Why Lizzo’s historic playing of James Madison’s flute is symbolic of America’s racial discourse

Who gets to claim, reclaim, and engage with history? Lizzo playing James Madison's crystal flute proves that for many, it's still a privilege, not a right.

Singer Lizzo plays a flute on stage during a performance

What should have been a bridging of history, race, culture, and music, became another battle of the culture wars when Lizzo was invited to play a crystal flute once owned by Founding Father and fourth U.S. President James Madison. Nathan Congleton/NBC—Getty Image

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Happy Friday.

Nobody knew that the U.S. Library of Congress holds the largest flute collection in the world until Lizzo, a singer, rapper, songwriter, and classically trained flutist, picked one up and made music with it.

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Happy Friday.

Nobody knew that the U.S. Library of Congress holds the largest flute collection in the world until Lizzo, a singer, rapper, songwriter, and classically trained flutist, picked one up and made music with it.

The megastar spent three hours visiting the collection earlier this week after an invitation from the 14th librarian of Congress, Carla D. Hayden, the first African American and the first woman to run the institution.

The offer to visit the past was extended by way of a modern messenger, Twitter.

“The @librarycongress has the largest flute collection in the world with more than 1,800. It incl Pres James Madison’s 1813 crystal flute. @lizzo we would love for you to come see it and even play a couple when you are in DC next week. Like your song they are ‘Good as hell,’” wrote Hayden.

“IM COMING CARLA! AND IM PLAYIN THAT CRYSTAL FLUTE!!!!!” Lizzo wrote back.

Hayden was sworn in with insufficient fanfare in 2016, but she had gotten my attention for something she did the year before. Hayden was the librarian for the city of Baltimore in 2015, and as protests erupted after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, she was under pressure to board up a local library branch as the city burned. “I thought, what would that show?” she told the New York Times. “That we’re afraid?”

So, in the face of a declared state of emergency and amid looting and rioting, she and her staff opened the doors of the library to welcome the exhausted public they were resolved to serve. “The people of that neighborhood protected that library,” she recalled. “There were young men who stood outside. It was such a symbol.”

Symbolism was also on display as Lizzo played a flute that once belonged to James Madison.

Madison himself was a complicated political figure, and though not nearly as dreamy as Hamilton the musical would have us believe, he was very influential. The man who became the fourth president of a young country was a political lifer who wrote 29 of the pro-Constitution Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights. He also expanded the country, which depending on your point of view, was either deft leadership or the unforgivable plunder of Native American lands. He was also a very wealthy plantation owner who, despite some very minor throat-clearing on the subject, continued to enslave people until his death in 1836.

And, depending on the role Madison plays in your understanding of America, Lizzo’s use of the flute that nobody knew he once owned drew strong reactions.

For some, it was a bittersweet opportunity to see a person whom Madison would have seen as less than fully human be welcomed into a dialog about objects, preservation, music, and the history of her own complicated country.

For others, it triggered the opposite reaction. Utterly unasked to comment, Jenna Ellis, a former campaign lawyer for Donald Trump, described the performance as a “desecration, purposefully, of America’s history,” and the pop star herself as “one of the most morbidly obese people in the world who claims that she’s oppressed.”

This moment of cultural conversation, painful as much of it has been, belongs to Hayden, the first true and trained librarian to run the institution and its first new leader since 1987. She appears to be uniquely qualified to understand the kind of complex feelings that objects of history can evoke and is keenly aware of the enduring power of a library to hold them.

The Library of Congress has three main constituents, members of Congress seeking impartial research, scholars of all stripes, and the curious public, and it’s her mission to make sure that they can find what they need. Part of that work was to create a comprehensive digital strategy, to expand the library’s reach and relevance. (More on that here.)

But a librarian like Hayden who has done it all—trained as a children’s librarian, has run the library association trade group, and has personal experience serving chronically under-resourced communities—is exactly who I would choose to help curate moments that excavate historical insight from objects that would otherwise be laden with dust or political propaganda. Librarians, who are currently under siege in nearly unthinkable ways, trust their patrons to bring their best selves to the work of learning, no matter who they are or how long it takes them.

And like any good curator, it’s her job to help people find what they don’t know they need. I wish I had her optimism, I really do. But I’m glad she does.

This brings me back to the flute.

I’m particularly glad Lizzo’s fans got an unexpected tour of their own when the library’s staff arranged for the star to play, ever so briefly, Madison’s crystal flute at her concert last Tuesday.

She posted about it on Instagram.

“YALL.. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS LET ME PLAY THEIR HISTORIC 200 YEAR OLD CRYSTAL FLUTE ON STAGE TONIGHT— NO ONE HAS EVER HEARD WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE… NOW YOU DO,” she wrote.

Then later, to her screaming fans: “Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool. History is freaking cool, you guys.”

Wishing you a freaking cool weekend.

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On background, the short version

I’m sick today, so in the spirit of self-care and brevity, I’ll end with this lovely story. 

Goodnight Moon, the enduring bedtime classic by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, has become an emotional touchstone for generations of children and their sleep-deprived, often brand-new parents. It’s the simple, tender story of a rabbit getting ready for bed by saying goodnight to the objects in his room. It turned 75 this year. Elisabeth Egan, in this delightful review, says “it’s a blueprint for peace in a time of chaos and reminds us how independence can be another kind of oxygen.”

It turned out to be something far more surprising for one desperate father trying to calm his agitated toddler on a plane. Pulling out the book to read aloud, “unexpectedly, a woman in the next row started reciting the words right along with the dad. Another joined her, then a few more,” and then, to the boy’s utter wonder, the entire plane joined, creating “a concert of parents wrapped in memories.” Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s safe to check the reader mail.
New York Times

Parting words

“Equal laws protecting equal rights, are found as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty, and love of country; as well as best calculated to cherish that mutual respect and good will among citizens of every religious denomination which are necessary to social harmony and most favorable to the advancement of truth.”

James Madison, in a letter to Jacob De La Motta, 1820.