Coping with crisisIt’s been nearly 20 years since 9/11, in the wake of which there were memorial performances of Mozart’s Requiem literally around the world. We launched a war in Afghanistan that became our longest exercise in futile combat, at the 10 year mark of which we finally got Bin Laden – after which we remained another decade. And yet the slaughter on our own streets, in our own communities, and often at the hands of law enforcement officials, sworn to protect and defend us, has continued virtually unabated. In 2020 alone, there were over five times the deaths during 9/11 AND of US service personnel in the entire Afghan war, combined – five times. And with regard to police killings, Black men are disproportionately the victims. But even in the wake of George Floyd’s death, there’s been a dearth of musical memorials. Till now.

Enter Margaret Partridge, former executive director of the Philharmonic Association, the umbrella organization that hosts a wide range of youth performing organizations, from beginner orchestras to full-fledged jazz bands. It was her idea, sparked by the death of violinist Elijah McClain in 2019*, to create a program called United Strings of Color to offer enhanced opportunities to young musicians of color, one of the major manifestations of which took to the stage, as it were, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Southeast Raleigh, on the grounds of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church.* The event was part recitation, part concert, part memorial, part church service. In attendance were a substantial number of keen listeners, masked and socially distanced, as young people read poems addressing the Black experience, several composed by their readers, interspersed with musical selections that in many cases underscored and amplified the emotional and dramatic thrusts of the poetry. The poems were selected with the guidance and encouragement of 2021 Piedmont Laureate Kelly Starling Lyons. (She explains what was covered in a recent blog; see “Violin Vigils” here.)

The quartet, consisting of Kennedy Mitchell** and Cameron Thomas, violins,; Sterling Elliott, viola, and Lexi Etienne,** cello, was amplified, but not excessively; the sound was nicely managed by Partridge herself who sometimes gave some slight boosts to whichever voice was carrying the melody at the time. It was, overall, an extraordinary musical experience, hearing these young people play music, some of which tunes were surely familiar to older campaigners who remembered singing things like “We Shall Overcome” during marches, or who heard Odetta in concert, or Leonard Cohen, or…. There’s hope for our nation, when there are youngsters like these poets and instrumentalists who are prepared to propel us into a more united, more peaceful future.

We should note that quartets of color are not new. In the recent past our cultural lives have been enriched and our horizons expanded by the Marian Anderson String Quartet, the Harlem Quartet, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, and others, and let us not overlook the great ensemble, Imani Winds. All of these have performed here; several of them have done so multiple times. And now, United Strings of Color comes onto the field, locally. Three cheers, and long may these artists prosper!

Your scribe once noted that he doesn’t review weddings or funerals, but a vigil like this one proved comparable in many respects to formal, through-composed ones like Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil and similar (often Orthodox) settings, and the music, to the surprise of some, turned out to be much more of a piece than one might have anticipated – more powerful in toto than any single number might have been, on its own. We’ll address the music first, noting along the way the poems that came in between, and then, at the end, we’ll reprint as many of the texts as we can, for the edification of readers – and so prospective attendees of future concerts – three more are scheduled, and this project is a work in progress, so there will likely be more – will have access to printed words as the young people read them.

The introductions were by St, Ambrose’s minister of music Christian Foushee-Green and the Association’s director of community engagement, Heather Elliott.

A reading of the NPR crowd-sourced poem “This Is Our Dream,” curated by Kwami Alexander, was followed by an arrangement (by Partridge) of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,”; the words are so well-known that the music itself spoke volumes to the attentive crowd.

Destiny Carless’ “Being Black” was followed by Charles Albert Tindley‘s “We Shall Overcome,” (arr. S. Jones) popularized in the ’60s by Pete Seeger and many others and chanted in more than a few streets, including Raleigh’s.

Taylor Kennedy Mendez’s “Before I’m Me” was paired with Black Violin‘s “Stereotypes,” during which Mario Kersey’s “You See Before You the Future” was read.

Sumeyya Miraloglu contributed “Change,” admirably connected with the great Civil Rights song “Oh, Freedom,” as arr. by Hugues Delay.

Continuing, Jillian Seersky’s “the activity called a spectacle” was matched up with Undine Smith Moore‘s setting of the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” presented in a moving arrangement by Partridge.

Mario Kersey’s “What Can We Do” brought us to the great anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ by the Johnson brothers, James Weldon (1871-1938) and John Rosamond (1873-1954).

“Colors,” by Jimena Gonzalez-Aguina, speaks of all the colors that make up who we are as people beyond skin color. There followed light and shade aplenty in the gorgeous “Meditation” by Ernest Bloch, which featured stellar work by the ensemble’s violist – whose performance surely bore the fingerprints of former NCS principal violist Hugh Partridge, spouse of Margaret, who is the young man’s teacher and coach.***

Jayla Dennis’ “Movement” drew us toward the program’s more optimistic finale; its musical companion was Sam Cooke‘s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” arr. M. Partridge.

