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      LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING by Thomas Putnam

      b14 21You may have heard me tell this story before. It made a profound impression on me and I've told it a number of times; and I probably will continue to tell it. It was an opportunity for me to crawl around in another's skin for while, which is one of the great perks of being involved with theatre.

      This particular story involves HG's Children/Youth Choirs. I'm a strong believer that singing the vast array of choral pieces in the world allows us also to crawl around in someone else's skin for a while; to see (sing) things from their perspective. We connected with a high school choir outside of D.C. in Maryland a few years ago on our annual performance tour. We spent the morning and lunch with this choir in their large multi-racial school and found great inspiration and common purpose with these kids and their director. We invited them to come to Wellsboro for a weekend, and a year later it happened.

      Two Springs ago—gosh it seems like a different lifetime—they traveled to Wellsboro for a weekend of singing and checking out the area and just hanging out with our HG Young Men's and Young Women's Choir kids. After a very rich rehearsal on Saturday morning, we traveled to Leonard Harrison State Park and had lunch in one of the large pavilions. I spent most of the time talking to the bus driver. 

      John wasn't really connected to the choir per se, but knew someone who knew someone who asked if he could drive the bus for the weekend. We talked about his job and his connection to the school and walked together as the whole group explored the look-outs and the edge of the canyon. Perfect weather. Spring. Sunshine. Kids having a grand time. Good stuff. We decided that the E. Roosevelt choir would go back to the hotel (thanks Penn Wells Lodge for the generous stay!) and HG kids would go home until the concert that night. 

      I met up with John that night and had a chance to ask how his afternoon went. He said he rested a bit and then went outside of the Penn Wells with the view of exploring Wellsboro. He stood outside the lodge and looked up to Main Street. He hesitated. The clear and very real question in his mind: “Is it safe?” I looked at John, who is black, incredulously. Safe? Of course it's safe; it's Wellsboro. What do you mean, is this beautiful little town safe?

      And then I remembered that a black friend, a local high school student, had experienced an onslaught of racial slurs as she walked to her seat in a coffee shop right across the street from the Penn Wells Lodge. A table of men loudly and clearly spoke words demeaning black people. “Go back where you came from.” “Ugly.” “What are you doing here?” 

      I remembered her story as soon as I exclaimed to John how unreasonable his fears might be regarding the safety of a lone black man walking up the Main Street of my beautiful little town. It was a moment of crawling around in another's skin. It was a moment of realization of how little I know of the black experience in white rural America. 

      When I have told this story I have received laughs when I get to John's line: “Is it safe?” At first I was angry at their laughter, but since have realized that they too have little concept of what it means to be black in a white community. 

      MLK wasn't perfect. He had his faults, was no saint. But the lifetime of raising awareness of the very real fear and danger that a black person lives in—still—is something for which we can be grateful. This week we remember MLK's dream and vision for what our America can be, could be, should be.  

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