Learning to listen: Art, race and empathy

February 10, 2017

I grew up in one of those families that hands a child a musical instrument shortly after they learn to walk. I spent a few tortured years falling asleep in violin lessons, followed by a few more spent crying in piano lessons. Finally, in about the fourth grade, I was convinced (compelled?) to begin playing the trumpet, and I was—for a while—taken with the instrument.

That is, until I hit about 14 years old. My trumpet teacher and my parents were dreaming of college scholarships, challenging me with more and more difficult classical pieces. I recall one particularly torturing piece called “Mount St. Michel,” which caused the veins on my forehead to pop out and left me seeing stars. I wanted to quit. There was a brief scramble over what to do, and I found myself with a new teacher, a hip older guy named “Butch” that wore polyester golf pants and polo shirts from the seventies. He taught in his basement, where a pool table was stacked high with books of music and records, and where a gloriously ancient hi-fi sat, ever-glowing, against wall.

Music unlike any other

At my first lesson, we talked for a little while about trumpet. He had me sight-read a few things, and soon, I confessed that I hated the instrument. I didn’t want to play anything faster or higher. I was done. The thing felt dead to me.

He nodded and crossed the room to his hi-fi. He pulled out an album, slipped the record out of its acetate sleeve and dropped it onto the platter. “What about this?” he said. “Listen.” He waved to one of the moth-eaten chairs that sat between the speakers. A long note trilled on a guitar and a piano, cymbals sizzled. I sat down just as the horns started to play a slow, mournful phrase. A pause. A punchy bass line, a beat, and the song took off. I looked at Butch for an explanation. He offered none. Just poured himself coffee and sat down nearby. “Just listen,” he said.

I now know it was Lee Morgan’s The Search for the New Land. This album featured giants: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Reggie Workman, Billy Higgins—names that meant nothing to me at the time. It’s classic Blue Note jazz, recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder in 1964 and released in 1966.

Of course, I’d heard jazz. I’d heard it in snippets separating clips on the radio. I’d heard it on TV and in movies. My dad would play Ella Fitzgerald at Christmas. But I’d never really listened. It was background music. Music that played while something else was happening. Polite stuff.

But that day, I sat and really listened for the first time. Butch sent me home with that LP, along with Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue and Art Blakey’s A Night at Birdland. “Just listen,” he said.  

And I did. I listened, and it drew me in. I wanted to know more. And while the trumpet did eventually fade from my life (a few years later, I sold it and bought my first guitar), jazz has stayed with me ever since. In the next few years, I’d make my way through the catalogue of giants: Miles, Coltrane and Monk. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Jack McDuff. Hank Mobley. Freddie Hubbard.  

It came from a different world

I came to realize that this music’s energy—it’s soul—came from a world that was very different from my own. Jazz invited me to peek into that world and its personalities. Their stories, often tragic (Lee Morgan himself was shot to death by his wife outside Slug’s Saloon in the East Village), revealed that the music sounded like a different world because it came from a different world.

It came from a world shaped by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, a world where the Negro Spiritual and the Blues provided a lifeline of hope, a world whose musical language would shape-shift into the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker, that would evolve again through Miles and Coltrane, and then again in the wild freedom of Ornette Coleman and others. Like the Blues and Rock, Jazz would cross the boundaries of race and class—there would be the Chet Bakers and the Dave Brubecks of the world—but at its core, it can’t be severed from its roots as the sounds of a people who inherited a legacy of injustice. It is not the music of a cozy brunch on a Saturday morning. It’s the sound of profound mourning and profound hope, protest and praise, love and death.

As I fell down the rabbit hole of Blue Note Records, Verve, ECM and other jazz labels, I also found myself searching for a view into the culture that gave birth to it. At some point, I stumbled upon Langston Hughes.

Hughes was a poet during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s—a time when jazz was finding its feet and African Americans were making their voice heard in the broader culture. His poems capture the tempo and rhythms of the music that was filling Harlem at the time, and they made explicit the sentiments behind them. Slavery and the civil war were not-too-distant memories during the Harlem Renaissance. It was a haven of hopeful creativity and flourishing, even while Jim Crow and segregation still held their stranglehold in the American south. The art of the Harlem Renaissance lived in that tension—the promise of freedom, the burden of racism, the burden of history. Hughes wrote often about that tension, referring to the hopes of equality and dignity as a “dream deferred.”

