Last week I listened to an Ideas podcast as I drove around gathering groceries for the family. I was caught up in the tonal delivery, giving the immediate landscape only as much attention as public safety required while my brain fired back at this salvo of propositions with counter-propositions of its own. When I finally reached the parking lot, I shut off the car and sat in silence. The neurons in my brain were buzzing like a hive of bees, responding to an intruder from another colony. They were doing a fine job of dispatching with the foreigner ... except ....
What if I was wrong? What if my, for the most part traditional, approach to this problem was incapable of delivering me any further? It had worked to bring me to point X, but despite my best efforts it didn’t seem capable of delivering me to point Y. What if ...? And what now?
Flash back 20 years earlier, to my first summer of weddings. So many of my friends were getting married, I seriously considered purchasing a tux to save on the rentals. One wedding was held in a church near the small town I grew up in. To get from the city to the town, I rode shotgun in the decorated car with the groom’s brother at the wheel. We turned on the radio to see what was playing.
We weren’t up for the usual rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, so we settled on jazz. The station we landed on was spinning something from the 60s; the drummer was heavy with his cymbals and the saxophonist followed his hazy intuitions up and down arpeggios punctuated by shrieks and squonks. Then out of this came a powerful preacher’s voice, speaking with an urgency and authority that had an angry edge to it:
“Imagine humanity as dwelling in an underground cave with a long entrance open to a light across the whole width of the cave; in this they have been since childhood, with necks and legs fettered, so they have to stay ... where ... they ... are.”
Of course I had already read The Cave, from Plato’s Republic, and written the usual end-term essays on it. But this man’s clipped delivery made me realize I hadn’t heard it — not really. That was changing.
We floated above the prairie landscape as the preacher continued, urging and cajoling and insisting we turn and face and give due diligence to the prospect of our enlightenment, and not just for the sake of personal gratification, but for the enlightenment of our communities and our society.
The monologue and the music came to an end just as we coasted into the church parking lot. My friend and I sat there and stared at each other with open faces. What had just happened?
When Darko prompted me to consider what out-of-print stuff I’d like to see made available, Poitier Meets Plato was the first album that came to mind. Of course, it is a distinct possibility that the compelling performance I recall may not be especially moving to listen to today; what once sounded commanding might now ring as maudlin. Most of the blogosphere treats the album like a hip-cat novelty best reserved for a slow day on college radio. Still, I find it incredibly poignant to consider the time and the origins of this recording: a black American man, one of the precious few possessing enormous public stature, speaking out in 1963 about the responsibilities that come with enlightenment. I originally heard that performance some twenty years after it was recorded; twenty years later its message seems even more desperately pertinent.
Actually, I don’t much care if this performance remains nothing more than a pleasant memory for me. This is “Black History Month”: what I really want is to hear today’s black preacher read this work. Then when he’s done, I want to hear a white preacher take a crack at it. Then I want someone from Palestine, and Israel, and China read it to the rest of us, and do what Poitier did: make it their own, and sound like they bloody mean it.
This is not the hour for our species to speculate about the shadows on the wall. If we want our children and their children to survive and thrive, we have no option: we must do the discomfiting work of facing and remaining in light.