Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Reading and Leading: What Arts and Education Have to Do With the Election

The first thing I did when I woke up this morning, is the same thing I did when I went to bed last night. On social media, proclamations of disgust and terror came in abundance, and several insisted that they would be taking breaks from the Internet's popular public forums, in order to get away from it all. I think this is a great idea, because what we should really be doing right now, is reading. 

Granted, I do think every time is the perfect time for reading; however, today, it's for a different reason.

Reading as Representation 

The act of Reading itself is very much founded in the intersections of Art and Education. 

Having a literate population is an anthropological symbol of success and cultural collateral, and the resources we have provide us with entertainment as well as information. We are shaped by what we read, reading is constructed based on what we think, and the two interactive states - reading and writing - reflect each other. We see this in all forms of Art, be it reading books themselves, or even just in dissecting the meanings of song lyrics we hear on the radio: we construct, and are constructed by, the media we consume.

When we look at forms of popular art and culture from the past year, significant connective themes trace throughout the disciplines of film and television, stage and song, and yes, of course, what we read.

Image result for hamilton musical wikipediaFor instance, Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton is a multiple Tony-award winning musical and cultural juggernaut, and is arguably one of the most successful in the history of its business. Following the story of an immigrant and ambitious outsider entering the political sphere during the turning point of the Revolutionary War, most of the cast within the show is notably played by people of color, as an artistic and directorial choice.

Some of the most popular and influential books this year, like Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, dealt explicitly with themes of race and history. The critically-acclaimed forthcoming film Loving does, as well, detailing the true-life story of a mixed-race couple whose love is condemned by the government. Beyonce's unapologetic, emotional visual album Lemonade kept us in constant applause, and television shows like Jane the Virgin even made us laugh, too. We followed the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, while championing stories from new, underrepresented voices.

Clearly, the Arts - both popularly consumed, as well as the less easily-accessible - will always serve as a bastion of diversity, inclusivity, and hope. Books stand proudly among that population.

Education is vital to the success of these causes, as well: coming from a high-ranking public university, like the University of Washington in Seattle, I can talk forever about how much my values are shaped by my education. Even in the rest of the United States, Education is a forefront battleground against injustice, with room being made for new discussions on class, gender, race, and all the ways those things intersect. Our classrooms are representative of this success: due to numerous factors, black women are now officially counted as the most educated population in the US.

However, despite the fact that diversity and inclusion are touted so exuberantly in these areas, they remained overcome by the tidal wave of Trump supporters that showed up in our Electoral College. Why is that?

Learning from History

I read an interesting Time article early on in the election cycle, that highlighted one of the most significant population changes shaking up the democratic process: people who had never voted before were finally finding a reason to take to the polls, whether it was older, rural conservative Republicans who fancied Trump's "truthfulness," or newly-minted voting Millennials who were swayed by Bernie's grandfatherly charm and hyper-liberal status. Unfortunately, as Bernie steadily became less of a viable candidate, the attention of these twenty-somethings swept to third party candidates like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, while Trump's numbers only swelled among the Midwestern and Southern communities of our country.

Trump's meteoric popularity - though baffling to the media who constantly gave him airtime, interviews, and implicit support via near-ceaseless coverage - is actually very familiar.

Someone like him has come before: an outsider battling against the elite, lacking in formal political education, but touting plenty of plain-stated opinions and an appeal to the rural  classes of the country who felt unrepresented in the political sphere. This President held powerful stances on trade and government interference, that not only led to mass Native American genocide and rougher treatment of black slaves in the South - particularly South Carolina - but also directly contributed to the events that initiated America's Civil War.

Sound familiar? I'll give you a hint: just like Hamilton, there's a multiple-Tony-award-nominated musical about him too. 

Image result for andrew jackson wikipediaThe story of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, is one that has been lampooned and lauded in both Arts and Education. It's one you've heard from the stages of Broadway to American History textbooks, to biographies written by best-selling authors, to the Hall of Presidents in Walt Disney World. Held up by Republicans, he was, ironically, the founder of the Democratic Party (back when being so was a decidedly un-liberal thing to be).

I could make a joke here about 2016 being the year of remakes, but I won't, because I don't think that our inability to understand history repeating itself is a laughing matter at all. Why wasn't anyone looking at the replication of these historical factors?

It won't surprise you to note that Trump-won states also have more significant histories of banning books. In 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee tried to ban The Diary of Anne Frank - a vivid and moving historical portrait of a young girl's "illegal" personhood  - from schools, on the grounds that it was "a real downer." Meanwhile, Virginia has successfully banned it before, as have plenty of other states, being that the American Library Association continually lists it among its most frequently challenged books.

Basically, what I'm trying to point out, is this: Arts and Education have always served as gateways for amazing stories of diversity, inclusion, and other such American values. The places where Donald Trump gained a hold in the heart of our country, are places known to lack emphasis, or even respect, in those subjects, and that jeopardizes the validity and trust of our democratic system.

Why Books (and You!) are Important in Every Election

Reading gives us an opportunity to explore new worlds, understand new ways of thinking, with greater and more significant empathy than what we are able to do on our own. The current perspectives touted by mainstream media are oriented not to inform, but to inflate pre-existing ideas and egos, but books can help break us out of the rut of homogenized thinking.

I was ruminating over a cup of tea this morning, about Sweden's recent effort to inspire their country's youth with Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche's We Should All Be Feminists. It got me thinking... would things have turned out different, if we had all just read more? If we had started exploring ideas of diversity and feminism through our reading choices earlier on in life - especially those of us living in Trump-won states - would things have turned out differently?

Image result for the diary of anne frank coverWhat if everyone had read The Diary of Anne Frank growing up, like I had? Or Pam Munoz Ryan's Esperanza Rising? Or Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry?

So, in the wake of this political turmoil, I choose to read. I invite you all to do the same, but more than anything else, I invite you to think about how Art and Education shapes public consciousness, compared to how Politics does.

I - as a white, suburban, educated, female, living in the gorgeous, glorious liberal haven of the Pacific Northwest - have comparatively a lot less to lose than the average voter. If you are one of the minorities who feel the most threatened by a Trump presidency, please know that you are not alone.

You might feel like your voice was ignored during this election cycle, or maybe it might be taken away, but know this: when you feel you can't speak... you can still sing, or dance, or write, or film. 

Your worldview is beautiful and necessary to broadening the empathetic scope of understanding that we can communicate through Art, and you have every power to create something wonderful out of something tragic. The ability to create Art is a privilege, but there are those who want to help you do it. We need your art, and we need you.

We need your stories. We need to keep reading. 

If you could put a book in the hands of every child in this country, what would you choose, and why? Let me know, in the comments below! 

No comments:

Post a Comment