An exhibit now at the Whitney Museum describes the classically trained African-American painter Archibald J. Motley as a “jazz-age modernist.” It’s an apt description for this painter of chromatically charged, practically rhythmic scenes of black nightlife. Motley was drawn to the carnival atmosphere of Chicago’s “Black Belt,” a district whose sidewalks were filled street preachers, pimps, couples out for a stroll, and lone men on the make.
It was not until I encountered Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales during my sophomore year of college that I began to learn how to read. Two factors, one accidental and one intentional, made this possible: first, the inconvenience of Chaucer’s Middle English forced me to read more slowly and more carefully than I had previously done; second, Chaucer’s stories themselves combine high seriousness with bawdy, lewd, slapstick humor. Imagine being a twenty-year old college student trying to make sense of that combination. I was totally confused, and totally paying attention.
Reading Susan Cheever’s Drinking in America: Our Secret History reminded me of an exchange between Elaine and Jerry on Seinfeld. Jerry insists that only 4 to 6 percent of the population is attractive.
Elaine: So basically what you’re saying is 95 percent of the population is undatable?
Elaine: Then how are all these people getting together?