And then the great summing-up took the form of “The Hill We Climb,” written by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman and memorably read by her at President Joseph Biden’s inauguration followed by an inspiring double version of the old Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” popularized for classical folk by Aaron Copland and here given a straightforward rendition followed by Black Violin’s more upbeat take on the melody that had us tapping our feet and smiling beneath our masks. Augmenting the quartet in the final musical selection were violinists Felicia Adizue,** Tara Nambi, Fiona Adizue, and Cameron Timo and violist Jolie Duquene.**

Three cheers for all of this. If YOU weren’t there, get thee to one of the repeats, listed in the sidebar – and stay tuned for more.

*Actually, it was earlier, as the director reminds us. “United Strings of Color was started at the beginning of the 2018-19 season, long before coming to terms with racial justice was so front and center in the US. The first season the group prepared a program of ‘under-represented women composers’ including Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Undine Smith Moore, and Florence Price. This was the program USC presented at the Raleigh African American Cultural Festival at the end of  August and beginning of September 2019. The musicians all had scripts to explain the music and we a slideshow added visual context. In the 2019-20 season we prepared an African folktale with narration and music commissioned by the PA from Elmer Gibson, à la Peter and the Wolf, with artwork from Poe Elementary students to go with it. USC also prepared a set of music with African connections (loosely) that included Handel’s “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba,” African Blessing (Bwana Awabariki), some Chevalier de St. Georges string quartet music, and some Scott Joplin played for the Omega Psi Phi Quizbowl plus other bookings that were cancelled when COVID hit. The Violin Vigils that happened after Elijah was killed sparked our desire to create a program for racial justice this season, the quartet’s third. (BTW In Aurora, the peaceful impromptu Violin Vigil was met by police in riot gear.)”

**These artists were founding members of the quartet,

***Sterling Elliott won first place (the Dr. Thomas E. Kee, Sr. Award) in the 2021 Omega Psi Phi, Mu Mu Xi Chapter, Talent Hunt, playing the “Meditationin a virtual competition.


Poem 1: “This Is Our Dream.” We open with two verses from the National Public Radio crowd sourced poem that was curated by Kwami Alexander, a poet, educator and New York Times bestselling author of 21 books.

United Strings of Color: Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen, arranged by Margaret Partridge

Poem 2: Being Black. My name is Destiny Carless and I am in the 10th grade at Rolesville High where I study English with Dr. Bailey. What inspired me to write this poem was just current events. I had been wanting to write a poem about everything that was happening but I did not know how to start. When I found out about this opportunity, I was quick to jump to the case. Everything that has been going on in this world is unacceptable and disheartening to hear. This is something that touches on what it truly means to be Black in America and I believe my poems needs to be heard.

Being Black is having ancestors
Originating from the Motherland.
Being Black is dancing to rhythmic beats.
Being Black is reaching goals
We were not supposed to reach.
Being Black is having purpose.
But in reality,
What does it actually mean to be Black
In America?
People fear because of the color of our skin.
We’re in the United States but it seems we can’t win.
It seems it’s what we’re used to.
We lose another soul each day
To the wrath of this world.
Police can take a knee and take a life.
And it’s alright.
But when Kap takes a knee
And we all join together peacefully
We see frustration arise as if we’re trying to start a fight.
Police brutality.
Overtook a young spirit living bright.
For some candy.
“Looking” suspicious.
Trying to return to family.
Is Black really a bad color?
Are we not supposed to be successful like you?
In the midst of this pandemic, more have come to realize
That not much has changed
Since the days
That we were slaves.
We’re treated like outsiders.
Like we don’t belong.
We can’t be great.
We have to live through all this hate.
Literally shot down from achieving more.
Being Black in American is fearing for your life
Everyday you step out on the street
And meet people who don’t look like you. Seeing police wondering “Will this be my last breath?”
“I can’t breathe.”
Something needs to change.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said,
“” have a dream…”
Can we all
Just stay asleep?

United Strings of Color: We Shall Overcome, arranged by S. Jones

Poem 3: “Before I’m Me.” My name is Taylor Kennedy Mendez. I am a junior at Rolesville High School and study English with Rebecca Hamilton. My inspiration for the following poem is my personal experience with code switching. I’ve always seen code switching as a useful tool; my father would call me “chameleon.” I’m starting to question if code switching is even worth it when black people are murdered before they can speak; and by people who are supposed to be PROTECTING them.

when I walk into a room my skin
screeches before me
the way she makes a scene
does too much
how rude she is
all the while out of place

I’m black before I’m me

I’m looking for a code to best fit when it’s time to speak
you tell me I’m not like the others
there’s no need to cross the street
you say that I’m the whitest black girl that you’ll ever meet
just cause I knew my aave and ebonics
would be a disadvantage to me
but I can go from the white house to the trap house
without skipping a beat
that’s what Katelynn Duggins told me
but how long can the code switch really save me
cause when I go home I’m thinking about Breonna the emt
who was gunned down in her sleep
and now that she’s not here they can make her into whoever
they want her to be
how do you think Ahmaud’s mother feels
when there’s pieces of his body still lying in the street
will the switch save me
when the officer’s knee is on my neck
and I can’t breathe

Elijah McClain’s last words were I love

I might as well throw it away
and continue to let my skin speak for me
because at the end of the day

I know I’m black but do you know me.

