Sunday, June 1, 2014

Red, Whitewash, and Black

I didn't fly a flag this last Memorial Day because I hadn't gotten around to replacing the old one, which had to be honorably discharged after flying away from the pole last November. The flag was attached to the pole with couple of thin plastic loops. Time and wind, apparently, had weakened them to the point that my flag flew free. Flag-freedom is inconsistent with the whole point of flags.

Anyway, I spent the day under a light cloud of citizen-guilt for not showing my pride. Entirely self-induced (I don't fly the flag on holidays to prove something to the neighborhood), I missed the the little ceremony of putting it out--the mute interrogation of its symbolism and the random associations it produces.

It wasn't a comfortable Memorial Day for national symbolism, however: I spent it reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's article about reparations in The Atlantic.

Reading about America's shameful history of racial prejudice, my mind kept hitting back at that pop patriotic slogan "Freedom Isn't Free" with such snide rejoinders as, "Yeah, it also requires slavery and theft." Coates's article had nothing to do with native Americans, but it didn't take much for the moral arithmetic of nation-building to amend the formula.

Even sadder, I kept thinking how all those we seek to remember on Memorial Day had died in vain because we the living couldn't figure out a way to live up to the ideals the flag represents.

And the flag, too, in and of itself.  I found myself going even further than Coates, in a way. He at one point in the article writes that "reparations would mean the end of yelling 'patriotism' while waving a Confederate flag." My reaction was: wrong flag, Mr. Coates. Most of what you write about - slavery up until the Civil War, Jim Crow, redlining - happened under the star-spangled banner. Maybe we shouldn't be yelling "patriotism" while waving the American flag until we face the reality that the effects of its long history of civic abuse thrive in ways that are injurious to our future as a nation.

It is, I realize, the height of folly for me to believe that there is any hope for any attempt at a moral reckoning, so the fantasy that the owners of Monticello would tithe the proceeds of their ill-gotten plantation tourist dollars into a fund for minority business incubation will always remain such. Too many people will point to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and say "mission accomplished" or "heckuva job, Brown vs. Board of Ed."

To anyone who thinks I've somehow joined the ranks of the "Blame America First" crowd (whoever they are), you're wrong. My shame and disappointment come from the fact that I'm practically religious about the nature of Americanism, its ideals, and its promises.

Every religion claims that its tenets are true, yet no religion can verify those truths except on the basis of faith and belief. My American religion believes that every American citizen is bound to every other American citizen by our common citizenship. The U.S. Constitution is our Torah; the Declaration of Independence is our Sermon on the Mount; our history provides our Chronicles and Epistles; our Constitutional history provides our Talmud.

If doubts have begun to bedevil me to the point that they drown out the apologists with their evidence of progress, some of it comes from my own immersion in American scripture:
  • An obvious one: the Constitutional three-fifths clause that, for the purposes of tax assessment, distinguishes between "free persons" and "other persons." Slavery was euphemized into the Constitution. Four score and some-odd years and hundreds of thousands of slave-and soldier-deaths later, it was removed. But the taint was not. It's the kind of taint that turns the lofty ideals of Jefferson into the empty rhetoric of a political windbag.
  • Federalist Papers #51: James Madison theorized that the Constitutional structure, through its deft balancing of powers and by its ability to act on individual citizens, would protect the rights of minorities in the states. Except the ones who had no rights to start with and who've had to fight every step of the way to get them in the first place and to keep fighting just to hold on to them.
But, believe it or no, it gets worse. I read Coates at the same time as I was reading a slim volume by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah called Lines of Descent: W.E.B. DuBois and the Emergence of Identity. DuBois was one of the giants of Africa-America. A cofounder of the NAACP, he spoke out loudly on the subject of American racial discrimination when it was at its worst. The book details DuBois's education, particularly his years at the University of Berlin, at that time the pre-eminent institution of advanced historical and social thought, and as such provides a sort of intellectual history of DuBois's lifelong efforts to nail down the concept of race. More vividly, Appiah describes race identity for DuBois as "the angel he wrestled with his entire life."

DuBois understood early on that race had no validity as a physical construct, but he was powerfully drawn to the possibility of a Negro race as a cultural construct that would be found to be a positive force in human affairs. For example, he found in Negro spirituals an expression of Herderian Volksgeist, a striving of a corporate body toward a unique formulation of the human experience. 

Ultimately, however, the positive aspect of DuBois's definitional project foundered, even if DuBois himself "never left the world of idealistic ethical nationalism," according to Appiah. The project was sunk to the level of the white supremacist. Asked what it is that makes someone a black man, DuBois's most enduring answer, the one that seems to have had most resonance with him, was "the black man is a person who must ride 'Jim Crow' in Georgia."

