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Terence Blanchard: Music, Social Justice and Raising Awareness About Violence Against Black People

Christine Passarella By

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Blanchard is heartbroken knowing Castille was killed by a police officer who did not see his goodness, and he feels the officer's fear-driven biases led to this tragic death. "Here is a guy who did everything he was supposed to do, he was working, taking care of his family, a role model to the students, he had registered his gun, he responsibly informed the cop he had a licensed gun, and he still lost his life because the cop didn't see him, the cop saw an image, the cop saw something that was told to him his entire life that was threatening. He didn't see the person." A video from the scene exposes the moments before Castille's death in which the officer pointing a gun at Philando during a traffic stop feared he was reaching for a gun. Castille was reaching for his wallet. You can hear Castille in anguish say as he was dying "I wasn't reaching for a gun." The police officer was tried for manslaughter and found not guilty.

The reason he wrote "See Me As I Am" which is on the album Breathless is personal. There are times when he meets people and during the conversation, he can see the moment when their preconceived notions about a black man changes. "It is a terrible thing to go through.." We both agree that a curriculum in which critical thinking on these issues should be mandatory in schools. I was proud to share my Kids for Coltrane program is rooted in that work.

Terence Blanchard is also the musical composer for Spike Lee's acclaimed films since 1991, including Lee's latest film BlacKkKlansman which received the Grand Prix award at Cannes. The film continues the conversation on racism in America. We meet members of the police force, the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan in this true story of an African American police officer who infiltrated the KKK. Spike's film is based on a story from the 70's but artistically ends at a 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. We are reminded of the death of Heather Heyer a victim of an attack that chilling day who lost her life while peacefully marching in a counter protest when a car intentionally rammed into the crowd.

Spike has a great trust in Blanchard, and sees his excellence. "I know it is going to sound great and help me tell the story," Spike Lee has said about Blanchard. Terence feels Spike views music as a separate character and considers him a cinematic visionary. "When a person puts that much trust in you, you never want to let them down," Terence said. After viewing the film which includes Black Panthers, I remembered learning about the life of Geronimo Pratt who had joined the Panthers.

He was a kind and loving son, and brother of six siblings. Born Floyd Gerald Pratt, he was a high school quarterback, studied at UCLA and served in Vietnam and came back with a Purple Heart. Like Terence Blanchard, he was also from Louisiana. He was a soldier for his country and a soldier for social justice within his country. He was convicted of a murder in 1972. With unwavering dedication from his supporters, Geronimo was released from prison after 27 years for a murder he said he did not commit. Tried under a system which presented as the main witness against him a FBI informant. This was during a period of history in which there was a government COINTELPRO operation and certain African Americans were considered suspect. Geronimo became of age when America was struggling with race relations. Passionate to help people get along and with a deep love for black people he joined the political Black Panther Party in hopes of a solution in a dangerous, callous and violent world. Following in the steps of Malcolm X who in his later years tried with unwavering love and strength to bring people of all races together.

Listening to Terence's music, you know he is connecting to the people who move and inspire him. It seems to me his music is a call to action for each one of us to look deeper at the soldiers of social justice, the love warriors, mostly unsung heroes who are willing to sacrifice in the name of humanity. The message is we the citizens of this grand country must raise up all the great unsung heroes who inspire us. We must take loving action and be that example and support system for the younger generation.

Reminiscing while doing research for this article, again thinking about Spike's films, musically scored by Terence I remembered being on the set of Jungle Fever with my mother and children one afternoon, just saying hello to my cousin John Turturro who was in the film. Jungle Fever came out after a 1989 racial conflict in Brooklyn, NY in which Yusef Hawkins was murdered by racist youths. Lee's films help us come to terms with reality and the importance of seeing one another. I remembered another tragic occurrence from that decade. It was December 1986 and I was on the Belt Parkway. Traffic was piling up, and as my car got closer to where the police officers stood, I saw a lifeless body. The traffic pushed along and soon my car was on its way leaving the tragic scene as just a memory. However, it was not until the next day that I was to realize I saw the body of Michael Griffith. This 23-year-old black young man who immigrated from Trinidad about a decade before was beaten along with his mother's future husband and a friend by a gang of white teenagers. They came into the area trying to get assistance after their car broke down. Michael Griffith ran onto the parkway that evening to escape the brutality from the gang and was struck by a car. That was the body I saw lying dead.

The ringleader Jon Lester according to the New York Times was an 18-year-old who came from England when he was 14 years old, and helped incite the brutal charge that led to this crime. What pent up lies told by society did this young man and his friends believe that brought out vile racist words and actions? Lester was imprisoned until 2001 for manslaughter and then extradited back to Britain. Trying to make a successful life after prison, he suffered deeply from depression and eventually killed himself in 2017 at the age of 48 years old. When hearing about his passing the mother of Michael Griffith, Jean Griffith Sandiford responded. "In my heart, I'm sorry to hear of his death. Regardless of what happened, I always forgave them."

Amazing Grace has allowed the essential conversation to continue, and it seems urgent again. Terence Blanchard's healing music will not let us look away from the fact decade after decade too many people want to see only their own truths, and in doing that biases grow like a cancer that keeps killing and destroying lives. Blanchard's music helps absorb the pain while also encouraging a call to action to grow love, not hate. His brilliance leads us to have the conversation to see the humanity in one another.

I traditionally go to John Coltrane's gravesite to meditate on his birthday. September 23, marks his 92nd birthday. I feel uplifted by Terence's music with an intense need to stay the course toward social justice in these times, and understand we all have much more to do to bring people together. Coltrane and Blanchard connect me to the work of Paolo Freire who inspired me while earning my advanced degrees in education. He was a Brazilian educator and philosopher who advocated teaching critical thinking to students to help create a better world. His seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed and his pedagogical work brings hope. Freire stated, "Curiosity as restless questioning, as movement toward the revelation of something hidden, as a question verbalized or not, as search for clarity, as a moment of attention, suggestion, and vigilance constitutes an integral part of the phenomenon of being alive. There could be no creativity without the curiosity that moves us and sets us patiently impatient before a world that we did not make, to add to it something of our own making." Perhaps it is curiosity which grows in each of us that will encourage seeing the humanity in the other. This essential action may save and enrich the world, and answer Blanchard's prayer for the continued conversation he encourages in his song..."Talk to Me."
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