United Strings of Color: “Stereotypes,” by Black Violin. The following poetry by Mario Kersey, staff at East Wake High, will be read during the piece. (Poem 4.)

You see before you the future
But you hold me in the past
Questioning my citizenship
Or my intelligence while sitting in calculus.
I don’t run for my health
But walk to prevent anyone
From thinking I am fleeing a crime.
You see the apostrophe in my name and know
I will be trouble with a stank attitude
So you pass on me.
You speak the slang because you expect me to,
But my parents told me to enunciate.
Just meet me halfway, and we may discover
How similar we really are.

Poem 5: Change. The following poem is by Sumeyya Miraloglu, a senior at Wakefield High School. She studies Creative Writing with Ms. Jefferson. She was inspired to write this poem after riots began breaking out and injustices being held against minorities finally had a place in the spotlight.

I wish I could say we live in a world full of peace, justice, and love,
But I can’t.
When the color of somebody’s skin determines whether they are a threat.
When the hijab a woman wears to preserve her modesty reminds others to “never forget”.
When the braids of a young girl with kinky hair is seen as inappropriate for school.
But the lighter girls’ straight hair is just seen as, ‘following the rules.
I wish I could say we live in a world full of peace, justice, and love,
But that would contradict with the instances I have mentioned above.
When children fear for their lives going to school to pursue their education,
Because of the loose gun laws that threaten our nation.
When certain people are stopped by airport security for a ‘random check’
When a person is innocently murdered by having a knee pressed into his neck.
I wish I could say we live in a world full of peace, justice, and love,
But that would be denying the true instances that I have mentioned above.
When people are labeled as terrorists for practicing a religion that preaches peace,
When people are told ‘go back to your country!’ making them believe they belong overseas.
When too many children are raised in broken families of single mothers
When Muslim women in France are forced to strip off their modest swimwear because it ‘frightens others’.
I wish I could say we live in a world full of peace, justice, and love,
But that would oppose every true instance I have recited above.
When some Asians are made fun of for the shape of their eyes
When the deaths of minorities are constantly being dehumanized
When the Uyghur Muslims in China are being tortured
When the children of Yemen are dying from starvation like flowers in a decaying orchard.
When people are shot up in night clubs because of their sexuality
When wanting to be treated equally is seen as a fantasy rather than a reality
I wish I could say we live in a world full of peace, justice, and love,
But that would reject every true instance I have recited above.
So, I hope that we can all start by making positive change.
To make sure anything labeled as different is not seen as something that needs to be rearranged.

United Strings of Color: “Oh, Freedom!,” arranged by Hugues Delay

Poem 6: the activity called a spectacle.” My name is Jillian Seversky and I am in the 12th grade at Holly Springs High where I study English with Meghan Sanders. This poem is inspired by the lynchings’ within the united states within the late 1800s and the early half of the 1900s. And furthermore, and how many white Americans would treat it as if a movie a grand entertaining event something to look forward to and have fun at. They showed this by bringing a picnic with their family and watching and taking pictures of the victim’s and putting them on postcards. Later they through these victims out like garbage into the swamps and secret places. I do not wish to romanticize this topic or dark place in history, but rather I want with this poem to acknowledge the twisted things done to these people of color, and educate others on the history of our country though it might be a difficult one to come to terms with.

Thousands will Show
they heard from the peculiar pages
the published publicly ones
they will bring their picnics
they will bring their children
they will commemorate it on courthouses
in postcards
and stowaway many secrets in swamps
you will say the advertisements made us do it
you will say you are not sorry
but the evidence is damning
all red hands around
the backwoods permanently blood-stained
yet you make the trees carry your shame-still-of being used
to grow so very tall.
to try to bring beauty
to then be used to end it with their branches.
the singular savior holding them in your arms
when everyone has gone and it is just you 2, 3, 4 or more
hanging brown bodies
and falling leaves.

United Strings of Color: “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” by Undine Smith Moore, transcribed by Margaret Partridge

Poem 7: What We Can Do. This poem was written by Mario Kersey who is on the staff at Eastern Wake High School and asked that a student read. He too addresses the topic of stereotyping.

