FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2021
An unusual "You" emerges: Should our struggling nation, the United States, conduct "a national conversation on race," as Michele Norris proposed in last Sunday's Washington Post?
If so, how should such a conversation proceed? As an initial point of caution, let us note that our national culture tends toward clownish, dumb.
Should our conversation proceed from the White House on down, as Norris proposed? Is it really possible that the conversation could continue for decades?
Also, what should get said in some such conversation? Whose views should be considered as the conversation proceeds? Should we listen to everyone? Or should we only listen to those who live in Our Town?
Even as Norris was making her proposal, something resembling that conversation was taking place in that morning's Post. Starting on its front page, the Post had published a substantial array of news reports and opinion pieces examining various aspects of the nation's racial history.
In some cases, the utility of the Post's effort might be open to question. But the fact of the undertaking was obvious, and has been for some time.
Sunday morning's Washington Post was full of that conversation! On the front page, a news report carried this headline:
Calls grow to rename birds and reshape a racist legacy
In the weekly Outlook section, this headline appeared:
On a tour of historical sites, examining how the story of slavery is taught
There were at least three such offerings in the Metro section:
What schools holding on to racist names can learn from D.C.’s Woodson High
Graduates take sides in the war for VMI’s future
Calling foul on the Alexandria Little League
Concerning that local Little League, we assumed some claim of racial misconduct was involved, and sure enough it was. Meanwhile, the naming of schools was also involved in Kathleen Parker's opinion column:
Va. college: We hear you, but we’ll keep our name
Parker's column dealt with the decision by the trustees of Washington & Lee to retain the second half of the school's long-standing name. Yet another report in the Metro section concerned the racial climate at another Virginia college:
Graduates take sides in the war for VMI’s future
The featured report in the Sunday magazine concerned an historical incident. These dual headlines obtained:
Albert King Is Not Forgotten
In 1941, the U.S. military papered over the killing of a young Black soldier by a White officer. Can there be justice 80 years later?
"Can there be justice 80 years later?" We'd say the obvious answer is no. This calls to mind the text of the poem we'll excerpt below.
Other treatments of "identity" issues appeared in Sunday's Post. As Norris called for a national conversation, something like that was already happening—but that doesn't settle the larger question:
What kind of conversation should we have? What should our conversation be like, if we want it to turn out to be have been a good idea?
Here in Our Town, we Townies are inclined to adopt the view that any such conversation is a good idea. For ourselves, we're much less sanguine on that point. Other possibilities—the possibility of imperfect judgment, error and harm—also seem quite clear.
"Conversations" won't always be helpful! Conversations can even do harm.
We were struck by many parts of Norris' lengthy essay. As we noted yesterday, we were most struck by a peculiar shift in perspective which occurred in this passage—by a striking pronoun shift:
NORRIS (6/6/21): Amnesia gets in the way of atonement in America. But amnesia is actually too benign a word because it sounds as though people just forgot about the horrors of slavery, forgot about people who were forced to work in the fields literally until their death, forgot that between 50,000 and 85,000 Africans died during their forced migration to this country in the way one forgets where they placed their car keys or their passport.
We’ve been through more than a willful forgetting; we’ve had instead an assiduous effort to rewrite history. We’ve built monuments to traitors and raised large sums of money to place the names of generals who fought against their own country all over highways and civic buildings. We’ve allowed turncoats to become heroes of the Lost Cause instead of rebels desperate to keep people in bondage.
On a personal level, this false narrative about America is another act of cruelty, even a kind of larceny. I view the real story, the genuine history—ugly as it is—as part of my people’s wealth. You built this country on the backs of African Americans’ ancestors. Our contributions—in blood, sweat and bondage—must be told. Our children, indeed, all of America, deserve to know what we have endured and survived to understand the depth of our fortitude, but also to understand that, despite centuries of enslavement and years of Black Codes and brutal Jim Crow segregation, our contributions are central to America’s might. The erasure is massive in scope.
To her credit, Norris still spells it "America" at the start of that passage. That said, it does sound a bit like she's scolding everyone in Amerika—everyone but herself—for the willful way everyone has chosen to forget about all those horrors.
Norris' tone is quite dismissive in that passage. We Amerikans have chosen to forget the 85,000 people who died during the Middle Passage, in much the way we might forget where our car keys are.
What kind of people would do such a thing, a sensible person might ask.
