On September 30th, my wife and I had the privilege of hearing Nikki Giovanni read from her children’s book, The Grasshopper’s Song, while the illustrator, Chris Raschka, drew pictures beside her on stage. They were brilliant. Rather than simply replicating the story as found in the book, the two would feed off each other, like jazz musicians composing new rifts. Giovanni would read a line, which would remind her of the back story debate with her editor or prompt a comparison with life today. Raschka drew the characters in the story, but gave them new expressions in line with Giovanni’s insights. Brilliant!
Their creative and engaging style of presentation matched the message of The Grasshopper’s Song. It is a re-telling of Aesop’s fable in which the grasshopper plays music all summer, while the ants work hard to save up food for the winter. The moral of the original tale is to save for a rainy day; don’t waste time on things like music!
What a shame, thought Giovanni, that art is not appreciated or valued. So, she re-wrote the narrative! In her tale, the grasshopper sues the ants for half of their winter storage, as due payment for the music he provided. As the grasshopper claims on the defense stand, “Am I not worthy of my bread? Does not the work of my heart and soul earn respect?” Then, the grasshopper brings it home: “It is art that gives us not only the words for love but also the reason for it.” Preach it!
When elected officials in Richmond cut funding for everything from music teachers to crayons, they are in fact ruling against art. The personal is political: they are depriving children of the opportunity to express themselves, to engage their world creatively, and to grow. I understand that math and science are incredibly important; and so is hard work. But it is a false dichotomy to pit the ants against the grasshoppers, science against humanities, or industry against creativity. For the sake of our children, we should provide funding and make time for both. (I have been known to do a little preaching myself!)
The Grasshopper’s Song ends with the jury and judge deciding in favor of the grasshopper. At first, the ants are dejected and hang their heads in shame. But then, the grasshopper strikes up a tune on his fiddle. And everybody dances! Call it naive, but I think that vision is inspiring. As Jesus once said, quoting Deuteronomy, we do not live by bread alone. I am thankful that artists remind us of this; sometimes the moral of the story is in the re-telling.