Thursday, December 01, 2005
Blog Against Racism Day
By the way, I’m sorry I’m so late with this entry (it’s almost 10 pm here in Pennsylvania), but December 1 just happened to be Create a Penn State Chapter of the American Association of University Professors Day, as well as Jamie Gets Sick and Comes Home from School Day. So here goes. Get yourselves a good drink and take a deep breath.
Every once in a while I teach James Weldon Johnson’s remarkable 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. The plot turns on a lynching: the novel’s narrator, a talented young light-skinned African-American pianist and composer, is touring the South looking for material that he can use for a “classical” arrangement of traditional hymns and sorrow songs when he witnesses a black man being burned alive in a town square. He therefore makes the fateful decison to pass as white, even as he disavows the decision:
I argued that to forsake one’s race to better one’s condition was no less worthy an action than to forsake one’s country for the same purpose. I finally made up my mind that I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would; that it was not necessary for me to go about with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead. All the while I understood that it was not discouragement or fear or search for a larger field of action and opportunity that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals. For certainly the law would restrain and punish the malicious burning alive of animals.
I can’t possibly do justice to the novel in a short space, but (and stop me if you’ve heard this before) I do discuss it at some length in my forthcoming book, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? (Some of the rest of this post is adapted from that discussion.) For now, I’ll just point out two things. One, the narrator’s earlier decision to tour the South looking for material that will enable him to become the nation’s first black “classical” composer is itself exceptionally complex, because he knows he has the option of presenting himself as “white” instead. Two, the novel was published anonymously in 1912, which, of course, invited many readers to believe that it was true, and that the narrator was what you might call a “real” person. Johnson revealed himself as the author in 1927, whereupon it became clear that the “autobiography” was not a true story about a black man passing as white but, rather, a novel “passing” as an autobiography. All of which is to say, it’s great stuff, and I recommend it to all of you.
But the topic of lynching, like the topic of slavery and the topic of the vicious post-Reconstruction backlash in the South (of which lynching is an integral part), is not an easy one to address in undergraduate classrooms. It is so vile, and the postbellum backlash so vicious, that many white students—even students who seem to have more or less “liberal” sympathies on racial matters—get tense and defensive when the facts of the matter are laid before them. Some express this by wanting to establish their bona fides with their black classmates, and some express it by querulously wondering whether the novel is on the syllabus chiefly because it addresses lynching. Others have said—privately, to me, because they don’t want to start a fuss among their peers—that they don’t believe that white people in general were responsible for lynching, or that they themselves would never approve of such a thing and don’t see why it’s still a matter for discussion today.
So, in response to all those white students, sympathetic and un-, I have established a couple of ground rules for the discussion of lynching and slavery. First, I tolerate no faux-liberal grandstanding. No one gets any special moral bonus points, in the twenty-first century, for denouncing the obscenities of slavery and lynching. Second, if there is no be no faux-liberal grandstanding, so too there is to be no contrarian or faux-contrarian denial: no one is allowed to pretend that slavery was beneficial to the slaves, and no one is allowed to blink away the fact that the United States witnessed roughly sixty lynchings a year from 1875 through 1925, as lynching became a standard means of enforcing perceived breaches of the color line, and not exclusively those “breaches” that challenged the taboo of interracial sex (as Ida B. Wells reported in 1892, 728 lynchings of black Americans had occurred in the previous eight years alone). The subject of lynching is simply too serious to be blinked away.
But, you say, you’re talking about ancient history here, 1875 to 1925. Your students were born in 1985, for goodness’ sake. Why make them confront terrible human atrocities of a bygone era?
To which the answer is: the siege of Troy is ancient history. The Peloponnesian War is ancient history. Lynching was just the other day. To make the point a bit more vivid, I told one of my classes the story of the time my wife Janet met someone who’d attended a lynching. When we were in graduate school, she used to work as a cardiac intensive-care nurse at the University of Virginia, and one night, as she was tending to a very old and distinguished faculty member who happened to be one of her patients, he confessed to her that in his youth he had gone to a lynching. He said that at the time, he thought it was a terrible but ultimately necessary thing, that these people would not learn unless they were given very clear signals about how and how not to behave around white people. But as he got older he became increasingly convinced that he had been party to a grievous crime, a crime not only against that one black man but against humanity, and he wanted to confess it to someone—because he had never told anyone at the university—before he died.
