The news often tells us who we are, but the arts tell us who we want to be.
This year my play “Onaje” received staged readings in San Francisco and New York. It is about the head-on collision of two conflicting ideas that happened exactly 50 years ago on June 15, 1967. The relevance of this collision was confirmed by the events in Charlottesville last week. This morning the Baltimore newspapers reported that four Confederate monuments were taken down in the middle of the night last night.
One of the monuments that was taken down was of Roger Brooke Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who wrote the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which was instrumental in bringing about the Civil War. The Dred Scott decision held that African-Americans had no rights under the Constitution because they were not recognized as having any rights when it was drafted. Many of the drafters of the Constitution, such as Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. In fact, Jefferson produced children from his slave Sally Hennings. He chose not to recognize their children and never freed her, even after his death.
From our founding, we have been a racist nation. Because this remains unresolved, it boils within our national consciousness and erupts repeatedly and endlessly in the news. But I don’t think that’s who we want to be. The Arts, the books and movies which have been embraced by our general culture from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Hamilton,” are far more enlightened and humane. We don’t define ourselves as a nation with blockbuster movies with heroes that are white supremacists or Nazis.
My play is about the civil rights riots in Cambridge Maryland in 1967. It searches for the humanity in all of us as we live in these volatile times, whether they be last week or 50 years ago or from our start.
The Arts offer guidance and hope that the news and perhaps even our history never can.
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