While walking around North Campus the other day, I ran into a vaguely familiar freshman face. Upon recognizing me, he brightened up, flashed a smile and exclaimed “Hey, you’re Alt Breaks Guy!”
I couldn’t help but smile. Ya damn right I am.
He was referring to a training I and several others had done with his group on “diversity” (see previous column for why I hate that word.) Later on that same day, I would fail a physics test that I could have easily aced, all because I spend so much time investing energy in interacting with and learning about people, just like I did during that training. Even so, that moment with the freshman made it all worth the trouble. I have this firm, admittedly hyper-optimistic, possibly delusional belief in life working itself out that allows me to sometimes pseudo-neglect all transient academic/professional endeavors for the lasting, irreplaceable moments like that one.
All of this to say that I have had the great fortune of amassing a great sum of connections and unorthodox interactions through sheer exposure to people. To that end, I am in a state of perpetual conversation. Don’t matter who they are. If they human, I can talk to ‘em. In fact, even when I’m not seeking them out, conversations find me. Cool people gravitate towards each other. This reality, for me, is both gratifying and reassuring.
While walking to a lab meeting, I spontaneously planned four “we should catch up sometime” lunches/dinners, ran into several more acquaintances with whom I wished I had planned something and of course saw dozens more strangers whom I’d just like to know. As my cousin likes to say though, you can’t win e’ethang always, and everybody ain’t gon’ love you. During that same walk, for example, I also ran into a sophomore who took the same stress management class as me during fall 2014. From what I can tell of my apparent invisibility whenever she sees me, I probably didn’t make the best of impressions on her. Or I’m just paranoid and have too good of a memory. Probably a bit of both. People be so funny acting.
Anyway, I’ve learned one thing from all the conversations I’ve had: We all have our shit. Whether it be depression, anxiety, being black, grappling with our sexuality, being a woman or just trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing in college, we all have our shit. At the risk of sounding like an angsty teenager, I am quite flawed, open and vulnerable myself, a reality which has lent itself to some incredibly candid stories being shared with me on a relatively frequent basis. At one time, this seemed seductive to me. I fed off of people’s intimate thoughts, distorting every conversation until it became, in my mind, a cinematic endeavor. But I’m realizing slowly that, while art can help me slog through all of our collective shit, I had been going about this all wrong. That’s not what art is about, and it does nothing for the people who share themselves with me.
I’m not going to tell you what art is about because I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that no matter how different the many people with whom I’ve had a conversation are, they all are going through the same struggles separately, albeit in different forms. And what makes art so resplendent to me is how easily it reminds me of that fact, because every song or film serves to inspire another. The irony is that the presence of difference is and always has been unavoidable, and this difference will diffuse into our art, whether we like it or not. The blues, born out of slavery, remains the criminally underappreciated foundation of pop, rock and hip-hop. Everything we are going through or talking about, in some way or another, has already been. Okay, I admit that this sounds a bit too metaphysical, but all I’m trying to articulate is that we as a species are far less original than we’d like to believe.
Take I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, for instance. That the ideas, experiences and stories of Maya Angelou, even after 40 years, mirror my own understanding of myself and my life so closely, is both remarkable and slightly infuriating. Who am I in the face of her book, which is freely and fully written, bursting and bursting with elegant, lurid language, as well as sweeping thematic scope and resonance? The concussive force of emotion in her words compels me to admit that, well, she beat me to the punch. The harsh reality that she had perfectly explained the beauty of “code-switching” long before I was ever born, right down to the use of the phrase “it be like that sometimes,” was humbling. It’s like Kurt Vonnegut ’44 saying music was the only true proof of God’s existence, capturing the magic of music in a way that makes me jealous of him for being born first and thus laying stake to that quote. Lucky bastard.
Art and good conversation will be requisite in my future household, because the vast majority of my empathetic education is a result of the two. Most of my love and kindness came from interacting with people. And in art I see the darkness of the world reflected, but also the world in all of its raw beauty. The right song or film can teach you as much about your own perception as a well-written piece from everydayfeminism.org.
And so, with what little I have left in this most recent addition to my collection of overstuffed, disorganized Sun columns, I present to you an all-too-brief and certainly non-exhaustive glimpse into some of the films, books, shows and games that have touched me deeply: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Avatar: the Last Airbender, Snow on tha Bluff, Wings of Desire (the German one), Dead Presidents, Skyrim, Oldboy (the Korean one), Louie, Loser by Jerry Spinelli, City of God, The Iron Giant, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and anything by Hayao Miyazaki. As for music? Hit me up for a conversation some time if you really want to know — too many songs to count.
Of course, these barely begin to begin to scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg. And despite my desire to tell you even more about what I mean, confounded by my knowledge that I will always lack the language to match art’s profundity, my absorptive relationship with art remains. Art will go on to do what it does anyway, always being there. And that, like those conversations, is quietly reassuring.
Amiri Banks is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.