AMERICA IS FAST BECOMING a "multicultural" society. Many fear this is not a good thing. Considering the effects of cultural "diversity" in such places as the Balkans – not to mention Seattle and Cincinnati -- one can hardly blame the cynics. Yet, a chance experience last Tuesday revived my faith in the multicultural dream.
I confess I’m a bit of a Philistine. Living in New York City, I tend to ignore concerts, plays, art shows, museums and avant-garde happenings. Culture for me is a good Stephen King novel or a fresh episode of The Sopranos, accompanied by an ice-cold Bud.
Yet last Tuesday, I broke my pattern. At the urging of Manny Klausner, legal counsel for the Individual Rights Foundation, I found myself sweltering in line outside the Manhattan Center on West 34th Street, waiting to see Three Mo’ Tenors – a concert produced by Manny’s lovely wife Willette Klausner, featuring three black virtuosos named Victor Trent Cook, Rodrick Dixon and Thomas Young.
The show was magnificent.
My wife can attest to the fact that I have snored through countless operas, concerts, ballets and Broadway musicals. Though I have twice attended Les Miserables, I can only remember the innkeeper’s song, whose kinetic quality momentarily jarred me from my slumber. I seem to remember some gunshots toward the end too.
Yet, Three Mo’ Tenors kept me wide awake – indeed, riveted – from beginning to end. The range and versatility of the performers were extraordinary. They glided with equal facility from Verdi’s "La Donna é Mobile" to Duke Ellington's "Drop Me Off in Harlem," covering a staggering spectrum of musical genres, from opera, jazz and soul to gospel.
Yet, there was something in the hall even more electric than the performers’ incandescent talent. Dare I call it patriotism?
A glance around the "multicultural" audience confirmed that I was deep in "blue" country – as defined by that famous USA Today map showing all the counties that voted for Al Gore in blue.
Imagine my surprise when the trio’s haunting performance of "America the Beautiful" received a standing ovation.
What did it mean? I sensed, in that moment, the possibility of a multicultural America that really worked, one that did not weep, smolder or bleed like the Balkans.
Earlier, a zoot-suited Victor Trent Cook had taken the stage, belting out "Minnie the Moocher," in full, Cab Calloway character.
Seeing Calloway resurrected so vividly on that stage, I could not help wondering how the force of that man’s unearthly charisma must have shocked and mesmerized a 1930s America still wrestling with Jim Crow.
I felt proud to be American, in a curious new way – proud to share citizenship with a giant like Calloway.
Years ago, I attended a street fair with a German friend. A quartet of white singers in pink dresses sang tunes by The Chiffons, The Shirelles and other (mainly black) girl groups of the early ‘60s. My German friend was enthralled.
"We don’t have anything like this in Europe," he marveled. "Oh, we have retro girl groups. They try their best. But they don’t have that American soul."
American soul. In European eyes, our land is so saturated with soul that even our white singers possess it.
Was my German friend right? Have whites and blacks shared this land so long that our souls have commingled? Is there, in fact, a pan-American soul, forged not only in ballrooms and nightclubs, but also on the battlefield?
When I saw Glory – the 1989 film about the all-black 54th Massachusetts infantry regiment during the Civil War -- I emerged from the theater transformed. Never in school had I learned that 180,000 black Americans had served in the Union Army or that Abraham Lincoln had credited them with turning the tide of war.
Never before had I known the extent to which black men fought and died for their liberty, just as whites had. A subtle prejudice that I hardly knew I possessed flickered and died that day. On the street, I looked with wonder upon the faces of my black countrymen, as if seeing them for the first time.
Why did the audience rise last Tuesday night for "America the Beautiful?" What did that song mean to those liberal New Yorkers – white and black – who filled the auditorium?
I hope that it meant the same to them that it does to me. I hope that Americans of every race and party share a common soul. Maybe I’m naive. But last Tuesday at the concert, it just seemed possible.