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Where Charlie Parker (and later, Monk, Miles and Coltrane) were the sound of a dream deferred, Hughes (and Zora Neale Hurston, and later, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison) gave it words. And Hughes’ poetry managed to express it in rhythms and language that are shaped by the same cultural forces as jazz. You can hear it, both in the rhythms and in the sentiment.

In “Still Here,” he writes:

I’ve been scarred and battered.

My hopes the wind done scattered.

Snow has friz me, sun has baked me.

    Looks like between ‘em

    They done tried to make me

Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’ –

    But I don’t care!

    I’m still here!

Hughes understood the way that music served as both witness and catharsis. In his poem, “The Weary Blues,” he wrote:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

    I heard a Negro play.

Down on Lenox Avenue the other night

By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

    He did a lazy sway . . .

    He did a lazy sway . . .

To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key

He made that poor piano moan with melody.

    O Blues!

Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool

He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.

    Sweet Blues!

Coming from a black man’s soul.

    O Blues!

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone

I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—

    “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,

      Ain’t got nobody but ma self.

      I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’

      And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.

He played a few chords then he sang some more—

    “I got the Weary Blues

      And I can’t be satisfied.

      Got the Weary Blues

      And can’t be satisfied—

      I ain’t happy no mo’

      And I wish that I had died.”

And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

The old bluesman sings, “Ain’t got nobody in the world . . . ” and “I can’t be satisfied.” But then he goes home and sleeps like a rock. The song itself satisfies—or at least satisfies enough to keep the old man going.

It’s tempting to separate art from the world that gave birth to it, to let jazz and blues be nostalgic “Americana” and to ignore its power as prophet and protest. It’s tempting to sanitize our musical history and ignore the way many great musicians were discriminated against, or to ignore the deep bitterness that formed as a result. B.B. King supposedly carried a pistol to every show he played after being stiffed one too many times. In 1985, during an interview with JET magazine, Miles Davis—who had as successful a career in music as any jazz musician could hope for—said, “If somebody told me I only had an hour to live, I’d spend it choking a white man. I’d do it nice and slow.” Please, let’s never pretend that this music is light listening ever again.

An invitation to listen

What it is, however, is an invitation; a chance to listen to the sorrows and hopes of our African American brothers and sisters. Their joy and their righteous pride, their pain and anger, their pleading for justice and equality, their declarations of beauty and dignity. Where political dialogue grows stale and ideological, the arts can cut through, whether it’s painting or music or literature, bypassing our rational defenses and letting us see and—more importantly—feel the experiences of someone else. The stunning and beautiful legacy of African American music, literature and art stands as an invitation to people like me—a white, middle-class, Southern Baptist—to glimpse inside a world that is not my own and to walk away a little more understanding and empathetic.

It is, of course, true that what we can learn through the arts is not the sum and total of another’s experience. It is also true that you can experience the arts and not learn a thing. That happens when we engage without curiosity, without expecting that we have something to learn. But patience, humility and curiosity will be rewarded. The world will reveal itself to be larger than you thought, more perplexing, more sad and more beautiful.

So turn on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and hear his soaring longing for God, his deep sense of the brokenness of the world and the brokenness of his own cancer-addled body. Listen to Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land” and hear both the sense of sorrow and possibility that Morgan felt in the midst of a growing civil rights movement and a growing African consciousness. Read The Bluest Eye and feel the discomfort of a child who learns to dislike her own eyes and skin. Read Brian Keith Jackson’s The Queen of Harlem and feel the pressures of stereotypes that accompany being young, black and male. Or listen to Henry Louis Gates. Or Maya Angelou.

The point is to listen. To open your heart. To tap into your empathy and—just as important—your curiosity about the world and about the way our African American brothers and sisters experience it. Ask where their stories, jokes and strokes of genius come from. Remember that they are image bearers like you, whose feel for the world is very different because their place in it is very different. Curiosity will bring understanding, understanding will bring empathy and empathy, love. By making space to simply pay attention, what is foreign becomes familiar, and a stranger becomes a neighbor. And it’s our neighbors, most of all, that we can learn to love, to lock arms with and to suffer with.

So, as we celebrate African American History month, let me urge you as someone once urged me: Listen. Just listen.

Mike Cosper

Mike Cosper is a writer, speaker, and podcaster. In 2016, he founded Harbor Media, a non-profit media company serving Christians in a post-Christian world. He's the host of Cultivated: A Podcast about Faith and Work, and is developing The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a podcast about faith and culture.  He's the author of Rhythms … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24