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The Promise of American Guilt (Part Two)
Notes from an Undiscovered Country
In a 1965 essay for Ebony Magazine called “The White Man’s Guilt,” James Baldwin implored,
White man, hear me! History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, of even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating: one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.
Baldwin’s essay is not simply a finger-pointing exercise at white folks; it is a prescient and still incisive exploration of the insight that white people are “aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.” Baldwin’s replay of the kinds of objections he heard in his day are virtually identical to those one often hears today—“Don’t blame me, I was not there.”
White people, Baldwin argues, are so “impaled” on their own version of history that they have lost touch with reality, and therefore with themselves. In a curious sort of remix of W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of “double consciousness,” Baldwin attributes to the white psyche a sort of duplicity, a self-induced paranoia masquerading as stability (both as a personal disposition and political priority) and a deep anxiety and insecurity about the end of a certain version of the world presenting itself as moral superiority.
On a Sunday in 2019, after a latish night taking in a band of seasoned session musicians at a chicken shack in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, John and I attended a midday church service in a city park in neighboring Tuscumbia. Conducted in an open-air pavilion in the middle of the park, the service was being put on by a local Black congregation, whose members, in brightly colored t-shirts, sang and danced to a live gospel band, twirled streamers. It was full of the kind of energy one sees in white churches precisely never. The faithful on this day assembled in collapsible chairs scattered not too closely together across the spacious lawn. Many of them ate lunch from Styrofoam containers brought from a local restaurant. Peckish ourselves, we took their cue and wandered behind the pavilion to a café in the middle of the park. After I had placed my order, a large white woman in a gravity-defying hairdo like a mushroom cloud came through the swinging screen door with an exaggerated huff. “Y’all better look out now,” she said in a voice for all to hear. “They are having a demonstration in the park. Lord above,” she boomed. “I believe the po-lice are on their way. There must be ten thousand people over there.”
White culture has possibly never had a greater satirical avatar than Nathan Thurm, the chain-smoking paranoiac attorney portrayed by Martin Short for several years on SNL, whose tagline was “I’m not being defensive. You’re the one being defensive. Why is it always the other person who’s being defensive?” In our day, retorts of “that’s irrelevant” or “fake news” or “don’t blame me, I voted for the other guy” are not really argumentative rejoinders so much as signifiers that I have no desire to consider this particular point with any seriousness; moreover, I sense a potential danger to my self-image and self-understanding were I to do so. They are the intellectual equivalents of roadblocks that were placed on an Atlanta road in 1962, when white residents feared the incursion of Black homeowners into their neighborhood. They are mental signposts, saying “do not enter.”
This amounts to a certain kind of despair, even the worst kind of despair, as Soren Kierkegaard said: that despair which does not recognize itself as despair. I do not know how many white people read Ebony magazine in 1965, but I am sure the answer is not many. Baldwin’s message may have been lost on the very people who needed to hear it the most. While no one could, in 1965, bank on whites’ altruistic moral sensibilities, Baldwin could rely on their sensitivity to self-interest. Even if the motivation for justice originated in self-interest as about to concern for others, never did Baldwin imply that white folks just weren’t up to the task. He may have had more faith in the moral constitutions of white leaders of his day than they did in themselves.
It has generally been the burden of people of color to make their own case for equal protection under the law, to protest against political and economic injustice, and to bring white people around to good sense. The logic of “take it slow” in the civil rights movement inadvertently revealed a harsh truth about white America then, and now: we are not capable of swift moral conversion and transformation, and the little we expect of ourselves we also ask others to expect of us, too. So in a way it was a great compliment to white Southerners during Jim Crow when Black Americans like Baldwin demanded that white Americans come around to living up to their own stated national ideals: it at least implied a confidence that those white folks had it in them, somewhere, to pull it off.
I get that it is not easy hearing a lot of this stuff on a Monday morning. It’s probably one reason it was never taught to me in school. I went to a first-rate high school in Atlanta, where I was never assigned to read James Baldwin, nor Du Bois, who actually wrote some of his most important work while he was in Atlanta. From Baldwin I learned, among other things, how much damage white people like me have done to ourselves from our own willful amnesia; from Du Bois I learned how much damage we had done to Black lives through that same paranoia about impending loss of control.
