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Saturday, March 12, 2005


Cultural deficits and other woes ...

It was such a small thing, really, but if so -- why on earth am I still thinking about it after all these hours?

We didn't get to Strybling Arboretum after all due to circumstances beyond our control (garage man didn't have the car serviced in time) so we had to find something else to do with the hours we'd set aside. The trip to San Francisco has to be carefully planned in order to avoid commute traffic hours and the window on that closed around noon.

So it was off to Oakland and an art exhibit I'd wanted to see for weeks. We stopped off first at the African American Library and Museum at 14th and Castro streets downtown in a cluster of historic buildings reclaimed and lovingly restored fairly recently. The old building is an architectural gem and the new use (of the old main library) is appropriate and timely in light of changing demographics in the city. The exhibits, however, are almost non-existent, or, are so scant that there's a general sense of elegant empty space when you climb that beautiful staircase to the second floor and find so little to see and honor. I suppose it's a museum in progress and much will unfold in years to come.

But what troubled me was to come a bit later when we stopped in at the Joyce Gordon Art Gallery a few blocks away, where there was a fine show featuring the work of Keba Konte -- photographer/visual artist. Keba does fascinating work in mixed media that incorporates his fine photographic subjects -- blown up and transferred to reclaimed old wood pieces by some process that I don't quite understand. I've watched his work for years now, and find it always exciting and most original.

It was in another room of the gallery that the incident that's been following me around today surfaced. There were three large paintings of familiar figures from the jazz world tastefully displayed. These were the icons of the genre. My friend asked quite innocently who they were? I was amazed! These were quite good images of Sarah Vaughn, Winton Marsalis, and Dinah Washington. I thought for a moment that the likenesses might not be quite sharp enough to be instantly recognizable -- but it wasn't that at all. A minute or so later I realized that he'd never heard of any of them. Not one. Here was that weird place where African American and European cultures are galaxies apart. He'd have instantly recognized any of the old masters (Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, et al); these were the greats in his world. They were universally accepted as the icons of music -- but in his world. Without a name plate, none would register in quite the same way in black America; except in that part of the community that had studied classical music. I cannot imagine anyone in my world who wouldn't instantly recognize the 3 jazz artists in those portraits. They are world renown, celebrated throughout Asia and on the European Continent a well as in Africa and the Middle East. How could this be?

It's something observed some posts back -- the fact that if a white person expresses ignorance of jazz it matters little, "..only a question of taste." Though were I to stand before paintings of the great European masters showing no sign of recognition (never having ever heard of them) it would surely be interpreted as a cultural deficit on my part and would have sent me to the back row of life to sit among the rest of the unwashed!

Maybe I need to be seeing this as a grand opportunity to do some bridging. Thus far I've been benefitting hughly from visiting both the visual and performing arts venues with someone steeped in the arts. It's been a rich experience and I've been loving every minute of it. Taking the time to follow the critic's columns in the NY Times and the New Yorker is new for me, and has been enriching to a life too long caught up in the immediacy and chaos of the political world.

It may be time now to check out the deficits in his experience. We're surely in sync politically -- both addicted to MoveOn, the Jon Stewart's Daily Show, AlterNet and GoogleNews, and that's gratifying. It means we can start most conversations in the middle of the third paragraph. It helps to not have to feel uncomfortable or defensive about my continuing activism. But there are obviously places in his life experience that have been left virtually untouched as both a second generation American and as a scientist serving in the academy both here and abroad. I'll need to be far more open about those places where our lives have followed divergent paths -- and where there are clear differences that need to be recognized and negotiated. Otherwise, I'm sure to find myself beginning to drift away and back to the place where there are fewer bridges to build or oceans to cross toward understanding.

It's one of the places where age, indeed, does seem to make a difference. We're both probably too close to the end to want to squander precious time and energy trying to bring into alignment impossibly alien lifestyles. I'm finding that I've had far greater access to his world than he's had to mine. So it will be my task to forge the links, I suppose.

How on earth will I ever make him realize that -- if every bit of black influence were to be magically removed from America's music -- there would be nothing left but Lawrence Welk! That may be the most accurate measure of the powerful influence of America's black classical music; Jazz. That those who have created, shaped, and re-created this brilliant art form over all the years can go unrecognized is an indication of how much we've suppressed those influences and of how effectively we've expropriated their work so that the infusion is now hardly traceable to its black roots.

"...Jazz is the only truly American contribution to the world of music." How many times have we heard those words expressed by those who shape opinion and guide the destiny of visionaries who define reality in the world of the arts?

Much to think about ... as always.

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