Friday, June 29, 2018

The Garbage in the Room

Each day, our travels, classes and performances reveals yet another facet of a culture that offers valuable things difficult to find in day-to-day America. Not only witnessing, but actively participating through dance, conversation and movement has caused so many of the 50 people gathered here to exclaim, “This is the most extraordinary experience of my life.” As if that weren’t enough, I’ve found the conversations with these music teachers at meals to be rich, deep and far beyond the usual banter of “Do you have the i-Phone 9 or 10?”

In talking with one such person about race in America, she was telling me about some conservative Christian families she knew who adopted black children from Africa. Seems like a radical gesture, but these families were raising the kids as if there was no racism in America. And telling them and others that this was so. She predicted trouble ahead when their teenage boy got pulled over by the cops while driving or the neighbor wouldn’t let their white son go out with their black daughter to the prom. We can’t be na├»ve about these things.

She had taken my jazz course last summer and commented that she was impressed by the way I talked about race and wondered if I ever “got in trouble” from either white folks or blacks. As for the first, never to my face and for the second, not yet. I'm aware of the danger of “white-splaining” racial issues with black folks in the room, but none have ever called me to task for it. And if they did, I'd be open to the ensuing conversation, no matter how difficult it might be. But my view of the matter is that we are each responsible for telling the needed stories and that they may carry different weight according to who tells them and how, but the important thing is that they be told. I’m talking about the stories purposely hidden or kept out of our civil (and now uncivil) discourse, the ones that don’t allow the above parents to casually proclaim that racism is no longer a problem in the U.S.

I also acknowledged the delicate matter of telling these stories to kids without the white kids feeling overly shamed or guilty, but also not accepting, “Well, I didn’t do anything wrong and my great-great-grandparents never had slaves." That’s when I give them this image:

Imagine you’re in a classroom littered with garbage. Papers helter-skelter, rotting fruit,  gum stuck on chairs, broken pencils on the floor and so on. Perhaps some of the students are in some clean corner with a screen and shielded from the sight of the garbage or see it right in front of them, but simply don’t notice it or else don’t feel bothered by it. But now the teacher calls attention to it and you simply can’t avoid seeing the mess and smelling the garbage. What do you do? Do you say, “Well, I didn’t make the mess so I’m not going to clean it up!” and then have to come to class day after day to the filth and chaos? Or do you think, “I didn’t make the mess, but it’s disgusting and I need to live in this room and if I don’t clean it up, who will?” And then you turn to your fellow classmate and say “Come on, come help me.”

So that’s the world we’ve inherited. Not only with racism, but with all the ism’s set in motion by those who came before and left us with a God-awful mess that we daily suffer from. And if people pretend not to notice the garbage or convince themselves it’s fine to live in filth or think they can just move to a cleaner classroom (there is none available) or pay money and hire others to clean it up (“Nope. Not an option.”) or actively throw more garbage on the floor (“Well, my grandparents did it, so I guess I will too”), then we’re all left with life in the garbage dump.

My telling these stories about the virtues of the people I’ve met here in Ghana and the extraordinary musical and kinesthetic intelligence cultivated here and the community-based practices, spiritual wisdoms and cultivation of morality and character is my attempt to start picking up some of the garbage of centuries of ignorant and ill-willed racist notions about this remarkable continent. Won’t you join me?

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