Don Shirley, "Green Book," and Me

I finally got the chance to sit down and watch the Oscar-winning film Green Book, on the life of African American concert pianist Don Shirley. As I had written in an earlier blog ("Ebony and Ivory: A Dissonant Truth"), I had visited with Dr. Shirley in his apartment above Carnegie Hall when my parents were in New York with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The film gave a very accurate depiction of his home and the extravagant, ostentatious décor.

The Real Don Shirley in his home

Don Shirley was praised early in his life as a genius, a wunderkind whose forte was the traditional classical repertoire. Composer Igor Stravinsky said of him: "His virtuosity is worthy of Gods." But his record label forced him to play jazz, and sent him on tour with a jazz trio. In an interview, Shirley said that his record label wanted him to appear in overalls with a red bandana around his neck on the album cover. He refused.

In my own book I have written about facing racism as an African American classical pianist. But no one tried to get me to wear a "Mammy" costume. They just reneged on my contract and didn't release it after it was recorded. Americans were much more subtle about their racism in my day. They just wouldn't hire you.

In the film, Shirley and his driver/bodyguard travelled throughout the American south, and were confronted with segregated public accommodations including hotels, restaurants, and toilets. For the most part, Shirley wouldn't leave the car until it was time to check in to a "Colored" hotel. It was most humiliating when he was the star attraction at an exclusive "Whites Only" country club or restaurant, and was not allowed to be served or use the toilet at the same establishment where he was performing.

I had an experience at a country club in the south during a dinner where I was the guest of honor after my concert. Though I was seated at the table and was allowed to use the bathroom, I noticed during the course of my meal that the black staff did not want to serve me. One of the white ladies at my table got up and removed my plate, and personally asked the staff for my next course. I guess the black staff did not approve of my "fraternizing" with the oppressor.

As a woman, the kind of concert tour depicted in the film would have been impossible for me, primarily because it would have been too dangerous. In the film, Shirley has one violent encounter with white thugs who rough him up for fun in a bar. His white driver comes in and saves the day. Critics have bemoaned this "white savior complex" that Hollywood films are famous for.

In my memoir (Practicing for Love) I have described encounters where my being female presented much more danger than my being black. When the film based on my book is produced, I am sure that many will draw similarities with Green Book. Even the scene where Shirley is arrested for a homosexual encounter in a YMCA locker room will be pointed out. But the film says nothing of his gay romantic relationships. By contrast, my romantic relationships are the primary focus in my book.

Actor Mahershala Ali

I know that Hollywood LOVES seeing naked men in movies. It's no coincidence that "Oscar" himself is naked. Let's hope that Hollywood will look as favorably upon a black woman's story.

Order Practicing for Love here.


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