Or, he might have added, suffered whatever such "daily cruelties" and "public insults" of racism that attended his childhood in Massachusetts. Because they were certainly there. It was only in Germany that DuBois was able to live life beyond the artificial distinction of race. "In the days of my Sturm und Drang," he wrote, "this was the land where I first met white folk who treated me as a human being." And, in turn, the Negro came to see white folks beyond the prism of race: "I met men and women as I had never met them before. Slowly they became, not white folks but folks.”

But no matter his kaiserlich handlebar mustache or his marriage proposal from the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, DuBois could not hold on to the sense that all people were just "folks." He - like the returning black American soldiers from every overseas conflict - had to return to a country where folks weren't just folks. They were white folks or black folks. And it made a difference.

It made a difference to DuBois by galvanizing his identity as "a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia." It gave him a cause and a struggle. He recognized that its source was tainted: “The race pride of Negroes is not an antidote to the race pride of white people; it is simply the other side of a hateful thing.” But there was no way he could turn his face on the overwhelming injustice and hypocrisy of the phenomenon: “If in the hey-day of the greatest of the world’s civilizations, it is possible for one people ruthlessly to steal another, drag them helpless across the water, enslave them, debauch them, and then slowly murder them by economic and social exclusion until they disappear from the face of the earth—if the consummation of such a crime be possible in the 20th century, then our civilization is vain and the republic is a mockery and a farce.”

Can we say we are past all of that, finally, thanks to the civil rights movement? Are we at the point sought by DuBois, where he could be, as he wrote, "both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face”? Are we past the experience of the spiritual--the unique formulation that branded an entire people with the sense that only death would bring release from unyielding oppression--because it has faded in the sunlight of a here and now Promised Land?

I don't believe we are, partly because the healthiest, most robust plant in the conservatory of American culture is the racial one. It is watered and fertilized on all sides. Look at Barack Obama--black or white? White mother, right? So he's definitely white. What do you mean, he's black? Whatever happened to the mother tongue? Matrilineal identity is a strong, binding practice in many cultures; what do you mean, it's not available? Well, it just isn't: it's not available to an American whose skin is the same color as a slave's. The American mind is still riding Jim Crow in Georgia.

Not that the fruit of the racial plant is necessarily poisonous. Look, for example, at the development of the blues as an outsider phenomenon, as a way for a downtrodden, black minstrel to live a life free from The Man.

But nobody bargained on the overwhelming influence of the blues. Nobody figured that white boys like Hank Williams and Elvis Presley would sing 'em. Think how delicious it must be - the poison going down - that The Southern Man has made blues music part and parcel of his own identification as he follows his Rebellious course, imagining that his treason is patriotism, toward the destruction of a civic project that he can only identify as Yankee, even though its champions were mostly Virginians. Join him to ghetto gangsterism in all its misogynist, steroid, blinging, FUCK Y'ALL, 1-in-3-imprisoned-black-baby-boy rage, and we get the culture we deserve: the consummation of the union of hatreds in the big revival tent of the Whisky Rebellion, where Original Sin isn't just heritable, it's your birthday suit, and they ain't no changing it.

People who think the problem of reparations is a problem of who gets paid don't understand that reparations isn't about money. It's about repair. It's about fixing what has been broken from the very beginning.

Nor is it about amending the Constitution. The Constitution, through the process of ongoing juridical interpretation, is continuously morphing, even if, technically, the changes don't qualify as amendments. The changes surely have meaning, though, and they sure have effect. It isn't possible to think of a single "constitutional" issue and not realize that.

What the Constitution cannot do is to instill within us a sense of what it means to be a citizen. For example, it is obvious that the current argument about the Second Amendment rests, on both sides, on the individualistic side of the equation--on the right of the individual to own a firearm. What it entirely ignores is the civic aspect of the Second Amendment, which states rather baldly that a militia is essential to freedom. And yet where is the militia today? Where is the civic component of the Second Amendment? It does not exist.

So the project of reparations is a project of identity. It is a project to enable the notion of citizenship to form the core of one's American identity. It is as much a project of internal improvements as anything Alexander Hamilton or Henry Clay or Dwight Eisenhower ever imagined--and I use those names advisedly to show that something like this is as much a Republican thing as a Democratic thing. It is as much a technical endeavor as the space program or the Strategic Defense Initiative, and it will pay way more dividends.

Think of it as a huge flag project. I don't worship the flag per se. I revere it for what I believe it means. I identify myself with those meanings. I am one thread in the flag.

The thing about being a thread in a flag is that no one can be forced to be part of it. You have to choose to be part of it. Now what if the fact of the American flag today is that large numbers of people choose not to be part of it? The weave is coming apart; it's fraying; it's full of holes. It looks like the flag could use some …

I think I heard you say "repair." And why not? In the whole time it's been there, it's never been done.