The Promise of American Guilt (Part One)
Notes from an Undiscovered Country
I want to begin by thanking my old friend Scott Bullard for initiating this invitation, and for Michael Thompson, Danny Mynatt, Mrs Earnhardt and the Earnhardt Family for their great largesse in funding this series, to which I confess I feel a little unequal. Especially when I am asked to fill the shoes of Carlotta Walls LaNier. While I cannot pretend to approximate her wisdom and depth of personal experience, I will at least say that what I will say here today belongs, I think, to the same range of concerns that Mrs Lanier’s call at the conclusion of her speech to this august body one year ago, “to channel Gene Earnhardt: Know your history and your country’s history.”
Allow me to begin by a small anecdote about your president, whose path manages to keep crossing with mine.
Roughly four years ago this time I was in Marion, Alabama, documenting the residency of a troupe of female movement artists from Atlanta, called glo, led by Lauri Stallings. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I didn’t know much about glo. I didn’t know much about Marion. One of the things I did not know about Marion is that it was home to Judson College, a now-shuttered Baptist institution of higher learning. Among the many things I didn’t know about Judson College in 2019, at least until shortly before I went, is that Scott Bullard was its president. Scott arranged to put me up in the president’s mansion, a huge house way too big for one person, but it did contribute to the overarching sense of capaciousness that characterize one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life. Because of that experience, I have a deep attachment to the place and its people.
In fact, I could devote the remainder of my allotted time here this morning did nothing but what has grown out of some very dense and rich hours in Marion, and still approach the theme I want to address with you today. My present work is very place-specific: it has grown out of the experiences of being in particular places at particular times, and the weird revelations that can emerge from those highly contingent moments. We talk of “spending” time as if it is a fungible good to be used up, but my time in Marion was less spent than entered into, as into an almost alternative order of reality in which time slows and stretches out.
On my first day of that residency in Marion in 2019, I attended a performance of a play entitled “Jimmie Lee,” written by Billie Jean Young, a poet, playwright and professor at Judson College.
In 1965, civil Rights worker James Orange was arrested in Marion, Alabama and held in the county jail for “contributing to the delinquency of minors.” A peaceful protest from the Zion United Methodist Church a block away ended in bloodshed after local law enforcement abruptly turned off all the street lights and began beating the demonstrators. In the chaos of that dark night, Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by an Alabama State Trooper. The episode led directly to the formation of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches the following month.
Standing next to that jail cell with Billie Jean Young in Marion, I was struck by the fact that the most historically oppressed portion of American society has been the most vocal in defense of a vision of “one nation;” the race most victimized by the nation’s highest crimes has been the most ardent collective voice in defense of its highest ideals. Blacks have for generations been trying to tell the rest of us what is wrong with America—in a largely non-violent mode of discourse whose enduring patience frankly staggers the mind—and the typical reaction of the majority of whites has often been defensive, resentfully nostalgic (to long for the “old time Negro” who accepted his lot with cheerful gratitude for being lifted up from savagery). The community in America that is most justified in its skepticism of American words has typically been the one most diligently holding American culture and politics to them. As Albert Murray wrote in 1970, “It is the political behavior of black activists, not that of norm-calibrated Americans that best represents the spirit of such constitutional norm-ideals as freedom, justice, equality, fair representation, and democratic processes.” Murray’s Tuskegee classmate Ralph Ellison wrote in the same year that “it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals.”
I would love to dwell with you this morning in Marion, but today I want to begin in a different place, namely in Washington DC, on the western front of the United States Capitol on January 6th, 2021.
The smoke had barely cleared the Capitol steps before the old familiar refrain began circulating in halls of power and press rooms, from twitter accounts around the country: “this is not who we are.”
I was reminded of one of many famous and oft-repeated anecdotes from the theologian Stanley Hauerwas:
When Tonto and the Lone Ranger found themselves surrounded by 20,000 Sioux, the Lone Ranger turned to Tonto and said, “This looks pretty tough; what do you think we ought to do?” Tonto replied, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
Hauerwas calls it “the Tonto principle.” While he puts this principle to quite a different use, it’s worth asking: when we say, “This is not who we are,” who is the “we” here? Is anyone still bold enough to say that there is a single “we” in American life?
It isn’t really a new question. In one of his final essays, James Baldwin recalls burying his father in Harlem with the help of Beauford Delaney:
This was in 1943. We were fighting the Second World War.
We: who was this we?
It is perhaps the most loaded and yet casually weaponized word in the American vocabulary. The American experiment begins with the word, after all. When the United States Constitution was drafted in 1787, the we of its first sentence plainly did not include everyone. The collectivity implied in the “We the People” has always been an aspirational polity, and today as ever it remains an increasingly impossible ideal yet to be achieved. It certainly will never be achieved so long as the recognition of the inherently contradictory history of our ideals and their practice is forestalled, so long as anyone who still wants to claim the word “we” for the American project pretends that violence, white supremacy, a talent for forgetfulness, and the lust for domination do not in some sense make us who we are.
The events of January 6th were not an exception to who we are; they were a revelation of who “we” are. Sort of. The claim that “this is who we are” is true, but not equally true for everyone. If you were to tell a Native or Black American that the story of violent conquest, white supremacy, predatory capitalism, colonialization are who we are, don’t be surprised if you are met with “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
And yet—there are less anthologized Americas, too: not other, alternative ones but less celebrated parts of the bold experiment whose precarious existence even now remains simultaneously bleak and promising. And, as always throughout our history, it has been that portion of our population who has the least reason to believe in the American promise who keeps calling the rest of us back to it.
