Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chautauqua Lessons, Going on Thirty Years Later: What’s at Stake

            Since the last time I posted, I’ve been in four cities, given five book talks, and spoken to radio hosts in Savannah, GA, Washington, DC, Gettysburg, PA, Athens, GA, and New Haven, CT.  Not quite half through the fall book tour, and already I know that this has been the most illuminating picaresque since I did twelve weeks on the NEH Chautauqua “glee bus” in 1981.  That tour took me and a sometimes merry band of public humanities scholars through the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana, along with semi-truck loaded with a circus tent that blew down, busting tent poles and shattering tent stakes, all over the windy West. 
            Three years of traveling with Chautauqua taught me something I have taken to heart ever since:  when you go out on the road to preach the humanities, you always learn more than you teach.  You’re as likely to meet remarkable intellectuals, hilarious comedians, and gifted artists in Powell, Wyoming or Hazen, North Dakota or Athens, Georgia as you are in New York.   And you’re no less likely to meet highly evolved spirits and models of generosity in New York or D.C. than you are in, well, less hectic places.  You have to be ready to be surprised, and if you stay open, you’ll discover along the way why doing what you do, matters.
            And this time, speaking to people across the country,  I’ve learned that it really is time to give up the illusion that Thomas Jefferson lived in a well-ordered world of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant people, the proper subjects of American history.  That version of our national past is, or ought to be, over. 
Here’s one moment that made me see the urgency of the history I write.  I told the story of Jefferson’s double family to a marvelously engaged women’s club lunch group, in a beautiful room in a beautiful building in one of the country’s great cities.  The attending club members, a lively bunch who listened to every word and asked great questions and bought lots of books, impressed me with their commitment to community and their delight in one another, and honored me by appreciating what I had to say about Jefferson and the varied women he loved.
            But here’s where I learned what’s at stake.  Something impressed me even more.  I spoke as they ate their lunches, a nice plated meal of crabcakes and salad, with chocolate mousse to follow.  The diners were, from appearances anyway, all white, and well-to-do.  The people who served their lunches were, again from appearances, all African American.  The servers moved effortlessly and quietly among round tables crowded together, setting and removing plates, refilling glasses, bringing coffee and attending to special requests.  Their work was done before my talk was, and my expectation would have been that they’d have headed back to the kitchen, finished with that part of their work.
            But they didn’t.  For the last ten minutes of my talk, the servers stood in the back of the room, exchanging the occasional glance at one another, and listening very closely.   In this section of the talk, I ask what we lose by giving up the illusion that American history is about white people, living in a separate world?  And make the point that we gain much more by owning our mixed, messy, mutual history of crossing boundaries and living together.  Why should Jefferson’s story be less complicated than our own?  Doesn’t seeing his life whole make him a Founding Father who belongs not to the few, but to all of us?
            The lunching ladies applauded the point.  And the servers, standing in the back, looked at me, and at each other, and nodded.  Then they went back to work.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

And the Pursuit of Happiness

For those of you who are feeling downhearted today, I recommend the best possible medicine.  Get yourself to a boostore, a real bookstore, and buy a real book.  I recommend Maira Kalman's AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, a warm, tough, witty, insightful, simply luminous graphic reflection on American history, democracy, and things of beauty.  The things of beauty include the Supreme Court, Monticello, Susan B. Anthony and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  If you like Matisse, you will love Kalman's illustrations.  Every page brims with wisdom and vivacity.  The biggest problem with this book is that with every page you read, you'll never get to read that page again.

But then, I am reading AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS very very slowly.  And when I get done, I think I'll read it again.

Be strong, everybody.