This year slaves; next year free people.
Let my people go.
How did he do it?
OMG, how did he do it?
When an artist brings the revelation down, when the hem of the Lord's garment fills the temple, that's all I can think to say. Sometimes not even that.
As when Lear, surfacing from delirium, admits to the daughter he has wronged, "I am not in my perfect mind."
As when the painter carves into his night sky the vortices we never saw but knew were there (and science now confirms).
As when I saw a man sing love to his woman, and win her.* He deformed in body, she battered in body and soul. Beggar and whore, rising out of bondage.
I've heard this song with full-out orchestra, the voices arrogant and operatic, no hint of doubt. But this was so quiet, I didn't know it had started. He was just talking. Bess, he says, you is my woman. You is. You is. And she at the other side of the stage looking away. No words like these have been said to her. You must sing and dance and laugh for two instead of one. What you want from me? Want no wrinkle on your brow. What you saying? To me?
When she looks at him, it's in disbelief. And yet. I am your woman now. What am I doing? There's no wrinkle on my brow, nohow. How can I say such things? To him? I ain't going! You hear me saying, if you ain't going. Now she steps toward him. With you I'm staying. They don't touch till the last notes. We two are one now and forever.
Only then do I get what the lyric says, these words sung to me all my life. We'll go swinging t'rough the years a singing. These crushed people -- right now -- are marrying. Morning time and evening time and summer time and winter time. These words are wedding vows. The capitalists of flesh had denied marriage to their fathers and mothers, splitting partners and disseminating their children. So they learned to make their own Promises. From this minute I'm telling you I keep this vow. Two raising each other out of bondage into agency. He must stand up, for his woman and community, against the brutality of Crown. She must resist, for her man and community, the lure of happy dust and despair. The history and destiny of America's involuntary immigration run through these words, this song, this vow. True love makes its demands, and compels them to freedom. There's more at stake here than sleeping arrangements.
And how did they do it? I ask. How did the Gershwin brothers, two Jewish boys from Brooklyn, and DuBose Heyward, a Charleston poet who observed black laborers on the waterfront, penetrate the veil?
Well, maybe they didn't. It's a debate that I must stand away from. Every writer white or black who takes an inventory of the damage done to people of color by the forms of American contempt will be charged with "painting stereotypes" or "washing dirty laundry in public."
There aren't any Harvard graduates on Catfish Row: Harvard didn't allow that. There are however honest fisherman and laborers, along with three three other kinds of man. Crown the killer, Sportin' Life the drifter, and Porgy the beggar: three data from America's long assault on black manhood. Porgy is not the only one disabled; but he is the one who, in submission to love, can become a good man. Bess is what she must be, abused and brutalized, used and commodified; yet she hears the call of love and knows what it demands of her. We do not know at the end whether her life instinct will win out.
I can't settle the ancient debate about about how to describe pains and prospects of a people on their way to freedom. But I note that Porgy and Bess though degraded are not hopeless. They are on their way to a heavenly land. And that must be why so many of the best artists, for three quarters of a century, have taken these roles. Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, John W. Bubbles, Etta Moten, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway, Donnie Ray Albert, Clamma Dale, Larry Marshall, Simon Estes, Grace Bumbry, Bruce Hubbard, Robert McFerrin, Adele Addison, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier, Audra McDonald -- I cannot say to those artists, who have walked a road to freedom through these imaginations of white men, that they are race traitors. I have no standing that empowers such a judgment.
So I am left where I began, in the presence of revelation. The foundations are shaking. How did they do it, these dead white men? OMG.
*"The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess," Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York City, June 14, 2012 (Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy).