February is Black History Month, an organized effort to recognize, accept and validate the African American Experience in Western Culture. It’s complicated. It’s about pride, it’s about history, it’s about education, it’s an effort to merge two ideas that often seem conflicted. Community And Diversity.
How do we meld common interests (community in this case Western Culture), and special/individual interest (again in this case, the African American Experience)? How do we acknowledge and resolve conflicted responses and at the same time respect and embrace perspectives that are in at times diametrically opposed?
At the root of this disparity is that our culture as a whole is ashamed/embarrassed by our history of imperialism (slavery) and responds to discussions of that action with self distancing and offering passing lip service, “Yes that was horrible, but it has been 150 years,” or, “My family didn’t own any slaves,” . . . “We weren’t even here yet,” or the “look how much better things have gotten.”
Socially, it took Europe nearly 2000 years to get over the imperialism of the Roman Empire. As the legions withdrew or became assimilated, the natural course of action was for the local populations to gather in as tight a group as could be supported and protected, while anything outside of that was not just bad, but probably the enemy.
Thus Western Civilization spent a thousand years in the dark ages. Little fiefdoms where little lords made big decision and if you weren’t in, you were most definitely out. Not till the end of the 20th century did it finally come to pass that common interest and shared responsibilities could provide the community of Europe with a sense of peace. Needless to say, it’s still a work in process, but it beats the hell out of endless local wars.
But culturally and spiritually, we have another opportunity. One that has been touted by the Jewdayo-Christian-Muslim prophets, that there is a better day coming. On April 3rd, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, spoke of having been to the mountaintop, and like Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land.
The Promised Land is the opportunity to be all that we can be, to prosper and thrive and grow. But that requires inclusion. Not just the inclusion of acceptance, but the inclusion of respect and the want of engaging what someone different has to offer as an addition to the foundation of the better life.
It is now nearly 50 years since Dr. King made that impassioned speech. And today, we are still in the grips of self-interest being more important than the potential of our community(ies). The African American Experience needs to be absorbed and embraced as part of the American foundation. The Latino Experience, the Female Experience, the LGBT Experience, the Native American Experience, as well as every religion, culture or special interest, needs to not be seen as “them,” but as a part of us – a valued, important, essential part of us.
We have no magic bullets to cure ourselves of this systemic problem. The Promised Land will only be attained by a lot of hard work, a lot of willingness to hear and see hard truths, to own those truths, and admit that culturally we are responsible for it all. And yet, even in these efforts, sometimes we fail to recognize that addressing the question is not enough. We must provide access and promote the unfettered tale, grant voice to those who live outside of community experience, and as a community absorb their facts as part of our story.
That is what theatre does, it provides access and opportunity for each and every one of us to experience and own the realities that were pioneered by others. On stage, we see hard questions asked and feel the ramifications of unfamiliar answers. We should be proud to live in a community, where intimate theatre is the mountaintop, it is the place which has taken up this challenge of our failings and championed visions. Productions that give us all moments of hope and vistas of the promised land.