There are times in a writer’s life when realism just won’t do. That’s true even when that writer is an essayist who writes commentaries on what she observes. But the writing of essays isn’t the only thing that God intended writers to do; and so I hope you’ll forgive me if I take a moment to tell you the tragic true story of Mr. Sam Ahab, a relatively young man who, as a child, wasn’t really trained up in the way he should go, and so who as an adult found himself a-wander in a wilderness every bit as hot and hostile as the Arabian Desert was for the old-time Israelites — and blind as could be to the pillars of cloud and of fire leading the way.
Now Mr. Sam Ahab was a man of many talents. In this he was rather like the servant who had been given talents by the master who was going away on a trip to a far land. But that’s as far as it went. In this story, Sam Ahab inherited his talents from his father, Mr. Sam Ahab Senior, who had received the original five and invested them. Unlike his father, though, the wise investor, Sam Ahab Junior was too cautious or too careless to do much investing. Instead, he did what one should never, ever do with talents: he dug a hole in the ground and hid them in it, and went off to enjoy life’s other treasures. Many of these, like the talents, he’d inherited from S. Ahab Senior; and off he went like the prodigal son to spend them in search of warmed beds, loot, and feasting.
First of all, he went to visit the Pom-Poms, who looked at what he had to offer and told him it was of little value. Then he travelled among the Nacirema, who looked at what he had to offer, took what was best from it and claimed it for themselves. Then, poor and without dignity, he moved on to visit the Naeb-Birac, who were as poor as he was, poorer sometimes, but still proud of themselves.
And then, not unlike the Prodigal Son, Sam Ahab Junior found himself wandering in the desert, cleaning pig pens for a living. The only difference between him and his Biblical counterpart was that he didn’t realize that this was what he was doing; the pig pens he cleaned were very nice pig pens, pig condos, in fact, with many and various very nice pigs. But pigs they were. And Sam Ahab cleaned away, believing that because the pig pens were bigger and better than some of the homes belonging to the Naeb-Birac and others, they were not pig pens at all.
And little by little, Mr. Sam Ahab forgot that he had been given talents in the first place. He forgot he was a rich man, the possessor of many talents. Thing is, if he had remembered, he probably wouldn’t know where to find his talents anyway; he’d buried them in a hole in the ground, after all, and we all know what happens to buried treasure. Maps get lost, vegetation grows over the spot, and sometimes thieves come along and dig it up.
Poor Mr. Sam Ahab, stuck cleaning pig pens and forgetting the talents he inherited from his father. What will he do if and when the master returns and asks about the status of his original gift? Will it be enough for Sam Ahab Junior to explain that his father had doubled the talents, or will he be chastised for his own carelessness? Perhaps he’ll suffer the same fate of the unfaithful servant in the parable, and the master will take his talents away to him and give them to the ones who were more industrious than he was. I don’t know — but I’m pretty sure the master won’t be pleased.
Now I’m sure you’re wondering just what drug I’m on, penning this story of servants and prodigals and deep-buried treasure. Perhaps you’re wondering what to make of this fable. No doubt several of you have cast down the newspaper in disgust, certain now that this writer has finally lost her mind; some of you may be on your way to the toy store even now to purchase some marbles you can share with me out of sympathy.
But before you do that, just consider this.
Consider the fact, first of all, that this story is both tragic and true.
Then consider the fact that our country is made up of hundreds of islands, each of them different, each of them resplendent with talents, with people young and old who could, if encouraged, multiply those talents in ways we cannot even imagine.
Then consider the fact that despite this truth, we seem to believe that those talents will multiply without our doing anything about them at all. And so we invest virtually nothing in the research, strengthening, or celebration of those talents. We have no great libraries to preserve our writing and show our children what the generations before them have produced. We have no public theatres to provide outlets for our actors and playwrights and designers, and we are allowing our private ones to starve slowly to death without comment. In a nation where making music was once second only to breathing, we have no concert halls, no conservatory, no programme at all that will enable us to keep the best of us alive. Our young people are supremely gifted; and we have given them no tools to enable them to take those gifts to the world.
Like Sidney Poitier almost sixty years ago, the most gifted of our people have to fend for themselves if they have a thirst to create. The luckiest of them are leaving our country in droves, assisted in part by the scholarships and grants we so gratefully give, seeking training and fame and fortune elsewhere, in idioms that are foreign to them and add nothing to the world. And that is a shame.
Ladies, and gentlemen, we are Mr. Sam Ahab. We have taken the talents multiplied by our fathers and buried them in the ground, apparently happy (like him) to clean up after the wealthy, unaware that we are wandering in a desert from which there may be no escape. We have forgotten where and what our treasure is, and have left it vulnerable to the thieves are even now seeking to ransack it. When the master returns, what will we have to show him to ensure that he doesn’t take our talents from us and give them to nations who take better care of the gifts he has given?