Today’s political tensions tend to emphasize our differences over our commonalities. They threaten to fracture our unity and have launched us into what I sometimes refer to as an “uncivil war.”
But contrary to what many news outlets would have us believe, we aren’t a nation of just two flavors of people. We are endlessly nuanced and wonderfully diverse. It’s only through learning each other’s stories that we come to appreciate that. I believe the arts and humanities can play an important role in times like these. They can be the peacemakers in this uncivil war.
As a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and as head of the creative brand management track there, I teach brilliant, driven students who come from all over the world. When I think of different groups of people who seem to have nothing in common, coming to learn they have a great deal in common, I think of an experience I had with my students many years ago at Montpelier’s Gospel Chicken House (closed in 2011).
The experience solidified my belief that the arts and humanities hold the key to us better understanding each other.
I had taken a group of students to the Chicken House as part of an advertising class. The students were there to listen to the music and experience this rather unique slice of rural Virginia culture. It’s not an exaggeration to say they stood out like sore thumbs. The crowd was a group of older white people who lived in the country and our students are young and diverse, from all over the world. At one point, the emcee for the evening asked one of my students — who happened to be from Mumbai, India — what he thought of what he’d experienced that night.
His response surprised everyone. He said it reminded him of his hometown, where it was common for large groups of people to come together to sing and celebrate. At that moment, the audience realized that we were more alike than we knew. The arts and humanities can help us understand our differences without losing sight of our shared stories. They have the power to inform us, to entertain us and to bring us together.
As a board member of Virginia Humanities — Virginia’s state humanities council — I’m proud to see work like this happening across the commonwealth every day. Virginia Humanities’ Folklife Program recently brought together a dizzying array of artists including automobile pinstripers, bluegrass and gospel musicians, Mongolian contortionists and African American dance groups at the Richmond Folk Festival. Their performances served as a reminder of the many diverse traditional cultures present in our great state. But more than that, they provided an opportunity for us to celebrate all that we have in common.
In that spirit and in a sort of homage to that night at the Gospel Chicken House, I recently took 20 graduate students to three cities in Southwest Virginia — Bristol, Abingdon and St. Paul. All three cities have been hit hard by the failure of the coal and textile industries. The program is a partnership with Virginia Tourism that gives the students the opportunity to meet people living in these communities and hear their stories.
The direct output will be a tourism campaign developed by the students later this year. But the byproduct of the project (and of the increased tourism it hopes to generate) will be better understanding.
This month happens to be National Humanities Month (NAHM). Established in 1993 by the National Endowment for the Arts and Americans for the Arts, NAHM is an opportunity to celebrate the role that the arts and humanities play in our lives.
During this final week of NAHM, I encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and experience all that our state has to offer.
Visit a part of the state you’ve never been to or stop by your local museum.
Visit VirginiaHumanities.org to learn what our state council is doing.
By better understanding one another, maybe we can make a little peace in the midst of this uncivil war.