Jun. 18, 2012

Black Boys Play the Classics

by Toi Derricotte

The most popular "act" in
Penn Station
is the three black kids in ratty
sneakers & T-shirts playing
two violins and a cello—Brahms.
White men in business suits
have already dug into their pockets
as they pass and they toss in
a dollar or two without stopping.
Brown men in work-soiled khakis
stand with their mouths open,
arms crossed on their bellies
as if they themselves have always
wanted to attempt those bars.
One white boy, three, sits
cross-legged in front of his
idols—in ecstasy—
their slick, dark faces,
their thin, wiry arms,
who must begin to look
like angels!
Why does this trembling
pull us?
A: Beneath the surface we are one.
B: Amazing! I did not think that they could speak this tongue.

"Black Boys Play the Classics" by Toi Derricotte, from Tender. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Paul McCartney celebrates his 70th birthday today, he was born in Liverpool, England. When McCartney was in his 20s and still in the Beatles, he wrote the song "When I'm Sixty-Four," which contains the lines "Will you still need me/will you still feed me/when I'm 64?" He's well past that age now. "I'm never going to believe I'm 70, I don't care what you say," he recently told Rolling Stone magazine. "There's a little cell in my brain that's never going to believe that." Two years ago, he said he would stop touring when he was 70, but now he's leaving his options open. "I'm just kind of casually keeping an eye on how I feel, and onstage, it feels like it's always felt. [...] If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Today is the birthday of philanthropist and oil tycoon Henry Clay Folger, born in New York City (1857). After he graduated from college, he took a job as a clerk at an oil company. He learned the oil business, worked his way up, and became president of Standard Oil in 1911.

Folger loved Shakespeare, and studied the Bard in college. He married Emily Jordan, an intelligent woman who shared her husband's enthusiasm for the poet. She wrote to a noted Shakespeare expert of the day, Horace Howard Furness, and asked him how she could go about educating herself. His advice to her was this: "[R]ead a play every day consecutively. At the end of the thirty-seven days you will be in a Shakespearian atmosphere that will astonish you with its novelty and its pleasure, and its profit. Don't read a single note during the month." She followed his advice and eventually earned a master's degree from Vassar.

The Folgers began collecting Shakespeareana; over the years they amassed the largest collection of First Folio editions in the world. After World War I, Henry Clay Folger and his wife began looking for a location to build a Shakespeare library. They planned the project for nine years, and found the spot they were looking for in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill. Congress approved the purchase of the land in 1928, and the library's cornerstone was laid in 1930. Unfortunately, Folger died soon afterward and never saw his plans come to fruition. The library opened on April 23 — Shakespeare's birthday — in 1932. Emily Folger remained active in funding and administering the library until her death in 1936. It's now run by trustees of Amherst College.

It's the birthday of lyricist Sammy Cahn, born Samuel Cohen on New York City's Lower East Side (1913). He was a professional songwriter from the time he was a teenager, and he wrote some beloved American favorites, like Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Love and Marriage (1955), All the Way (1957), and High Hopes (1959).

It was on this date in 1940 that Winston Churchill gave his famous "finest hour" speech. He had only been prime minister for about a month. Nazi Germany had conquered Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and had taken Paris. France had just asked Germany for an armistice agreement, and now Britain stood alone against Hitler and his war machine. Churchill addressed the House of Commons just before four p.m. and talked for about 40 minutes.

His speech concludes: "Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"

It's the birthday of Richard Powers (books by this author), born in Evanston, Illinois (1957). He's the author of 10 novels, including The Gold Bug Variations (1991) and the National Book Award winner The Echo Maker (2006), which also was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His latest novel is Generosity: An Enhancement (2009), about an ecstatic Algerian woman and her writing teacher.

In his novel Galatea 2.2 (1995), Powers wrote, "All we can ever do is lay a word in the hands of those who have put one in ours."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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