Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier
A friend of mine and I were talking about music and the friend happened to say, “And who doesn’t like gospel music?” At the time, I agreed that it is widely enjoyed. But I kept mulling over the conversation in my mind in the days to follow. I do like gospel music. Sometimes. I like the feeling of it, the sound of it, the sometimes abandon of letting it all out and singing it, like you mean it. But the problem for me is, I don’t mean it.
I am not a Christian, living in a town where it seems many are or many claim to be one form of Christian or another. I am not a Christian in a town where many don’t really understand why I object to an assumption that Christian practices and Christian ideas about God should be the norm for everyone. I often find myself in situations where I am having Christianity forced upon me or upon my family. It seems unavoidable at formal public gatherings, at public meals, in public schools, at public school concerts, at graduation ceremonies, in shopping districts, town parks, everywhere outside of my own house of worship with the exception of private homes. (If you invite me into your home, for a Christmas party, I expect you can be as religious as you want and it’s my choice to attend and share your traditions with you or not, but in a public gathering, diversity is a huge issue that needs to be addressed.)
Yes, there are enlightened people who understand diversity and they have helped some institutions change the name from a Christmas concert to a holiday concert in school or at the holiday party at the workplace. In some towns far away from here, that change actually means something. But around here, nothing seems to have changed except the name. The food served is still traditional Christmas fare, there are Christmas trees with Christmas decorations and the napkins and cookies are still red and green. For all intents and purposes, everything is still about Christmas. And if Santa comes, that makes it a Christmas party in my book. Don’t just call it a holiday party if it’s really a Christmas party – you are not fooling anyone. Don’t put dreidels on a Christmas tree at school to prove you are being diverse. It’s still a Christmas tree and putting Jewish symbols on it is still offensive, non-inclusive of some, and showing a lack of understanding about diversity. Leave the Christmas tree, the red and green decorations, the Christmas word puzzles, the Christmas cookies and songs, the Christmas films out of the school and stop complaining that you can’t get the students to concentrate on their school work just before the holidays. Duh!
I do comfort myself with knowing that some of the things people do at Christmas time are really adaptations from pre-Christian, Pagan traditions. But most people don’t see the trees and wreaths that way. It’s odd to think that really devout Christians are following pagan customs and might not even know it. But the leaders of old knew that people don’t like giving up the fun stuff, so they found ways to incorporate pagan ways into the Christian ways, to keep the people happy. Because many people then, as now, don’t like change, even when it comes to matters of diversity.
Do teachers really have to keep reminding children, in the classroom, about the upcoming holidays? Do you think they’d forget to tell their parents about Christmas coming and then the whole holiday would be ruined for hundreds of families because they always relied on the schools to remind the children? The local economy would suffer because without daily reminders in the classrooms of the children, the parents wouldn’t know to start Christmas shopping on time and stores would have unsold merchandize? C’mon.
I once had a discussion about Christmas music in the school concert with a local music teacher whom I respect very highly for that teacher’s teaching skills. When it came to Christmas music in the schools, though, we had to agree to disagree, as that teacher’s solution to me was for me to go back to school, get another master’s degree and become a music teacher myself and do things differently in my own classroom. What is so hard about leaving God and Christianity out of the music program at a public school? There is plenty of music for kids to sing, why is one whole concert, out of only two school concerts in a year, devoted to Christmas music? Granted, some teachers try to incorporate one or two Hanukkah songs or other non-Christian songs into the program, but why not just sing about winter or other non-religious subjects, and allow maybe just one Christmas song? Chanukah is a very minor Jewish festival, not even a holy day and not even a biblical holiday. If you were to ask any learned Jew what is the most important holiday, no one would answer Chanukah. The teacher politely argued that they have a tradition of singing these carols. Now I very much like to honor tradition in many ways, with some exceptions, like slavery, oppression of women, child labor, stoning people for their sins, etc, but that would be another blog entirely. My reply was that my people have singing traditions, too, but when I want to hear them, I go to my house of worship; why couldn’t all the Christian kids go to church to sing the traditional carols at Christmas time? That conversation was probably close to 10 years ago. I still would choose that same teacher for my kids, if I were able, because s/he is someone I admire; we just didn’t agree on this one issue.
This past year at a school concert, a retired public school teacher from our district, wrote a piece for an elementary school choir to sing. It was blatantly religious and inappropriate for a public school teacher to write for a public school. (Although musically, very lovely.) My child’s friends objected to the song’s words, but only to each other. None of the 4 girls practice Christianity at home, although two or three have Christmas for fun with trees and gifts, but not religiously. So if one teacher once made an argument to me for keeping tradition, then why are they introducing new Christian material into the schools? And what was that retired teaching thinking? Not about diversity.
When I play in a bluegrass band and my band mates want to include a few bluegrass gospel songs from the traditional bluegrass gospel repertoire I don’t completely object if we throw in a few, depending on the performance setting. But I am careful to limit the number and am very choosy about which verses I sing. For me to sing about someone I don’t believe in bleeding and dying on a cross for me is disingenuous. I don’t want to be seen to be “spreading the gospel” that I don’t believe. Nor do I want to be remembered for singing those songs particularly. My understanding of this music is that it tends to be from the white gospel tradition of hymns, straight from the old hymnals, adapted for bluegrass the way Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe used to do them, when sacred music was an everyday thing in some places and diversity was not such a hot topic.
I am also very keenly aware that not only are there people here who are near and dear to me who are not Christian, but many are not believers in God at all. They are a very silent minority. They are silent for fear of being ostracized by the believers, by those in charge, by people who give promotions, by those who have power over us or our children. That may sound silly, but it is the experience of some that questioning belief in God or religion is not something that one does in public in these parts. Not at a party, not in the lunchroom and certainly not at the water-cooler. So who doesn’t love gospel music? Who would admit to not liking it if they didn’t?