26 Apr Platitudes
Expectable clichés are mouthed in this country every time another atrocity is committed. Thoughts and prayers. Sympathies and condolences. Processing, trauma, healing, closure.
Plastic words describing styrofoam sentiments. They have no meaning, no content. They litter our oceans, pollute our conversations, congest our lungs. They are not even sound and fury – but still they signify nothing.
We mutter these platitudes by rote when there’s another school shooting or supermarket massacre, when another black citizen gets killed by another white cop, when another woman’s body is found somewhere in some bathroom or kitchen or culvert. Thoughts and prayers. He seemed so quiet. I would never have imagined. Trauma. Healing. Closure.
They say the verdict last week was different. It was. And it wasn’t.
It was, because it validated to a microscopic degree the intolerable injustices in our policing and court systems. It was, because it comforted a family, though their family member was eternally eternally lost. It was, because it ever so slightly began to erode the Blue Wall of police silence and official collaboration. It was, not least because it reinforced the actions of Kelly May Xiong, Chauvin’s former wife, a Hmong Laotian woman who divorced him in May 2020 after the murder: my god, what must he have been like at home?
White Americans – impatient people – are eager for this to be over, for things to go back to being “normal,” for people to stop complaining, forchrissake. Even the young idealistic ones, the ones marching peaceably, yet with fists in the air, they too are impatient, they stand ready to win, ready to be elated. But look closer at the older faces, the darker faces, look in the eyes, listen to those who say calmly that perhaps the verdict was a beginning. Certainly it seemed positive. Maybe it could mean change. But the way it was supposed to mean change after the Civil War? The way change was certain with Reconstruction? The way it was meant to mean change when Jim Crow settled in? Or change before the Black Codes soured “change” itself into a word of bitter cynicism? Another small window, another fragile hope. Summed up, perhaps, by two words: We’ll see.
Time alone will tell if the verdict is different. Time alone will tell if it will be translated into action, legislation, enforced practice, and possibly eventually almost unimaginably into regular procedure. Racism runs so deep in this country, it twins sexism; it’s an underground river, like the Styx. It saturates the soil; it drenches the soul.
Such moments send me back — for perspective, self-discipline, wisdom — to Toni Morrison’s voice. In this case, in particular, from her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which consists of three essays that formed the basis of a course in American literature she taught at Harvard. Here, for example, are a few of these bracing, challenging, brilliant thoughts.
Young America distinguished itself by, and understood itself to be, pressing toward a future of freedom, a kind of human dignity believed unprecedented in the world. . . . But it is just as important to know what these people were rushing from as it is to know what they were hastening to .. . . All the old world offered them was poverty, prison, social ostracism, and not infrequently, death. There was of course a clerical, scholarly group of immigrants who came seeking the adventure possible in founding a colony for, rather than against, one or another mother country or father land. And of course there were the merchants, who came for the cash. . . .
Whatever the reasons, the attraction was of the “clean slate” variety. The new setting would provide new raiments of self. . . . The habit of genuflection would be replaced by the thrill of command. Power — control of one’s own destiny — would replace the powerlessness felt before the gates of class, cast, and cunning persecution. One could move from discipline and punishment to disciplining and punishing; from social ostracism to social rank. . . . much was to be written: noble impulses were made into law and appropriated for national traditions; base ones, learned and elaborated in the rejected and rejecting homeland, were also made into law and appropriated for tradition.
The body of literature produced by a young nation is one way it inscribed its transactions with these fears, forces, and hopes. For a people who made much of their “newness,” it is striking how dour, troubled, frightened and haunted our early and founding literature truly is. We have words and labels for this haunting – gothic, romantic, sermonic, Puritan . . . . . What was there in American romanticism that made it so attractive as a battle plain on which to fight, engage, and imagine their demons?
Darkness, with all the connotative value it awakened. There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called “the power of blackness,” especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play. As the sociologist Orlando Patterson has noted, we should not be surprised that the Enlightenment could accommodate slavery; we should be surprised if it had not. Nothing highlighted freedom – if in fact it did not create it – like slavery. . . . [thus] a succinct portrait of the process by which the American as new, white, and male was constituted. The site of his transformation is within rawness: he is backgrounded by savagery.
How could one speak of profit, economy, labor, progress, suffragism, Christianity, the frontier, the formation of new states, the acquisition of new lands, education, transportation, neighborhoods, the military – almost anything a country concerns itself with — without having as a referent, at the heart of the discourse, at the heart of the definition, the presence of Africans and their descendants? It was not possible. And it did not happen. What did happen frequently was an effort to talk about these matters with a vocabulary designed to disguise the subject. . . . An instructive parallel to this scholarly indifference is the centuries long, hysterical blindness to feminist discourse and the way in which women and women’s issues were read (or unread).
Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny. [Italics mine]
Is it a surprise then that such identity projection, lodged so deep in the cultural, national temperament itself, should be so hard to uproot?
But not impossible. Keep saying it.
Not impossible. Not impossible. Not impossible.
This blog will be off next week, but will return week after next.