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Saved from our past by the arts in our present

The Loving Story is a documentary focused on Richard and Mildred Loving and the landmark 1967 Loving vs Virginia Supreme Court case that led to legalization of interracial marriage in all states. This was screened for Charlottesville area high school and middle school students as part of the Virginia Film Festival which celebrates its 26th year this weekend.

Of the screening, Festival directors recall, “the students couldn’t believe that a mixed-race couple would be breaking the law.” They invited the lawyer who argued this case before the Supreme Court in 1968 to come talk to the children and also the Loving’s daughter, Peggy, to tell them what her experience was like. “The kids gave them a standing ovation,” the directors wrote.¬†Every time I think about this it brings tears to my eyes.

To kids, history is just an old story. Something that happened once upon a time.When they can see it – see how people were, how people thought, how people acted – and feel it – feel how people were mistreated, neglected, denied, disenfranchised, they’re changed. When they can see how little sense it made “back then” and realize the “back then” was not so long ago, we’ve got their attention. They stand and applaud people who had the courage to change what was wrong, even as they faced incredible hardship and long odds.

This is what the arts do. They help us see the unseen, hear the unheard, and make sense of it all. They give us eyes to see and ears to hear in a new way. A more expansive way. A more inclusive way. This seems a better way. The arts make things approachable and tangible. They allow us to discuss them around a common table.

Too often we find ourselves telling our old stories, expecting the “younger generation” to learn from us. Our old stories are not pristine. In fact, many are tarnished and worn. But we must tell them in a way that opens eyes and ears around a common table because that is how we can find common ground to make new ones.

Our world needs new stories. Stories of loving that may not be lovely. We may need to start with history but if we are to learn from it, we need the arts.

Can you hear me now?

noise signWhen someone has noise in their ears, you have to touch them to get their attention.

A woman is sitting on the two-seater sofa at Starbucks. We, a group of three with coffees in hand, prepare to sit down. There are two free seats, plus the seat on the sofa next to the woman. She does not see us. She does not hear us. She has ear buds firmly affixed in both ears. Her laptop is perched on the arm of the sofa which faces the window. Her books and several wads of paper (yes, someone who uses actual paper!) cover the “vacant” seat. She looks intently at her screen. She has a pony tail. Guessing, mid-twenties.

We speak to her pleasantly, “Excuse me, can you…?” No response.

A bit louder, “Excuse me, can you…?” No response.

We have now gotten the attention of the women sitting catty-corner. They look at me and smile. Ah, the younger generation, they seem to say.

I take two steps over to the young woman, so engaged. She does not notice. I touch her on the arm and she turns. “Excuse me, but can we …?”

She is startled. Looks at her pile of refuse and immediately begins to gather herself. Her papers. Her books. Her bag. Then her laptop and cord. She up and moves to a small table by the window. Where she can plug in again.

We hadn’t meant to dismiss her. Just share a seat with her.

***

I am running along the sidewalk. It is sunny and warm. It is noontime and many people are out. Several are walking toward me. Each alone. Engaged in their own conversation. Attached to the cord which extends from their ears. My greetings go unacknowledged.

I approach a man who has stopped, facing away from me. His feet are spread. His head bowed. His eyes riveted by something on the screen he holds in his hand. I must divert completely off the path to avoid a collision. He doesn’t notice.

***

The world, this world, our world, will not know we are near unless we touch them. Their eyes and ears are engaged. Their taste and smell are suspended. Touch is the only way to reach them. To reach out to them. To move them.

We must touch each other to gain access. To acknowledge each other. Not as an intrusion but as an introduction. We want to know you. To greet you. To share space with you.

Our world is a very noisy place. If we listened to the silence, what would it say? If we listened to each other, what would we hear? Touch me, with your story and your life.

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