Right now, the Muscogee County School Board has a decision to make.
Should it stick with Midtown Columbus School of the Arts, the proposed name for the new arts academy? Or as Mark Cantrell of District 6 has suggested, should it be named after people? His choice would be Carson McCullers, the legendary Southern Gothic novelist, and Ma Rainey, the Mother of the Blues.
Makes sense. Both were born in this area, and each had a home in Columbus that today serves to educate others and promote the arts.
I have just one reservation: Would they have become the artists we know today if they’d attended an arts school that recognized their talent and embraced their individuality instead of traditional schools where they didn’t fit in and developed into quiet observers and deep thinkers comfortable with the long hours of solitude required to create their art?
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Would Rainey have created the blues? Would McCullers have written “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”? I don’t know.
In 2002, I visited Columbus High, where McCullers graduated in 1933, to talk with Carol Wingard’s literature class about “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”
Wingard revealed that McCullers was a “terrible student,” even in English class.
“They didn’t like her here,” said Camille Witbeck, then a 10th grader. “She brought out things people didn’t want to hear. In New York she was regarded as a brilliant person, and here they thought she was a mediocre student.”
But McCullers found a place where she could be herself. Though she was baptized at First Baptist Church, she called the public library in Columbus her “spiritual home.”
In 1948, after she’d left Columbus and published both “... Hunter” and “Member of the Wedding” to national acclaim, McCullers wrote a letter to the library protesting its racial segregation policy.
So the library helped shape McCullers into the artist she became, and she in turn helped challenge the library to be better and serve more people.
Click here for a timeline of her life.
Forget the arts academy for a minute. Maybe our beautiful library off Macon Road should have been named Carson McCullers Public Library. Or heck, Carson’s World O’ Books.
Instead, it became the Columbus Public Library. As Dusty Nix wrote earlier this week, around here we tend to give public buildings names that sound like every other public building.
Maybe we don’t want to offend anybody.
Pat Hugley Green, who charged former MCSD employee Billy Kendall to form a naming committee of more than a dozen members, has insisted that Columbus has too many accomplished artists to consider and shouldn’t just pick one – or two. At a meeting last month, she offered Bo Bartlett and Donna D’Errico as examples.
I’m pretty sure that’s the first time anybody’s mentioned the realist painter and the “Baywatch” star in the same sentence. Maybe the city should have named the natatorium after D’Errico, and even hired her as a lifeguard.
But we definitely should have named the library after Carson McCullers.
Here’s something we can do: Make plans to read “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” as part of the annual Big Read, which kicks off Jan. 25 at the Columbus Museum with an evening lecture by New Yorker writer Hilton Als at 7 p.m. Jan. 25, and features a nice slate of events through February.
After all, what’s the best way to honor McCullers on her 100th birthday?
Read the book that put her – and our city – on the literary map.