Brock Willard editor in chief
Recently, rapper and singer Lizzo had the opportunity to play James Madison’s crystal flute, an instrument that had been stored in the Library of Congress for the entirety of recent memory. As usual, when a black woman disrespects the legacy of a slave owner, conservatives come out in full force to defend them.
One popular critique of the whole situation is that Lizzo has no business playing Madison’s flute, implying that she is somehow unworthy to play such an instrument, let alone examine it inside the Library of Congress archives. I would posit to this position that Lizzo, unbeknownst to many, is actually a classically trained flutist, beginning her career as early as 10 years old. She attended the University of Houston before moving to Minneapolis, Minn. to pursue a career in popular music, specifically as a rapper. I would say she is more than qualified to play the flute.
There are others that think that Lizzo playing the flute somehow dishonors the legacy of James Madison. While of course Madison is the 4th President of the United States, what legacy are they trying to defend exactly? James Madison was a slave owner, in fact being described as a “garden variety slaveowner” by historian Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. Why are we always so up in arms about protecting the reputation of slave owners and why is it always when black women are expressing some sort of cultural joy?
Lizzo’s reputation as a flutist and musical artist isn’t besmirching the legacy of James Madison. Madison did that to himself when he decided to own slaves. It’s not some sort of “That’s just how the world was back then.” Madison, and many of the other Founding Fathers, knew it was wrong and continued the barbaric practice of kidnapping, trafficking, and owning people until they died all because they wanted to have a comfortable life at the expense of others’ lives. It’s disgusting and we should stop defending it.
Even if it were trashing Madison’s legacy, good. I think a black woman breathing new life into an instrument that hasn’t been heard by anyone alive and was owned by a slaveowner is somewhat poetic. It’s as if this cultural moment is like all the black women who worked under Madison getting their dessert after all these years.
Of course, we can’t let this distract us from real issues that black women face every day, namely racism and misogyny. Additionally, capitalism exacerbates the everyday problems that black women face, but we need to be realistic and know that Lizzo playing an antique flute is just that or it’s a cultural moment. It’s not like history classes are going to be re-taught to say, “James Madison’s flute was his most prized possession and because of that, Lizzo decided to stick it to the white man.” That would be positively ridiculous.
The fact of the matter is that Lizzo playing James Madison’s flute is just another musician playing an antique instrument. There’s no reason to be up in arms about it (especially when there’s so much else to be mad about).