We Need the Arts Now More Than Ever

I was 12 years old when I realized that the arts — specifically, reading and writing — were going to save my life.

I was living in subsidized housing in the shadow of the Bronx Zoo, a latchkey kid who attended public school nearby in the months before or after our many evictions. My mother raised me on her own as she grappled with the impact of being a poor black woman who also had borderline personality and bipolar disorders. She was undiagnosed and unmedicated.

That meant that I grew up relying on myself and the outside world to learn how to be a citizen of the world. The arts, quite simply, shaped my world view. When my mother had a manic episode that sent me into despair, I went straight to Judy Blume, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret or to Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar.

“Words Create” by Bernard Goldbach is licensed under CC BY 2.0

On the afternoons when my mother was looking for work or attending night school at Bronx Community College, because she couldn’t afford a babysitter, watching television and movies became another way for me to distract myself from the present by dreaming about a future that looked like the one characters talked about on my local PBS station. Before hip hop became a global phenomenon, it provided a soundtrack for my generation, born in the place where I was raised — and the first music videos I saw and loved aired on that same station.

The message that arts and humanities conveyed to me was that no matter where I was located, where I was from, what I looked like, what I did or didn’t have, I had the power to create something more beautiful and profound than what was right in front of me. It helped to have a sense of this somewhere, since arts in schools had already been defunded by then.

I felt empowered not only to consume culture, but to write my way out of the Bronx. As any number of stories in our world suggest, creativity is not just a balm, but it can be a bridge. (I was reminded of this recently when I watched “Joe’s Violin” the moving short documentary about how a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor’s donation of a violin to a 12-year-old Bronx girl created a connection across time and space.)

I was fortunate enough to follow my calling as a writer and an avid reader from the Bronx to boarding school on scholarship; from there to a Seven Sisters college. I had the great privilege of telling the stories of every day Americans as a newspaper journalist for a decade: In Texas, in California, in Washington. That experience reaffirmed for me that one of the many things that unites us as a country is how deeply our stories are connected.

We are more than simply numbers or line items. Our experiences are what shape a life. The quality of our lives is enriched by arts and culture, which we need now more than ever.

Trump’s proposed budget threatens to eliminate millions of dollars in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, gutting future investments in our greatest national assets for connecting people to one another across class, race and geography. It would also eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports public television and radio, including PBS and NPR.

Thankfully, people are never powerless to make change. Jonathan Estabrooks has been working with dozens of artists and performers to try and stop the elimination of the NEA and the NEH. Bryan Terrell Clark, who recently assumed the role of George Washington in the hit Broadway play Hamilton, was one of a number of high-profile performers who came out last week to support Jonathan’s petition with the recording of a single that will be used to raise money to advocate for the organizations.

“The arts are already extremely underfunded,” Bryan said. “To take away from something so important to humanity is egregious.”

Jonathan Estabrook’s petition, Don’t Eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, has more than 45,000 signatures. He’s traveling next week to Washington, D.C. for Arts Advocacy Day to make sure lawmakers hear his voice and that of many thousands of Americans across the country. Other Change.org petitions fighting Trump’s proposed budget cuts aim to save PBS and public radio funding along with important services for the poor like Meals on Wheels.

More than twenty years after I first realized the arts would save me, I know with complete certainty that they have done the same for many others. The question now is what will happen if we do nothing, and a new generation of children is deprived of a bridge to a better vision, a better future?

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