We are a tenement of pigeonholes
Cramped with potential some fear
Will make them lose
Their comfort of privilege.
There is room for all of us to expand
Into the big picture of a King’s dream.
The content of our character is the seed
For our growth together.
Our stereotypes are the demarcation for walls
built around each other limiting belief
In the abilities any of us possess but too often
See in only one type of person.
Be the black dot on the white painting
Stand out while stomping down
The narrow views to reveal the open space
For the diversity of thought and expression
To expand, touching all of us.

United Strings of Color: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” arranged by Margaret Partridge

Poem 8: Colors, by Jimena Gonzalez-Aguina, a junior at Holly Springs High school, speaks of all the colors that make up who we are as people beyond skin color. She writes, “This poem is about an African-American girl who is being accused of something (anything) solely because of her skin color. The whole poem talks about ‘her colors’ because who we are as people are what make up our colors, not our skin tone; although it is something to embrace. In the end, they wouldn’t listen to her pleas, so now her unique colors are gone from the world.”

Her cheeks are stained with deep ocean blue tears
Her plump lips as red as the blood of her ancestors
Why won’t they listen to her?
It wasn’t her.
Her words come out a bruising purple,
Dripping with fear.
Her delicate, dark hands tremble.
The night sky strains itself to provide her refuge,
Engulfing the rich color of her skin.
They still aren’t listening to her.
It wasn’t her.
Her cascading, untamed dark curls stick to her face,
Shielding her from the man who shouts sharp words
Piercing her golden heart.
It’s too late to listen now.
It wasn’t her.
And now no one will know the beauty within
her eyes, her smile, her laugh.
They will never truly grasp the value of,
her colors.

United Strings of Color: Meditation by Ernest Bloch

Poem 9: “Movement.” “Movement,” is by Jayla Dennis, a student of Monica Perdomo at North Wake College and Career Academy where she is in the 10th grade.

A change or development.
Movement is the shift in my stride,
the air in which I inhale and exhale,
the way my hands are bound as the
screams of my family and community
orchestrate a symphony in my ears.
My movement is seen as violent.
Violent because I have learned how
to turn my steps into war drums so that
even the mightiest may tremble.
Violent because I have made my words sharp
enough to pierce the heart of prejudice,
violent because my skin is the ultimate weapon.
Bullet wounds so deep in my back
they clap against my rib cage.
How many more drops of my blood
do you want to see fall,
before you realize I matter.
My movement is flexible.
It curls against my calves
and gives me the extra bounceo that I may continue in my stride.
so that I may continue in my stride.
It strains with the ligaments in my arms
as I hold them to my body when
I walk down these streets that
have had more black bodies
laid down on them than the stickers in a scrapbook.
My movement is intelligent.
It is abundant in my mind
constantly replaying the excuses of lawless murders.
It can recount death dates,
and times it has turned my brain into a battle zone.
My movement is loud.
It makes my ears ring
with the sounds of chains to remind me I still have further to climb.
The first note of a cry that is so known yet so ignored.
My movement is trendy.
It has been worn like the summer sports collections.
On Wednesdays we wear the blood of Trayvon Martin.
On Friday we wear the colors
of the screams that were heard by countless generations.
My movement is me .
Who has had to fight for my life
before being able to legally buy a drink.
Before knowing how to take out a loan or buy car insurance
Who is still fighting and has seen the faces of my oppressors.
Snickering as they try to imitate my charms and the way I swing my hips.
Demeaning me until they see the ashes of my self esteem.
The oppressors suddenly want to be given the title of oppressed,
wanting to mimic tears of the ones they’ve slain.
Their movement is in opposition to mine,
they’ve turned their steel hate into actual bullets,
yet they hide behind white sheets and the girl next door narrative.
If history had its eyes on us why do I get the feeling that they are colorblind.
Only seeing the white narrative and believing those white lies.
My movement tells me to keep going forward never back,
spew your truth until the weight of their guilt makes your neck crack.
Sandra I’ve heard about your fate,
George I’m not lowering my stakes,
Breonna I’m building my own path,
Aura I have made peace with my faults,
but Stephon I will not categorize my blackness as a fault.
Philando, we are the template,
Alton we will never stop.

United Strings of Color: “A Change Is Gonna Come,” by Sam Cooke, arranged by Margaret Partridge

Poem 10: The Hill We Climb. The final poem was written by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman and read at President Joseph Biden’s inauguration.

United Strings of Color and friends: “Simple Gifts,” followed by Black Violin’s “Shaker.”


Note: We are profoundly grateful to these poets for permitting us to publish their work here. They are all © by their respective authors.

*Edited/corrected 5/26 with thanks to eagle-eyed reader Timothy Holley, who reminds us that McClain was a violinist. The young cellist who was shot – not by police – was Philadelphian Mouhamed Cisse.