Being a life-long resident of Montgomery, Alabama, I have had every opportunity to be limited and closed-minded and suspicious of the outside world. I have had every chance to accept the demonization people I do not know or understand and to be supported and encouraged in that world view. I would have been deemed a fine and righteous man in many circles here if I had chosen to extol the virtue of handling our business locally and to spit rhetorical fire at outsiders who even dared to comment on our way of life. As a child who was taken out of a public school that was not meeting my academic needs and put into a more challenging private school, I could easily have embraced the opportunities at economic and social advancement that I gained from having a better education and never looked back. I also could have adopted an elitist mentality, assuming that the factors in my life entitled me to better things.
What has stood between me and those kinds of shortsightedness, which I have encountered almost daily for decades, is the presence of the arts in my life. I could not have ever experienced some things living in one place my whole life, but I have experienced through the arts: literature, theater, music, film, photography, visual art. Now, I have traveled a good bit in my adulthood — having now been all over the South, as well as to New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and brief trips into Mexico and Canada — but at a young age, as a teenager and as a young man in my early 20s, I had no such firsthand experience. What I knew of life outside of Montgomery – a place that seemed unbearably confining — came from books I was reading, music I was hearing, movies and TV and plays I was watching, and artists whose works I was discovering in a variety of forms and media.
I think about works of artistry that inspired me as much as my family and my immediate surroundings ever did. I remember working on the stage crew for the play, “Mame” at the Montgomery Little Theater and for a post-apocalyptic interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, both when I was 14 years old. I remember seeing the Peter Fonda’s film “Easy Rider” and Penelope Spheeris’ film “Suburbia,” both as a teenager in high school. I remember reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger at 14, Kerouac’s On The Road at 19, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer at 20. I can remember listening to first Guns N Roses in the late 1980s then Jane’s Addiction in the early 1990s, and thinking how great Los Angeles must be. All of these experiences — and many more like them — made it seem possible that life didn’t have to be what it was for me then, living as a young man who wanted more than the post-Civil Rights cultural stagnation where I lived.
I could catalog hundreds of artistic works and experiences that have changed my life and my point-of-view. The hard part has been not doing what Laurie Grobman describes in Multicultural Hybridity: taking one work and creating an essentialist view of a culture or subculture from that one work; basically, she reminds her reader not to read one book or watch one film, and then think, Oh, I understand that now. But taken in pieces, those fragments of secondhand cultural experience or insight have helped me to transcend racism, homophobia, and other prominent forms of negative stereotyping. The arts have been a major contributing factor to me having the point-of-view that the world is a grand place full of wonderful insights and experiences, instead of living a paranoid and parochial existence where anything different is something to be feared.
Keeping the arts in the lives of young people and encouraging them to transcend small-mindedness through experiencing the arts has become one central focus of my life’s work. Although, I still yet to move away from Montgomery, Alabama, I know that, because of the arts, I am greater than the sum of my parts.