Standing on the back side of the state Capitol in my hometown of Atlanta in 2018, I encountered a monument to an episode I had never learned about in school: a moment in 1868 when 33 newly-seated Black legislators were summarily removed from their elected positions in the state assembly. From Du Bois I later learned how my own ancestor, Milton Candler, had intiated the plan in the Georgia State. It is one of the miracles of literature that a Black writer from Massachusetts who died in Ghana in 1963 can tell me something about myself that no one in my family even knew. And possibly proof that markers to historical episodes some of us would like to forget can help us to reassemble fragments that we had lost or forsaken, into selves more whole.
So when John Hayes and I returned to the road in 2018 we took along with us new traveling companions: DuBois, Baldwin. They were like hitchhikers who kept reappearing on the side of the road, begging to come aboard, and as if they had something urgent but necessarily new to tell us. The irony, of course, is that they became my guides, mentors who helped me to see the absence of markers to some of the more consequential episodes in our nation’s, my city’s, and my own history, and what is more, gave me an opportunity to see in these blank spaces that something had intentionally been forfeited.
In American myth-making there is an positive obsession with innocence and a negative obsession with guilt: we love the former and have a great talent for telling stories about our own; we hate the latter but it cannot seem to get away from it, because it cannot seem to put its collective finger on what its source really is. For example: you are likely to encounter the concept and maybe the experience of “guilt” in the candy aisle of your local mega-grocery mart or on regular television spots telling you that you can now enjoy those things you really want “without the guilt.” (Think, for example, of the brand “No Evil Foods,” whose branding is it seems designed to assuage the guilty consciences of American shoppers who, God bless them, actually do have enough of a conscience to feel guilty.) Entire dieting regimens and lifestyle programs are premised on the idea that you can have what you want but without the nagging feeling of doing something you shouldn’t have.
This is a trivial example, but it at least raises the question of whether or not you should want what you want, or the even deeper question of whether you know yourself well enough to know what it is you truly want to begin with. But that is not what I mean by guilt. Eating a deliciously tempting dessert high in saturated fats and cholesterol may be bad for you but it is not necessarily a moral failure. It might be that the entire subdivision of American marketing strategy devoted to “guilt-free commerce” is—while not necessarily wrong-headed—symptomatic of everything that is wrong with American popular discourse around moral failure.
This impulse is even more powerfully in evidence in contemporary discourse around the subject of American history. Just as there is a guilt-free sector of the food and beverage industry, there is also one in history: legions of elected officials in places like Florida and North Carolina are spending hours and hours composing and proposing legislation that is intended to proscribe certain forms of history that might make some people uncomfortable. It is all-but forgotten because it was highly forgettable, but not unimportant. It is evidence of how the discipline of history—which is both an academic and a spiritual discipline—has been subordinated or co-opted to the pressures of the insatiable market for American cultural warfare. Popular History—at least as mediated by the lifestyle industry, to which most mainstream news organizations belong—is its own Choose Your Own Adventure Series: you can have whichever version more suits your tastes—1619 or 1776. The only real difference being that one version will force you to ask some questions about who YOU are and how you got here; the other one will not, but will remain content to comfort you with tales of moral greatness to which you are heir.
No one undertakes a search for their own origins hoping to find some incorrigible villain in the family tree. I mean, I would much rather talk about the 6’7” red-headed Scottish rebel who offended Oliver Cromwell so badly that he was sent into indentured servitude in Barbados and ultimately given a plot of land in what became Georgetown. But the truth is—as you can probably tell from my height, or lack of it—I got little to nothing from him. I am closer genetically to the white supremacist great-great-great uncle Milton who I have already told you about.
We should—as individuals and as collectives—pay close attention to the stories we tell about ourselves. They do in some sense literally make us who we are; but sometimes we get the story wrong, which is why we need the company of good friends to tell us where we go astray.
I admit to being an American exceptionalist in one sense: we are exceptionally bad at memory and honest self-reflection. Baldwin said that we Americans “have a deep-seated distrust of real intellectual effort (probably because we suspect it will destroy, as I hope it does, that myth of America to which we cling so desperately).”
When DuBois and Baldwin came aboard this journey, they joined up with a fellow traveler, St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote in the 4th century: “Our love for truth takes the form that we love something else and want this object of our love to be the truth; and because we do not wish to be deceived, we do not wish to be persuaded that we are mistaken. And so we hate the truth for the sake of the object which we love instead of the truth. We love the truth for the light it sheds, but hate it when it shows us up as being wrong.”
