TUESDAY, JUNE 8, 2021
Langston Hughes started with rivers: In some accounts, the current moment started with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
In other accounts, the current moment started with the murder of George Floyd, last year.
However you want to tell the story, the current moment can be quite intense. On Sunday, the Washington Post's Michele Norris was saying, in a long essay, that we need to have "a national conversation on race"—an undefined type of national conversation which could take decades, she said.
Does that proposal make sense? Putting it another way, is our sprawling nation capable of conducting some such "conversation" in some sort of organized way?
There's no final way to answer that question, but we were struck by several aspects of Norris' heartfelt essay. For starters, we were struck by the degree of exasperation—perhaps, of anguish—visible throughout the long essay.
As an example of what we mean, consider the way this good, decent person began her presentation.
Norris began with an account of a personal experience. We can't speak to the accuracy of her account, but we can speak to the general tone of her narration:
NORRIS (6/6/21): Shortly after the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016 on the National Mall, I was speaking to some patrons of a successful nonprofit about the importance of candid racial dialogue in politics and in the places we live, work and worship.
One of the participants had recently toured the museum and had a pointed question. Why, she wondered, were all the exhibits that visitors first encounter dedicated to slavery? Among other things, she was referring to a reconstructed cabin built by former slaves from Maryland and a statue of Thomas Jefferson next to a wall with the names of more than 600 people he owned. “Couldn’t the exhibits begin with more uplift?” the woman asked, arguing that Black achievement was more worthy of the spotlight. She suggested that the museum should instead usher visitors toward more positive stories right from the start, so that if someone were tired or short on time, “slavery could be optional.”
Her question was irksome, but it did not surprise me. I’d heard versions of the “Can’t we skip past slavery” question countless times before. Each time serves as another reminder that America has never had a comprehensive and widely embraced national examination of slavery and its lasting impact. Yes, there are localized efforts. But despite the centrality of slavery in our history, it is not central to the American narrative in our monuments, history books, anthems and folklore.
Norris was speaking to a group of swells. One of the swells asked a question.
Norris found the question irksome. She seems to believe that she knows what the swell meant.
This patron had toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture and she'd had a certain reaction. She wondered if the story in question might be better told if the exhibit opened with uplift rather than with exhibits devoted to slavery.
(Inevitably, the irksome question had come from a woman. Quite possibly, she was a Karen!)
In her telling, Norris knew what the patron meant. The patron meant that the museum, and the rest of us as a general matter, should just skip the whole slavery question.
Norris had heard it many times before. She knew what the patron meant.
Do you mind if we ask a certain question at this point in time? Is it possible that a certain kind of (borderline noxious) "privilege" is playing out in these remarks?
We refer to a possible sense of "privilege" on the part of Norris, not on the part of the Karen.
For ourselves, we have no idea what the patron meant, or even if there ever was any such patron. But we can't help thinking that Norris is taking a bit of an all-knowing view with respect to the question she fielded.
How should the National Museum of African American History and Culture best organize its exhibits? We have no idea, nor is there any objective answer to that question.
That said, that patron's question, on its face, doesn't strike us as . The population in question—this nation's African-American population—has been, among other things, author of one of the greatest moral / religious traditions in the history of the world.
The brilliance of that tradition emerged from centuries of brutal treatment. Way back when, Langston Hughes described the greatness as shown:
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Would something be wrong with encountering something like that when one enters this museum? We can't imagine why. In our view, it might even be a very good—and yes, an "uplifting"—idea!
Or not, of course. There's always more than one way to do things. There's almost always more than one way to understand.
It's dangerous, of course, to structure any conversation around the claim that one population group may be morally or spiritually superior to others.
Could someone take Hughes' poem that way? Inevitably, somebody would!
It's also true that a person can make a perfectly sensible, good-faith suggestion and be discarded as "irksome." Inevitably, our brutal history has produced such reactions—our brutal history, plus the lack of ultimate wisdom produced by the way our imperfect brains are wired.
Is it be a bad idea if those who enter that museum are confronted, right off the bat, with the imagery of enslavement? Maybe! Within the past year, some observers have complained that the news media should stop playing the tape of George Floyd's death, saying the constant broadcast of such imagery is disrespectful to Floyd and harmful to black Americans.
It isn't obvious that that suggestion is wrong. Nor is it obvious that the patron who raised her hand that day was making a lousy suggestion.
At any rate, that's the way the museum in question had chosen to start its exhibit. Also, that's the way Norris, a good decent person, chose to start her long essay.
As she continued, Norris seemed to draw many conclusions from what she heard in that irksome question. This is where the recollection took her, at the start of a very long essay:
NORRIS (continuing directly from above): There is a simple reason: The United States does not yet have the stomach to look over its shoulder and stare directly at the evil on which this great country stands. That is why slavery is not well taught in our schools. That is why the battle flag of the army that tried to divide and conquer our country is still manufactured, sold and displayed with defiant pride. That is why any mention of slavery is rendered as the shameful act of a smattering of Southern plantation owners and not a sprawling economic and social framework with tentacles that stamped almost every aspect of American life.
We can read about, watch and praise documentaries and Hollywood projects about the Civil War, or read countless volumes on the abolitionist or civil rights movements. But these are all at a remove from the central horror of enslavement itself. From the kidnappings in Africa to the horrors of the Middle Passage, the beatings and the instruments of bondage, the separation of families, the culture of rape, the abuse of children, the diabolical rationalizations and crimes against humanity—no, we haven’t had that conversation. We have not had that unflinching assessment, and we are long overdue.
From one admittedly irksome question, we were invited to take a long trip.
Instantly, we were told what "the United States" lacks the stomach to do. We were also told that we should revisit the horrors of the past, and that seems to include all the horrors:
We're long overdue to hear about "the kidnappings in Africa, the horrors of the Middle Passage, the beatings and the instruments of bondage, the separation of families, the culture of rape, the abuse of children, the diabolical rationalizations and crimes against humanity," Norris now said.
We're long overdue to hear about that, and we should spend decades doing it.
Does this suggestion make ultimate sense? Should that patron he asked to hear more about the horrors, the culture of rape, the crimes against humanity?
That strikes us as a very human suggestion. But in the end, does the suggestion make ultimate sense?
If we're going to have a long conversation, what should that conversation be like? Also, where has this version of Norris emerged from? Why did Hughes perhaps adopt one tone, with Norris now offering another?
Tomorrow: Revisiting horrors