My students were riveted. You have to understand (I told them) that my wife possesses an uncanny capacity to elicit this kind of soul-baring from people, without any effort on her part. And this was a truly harrowing story, not least because it reminded us that yes, in the late 1980s, there were still people living in the South who had participated in lynchings—never mind the people still living in the South who had killed Emmett Till in 1955, or the people who killed Medgar Evers in 1963, or the people who bombed those four black schoolgirls in Birmingham in 1964, or killed those three civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—in Mississippi that same year. We knew in a general, indirect way about that kind of racial violence in the South, of course. But we never thought either of us would meet someone who had witnessed or taken part in it.
Now, I presume (safely, I think) that no one in my classrooms has ever seen or would ever condone a lynching, and I know that many of my students come from families that didn’t live in the United States when Johnson’s book was published. So, I tell my students, the only things you can possibly do “wrong” about such atrocities, at this late date, are to deny them or to pass over the various justifications for them advanced by white supremacists of a century ago. That’s it. You weren’t responsible for them then, folks, and you wouldn’t approve of them now, so let’s not let that be the issue. The atrocities have already occurred. The only question for you is whether you will acknowledge them and come to terms with the fact that they happened, or whether you will join the camp of the Deniers—about these atrocities or any others.
Should there be any doubt about the vileness of lynching or of the justifications for it, I could direct “dissenting” students (who might think, for whatever reason, that I am exaggerating about the pervasiveness of lynching and the popularity of its justifications) to the white supremacist books of the time, perhaps Thomas Dixon’s The Klansman or The Leopard’s Spots, or Charles Carroll’s The Negro A Beast, a best-seller of 1900. I’m sure that this material will shock even the most complacent reader today, regardless of his or her political stripes or spots. But so far in my teaching career, I haven’t had to do that; so far, it’s been a fairly simple matter of explaining to students that lynching was, at one time, so ubiquitous that a writer like James Weldon Johnson would hinge a novel’s plot on it—and would devote a good deal of his political life, as general secretary of the NAACP, to trying (and failing) to get an anti-lynching bill passed by the United States Congress.
For although most of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is actually about music—and my classes on Johnson’s novel are dominated, once they get going, by discussions of the narrator’s musical career, the history of black musicians’ “crossover” success with white audiences, and the history of white musicians’ appropriations, adaptations, and emulations of African-American musical forms—there is no question that Johnson wrote the book, in large part, to try to stem the tide of lynchings sweeping his nation. He did so not by trying to point out, in fictional form, that lynching was simply wrong; perhaps that would be too directly polemical, but then, the book is, at points, directly polemical, featuring a number of discussions of the Negro Question and an extensive disquisition on the class distinctions among African-Americans, which remains compelling one hundred years later. Rather, I think Johnson avoided the “lynching is wrong” line because by 1912, it clearly wasn’t working: too many white Americans believed that lynching was terrible but ultimately necessary, and far too many white Americans believed that lynching was a positively good thing that they should commemorate with celebratory photographs and postcards. There was no way that Johnson could challenge those beliefs directly and win. Instead, crafty writer that he was, Johnson set about creating a plot in which lynching is not merely wrong but also counterproductive, insofar as it stokes the very fears about racial “passing” that made white supremacists lose sleep at night. The book says as much in its preface: “these pages also reveal the unsuspected fact that prejudice against the Negro is exerting a pressure which, in New York and other large cities where the opportunity is open, is actually and constantly forcing an unascertainable number of fair-complexioned colored people over into the white race” (xxxiv). That’s what Johnson wants supremacists and other apologists for lynching to take away from the book: An unascertainable number, oh, my God. And they may even be among us right now!
