I am the son of Filipino immigrants. My father came to America in 1926, a poor struggling teenager, with only a bag of clothes and about five dollars in change. Over the course of his long life, he was, among many things, an early civil rights advocate and an important civic leader for the Filipino-American community in our area. My mother came to the US on a nursing exchange program in 1957, the first generation of Filipino nurses to come to this country. Through a set of extraordinary circumstances, they met, fell in love, and made a life for themselves and for their children. It’s a beautiful story.
Through the recent racial tension our country is now experiencing, I am reminded again of the many stories that Dad and Mom used to tell me around the dinner table, stories of terrible racial prejudice, of unconscionable injustice, of personal loss and striving. But also stories of courage and achievement, of victories large and small, of love and laughter and God’s grace-filled providence.
I personally feel the pain of knowing that the systemic racial inequities that have been a part of our heritage still exist. I feel for black people in our country, for their cultural journey seems so unjust and so complex and so far from being rectified. Systemic racism is real, so deeply marbled into the sinew of our culture that it has become difficult to see without deep cuts into the flesh. There are no easy answers, to be sure. And that only adds to the tragedy.
I wanted to share a story I have shared before, a story of how the arts had an influence on the civil rights movement. This is a story of trumpet virtuoso Louis Armstrong. These days, we know Armstrong as the gleeful trumpeter who famously sang “What a Wonderful World.” But he was much, much more than that.
By the early 1930s, Louis Armstrong had already established himself as the definitive master of this infant musical genre called “jazz.” His fluid, emotive, powerful style and uniquely innovative playing had already become the benchmark for all jazz performers of his era. His trumpet solos were beyond expressive—they were conversational, charismatic, prodigious. But he had not yet become the household name he would one day be, and touring between Los Angeles and Chicago, he began a three-day run at the Hotel Driscoll in Austin, Texas. It was the fall of 1931.
Among those in attendance that evening was a white teenage boy in his first year at the University of Texas named Charlie Black. Black didn’t know anything about Armstrong and knew little about jazz; in fact, he was at the Driscoll simply to meet girls. But that was before Armstrong began to play.
Black would later write of his experience, “He played mostly with his eyes closed, letting flow from that inner space of music things that had never before existed. He was the first genius I’d ever seen. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen year-old southern boy seeing genius for the first time in a black person. We literally never saw a black then in anything but a servant’s capacity. Louis opened my eyes wide and put to me a choice. ‘Blacks’, the saying went, ‘were in their place.’ But what was the place for such a man, and the people from which he sprung?”
Twenty-two years later, at the cusp of the American Civil Rights movement, the Supreme Court was hearing the now historic Brown v. Board of Education. The NAACP Legal Defense was assembling their case in an effort to convince the court that segregation on the basis of race was unconstitutional. The person who wrote the legal brief upon which the case was grounded was one Charles L. Black, now a distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale University, and senior advisor to Thurgood Marshall.
As a young teenager, Charles Black’s encounter with the music of Louis Armstrong was not simply memorable. For there was more coming out of Armstrong’s trumpet than music. What was emanating from his horn was a greater Truth about the world. Thankfully, young Charlie Black had the ears to hear that Truth, the eyes to see that Truth, and the heart to challenge what everyone else thought was truth. Though young Charlie Black did not fully understand it at the time, history shows that Armstrong’s music changed his life—and ours.
As artists of faith, we are not only painters and musicians and writers and dancers and filmmakers and craftsman. We are expressers of Truth. Our art must ultimately magnify, colorize, illuminate, and heighten the perception of Truth. And that Truth should captivate us, reframe our senses, compel us to action, and perhaps inspire us to something greater.
As I said earlier, the story of my parents is a beautiful story. And through this current shelter-in-place pandemic, I’ve slowly been developing their story into a screenplay. It’s been challenging, difficult, rewarding, fulfilling. But it’s been worth the effort, because I believe it’s important to know where we’ve come from, and honor the stories of tragedy, sacrifice, and triumph that allow us to have the freedoms we now possess.
As artists of faith, we have an obligation to tell these stories well.