kept going.

I particularly admired him for the sensible way he thought about race. At one time, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was caught up in race fever, as the country at large has long been. They hired a musician on account of his race. They did this under political pressure. For years, the tradition had been blind auditions: It didn’t matter how you looked, all that mattered was how you played. But the DSO scuttled this, in order to hire by race.

Around this time, they approached DePreist about becoming their music director. It was clear to him that they were especially interested in his race. He would have nothing to do with the orchestra. “It is impossible for me to go to Detroit, because of the atmosphere,” he said. “People mean well, but you fight for years to make race irrelevant, and now they are making race an issue.”

There is a man, in my opinion.

He died last Friday. For Allan Kozinn’s excellent obit, go here. To see a picture of DePreist, receiving a medal from George W. Bush, go here.