My National Medal of Arts Award

Imagine my shock and disappointment at not being placed on the list of artists to receive the National Medal of Arts from President Bush.

I was also excluded from the list of those to receive the National Humanities Medal. I open my heart to the readership of this web log and confess that I’m crushed. Please believe me when I say that my distress is not an expression of “sour grapes” or professional jealousy, honest… I genuinely respect and admire the talented artists who were awarded the medals by President Bush.

On November 10th, President Bush handed out the National Medal of Arts to actor Robert Duvall, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, arts advocate Leonard Garment, dancer Tina Ramirez, and a number of other cultural luminaries in a ceremony that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Singer Dolly Parton will be awarded the medal at a later date. The President and first lady Laura Bush honored the recipients in the White House’s State Dining Room, where Bush toasted the medal winners as the brightest lights of American creativity.

The wife of the Vice President, Lynne Cheney, as well as Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, were also on hand to pay tribute to America’s greatest artists. It was in fact LBJ that established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965.

Considering what’s going on in my beloved country, and indeed the world, I half expected that a medal winner would say something rude. I could imagine Duvall shaking the President’s hand and saying, I love the smell of napalm in the morning, or New Orleans native son Marsalis paraphrasing Kanye West, I know you really don’t care about Black People.

But thankfully there were no such embarrassments (aside from the fact that I was not considered for an award or invited to the gala). But then really, why would an artist want to upset the apple cart and make such a fuss, especially at such a high profile affair? Perhaps Lynda Johnson Robb was thinking the same thing, since her father once had troubles with a particular legendary star.

In January 1968, singer and actress Eartha Kitt was invited to the White House for an all-women’s luncheon with Lady Bird Johnson, the president’s wife. Kitt took the opportunity to publicly denounce the Vietnam war, and chastised LBJ for sending America’s youth to die in the far away rice paddies of Southeast Asia. In speaking her mind, she became one of the first American entertainers to have taken such a stand, but she paid a high price for her outspokenness.

In a 2003 interview with Essence Magazine, Kitt said; When I spoke out against the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson made sure that I didn’t work for years. Nobody came to my rescue; nobody called me except Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, ‘We should recommend you for the Nobel Peace Prize.’ But still, I didn’t work in America again until Geoffrey Holder asked me to do the Broadway musical Timbuktu in the late seventies.

Kitt had become persona non grata in her own country, and opportunities for work in the American entertainment industry disappeared overnight. She was forced to find work in Europe where she was still greatly admired. Kitt went on to say:

“I was thrown out of the country, practically. Johnson put out the news that I was a ‘bad girl’ by being rude and all that… and it wasn’t true. It was his way of defacing me in the eyes of the American people. He put me out of work.” In 1975 the Washington Post published an article titled, “Eartha Kitt a CIA Target,” which revealed the CIA had a case file on Kitt filled with slander, gossip and outright lies.

But that was all back in the bad old days, and artists and entertainers have since learned to behave themselves. There will be no rewards for those who truly rock the boat, and after all, what does art have to do with politics?

While reading about President Bush handing out those medals to all of those deserving artists, a little voice welled up inside of me that said… “I love Big Brother.” Perhaps there really is a chance that I will be commissioned by the White House to do an official presidential portrait, or at least receive an invitation to next year’s National Medal of Arts party.

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