Much more recently, in his poem “Anglo-Saxon Protestant Heterosexual Men,” Wendell Berry has shown us that there is an alternative to frantic self-justification, and it begins with silence:
Who is going to sit at our feet
and listen while we bewail
our historical sufferings? Who
will ever believe that we also
have wept in the night
with repressed longing to become
our real selves? Who will
stand forth and proclaim
that we have virtues and talents
peculiar to our category? Nobody,
and that is good. For here we are
at last with our real selves
in the real world. Therefore,
let us quiet our hearts, my brothers,
and settle down for a change
to picking up after ourselves
and a few centuries of honest work.
The continued postponement of a collective confrontation with the realities of white historical inheritance is of no immediate nor lasting existential benefit to anyone. When historical truth-telling is sacrificed to the soothing yes-buts of self-interest, what is delayed is not simply a reckoning with history, but that moment of true liberation when we are “at last with our real selves / in the real world.”
Among its cultured despisers but perhaps even more so among its adherents, Christianity has a rather embarrassing reputation for guilt-obsession. But it also reminds us annually that it is not remiss to consider guilt a positive good. In the ancient Easter proclamation from the Latin rite, the Exsultet describes the guilt of Adam as felix (“happy”). While to think of sin as somehow “happy” has given rise to highly dubious and troubling theologies that would appear to make evil somehow necessary, the context of the Exsultet is instructive. We sing this in the dark of night, that moment when despair seems to have won. For hope to be real and authentic hope, it has to be able to entertain the possibility that all is in fact lost.
It is worth pausing to consider whether or not the frank consideration of our own collective and individual guilt could also be generative of something deeper and more real, even more hopeful. Redemption—if it can be earned at all—certainly cannot be won on the cheap. Guilt can certainly be oppressive to those who cannot see their way out of it, but it can also be especially salutary for those who embrace it in order to resist its totalizing power.
I cannot ultimately fault anyone for not wanting to descend into the dank and demagorgon-infested basement of the house of American story to sit for very long with what we may find down there. It can be terrifying, which is probably why the practice of willful amnesia became so endemic by my generation. As Flannery O’Connor wrote in 1955, “there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.”
But as O’Connor also taught us, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
If there is hope for America, it will require a quite possibly other-worldly confidence to say yes to the “we” to which generations of Black poets have been calling us for a long time now. And whatever promise remains in the American experiment consists largely and henceforth in a commitment to truthfulness, even and especially when it costs us something. We have nothing to lose but our idols. Not that forsaking them will be easy: As Bob Dylan sings, “the things you have the hardest time parting with are the things you need the least.” This is true of the idols of our historical mythologies, which are possessive of our loyalties and jealous of our affection, and do not take kindly to being demoted. The great genius of idols is to convince us that we need them. But we do not need them, we never did, and we will begin to learn how much better off we are when we yield them up to dissolution, in order that something true might take its place.
For me, shooting film on the road is one means of unlearning the untruths that formed my intellectual diet from a young age. It has become for me a sort of spiritual exercise, an intentionally slow and mistake-prone practice that returns more than I give to it. But, as the great photographer Robert Adams once wrote, “though poems and pictures cannot by themselves save anyone—only people who care for each other face to face have a chance to do that—they can strengthen our resolve to agree to life.”
This is ultimately what a commitment to truthfulness amounts to: an assent to life. The fact that we are all here, face-to-face in this gymnasium today means that this is actually a real possibility. You have by your presence here this morning, even if your teachers forced you to be here, shown up in favor of our common life and our common future. You have cast your ballot in favor of that which a university is supposed to lead you into: a happy life, which, as Augustine said, “is simply joy grounded on truth.”
I think this is also true of America: the pursuit of happiness is identical with the pursuit of truthfulness. If we are going to go on saying “we,” then it will require us ask some basic questions of ourselves. Like, where am I? But this is a thrilling opportunity, because fundamental questions about what it means to be human are “the highest expression of human nature, since they require a response that measures the depth of an individual’s commitment to his own existence.” To assent to truthfulness is say yes to your own existence, to cast a vote in favor of life. It will be challenging, and we will lose only something we didn’t need in the process, but ultimately the promise of confronting American guilt is that it can communicate a peculiar but essential kind of grace—the grace of being told the truth.
 James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” in Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), pp. 722-3.
 James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, in Collected Essays, p. 139.
 St Augustine, Confessions, tr. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: OUP 1991) X.xxiii (34), pp. 199-200.
 Robert Adams, “Photographing Evil,” in Beauty in Photography (New York: Aperture 1996), p. 70.
 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 15, p. 8.