By Way of Prologue
Anyone wanting an easy listening overview of a city’s attractions knows exactly what to do: climb aboard a climate-controlled tour bus. For the price of a ticket and minimal mental effort, you get to sit back, relax, and get an infotainment version of local history. Those were the likely expectations that led my hyphenated Larkin-Walker-Sands family to book the Gullah-Geechee tour on our last visit to Charleston, SC. Before the tour started, we milled around the ticketing complex reading the commemorative plaques with words something like: “Mr. Josiah Gordon erected these buildings in 1741.” The very ordinariness of these inscriptions made for easy reading and believing. But then we boarded the bus, and pulling out of the parking lot, the driver said this: “In 1741, these buildings were erected by more than 300 slaves.” Those were the wake-up words that brought our brains back into historical consciousness – back to reality. “Mr. Gordon” didn’t pick up a hammer to build a single one of those buildings. In fact, given his extraordinarily low personnel and production costs, he didn’t even pay for the buildings, let alone lay a brick. Chances are, a typical chamber-of-commerce would have offered up a more ordinary, culturally normative narrative, one made for easy listening. Such narratives favor one specific function: dull consciousness, deflect attention and distort the racial realities in the history of US.
After the Ogre, What?
January 20th was a warm glow day for me. With the official transition of power at high noon, I felt not only deep relief but also faint stirrings of patriotic possibility. Yet in spite of being gaga’ed by Lady Gaga, bursting with sisterly pride for soror Madame Vice President, I found my mind drifting southward, wondering what the fiends were up to in Mar-a-Lago. That I was even curious made me wonder what we – those of us who have been relentlessly focused on the malfeasance of the former POTUS – will do in his absence. The truth is that he is not really gone. Word has it that members of his family are already eyeing senatorial seats to extend his heinous legacy and claim power they believe is rightfully theirs. And just as he didn’t mysteriously appear behind the Resolute Desk, he will not magically fade away. His behavior can rightly be called aberrant, but not anomalous. His ascension to power was not a stealth invasion into our body politic. The space he occupies in our body politic has been consistently cultivated, protected, and reserved for him. Once we redirect our attention from his gauche displays of malice and mendacity, we are free to focus on truths about our US, individually and collectively. We are free to discern and discover our own participation in the politics of divisiveness. We are free to ask ourselves hard questions. What did we do or not do that enabled an autocrat to rise up in a space that defines itself as a democracy? To use the language of poet laureate Amanda Gorman, what did we say or not say that aided and abetted the lethal impulses of those who “would rather shatter democracy than share it”? In the absence of an ogre who will publicly and reliably foment racial enmity, how might we come to see US?
What Can “Enough of Us” Do?
In his inaugural address, President Biden called on “enough of us” to work together to heal the crises that corrode the soul of our US. Similarly, Amanda Gorman proffered the hope that our US is not so much broken as “unfinished”. If we are to cultivate that more perfect union with liberty and justice for all, what can enough of us do to resist allegiance to white supremacy? What can enough of us do to contradict an allegiance that justifies the desecration and destruction of indigenous communities? What can enough of us do to heal the intergenerational detritus of chattel slavery, an abomination that steeled the foundation of our capitalist economy?
We can de-colonize our language.
To de-colonize language, we have to do more than build up a glossary of au courant terminology. To decolonize language is to cultivate the capacity to listen and to speak with intelligence and integrity. It is an ongoing project, but here are four starter steps.
Pay attention to who’s speaking. Probably none of us can count the number of times we have heard the word “unity” in the past few weeks. Our work now is to discern how the speaker wants the word to function. Is it used to silence opposition? To provide cover for wrongdoing – as in “forgive and forget”? To mandate consensus or to invite connection? I tend to be suspicious when calls for “unity” come from the same legislators who screech for the right to bring their guns onto the congressional floor. Just sayin’.
Question default definitions. “Don’t worry about having to be politically correct.” That was the advice given in an academic journal to educators who encourage racial discourse in their classrooms. While this advice was no doubt well-intentioned, I wondered about the easy deference to a linguistic frame that turns logic upside down. Typically, it is a good thing to be “correct”; unless that “correctness” is associated with consideration of the “polis” – a community or collective. In that case, “politically correct” becomes an accusation, a linguistic subversion that minimizes the validity of the message and the messenger. The messenger can be discounted as a hypocrite or an intellectual coward; sensitivity and concern for the well-being of others render the message suspect, if not downright untrue. Enough of us can refuse to be apologetic for caring about the impact of our words on others. The corrective? What if instead of shrinking ourselves to fit inside someone else’s linguistic frame, we define our own terms. We say what we mean with courage and mean what we say with conviction.
The same rigor should be applied to language which on its surface seems to promote racial equity. Take, for example, the well-intentioned demands for culturally relevant curricula and pedagogy in our schools. We must still ask the tough questions about words that sound socially progressive: culturally relevant for whom and for what purpose? If “culturally relevant” is taken to mean highlighting black, brown, and indigenous folks (usually “heroes”) during the month of February, it is perhaps worse than an empty gesture. If “culturally relevant” means devising a pedagogy that deprives any child of access to skills and resources because of their presumed deficits, then we are widening the disparities that weaken and toxify our collective body. (A lifetime ago, I applied for a job as a choir director – music teacher in a poor rural county. The superintendent advised me not to try to teach anything like Mozart. “These children just need to try to learn songs like Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head.” Literally. He said that. The 21-year-old me was not up for the challenge. I backed out of his office and left the contract unsigned.) If we believe a “culturally relevant” curriculum is for black, brown, and indigenous children, we fail to educate white children. We will continue to teach a distorted history that creates an ill-informed citizenry, folks who are ill-equipped to participate in maintaining the health of our US. If “because of their unfortunate circumstances” we deny any child the opportunity to develop the numeracy and literacy skills essential for viability in the 21st century, we are adding one more brick to the structures of white supremacy.
