Monday, January 19, 2009

falsetto prophecy

If your heart is in your dream,
No request is too extreme.

-- Ned Washington

What happens to a dream deferred?

-- Langston Hughes

When a star shoots over the palace at the end of Main Street, it’s just like TV, except it’s not TV, it’s actually happening in front of you, and Tinkerbell (an actual professional actress, a member of Actors’ Equity Association) flies the length of the plaza, scattering pixie dust from the castle tower to a shop’s back door. It happens every night at eight PM, five hours after the daily parade with brass band and floats. You’re in an Iowa small town circa 1900, but the costs are evaded and the consequences denied. There’s no town drunk and no jail where he could sleep it off. There is a railroad but nobody lives on the other side of the tracks. There are no churches on Main Street Disney World: no need for them, I suppose. This is heaven, and no one dies here – how could they, in the dream of a man whose juvenile hero wouldn’t grow up?

I don’t know much about Walt himself except what I saw on TV when I was a kid. But I imagine him shouting at his underlings: “Don’t tell me I can’t have fireworks every night! Don’t tell me I can’t have a parade every day! Don’t tell me it can’t be spotless! Don’t bother me. I’m making a place where dreams come true. My heart is in it. I have wished upon a star.”

There is theology in Disney. Not all of it bad. Jiminy Cricket’s falsetto prophecy is for everybody. Even the least of us can have our heart’s desire if we desire it enough and never give up, never ever, even in the darkest hour. “Makes no difference who you are!” It’s a testimony of secular American faith, a hallelujah that lures immigrant choruses to step on our shores and to crawl under our border fences.

Disney told terrifying stories to children. Bambi loses his mother; Dumbo is shamed for his most precious gift; Pinocchio sins against his loving father and is swallowed by the whale; Snow White is marked for assassination, abandoned and poisoned. Walt says to the child, I know you are afraid. I know that you are small, weak and bewildered. But deep in Leviathan’s gut, dead in a glass coffin, or drugged in a forest of thorns, you are not lost; something knows where you are. Perhaps your fairy godmother, perhaps your prince, perhaps your distant father buck with the disembodied voice of a god, will find you. As the Cricket says, fate will step in and see you through. The universe is a kind place. So never stop dreaming. Never let anyone demean your dream.

Dr. King also had a dream, and like the Unitarian Theodore Parker before him he said that though the arc of the moral universe is long it tends toward justice. But how long, O Lord, is that arc? How long can we ask a dreamer to dream?

Perhaps the benevolence of Walt’s world and mine was stolen. The fairy godmother who tended our needs would not come for Du Bois, for Paul Robeson, for Josephine Baker. Their hearts were broken. These children of unwilling immigrants were judged by the color of their skin; it made great difference who they were. We who inherit the theft of their hope cannot blame them for despairing. Their dream, too long deferred, dried up “like a raisin in the sun.”

Others, in defiance of logic, kept the dream fresh. Sixteen year old Elizabeth Eckford, captured forever by a photo-journalist as she walked through a white mob in Little Rock on September 4, 1957, carried more than her schoolbooks. She carried the American faith, preserved by the black church during generations of terror. She knew that God loved her. A few days later, her prince came – the soldier-president with his army, a Lord of Hosts.

Tomorrow a dreamer of African descent takes the world’s most powerful office. He asked us to judge him by the content of his character. Enough of us did so. For this man, for these purposes, on this day, it made no difference who he was. His dream, our dream, so long deferred, can come true.

Walt was a white man of the fifties and before. But his dream is not such a bad place, and will be better when shared. Isn’t that what we’ve hoped for, that we could all walk down Main Street together?

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