Stanley Crouch: The elusive soul of the nation
These are not easy times for America. Gun violence plagues the land. The sequester now promises budgetary havoc. Public education is a mess. Women do not get equal pay. The list goes on. Such is the life of a democracy, where people must pay attention. This is not necessary in paradise, which is far from what this country is.
And yet America still remains the last best hope on Earth, because the finest representatives of every category of human enterprise are working overtime to make the facts evident. Facts have trouble in politics, but they eventually bring about monumental notice.
I was reminded of that recently by my good friend of 30 years, the musician Wynton Marsalis and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who were at The Public Theater in Greenwich Village, N.Y., Feb. 28. They were there to talk about “music and American identity — the way that the songs we sing have been part of our nation and our character,” as the event was billed.
Born poor in Louisiana, Marsalis has, like Parks, experienced great success both here and abroad. He has brought jazz to millions of people, after conquering the classical trumpet and becoming one of the world’s best before turning 25.
Now he uses the power of jazz to inspire individuals in a cynical age where making money has become the dominant concern of art forms, all largely conquered in some way by advertising, where great success is becoming known.
In fact, vulgar, denigrating trash is considered all right, if it sells. The dictates of trash have crossed all lines, infecting the entire society. But Marsalis understands that vital integration is central to American music, the blending of things once thought innately apart.
Parks, meanwhile, is a black American but grew up in Germany, and hence brings a fresh perspective to the eternally nettling issue of race relations in America. Back in 2002, she won a Pulitzer Prize for “Topdog/Underdog,” a hit play that is about color — but, like Marsalis’ music, is about much more than that.
That’s the real issue, then: to get beyond the old divisions of right and left, black and white, rich and poor. Any major creator knows it is possible to express an American identity that is common to us all; with vitality as opposed to pomposity, it touches a worldwide audience. That audience is always intrigued and inspired by the unsentimental but compelling commonality great art always produces.
Some on the national stage really are trying. Accurately serious, Marsalis spoke of a troubling confederate narrative that has survived many a dousing. At the same time, to counter that thrust, there was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pouring millions of dollars into a Chicago congressional primary race to help a gun-control candidate, Robin Kelly, defeat Deb Halvorson, a conservative Democrat beloved by the National Rifle Association for her pro-gun position. We now know that the support of background checks ranges from 72 percent to more than 90 percent among Republican voters.
Then there is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is emerging as one of the few Republicans unafraid of the redneck base forever pulling the party to the right. Last week, he decided to accept the Medicaid expansion funding that’s part of Obamacare, going against a Republican grain that says, for now, helping the poor will lead the country to ruin.
Christie, who toured the destroyed coast of New Jersey with President Barack Obama after Superstorm Sandy and right before the presidential election, knows better than that.
What extremists did not see was how pierced Christie was by the anguish of people who had lost so much to the dangerous indifference of nature. It was clear to him that they needed help from the federal government. They had become much more real than cliched talking points.
Too bad most other elephants don’t yet understand. They will, however. Human identification with others underlies American democracy, expanding on the basis of facts.
All of this is better understood if one takes a look at Yale history professor David Blight’s lecture on YouTube about John Brown and the embittering coming Civil War, which was much like our November election that riled Republicans because Barack Obama won again, and big money lost again. The 19th-century iceberg has yet to melt down to an ice cube.
Things are still so different from what they used to be, because seeing Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” proved that smart black people are involved more than ever before, and are asserting their Americanness and their concerns about national issues that we all should notice. He, along with the Harlem Educational Activities Fund and Eva Moskowitz of the Harlem Success Academy network, is part of the necessary self-protection for the country and the individual student.
One of the country’s internationally recognized superstars of compassion, Helene Gayle, says it all when observing, “Few things symbolize progress in the fight against poverty better than the face of an educated girl.”
That will solve so many of our problems, which can be handled, as always, with faith in specific things. Those things are knowledge, activism, patience and the willingness to stand up to temporary failure. Standing up to the facts of failure is necessary to the morale of our nation. Looking at the mistakes and failures of policy in the face maintains our down-to-earth facts of the matter. No doubt about it, ours is the last best hope for humanity, and we seemingly cannot help proving it, over and over, no matter how deeply we are wounded. We continue to rise.
This is what I was thinking about as Parks and Marsalis spoke at The Public Theater last week. Our challenges are many, enshrouded as we are by polluting factoids. But be confident that the American character will always prevail, no matter how much trouble stands in the path before us — and that the whole world knows it.
Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.