On Issaquena Avenue in Clarksdale, Mississippi one hot July afternoon, a Black man in overalls, Oxford shirt, and wide-brimmed Stetson hat pulled to a stop in the middle of the road as John and I were taking pictures. “How y’all like my beautiful town,” he asked. He introduced himself as the Brick Man, gave us his card showing a brickwork portrait of MLK, an began an impromptu sermonette on the need for love and mutual respect. The Brick Man had nothing to gain from us, he could have assumed—justifiably—that we two balding, bearded white dudes were not worth the effort, and might not have the best motives. And yet he didn’t; he urged upon us the need to stick up for each other. He used the word “we” a lot.
When Baldwin wrote that “We have already paid a tremendous price for what we’ve done to the Negro people,” by “we” he does not of course mean Black Americans principally; he was speaking boldly in the persona of the collective as a whole, and the evocative range of his we is as wide as “we the people.” Baldwin effects a sort of reverse adoption: the price of racism is paid in one especially acute way by its victims, and in another way by its perpetrators. His adoption of the American tradition and claims to it reverse the legacy by which Black citizenship was refused, denied, hedged, obstructed, by proposing a vision of Americanness as constituted by the recognition of American sin and its ravaging effects on both oppressor and oppressed. He also refused that dominion of the American imagination wherein they were only victims and not agents, witnesses or objects of American history and not its creators. The possibility of any future depends upon learning from Baldwin’s example: given the national history, he had little compelling reason to advocate the American “we,” and yet.
Especially we white Americans who love to recall the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial:
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
But forget the next line:
“And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”
King understood that this was not true yet in 1963, it is certainly not yet true in 2023, and might always not yet be true. What the idea of the Beloved Community borrowed from the Christian idea of the Kingdom of God on earth as the earthly reality of the in-breaking heavenly kingdom is an anticipation of an eternal communion, not its final realization. It is not only a possible but a real, if not complete, realization of the kingdom which is now and not yet, which comes to genuine fruition in restored human and social relationships, but which remains a never-fully accomplished state of affairs to which we could pretend to return “again.”
Two weeks after the violent din of chaos subsided on the Capitol in 2021, that voice from the western end of the national mall seemed to reverberate from its opposite side, when an old refrain began to become audible once more.
In his now-canonical 1935 poem, Langston Hughes articulated this idea with fierce grace:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
If there is a proposed restoration in Hughes’ poem, it is not of a political or social status quo; it is a reinvigoration of the imagination, the constant revivification of an idea and a land that is morally compromised and yet full of possibility:
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
What Hughes does not say is “Make America America Again,” much less “Make America Great Again.” He does not even say “remake America again.” The subtle grammatical elision at the end of his poem contains possibly the work’s greatest moment of wisdom: “Make America Again.” Hughes calls the reader—us—back to an original vocation that he understands may never be fully realized—it certainly has not for Black and Brown and Native citizens. And not just for themselves alone—but for all the peoples whose lives and humanity have been diminished by white lust for power.
“And yet.” They may be the most significant and loaded two words in the present context. In his “Inaugural” for The New Yorker, Jericho Brown echoes Hughes:
We were told that it is dangerous to touch
And yet we journeyed here, where what we believe
Meets what must be done.
Brown’s echo of Hughes continues:
We imagine an impossible
America and call one another
A fool for doing so.
In her celebrated inaugural poem the same day, Amanda Gorman invoked the same language:
When day comes we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade,
The loss we carry a sea we must wade.
We have braved the belly of the beast.
We have learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
And the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is hours before we knew it.
For Gorman, America is “a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” This would seem to be counterintuitive: by any reasonable account of the available evidence, we certainly appear to be pretty fractured. But Gorman’s insight is this: brokenness presumes an original wholeness. You cannot put back together what was never complete to begin with.
Early in her poem, Gorman transforms the “and yet” into “and yes”: an act of voluntary consent to “to forge our union with purpose, / To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.”
One lesson Black writers and artists have taught us is that what it means to be America is to be in a constant state of making, to abide in the now-and-not-yet quality of our national ideals. They have been calling us back to an original, flawed score not simply to restore it but in order to improvise and invent upon its founding theme, to endlessly imagine new modulations of social organization and human flourishing that are hitherto-unheard and unseen, and yet recognizable for their fidelity. And yet: it remains a possibility, however dim it may appear at the moment. But its realization would require white Americans to recognize that it is those Black Americans, and not we ourselves, who have been most faithful to the American ideal we claim to defend. Arguably it is white Americans now most of all who are in need of adoption into a Black vision of America, and not the reverse.
We can only firmly assert who “we” if it is accompanied by the recognition that that “we” has yet to be achieved, and what of it has been realized hitherto is a twin legacy of making a nation through violence and oppression as well as ingenuity and industry. It will never be achieved until any Americans still willing to claim belonging to that collective personhood confront honestly what belongs to its memory, to confront frankly who we have been and who we continue to be: a task that will have no discernible end, but which must remain a constant spiritual disposition towards truthfulness and against self-deception, and the new forms of togetherness and communion that such a disposition can generate. The nation that remains to be made—if there is still will enough to make it—will need an imagination wide enough to envision violence as unnecessary to justice, and peace as something other than keeping your mouth shut. What Ellison observed in 1967 is no less true in 2021: “America remains an undiscovered country.” There is no real American “we.”