Opinion | On Broadway, ‘Centering’ Antiracism Is Delightful

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I found Bradley Cooper’s biopic of Leonard Bernstein, “Maestro,” incurious in a related way. To build an entire film around Bernstein’s being gay or bisexual — with “West Side Story,” his masterful teaching on television and even the radical politics that led to the famous Black Panthers fund-raiser in his home left out or barely perceptible — is an almost boorish reduction of a life, soul and talent. Cooper’s focus reflects neither how life felt to Bernstein (which I have heard about from friends of his) nor how he should be presented to those new to him.

Imagine if Cooper was directing “Oppenheimer” and J. Robert Oppenheimer happened to be gay, and the film had focused on how he and his wife dealt with that rather than, well, what actually made his life significant. This is what it looks like to me for universities to make antiracism their core mission. Antiracism is important, but for a whole world to revolve around it yields a distortion of what America is, and what actual humanity, be it Black or white, is or can be.

I am especially dismayed by the utter static joylessness of the endeavor. The primum mobile is glum accusation, with observations considered most important (to the extent that they lend themselves to this mission). A curiosity focused mainly on condemnation is not truly curiosity.

A long time ago at a university function, a Black scholar was telling me about his dissertation. It described how in the 19th century in one state, Black people with a certain disability were offered fewer resources than white ones with the same disability. It isn’t that such injustice should not be chronicled, but for one, it would be hard to say that what he had discovered was exactly surprising. And I couldn’t help noticing the guy’s gloom. He talked about this dissertation, the product of years’ work, in the tone one would harbor to talk about bedbugs having been discovered in his house.

But near me, another Black scholar was talking about her study of a (very white) operetta composer of roughly the same period, whose work indeed contains richnesses often overlooked. This scholar was elated, intrigued, driven — and although I was polite and made sure to hear the gloomy guy out, I couldn’t help feeling that the woman studying operetta was expanding her mind more, not to mention getting more out of life. (I should mention that her work also involved issues related to Black people.)

In the foisting of an antiracist agenda upon the life of the mind, I see increasingly constricted space for what knowledge truly is. Our universities are becoming temples of a kind of dutiful score-settling, where the motto is less something about truth in Latin than “j’accuse.” It’s a narrow, soul-crushing abbreviation of what education is supposed to be.

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