Durham News: Opinion

June 24, 2014

Lynden Harris: Come Imagine with us

Is this what happens when we hang out with difference? One can only hope so. Moral imperative or pragmatic requirement for survival, we’re called every day to erase old boundaries and venture together into a new mutual frontier.

It was the 1960s. My friend was a boy when his family moved from New York to a small town in Illinois. They arrived to a sign proclaiming “Welcome to Our Pioneers!”

The friend, now a quiet reflective man with Buddhist prayer beads wrapping his wrist, chuckles. Turns out, his was the first black family in town. The second in the county. When his mother saw the Welcome sign, she told the children, “I think we better not tell them we’re Jewish.”

I laugh. “You know there’s a label for you now? Jew-Bud.”

Multiple intersecting identities. The center of that starburst is what we call ourselves.

Wanda Sykes, the African-American comedian, compares the colliding of her black and gay identities by noting that she never had to sit her parents down and say, “Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you ... I’m Black.” Nor have to listen to her mother wail, “It’s because you’ve been hanging out with all those black people. And now you think you’re black, too.”

Is this what happens when we hang out with difference? One can only hope so. Moral imperative or pragmatic requirement for survival, we’re called every day to erase old boundaries and venture together into a new mutual frontier. Our actions affect all other life on this planet. Separation is an illusion.

Besides, keeping up the appearances of separation is exhausting. Expanding connections is life-enhancing. It makes us present and alive. We notice the world around us. We have richer relationships. We let go of judging and hear what’s there to be heard.

That same friend told another story about his aunt, who was blind. When he was a boy she once determined he had grown more than an inch. From the sound of him urinating.

Now that’s being present to a fresh way of knowing.

Getting to know us

On June 29, we have an opportunity to become a little more known to each other. Greater Cedar Grove – aka North Carolina – is one of only 17 sites across the country to develop an Imagining with the new people-powered movement called the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.

The USDAC values are radical: Culture is a human right. Culture is created by everyone. Cultural diversity is a social good and the wellspring of free expression. The Department aims to harness the power of art and culture to engage millions in envisioning and creating a more just and sustainable world.

This Southeastern Imagining is coming into being as I write and you read. Think county fair: music, funnel cakes, elixir snow cones, blue ribbons, photo booths. Our mission, yours and mine, is to bring together the most diverse gathering of community members possible and collectively imagine our intersecting communities now that it’s 2034 and arts and culture are fully embedded in civic life.

Admittedly, we’re crossing into daring territory here. What does your particular life look like when the power of art to engage, connect, uplift, and transform has been woven into all aspects of your hometown? Read that again.

People say, “I’m not an artist.” Don’t be silly. Art is inscribed in our DNA. One of my neighbors learned calligraphy from his grandfather. He loves elegant, curving lines. He also values language, particularly Shakespearean English. Imagine this man: Calligraphy + Shakespeare = what?

= a Sheriff’s deputy on a nearby farm. One who took great pride in his police reports, recording them in elegant script with formal language, liberal doses of “thou” and “dost.” Keep smiling. He does. Imagine how his colleagues looked forward to reading those reports.

To be an artist

That’s what it means to be an artist. To be the aunt alert to the music and meaning in porcelain. The guy at the hospital who decides the floors need an extra buffing. The childcare worker who freestyles a song for rambunctious preschoolers.

Living as an artist opens you to the unexpected. To the potential in another person beyond the defining lines we see. To the new world wanting to emerge.

One thread of our Jew-Bud’s identity is that he’s been incarcerated for many years. When I asked him and some others to imagine a secured setting – the alternative/reformatory schools of their youth or their current enclosure – to imagine arts and culture fully embedded in the correctional process itself, one of them looked at me and said, “My imagination is not that large.”

Is yours? Bring your pioneer spirit. What does our world look like when the bottom line isn’t money but lives? When we have not a triple bottom line but one that includes human and cultural value?

That granddad who knew calligraphy chose his clothes like an artist, too, with care and valuing. One day a guy in a parking said, “If I had a shirt that nice, I might just wear it to church.” The granddad unbuttoned his top and placed it in the man’s hands.

We’re all artists of life, creating the world around us. Let’s be as alive as possible to what each moment brings and welcome each other in whatever way the moment calls for, with the shirt off our back or the conversation waiting to begin.

For more about the Greater Cedar Grove Imagining (aka the Great Southeastern Imagining), contact Lynden Harris at 919-732-9299 or lharris@hiddenvoices.org

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