Watch you when you say what you are, And when you blame everyone.
-- Jack Johnson
I like Claire Fox Hillard. I really do. I've had opportunities to interview the man who'd served as conductor of the Albany Symphony Orchestra for 24 years before being unceremoniously fired in December, only to be reinstated last week, and I've had several casual chats with him. There's no more affable guy around.
But there's a growing controversy swirling around Hillard that's his own doing, and the time has come for him to address it.
And, no, I'm not talking about his arrest in Camilla for an Aug. 10, 2011 incident in which he was reportedly found wearing only a towel and was charged with prowling/loitering by Camilla police. That bit of juicy scandal has been bandied about by the media and by various Web and gossip sites to the point of exhaustion.
Certainly the incident led to his dismissal in December and was a point of contention that sparked the resignations of at least three symphony board members when Hillard was surprisingly reinstated last week.
Symphony supporter Sylvia Berry told me in December when Hillard was dismissed that people in Albany needed to practice some of the forgiveness they seem to understand in theory only.
"Most are appalled at what Claire did, but it's time that Albany grew up," Berry said. "It's time that those people who preach forgiveness on Sunday mornings took the opportunity to actually put those words into action."
The support of such civic luminaries as Berry and philanthropist Jane Willson in the aftermath of the Camilla incident and beyond was no doubt instrumental in the symphony board's decision to reinstate Hillard. Even though she stopped short of saying she would no longer support the symphony financially, Willson told me in December her "disappointment" in the decision to fire Hillard would make her think twice about future donations.
Somewhat lost then in what can only be deemed a power struggle that has torn the symphony board apart is the fact that while people like Willson, Berry and other board members have publicly gone to bat for Hillard, the man himself has remained silent. I'm sure that strategy was suggested to him by advisers who promote the "out of sight, out of mind" approach, but the time has come for Hillard to talk to the people of this community.
And topic No. 1 should be his reasoning for initially telling police he had been attacked by two black men. Sure, few of us have been in a situation where we had to come up with an alibi on the fly, but by making the "two black men" statement to police, Hillard opened himself to doubt within the African-American community.
It's hard to imagine members of that community openly supporting Hillard now. For instance, one has to wonder if the membership of influential Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which has hosted a symphony concert each of the last 13 years, is going to be as anxious to welcome the orchestra knowing the man conducting it has given credence to the perceived stereotype of the black man as criminal.
Are black musicians in the community going to be as willing to perform for a maestro whose first instinct when he was in a jam was to falsely accuse men of color for his predicament?
I'm certain the local race-baiting contingent will be quick to point to statistics that indicate the disproportionate number of crimes committed by black men in this region, but that begs a question I haven't yet heard anyone address. I can't help but wonder how many unsolved crimes in the area are unsolved because police are looking for phantom "black men" who are convenient culprits for those who aren't interested in the truth actually surfacing.
Claire Fox Hillard is a marvelous conductor and an overall good guy. But the fact remains, when the going got tough, he resorted to using a despicable racial stereotype to try to save his own skin. For that, he should be held accountable.
Before he's granted the forgiveness some kind souls have so freely given, there are a lot more people who are a little more skeptical and who want to know if what popped out of his mouth during the police investigation is what was truly in his heart.
And no matter how influential his supporters are, that's a question only Hillard can answer.
Email Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.