Here in Our Town, we may be inclined to enjoy such hard-hitting talk. Instinctively, we may assume that Norris is discussing the people Over There. She's referring to Them, not to Us.
Like everyone else, Norris is free to call it as she sees it. But the pronoun shift which occurs in that passage seemed quite striking to us:
"You" did these horrible things, she now says. And that "you" now seems to be us!
At times during Norris' essay, it almost sounds like Norris herself was subjected to all those horrors—like she is the one who has somehow found a way to "endure and survive."
In fact, she was fortunate enough to have been raised by two accomplished parents in middle-class Minneapolis. (She has written a memoir about her upbringing.) As an adult, she has lived an upper-class life as one of the most highly advantaged people on the face of the earth.
Today, though, Norris is angry.
In prior years, she was one of the many highly presentable people found in our upper-end press corps. There was nothing "wrong" with that, and Norris is a good decent person.
That said, to our ear, the oddest and most instructive part of her essay is found in that passage, right here:
You built this country on the backs of African Americans’ ancestors. Our contributions—in blood, sweat and bondage—must be told. Our children, indeed, all of America, deserve to know what we have endured and survived to understand the depth of our fortitude,
What a strange shift in pronouns! Who is the "You" to whom Norris refers? Who is the "You" who "built this country" in the way she describes. even as Norris herself apparently found a way to endure and survive?
In that passage, Norris has suddenly crafted a striking Us and You construction. It isn't necessarily "wrong" to see the world that way, but can a nation so conceived really expect to survive?
We've thought this week about the late Sam Banks—about the American history curriculum he crafted, way back in the 1970s, for the Baltimore City Schools. We've thought about our initial fifth-grade class—about the way they reacted to the documentary / fiction film, The Forgotten Village.
We've thought about the poem People, in which Yevtushenko may be referring to another group of people who were subjected to another of the planet's many historical atrocities.
(Important note to America's schoolkids: These atrocities have happened all over the globe. You must never be part of one.)
When a person dies, what is lost "is not nothing," Yevtushenko says in his poem. But he says other things too, perhaps about the millions who were mistreated and slain in that human atrocity in that other part of the world.
Both his grandfathers was arrested as "enemies of the people." Is he thinking of the people who died in that other atrocity? We have no idea:
No people are uninteresting.
In any man who dies there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight.
It goes with him.
There are left books and bridges
and painted canvas and machinery.
Whose fate is to survive.
But what has gone is also not nothing:
by the rule of the game something has gone.
Not people die but worlds die in them.
Whom we knew as faulty, the earth’s creatures
Of whom, essentially, what did we know?
Brother of a brother? Friend of friends?
Lover of lover?
We who knew our fathers
in everything, in nothing.
They perish. They cannot be brought back.
The secret worlds are not regenerated.
And every time again and again
I make my lament against destruction.
Yevtushenko may have been thinking of the millions who died in the labor camps. Or who knows? Maybe not!
But if he was thinking of the millions who died, he wasn't engaging in the clatter which sounds like stolen valor. He wasn't talking himself into thinking that he had somehow been tortured and killed in the gulag too.
In this country, a conversation has been underway for some time. Right from the start, a remarkable amount of misrepresentation has been involved in this conversation. According to leading experts, we humans tend to be like that.
That conversation has scared a whole lot of kids, and quite a few parents too. It seems to have convinced some adults that they were dragged over here in the holds of those ships, just like the sacred dead.
It has led to some hints of stolen valor—valor stolen from the brilliant generations who somehow managed to create one of the world's greatest ethical / moral / religious traditions out of centuries of mistreatment.
Their descendants humbly accept the prizes they're handed for their work on NPR. Some are now tilting toward the world of Us and You, as is their perfect right.
Each person can construe our floundering nation in the way which seems right. But we humans are subject to relentless error, and to highly imperfect judgment. When these conversations start, who knows where they might lead?
Tomorrow: The Forgotten Village, May 1970 viewing:
"The project was born out of Steinbeck’s desire to break away from Hollywood productions and produce an authentic portrait of Mexican culture. Featuring the real inhabitants of a rural hamlet in the mountains of Santiago in Mexico, this ethnographic cross between a documentary and a fictional film deals with the basic conflict between the deep-rooted indigenous culture and the sweeping tide of modernization. At stake are the lives of several of the village children, who quickly become the victims of a typhoid epidemic..."
Who would treat their children that way? Inquiring minds wanted to know!