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Gray speaks up for the Humanities Council

During its 30th anniversary programs the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., was generously giving awards to filmmakers, historians and those who work to preserve neighborhoods and cultures.

However, as the celebrations wound down Thursday night, the council itself received a gift of support from where it really counts.

Vincent Gray, the chairman of the D.C. City Council and winner of the recent Democratic mayoral primary, was sitting in the back of the room during a forum. Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the arts and education activist, and Johnnetta Cole, the educator and director of the National Museum of African Art, were the guest speakers.

Summoned to the front of the conference room by Joy Ford Austin, the group's executive director, Gray quipped, "I tried to come in the back of the room and hide."

A supporter of the organization's work in the past, Gray said that wasn't going to change, not matter his next job. "We are in troubled waters financially," he said but "when it comes to the Humanities Council, I will not be hiding."

The discussion, moderated by Michel Martin of National Public Radio, ranged from life choices to Washington's class divisions to reading materials to the role of arts and humanities in everyday life. Speaking of the young people she has counseled principally through the Duke Ellington School for the Arts and her tenure as D.C. School Board chairman, Cafritz said "it is critical to have a foundation in the humanities to sustain themselves in the arts."

Her training as an anthropologist has made her an observer of human character, said Cole, and walking into a museum opens up different worlds, no matter a person's background. "Art ... has the ability to question ... most of all it has the ability to teach and heal," said Cole.

Both Cafritz and Cole were presented with an award for "Distinguished Service to the Humanities."

And who said humanists were just talkers? The evening ended with the National Hand Dance Association demonstrating the steps that have been practiced in Washington as far back as the 1920s. Gray is known to be a big fan of the style, but despite some prompting from some of his friends, he was back in the back of the room.

By Jacqueline Trescott  | September 24, 2010; 5:01 PM ET
Categories:  Jacqueline Trescott  | Tags:  d.c., humanities council of washington, johnnetta cole, michel martin, peggy cooper cafritz, vincent gray  
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