"SLĀVs" to the ignorance of political correctness..

By Beryl Wajsman on July 16, 2018

"I dream of the day when people will be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin." ~ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Montreal Jazz Festival's decision to terminate the run of the play SLĀV was a cowardly submission to the ignorance of political correctness that will stain the reputation of this city and its citizens in ways that the organizers of the Festival cannot yet imagine. And because this affront to free expression happened in North America's battleground of culture wars - where speech and language rights are under regular attack - it will add to the impression of many that this city has become an intolerant, sad and unsophisticated place where courage is in short supply and reason is in short measure.

SLAV.jpgThe title of the play is a slang version of the French word for slave, "esclave." The play was a part of the Jazz Festival because jazz as a musical form grew out of the songs and experiences of African-Americans. The play explored the Black experience through the music that history had produced particularly that of slave songs. The director was award-winning Robert Lepage whose production of Coriolanus is now playing at Stratford. Lepage has four decades of experience in theatre. Betty Bonifassi, a Montreal-based singer known for her Oscar-nominated work on the soundtrack of Les Triplettes de Belleville, was the main performer in the show. The setting was the Théatre du Nouveau Monde. Everything first rate, right? Well, not everything according to the narrow-minded critics that forced its shutdown.

Critics of the show objected to the fact that most of the cast was white singing songs from the experience of Black slavery. They called it “cultural appropriation,” one of the latest fads of the politically correct. Sorry, it is the latest fad of the politically exploitative and the historically ignorant. It is a thoroughly bankrupt notion with no intellectual justification.

As director Robert Lepage put it, “How can we learn about each other if we cannot put ourselves in each other's place." Hasn't that been the whole point of multiculturalism and diversity? The very people who objected to the cast, are usually the very ones first in line for a government grant to study some cultural aspect of their particular corner. They've made it the new cottage industry of self-inflicted cultural segregation casting aside with it artistic license and free expression.

These critics should realize the harm they are doing and the two-edged sword that is the new social "crime" of "cultural appropriation." Great anthems of the African-American experience like "Oh Freedom!" and "Eyes on the Prize" have been beacons of hope for millions in diverse societies around the world. Shall we know cull those versions out of other cultures? Shall we cleanse the songbook of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and so many others who did so much to popularize the music whose roots came out of the crucible of the years of Black bondage? Since Jazz itself arose out of that music shall we pull all the great white Jazz artists work because they "appropriated" part of that culture by immersing themselves in it? Shall the history books be cleansed of the fact that Jack Greenberg, a white lawyer, devoted his professional life acting as counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since he must have just wanted to "appropriate" the cause of Black civil rights? And for that matter shall we also eliminate the names of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two white New Yorkers who went to work with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and were slaughtered with their Black Freedom Rider brother James Chaney in the bloody Mississippi summer of 1964 for trying to register Black citizens to vote. Shall we burn books like "To Kill A Mockingbird" because the white author wrote of a white lawyer defending an unjustly accused Black man. Should white recipients of Martin Luther King,Jr. awards - like myself -return them even though we were awarded them for fighting racism by state security authorities who have abused Blacks because we “appropriated” an issue that only Blacks should fight? Should the hit Broadway play “Hamilton” be closed because the lead role is played by a Black actor even though the play’s subject - Alexander Hamilton - was white. I could go on, but I hope the point is made.

If we are to rid this world of the evils within it, we must all "appropriate" the cultural experiences of those peoples who have been treated as less than chattel. We must all develop a visceral revulsion at prejudice and interposition. We must all learn to live in the skins of all peoples who have suffered. And while we are at it, might we not mention that the early Black slave songs appropriated messages and metaphors from another people who knew slavery. The Jewish people. Songs that were born of that time are replete with phrases like "Father Abraham," "Crossing the Jordan," " Sweet chariots," and paens to Moses and Joshua. Are we to accuse Black slave songs of "appropriating" Jewish culture? No, we should celebrate the facts that people who have suffered find commonality in each others experiences. It strengthens mankind's transcendent yearning for redemptive change. Without that universality there is no hope for mankind ever "crossing the Jordan."

Critics of the play have also advocated its closure because the skin tone of the cast "offended and irritated" some people. But the point of free expression in a free society is that some will always be irritated by something. That's the price of freedom. And short of overt incitement to. violence, everything must be allowed to be played out on the free battleground of ideas. If you sterilize all thought and opinion you will have a society of conformist thought control. That's called Fascism. In this case cultural fascism.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that he dreamt of a day when, "people will be judged on the content of their character not the color of their skin." Those who were complicit in the intellectual mugging surrounding the closing of "SLĀV" would do well to reflect on that.


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