THE SPINE MAY 6, 2007
Friday, May 4th was Lincoln Kirstein's birthday, his 100th birthday, to be exact. And the Times celebrated it with Alastair Macaulay's review of The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein. It was a favorable review but with a slightly niggling tone. The biography is the labors of Martin Duberman who used to write for TNR and whose work I admire greatly. (Why does he not write for us now? Did we have a falling-out? A political row? I don't recall.) The last book of his I had read was Black Mountain: An Exploration of Community, a remarkable study of a maverick college in North Carolina, dead since 1957 but a pipeline into the avant-garde culture 50 years later. In any case, I have already read some 400 of the 700-odd pages of the volume, and it is hard for me to put it down.
Kirstein's extraordinary accomplishment was to found, with George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet. And the ballet company was presenting, on the very night of Kirstein's birth, its newly choreographed (by Peter Martins, whom I first saw when he was a dancer in the troupe three decades ago or more) to the old and exhilarating music of Sergei Prokofiev, not all of whose music was so exhilarating. (After all, he lived and composed under Stalin's reign, about which younger readers seem woefully and willfully unaware.)
I hustled and got tickets. It was an incandescent performance.
Back home in Cambridge, I pick up the parts of the Sunday Times that are delivered on Saturday and lethargically browse through the various sections. And there on the front page of the "Arts and Leisure" section is the lead article, written by Gia Kourlas, that is titled, "Where Are All The Black Swans?" That is: where are the black ballerinas? It is a laden matter. Where, for that matter, are the black performers of classical music? Where, while I am asking, are the PhDs in physics and mathematics? But that's another matter. And, no, I certainly don't think the answer is in the genes.
But I did think back to the Friday ballet. The theater's website says that there are 2,755 seats in the auditorium. Who knows how many Afro-Americans were sitting in those seats? Ten, maybe 15. Two weeks ago, I took my four year-old grandson, Elias, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was Saturday, and it was crowded, right after the opening of the new Greek and Roman galleries. That's what I wanted to see first. But Elias said he wanted "to see the Egyptians because they came first." Enough of my grandfatherly boasting. The lobby must have had five hundred people in it. I don't know how many others we passed in the vast exhibition spaces. Does the Met know how many Afro-Americans walk through its halls?
I am afraid that, whenever I go into a large center of culture, what we used to call "high culture," I find myself looking for, hoping for black people, especially black young people. And, frankly, I am always disappointed, no, frustrated, even exasperated.
How could here possibly be what Kourlas tells us Kirstein imagined? Equal numbers of white boys and girls and "negros," his misspelling. I have written about this a few times, ever so gingerly. Let me not be so gingerly.
Multiculturalism was largely a one-way process. "Us" learning from "them" and about "them." Is that what we meant by multiculturalism?
It's now 1:30 a.m. I am exhausted. Please think about my question. I'll come back to it soon.