We can pay attention to what is not said; enough of us can contradict the power of elision. A few days ago, one of my favorite journalists attributed the Warnock and Ossof wins in Georgia to high black voter turnout and the increasing influence of Asian, Latinx, and “suburban progressive voters.” His words reminded me of my teenage years when I would wake up to WRDW, the pop music radio station in Augusta, GA. Interspersed between songs by the Supremes and Herman’s Hermits would be local bits. Typically, they would sound something like this. “Last night, a man robbed the package store on the corner of 9th and Maple Street.” I would breathe a sigh of relief: at least the robber wasn’t black. The perpetrator was a man, meaning white. Had he had been black, he would have been identified as a “colored or Negro man.” Okay. That was a long time ago. So, getting back to my 21st-century journalist, why did he not ascribe a racial identity to his “suburban progressives”? Surely some of those black, Latinx, and Asian voters (a) live in the suburbs and (b) identify as politically progressive. What was gained and what was lost by the choice to not write white when he meant white. I don’t know why he (or his editors) made that stylistic choice; I do know it was not a race-neutral choice. Unnameability translates into power; it translates into freedom from scrutiny – freedom to occupy a more expansive landscape. Now, just as back then, a random white man can rob a liquor store and other white men are free to roam in spaces where they are assumed to belong. A random black man can rob a liquor store and any black man within a thirty-mile radius may be subjected to humiliating, and too often, lethal scrutiny because he “fits the description of.” I’m pretty sure the journalist did not intend to promote racial suspicion or enmity, probably just the opposite. I am saying that the racial elision leaves the word “white” in an unprotected space, available to be weaponized by the likes of the Proud Boys and their now departed Dear Leader.
Enough of us can talk back. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that we should tone down the “politically correct cancel culture on college campuses and our newsrooms.” As usual, Friedman makes an interesting point, albeit a menacingly incomplete one. It was not “cancel culture” that incited hordes of insurrectionists to invade the U.S. Capitol with nooses, zip ties, treasonous flags, and weapons of mass destruction. We need to talk back and call out what Walker Sands calls the “comfort culture.” The “comfort culture” requires silence and conformity. It was the “comfort culture” – the timidity of the newsroom that left the 45th POTUS undeterred in spreading his racist birther theory. Under the guise of “fair and balanced” reporting, the news personalities focused on the question of dispositive evidence, leaving citizen Obama continually susceptible to scrutiny as a possible imposter or worse, criminal.
What Can You Do with Ten Seconds?
The “comfort culture is always in recruit mode”, inviting us to shrink into behaviors and postures that protect and normalize hate speech. The “comfort culture” then rewards us with the illusion of belonging. Sometimes we only have about ten seconds to decide how we might decline the invitation. We have to start by noticing that we are being recruited – no matter how vague or subtle the invitation may be. Our guts tend to tell us before our thinking brains come online. Here’s a quick example. A few years ago, my hyphenated family was once again among a group of folks touring an Ohio beer factory. In his opening patter, the guide asked people to call out their home states. Among the group of twenty or so, my son and I were the only people with brown skin. Perhaps that is why a white woman expected laughter when she called out: “We’re from Washington, DC, but we left Obama at home.” She was rewarded with a few soft chuckles from the crowd. I honestly don’t remember what I said or did not say. (I prefer to think I filtered out my first words.) I may have said something facetious like: Gee, I hope he doesn’t figure out you’ve left home without him…or I may have simply glared. I was aware that this woman was expecting to be rewarded for telling a n****r joke, without actually telling a n****r joke. Whatever I did or said, it wasn’t eloquent. There was enough discomfort, however, that she managed to stand wherever I was not for the rest of the tour. Perhaps we shouldn’t require eloquence from ourselves in ten seconds. But we should require something of ourselves. Perhaps we can start by noticing that gut discomfort that arises in enough of us when we’re invited to accommodate gratuitous racism. There will be plenty of opportunities to practice – perhaps at the dinner table or across a “suburban” neighborhood fence.
“When Hope and History Rhyme”
We have survived the long-festering insurrection of January 6, 2021; yet our democracy is still in peril. We cannot ensure justice for all and protect domestic tranquility with hazy hope and idle imagination. If I could ignore the 45th POTUS into oblivion, I would. But wishing him away will not heal our political body politic. To pretend that he is not a part of US is akin to suffering from a political Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Until we have the courage to name our unhealed, unwanted, unlovable parts, we will continue to suffer. We cannot wait to be rescued by a benevolent, justice-loving crusader. (Remember “It’s Mueller Time!” That didn’t work.) Yet, behind the Resolute Desk there sits a President who actually loves poetry, who wants to govern from that “further shore… on the far side of revenge.” Enough of us can do something to expand the vision of what is possible for US. Some of us will participate in phone banks and marches. Others of us may teach or lobby for a tax justice that saves lives. Enough of us may reject the self-serving infotainment that gets passed off as news. Some of us may contribute time or money to help those who are a little more vulnerable than ourselves. Maybe more of us will offer and receive a little grace from people we do not know – without stopping to judge who is deserving. Grace can be amazing. Whatever enough of us do, we must know that we are not on an “easy listening” tour of our history: of who we have been, who we are, and who we can become. We can expect to have our comfort disrupted and to disrupt the comfort of others. Hope and history rhyme when we confront our past with clarity, claim the present with courage, and move toward our shared future certain with conviction that this is US.
By Way of Addendum…
With poetic and musical eloquence, Josh Groban offers us a reminder that there is beauty in embracing US.