For the most part, my black students aren’t shocked or appalled by the history of lynching; they already know about it, and they want to talk about the narrator’s decision to become a “black” composer and his later decision to “pass.” The white and Asian and Assorted Other students are OK with this too. But every once in a while, one of them comes up to me and asks whether there weren’t any good white people at the time, the kind who spoke out against lynching and tried to stop it. “Sure,” I say, “and there were plenty of white abolitionists, too. But here’s the thing. Sometimes there just weren’t enough ‘good’ white people within a ten-mile radius. During lynchings, during the era’s white-supremacist riots in Wilmington, Atlanta, Springfield, Tulsa, and so forth, there must have been some good white people around—but they stayed home, and they lost the day.”
I’ve tried to think hard about this “where were the good white folks” question when it’s asked by good white folks, because, of course, I would like to think of myself as one of ‘em too. And so would you, dear reader, if you’re white and if the blood of our common humanity flows in your veins. No decent white person today (and I do think of “decent” as a meaningful qualifier here) imagines him- or herself back in the days of slavery and lynching with a bullwhip or a torch in hand. I’ve gradually come to call this the Huckleberry Finn Scenario: it’s the seductive notion that if we were alive back then, even if we were poor backwoods kids whose only formal education included lessons about how abolitionism was immoral and “lowdown,” we would somehow, all by our lonesomes, come to the conclusion that we should save Jim and go to Hell. The same emotional appeal is at work in a film like Schindler’s List, as well: when we identify with Oskar Schindler or Huck Finn, we do so, in part, because we so desperately want to believe that we’d have wound up on the side of the angels “naturally,” even if we’d had no strong feelings about slavery or genocide to begin with (and even—or especially—if we’d started off on the wrong side).
By all means, then, go ahead and indulge in the Huck Finn Scenario: anything else is intolerable. But know that it is, after all, just a retrospective wish-fulfillment for a better world, and that for much of our nation’s history, there just weren’t enough good white people in a ten-mile radius, or in the halls of power, to get the good job done.
Now, what do I mean when I say that people should acknowledge and come to terms with the history of racist atrocities in the U.S.? Well, many things, but I’ll end with just one: beware of conservatives trying to hijack African-American history for political purposes today. There simply is no comparable history for conservatives: they endured no Middle Passage, they were not raped or beaten by slaveowners, they were not hung from trees or castrated or burned to death. Their little fantasies of “persecution” today are just that, fantasies; but when they are predicated on the history of African-American persecution, they become obscene.
Take, for a minor but entirely symptomatic example, the argument made in 2002 by one Kenneth Lee, a member of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. When David Horowitz had released yet another one of his “studies” demonstrating the liberal domination of academe (this one drawn largely from departments in the humanities and programs in women’s studies, as Martin Plissner pointed out at the time), Lee wrote, “the simple logic underlying much of contemporary civil-rights law applies equally to conservative Republicans, who appear to face clear practices of discrimination in American academia that are statistically even starker than previous blackballings by race.” Even starker than previous blackballings by race: according to Lee, conservative scholars have it worse than did African-Americans under segregation and Jim Crow. (This would mean, in statistical terms, that on the vast majority of American campuses there are fewer than zero conservatives.) It is a fantastic and deeply offensive claim in and of itself, but it becomes all the more offensive if you go back and look at the history of conservatives’ opposition to affirmative action programs in American higher education.
I personally think it would be too much to say that when right-wing American ideologues paint themselves as the new black, they take up the mantle of their ideological forebears—that is, that yesteryear’s white supremacists actually did all the beating and the raping and the hanging and the castrating and the burning, and that their milder and more humane descendants today now construe themselves as akin not to the oppressors but to the oppressed. But it’s not too much to say that any attempt to construe contemporary American conservatives as victims of discrimination “even starker than previous blackballings by race” is a profound insult to every African-American who walked this land from 1619 onward. Acknowledging the atrocities of the past, then, means (among other things) refusing to trivialize and traduce history in this way today.