Only it seems to me that once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to. - - Mrs. Gibbs, Our Town, Thornton Wilder
I thought of this quote last night as I enjoyed the performance of Cultura Plenera at the Chrysalis in Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods. I have become more and more convinced of the importance of being a part of experiences where white culture is not at the center of what is going on. There’s a kind of deep learning, a gaining of perspective, that can happen only when you let go of the notion that you are the center of the universe.
This is particularly important as we continue to be bombarded with a kind of “America First” dogma which at its core stems from a “whites first” cult that demands that some people and some cultures be considered American and some not. If we shut ourselves off from the expression and celebration of those who are different than we are then we perpetuate the notion that their needs and wants are foreign to us. We observe their lives like tourist on a package tour. Empathy is not born from this, nor friendship, nor the openness to truly know others just as they are.
During last night’s concert I saw people - - who usually move within a world that knows and cares little about them - - experience the joy of being centered and known. The music, the rhythms, the dancing, the language, were there for everyone to participate in and enjoy. But the light in the eyes of people around us who clapped the rhythms with a confident authority, laughed at the funny bits of the songs, and got up to dance in front of the stage was the amplification of somethings precious. Here is our culture, our beautiful Puerto Rican culture, here is our moment to shine.
I didn’t feel excluded by this. I felt grateful to be a part of it.
Cultura Plenera is a non-profit organization dedicated to community building in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia areas through the traditional Puerto Rican musical styles of Bomba and Plena.
Community building can’t happen if it is no more than a white dominant culture inviting others to come visit and play by their rules. It can’t take hold and thrive if our experience of other cultures is limited to being proud of ourselves for trying “foreign” food or watching an “ethnic” program on television. We must be willing to try to set aside our whiteness and learn to experience the world in a different way. Many of us are not so good at that.
The title of this recent article* in the Baltimore Sun is a prime example of this.
There are a number of ways that this informative, factual piece might have been headed. But the one that was selected centers everything on who is and isn’t white. Period. Someone had to make a choice to do that and it was very likely chosen without any conscious thought. But there it is, as plain as the nose on your face: whiteness centering itself.
It doesn’t have to be that way. But we need to care enough to make it different. Going to one concert won’t do it (although it might be life-changing, you never know.) A conscious decision to honor the humanity of others by entering into real life experiences where our own culture is not the dominant one is a very good start.
A shout out to Cultura Plenera and their performance ensemble for the vision and commitment to make these experiences happen, and to the folks at the Park/IAT for continuing to make space for performances which invite us to be more fully human and, dare I say, better Americans.
*A reminder: the journalists who write the piece don’t pick the title.