In 1988, the city of Dallas lost five police officers to gunfire in the line of duty. It was crippled by a record number of bank failures, and increased homelessness. Attacks by hate groups exacerbated racial tensions to the extent that President George H.W. Bush reassured the nation of his commitment to justice. 1988 was not a good year for Dallas with the exception of one spectacular accomplishment: the construction of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, which opened the following year.
In 1988, 47-year-old Jesse Jackson mounted his second campaign for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. While no one thought he stood a chance of becoming the nominee much less president, he achieved a higher degree of success than anyone anticipated of this African-American candidate. In 1988, Barack Obama was beginning his studies at the Harvard Law School. He was 26. Over the next two years he would become president of the Law Review, and would begin dating the woman who is now First Lady of the United States.
The Meyerson, designed by I.M. Pei, was architecturally fascinating and significant to the arts in Dallas. Pei designed the building to meet two functions—that of an acoustically superior music concert hall, and that of outreach to and enrichment of the city of Dallas as a whole symbolized through its roof that tilted toward the sky. The Meyerson was a symbol of hope for a city in pain.
It is the home of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and a space where other music organizations, such as Dallas Winds, perform. It's home to the magnificent Lay Family Organ and in the center of what has become the largest urban arts district in America, surrounded by three world-class museums, the performance spaces in the two AT&T Performing Arts Center buildings, City Performance Hall and Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
“If we cannot talk about these things with people that are different from us, we will never break this dangerous cycle.”
On July 12, 2016, an Interfaith assemblage organized by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings gathered to honor the lives of five police officers that were lost to gunfire in the line of duty on July 7. The deaths of these officers are the most in a single event in the nation since Sept. 11, 2001. The citizens of Dallas mourn. That this gathering occurred in the Meyerson says as much about the intersection of the arts and community as it does about goals of excellence in performance. That tilted roof with glass to which Pei attached hopeful symbolism still invites the public to celebrate excellence through freedom of expression.
Responding to Mayor Rawlings’ call for unity, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush came together to remind Americans of our shared values. These are two of only five living people that have had to manage the nation in the aftermath of tragedy. They stood together on the stage of the Meyerson, like two cultural tectonic plates that have guided the restructuring of America’s past for the purpose of shaping its future. It was a striking visual that we probably will not see again.
Both presidents paid homage to the fallen officers: DART officer Brent Thompson, and DPD officers Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. Each heralded the officers’ bravery and their work toward creating unity. President Obama pointed specifically to the cooperation between anti-police brutality protestors and the Dallas Police Department on July 7, citing this interaction as exemplary of the department’s work in community policing.
President Bush framed his remarks through our rejection of the unity of grief and fear in favor of the unity of hope, affection, and high purpose. He spoke of the human tendency to “judge other groups by their worst examples but ourselves by our best intentions,” remarking that this country was not united by blood or background, rather by shared commitments and common ideals. Racism in America was only inferred.
President Obama has delivered so many speeches to the country following mass shootings that the media has dubbed him the consoler-in-chief, not out of disrespect but in acknowledgement of the high number of tragic events during his presidency: Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, the Wisconsin Sikh Temple, Sandy Hook Elementary, Washington Navy Yard, Kansas Jewish Community Center, Charleston Church, Chattanooga recruiting station, Roseburg Community College in Oregon, San Bernardino, Orlando, and now, Dallas. We have been here before, heard him before.
But Tuesday was different. We experienced a level of presidential intimacy that was rare. Tragedies have affected this president to the point that he confessed to sometimes feeling hopeless about our ability to bridge the divide. He admitted that his words have been inadequate. This president, the embodiment of hope for so many, was in effect saying he sometimes felt it slipping away. “Can we do this?” he asked.
And so we wonder: Can we bridge the gap between the romanticized past of some and the injurious present of others?
Yes, we can, but it falls to artists to give voice to that which is often left unsaid, to drag inferences out of the shadows and into glaring explicitness. Some of our most enduring protests are on canvasses and in scripts. Toni Morrison recently reminded us of the critical and bloodied history of the arts saying “art is dangerous,” threatening to some in power that seek to control through deceit. From Beethoven to Kendrick Lamar, from Diego Rivera to Kara Walker, from Tony Kushner to Lin-Manuel Miranda, artists have always blasted open the conversations society resists. Watching the socio-political gathering of the community inside a place for artistic expression was appropriate because artists hear, see, and challenge. Artists are cultural historians.
“We need to act on the truth that we know. And that’s not easy.”
The most potent part of President Obama’s speech was the section framed as what we know. Speaking pointedly about the killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., the president said “America, we know that bias remains.” We know we ask too much of our police officers and too little of ourselves.” And “we know we avoid honest conversations about race.” It is true, but this is also why we must hear from our playwrights, screenwriters, composers, lyricists, dancers, painters and other tellers of stories.
President Obama arbitrated our need for laws and good policing, and our need for equal treatment under that system. “We cannot dismiss peaceful protestors as troublemakers or paranoid.” Neither can we remain silent as creative artists. It is our responsibility to be loud, and yes, sometimes dangerous.
“With an open heart we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes.”
Tuesday was different. It was Barack Obama the consoler, speaking to the nation of the need for police officers and of respect for their dedication and service to the community. It was Barack Obama the African-American male, speaking from direct experience to the frustrations of a community that feels its experiences are being devalued. The president challenges us to resist the rhetoric and actions of those seeking to divide, choosing instead to work together to write our nation’s story going forward as one of mutual respect and unification of purpose.
The gathering yesterday screamed for artists because artists understand that it is as Chinua Achebe reminds us: Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
» At 7:30 p.m. tonight, Thursday, July 14, the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs and the Credo Choir are hosting a healing event of song called Dallas Sing/Dallas Strong, which will include voices from Turtle Creek Chorale and many other choruses in town, plus special guests Ava Pine, Liz Mikel, Denise Lee and Paul Mason. It’s free. What a perfect opportunity to witness the majesty of the Meyerson and voices united in song.