A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
To many Americans, February, first officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976 as Black History Month, is a time to celebrate African-American achievements, ones that were gained against nearly impossible economic, social and political odds. But there is one achievement that is rarely on the list. As a people, African-Americans forced the United States of America to look deep into its own soul and to see the moral bankruptcy that lay there.
That bankruptcy was exposed as African-Americans struggled to live under white supremacy, a system that rendered them “sub-persons.” And even as we fought to make America “our home” — a home that was already brutally taken from Native Americans by white colonial settlers — our black bodies were subject to unconscionable white enslavement, violence and oppression; we lived through forms of carnage, mutilation, rape, castration and injustice that will forever mark the profound ethical failure of this country. By surviving, and demonstrating that the American experiment had failed black people and minorities, we became far more American than those who withheld America’s promise.
On paper, America stood for freedom. Yet that freedom was denied to black people. White America, white people, lived in a profound form of what Sartre called “bad faith” — a state of inauthenticity and self-deception. The white social critic Lillian Smith (1896-1966), who grew up in the Deep South and later wrote “Killers of the Dream,” observed, “I had learned that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that we might have segregated churches.” She also noted, “I learned it is possible to be a Christian and a white Southerner simultaneously” and “to pray at night and ride Jim Crow car the next morning and to feel comfortable in doing both.” It is this bad faith, this ethical perversity, that haunts the history of white America.
And as Frederick Douglass noted, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” And in his speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” (1852), Douglass said to white America: “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
As I listened to President Trump’s Black History Month remarks on Feb. 1, it was painfully clear that he didn’t bear witness to that Douglass. It is convenient for him not to know that Douglass. In this nightmare of Trumpism, we mustn’t forget Douglass’s words, just as we mustn’t forget the dejection felt by those who suffered under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or in the anti-Japanese internment camps during World War II. Those actions contradicted America’s alleged identity as a nation whose arms are open to the stranger, the outcast; a nation that, in theory, does not discriminate based upon race or national origin.
It is this brutal and contradictory history from which America cannot, and should not, turn away. Just as Jews refuse to forget Hitler’s Germany, we black Americans refuse to forget the often unspeakable atrocities we endured. It is this resistance to forgetting that must be nurtured as we find ourselves in the midst of a dangerous form of antiglobalism, white nativism and xenophobia under Trump’s vision for making America “great again,” a vision closer to D. W. Griffith’s 1915 “The Birth of a Nation” — a film predicated upon white fear and denigration of the black other — than that of an actual nation.
In our current morally perilous moment, it is important to critically consider Trump’s signing of an executive order that temporarily blocks both immigrants and nonimmigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. This action has implications beyond questions of constitutional legitimacy. This ban, along with the plan to build a wall along the United States border with Mexico, is indicative of deeper issues regarding American white nativism and the fact that millions of Americans have become so gripped by hopelessness and fear that they are willing to overlook constitutional violations and ignore their own moral conscience.
Trump’s divisiveness is not only xenophobic, but also anti-theological, according to his own professed Christianity. At this time, we are symbolically walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he is telling us it is “better,” “safer,” not to attend to the wounds and sorrows of the “stranger.” This is America’s crucible. The Judaic concept of Tikkun Olam (“repairing the world”) is bastardized under Trump’s executive order. We are instead in the midst of a dangerous form of idolatry that praises unmitigated power, valorizes American nativism and borders on neo-fascism. In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Without love, there is no reason to know anyone, for love will in the end connect us to our neighbors, our children and our hearts.”
And just who are our neighbors? They are undocumented immigrants who seek to be with their families in the United States; they are refugees and “strangers” with whom we share a common humanity and who flee war-torn countries. As we fight against draconian orders that would make us turn our backs on those in need, we must also collectively fight against an Orwellian nightmare that would have us believe that two plus two equals five.
As Americans of all races reflect on our history this month, it is important that we acknowledge the systemic forms of marginalization, pain and suffering that black people had to endure, and that others may now face. In this way, we confront white America’s sins unequivocally. We undertake a collective mourning for black people who were never meant to be included within the ideal norms of American democracy, yet forced themselves to dream as they faced nightmares, to continue breathing as they were suffocating from the stench of black bodies lynched and burned alive, and who forced themselves to stay alive when suicide would have been easier.
Black History Month must not be just about black people, but about white people, too. It requires more than just having white students read a poem by a black poet. So, if you are white, take this month and grieve. Find a private and sacred place to weep for those whose dark skin marked them for sub-personhood. Consider the racist historical conditions that allowed you freedom of mobility, freedom of being and a sense of personhood. Acknowledge that whiteness saved those who looked like you from the vicious barbarity visited upon black people. And in that moment, I want you to lament a country that continues to grant privilege to whiteness, that continues to fall far short of what is written on parchment.
White people ought to use this month to engage in a shared form of vulnerability and mourning, a collective recognition, with a fearless countenance, of how white racist complicity and black suffering were historically linked and are currently intertwined. Such a courageous act of vulnerability is not about white guilt, but white responsibility. There is a specific injury that is necessary for white people; it is a kind of injury that will unsuture forms of trapped and concealed lies. King likened racism to “a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness.”
Part of the narrative of this election is that it was a repudiation of those voters who ignored the plight of poor and working-class whites in this country. To those whites I would say, I empathize with your economic pain and suffering. I understand your lack of economic growth, but are you then prepared to understand that, being black, we suffer economically, but also physically and spiritually under the institution of white racism? I agree with my fellow philosopher Judith Butler, who said: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” If I am to be undone by your economic pain and plight, then you must be willing to be undone by the economic and white systemic and prejudicial racist pain that we feel.
Now, if you’re white and you think that I’m playing the race card, I ask you to perform this small task. Look at your face in the mirror. Allow your economic plight to anger you. And as you do, imagine your face encased in dark skin. And as you look in the mirror and begin to see a dark face look back, be honest with yourself. Isn’t it better to be white and economically forgotten than to be economically forgotten and to be black under the same circumstances? My guess is that you would rather the former.
Butler also warns us that “we make a mistake when we take ‘self-preservation’ to be the essence of the human.” There is something indeed inhuman about insulating ourselves from the touch of the other, willfully ignoring the pain and suffering of the other. We are headed into an ethical abyss beyond which there may be no return. Before he was murdered on April 4, 1968, King had planned to deliver a sermon titled “Why America May Go to Hell.” Though King did not give that sermon, we should heed his prophetic warning.
Copyright 2017 George Yancy. First published in The New York Times. Reprinted by permission of the author.
George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. His books include Black Bodies, White Gazes.
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