Books and the Arts: They're Your Birthright

I'm a big fan of the blog of African-American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. He's knowledgeable and insightful about history, literature and current politics. But what I really love about his blog is his level of personal engagement with his subject, whatever it is.  There's no dry intellectualism in his writing. Whether he's discussing the Civil War or Anthony Weiner or comic books, he makes you care. In a recent post, he recalled how as an intellectual black kid, he searched for a cultural tradition he could call his own. He was struggling with Saul Bellow's infamous question, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" He found his answer in Ralph Wiley's comeback, "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus:" That line was sorcery for me. It...set me free by revealing that my own search for something "native" was an implicit acceptance of the very racism that I sought to counter. The way out was not to find my own, but to reject the notion of anyone's "own." If you reject the very premise of racism—the idea skin color directly contributes to genius or sloth—then all of humanity becomes "native" to you. And so empowered, I couldout of my own individual identity—create my own intellectual and artistic pedigree, and I was free to have it extend from Biggie to Wharton to Melville to Hayden. It doesn't matter if we're talking about classical Japanese drama, Nigerian novels, seventeenth-century Dutch painting, Kenyan folk songs, mambo or manga, Muddy Waters or Mozart—all these things and many more have the capacity to move you. It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from or what color your skin is. In Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter there's a wonderful passage in which Mick Kelly, a teenage girl in 1940s Alabama, is listening to the radio and suddenly art reaches across a century and an ocean and takes her heart: After a while a new announcer started talking. He mentioned Beethoven. She had read in the library about that musician. His name was pronounced with an a and spelled with a double ee....When he was living he spoke in a foreign language and lived in a foreign place....The announcer said they were going to play his third symphony. She only halfway listened....Then the music started. Mick raised her head and her fist went up  to her throat. How did it come?  For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or march. Like God strutting in the night....She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After awhile the music came again, harder and loud...This music was her—the real plain her. Here in the library, we've got Indian novels,  Turkish movies, Ancient Greek poetry, books on Persian art and CDs of Tibetan music. Maybe it's never occurred to you that any of the above  could have something to say to you. But you never know. Don't be like Mick Kelly and leave it up to chance to be spellbound by art.  Wonders are waiting for you here. Come and get them.

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