In the mid-1990’s, Earl Shorris met Viniece Walker in the Bedford Hills Prison. Shorris was there researching for a book on poverty, but Ms. Walker gave him more than he was prepared for.
As I read about and hear discussions in Charlotte concerning a planned tax to support “the arts”, I thought of Walker and Shorris and her comment to him about the importance of the humanities or the arts as a way of helping poor people.
As Shorris talked with Walker and other women in Bedford Hills, he asked Walker why she thought people were poor. She answered quickly, “Because they don’t have the moral life of downtown.” Shorris thought she was speaking of religion, but Walker went on to explain, “You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures, where they can learn the moral life of downtown.” When asked by Shorris if she meant the humanities, she answered, “Yes, Earl, the humanities.” Her words led him to begin the first Clemente Center where poor citizens could read and study humanities in order to have a part of the “moral life of downtown.”
As a prisoner serving a life sentence in Bedford Hills, a female with AIDS, and with a past of abuse and violence, Walker had arrived too late to the power of what we call the arts or humanities. She knew that if poor children are exposed to concerts, museums, and lectures, they will see that they have an alternative to a life of violence and its brother poverty.
Just this week, three boys-ages 15, 16, and 17 have been charged with the murder of a 17-year-old female during an attempted robbery. One of the charged boys is not old enough to have his photograph shown in the media. Old enough to possibly murder another teenager, but not old enough for his photograph to be printed in the media. Sadly, this is not such an unusual situation for Charlotte and other locations in our country. For decades our government has thrown resources at poverty and all that it breeds. But all our efforts have not done so well in the battle to help the poor rise and enjoy better lives.
When I reflect on my life as one of six children in a single parent home, living on the Mill Hill, I see the “moral life” advantages I had: a loving and supportive mother; a church, and teachers/coaches who encouraged. Yes, I was a white boy in a segregated world and that gave me the advantage of skin color. However, being poor did not keep me from reading and seeing a wider world. Not a good or serious student, I did, however, know that education in some degree was the way out of my poverty. The supports in my life made me aware that there were alternatives to hard shifts in a cotton mill, and the summer jobs in the weave rooms convinced me that there was more to aim for. I didn’t know Walker or her words, but I knew that I wanted the “moral life of downtown.”
I am not a fan of rap music, but it is a viable alternative for talented but poor youth. And what once was dismissed as “graffiti” is now an accepted and highly revered art form no longer relegated to box cars. By participating in one of these art forms or any of the others available, a person will learn the discipling required by these artistic expressions. As a youth works harder to be better at say, rap, he or she will build on each successful note and line. She will see that with the work and discipline comes the ‘moral life of downtown.” And with that new life of the downtown comes influence and even power, which is an avenue to make change in our society.
Children born into families with means have alternatives because they are exposed to the humanities. That exposure leads to exposure to better schools, teachers, mentors, and a higher quality of life. This is not to say that their lives are free of worries or problems, but by being exposed to the arts, they have an advantage over the poor children, and that advantage can be played out in the realm of influence (power).
We owe it to our poor children and our society to help them elevate to lives that are more than guns, drugs, and violence. We need to give of ourselves, not just our dollars, and show poor children all around us that there is a better way of living. Violence is its own end, but the poor child sees it as a way of life respecting no one or nothing, not even itself.
Shorris writes of receiving a phone call late one night from a Clemente Center student. Shorris expected the worse from the student who was on parole for violent behaviors and prepared himself to listen, then go bail the student out of jail. The student told Shorris that a co-worker had angered him in the restaurant kitchen where he washed dishes. Bracing himself, Shorris was ready to hear how he had lost his temper, then attacked the co-worker. However, his student said, “I then thought, ‘What would Socrates do?’”
When we show all poor children the beauty of the arts and humanities, we all will improve.