It’s January 7, 2021—the day after another of those days that will live in infamy in American history. The responses are predictable. This is not America. This is not who we are. This is a low point, but tomorrow we get better. I’m waiting for some hybrid of “It’s morning in America” and “Yes, we can!”
I appreciate the hunger for hope in such responses, the aspirational energy, the urge to reach beyond our grasp. I’d like to get paid on the basis of how many times people quote Lincoln’s longing for the better angels of our nature. In fact, I do believe that some things will get better as a result of the obscene debacle in the capitol of the United States of America.
I also believe that some things will get worse. That’s what so many people struggle to embrace – that the American project is now and always has been a dual process phenomenon. “History duels,” Ibram X. Kendi writes in How to Be an Antiracist, “the undeniable history of antiracist progress, the undeniable history of racist progress” (page 33).
That dueling consciousness, that dual process phenomenon, is the framework for a great variety of competing arcs in American history. Liberal democracy duels with strong man authoritarianism (just revisit the rhetoric of the nineteen twenties and thirties if you have any doubts about that). Equitable distribution of wealth duels with increasing concentration of privilege, power, and position. White male supremacy duels with the just demands of others for a place at the table.
No matter how pure our aspirations, we are not all one thing. I was reminded again this morning of Maya Angelou’s line: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” We white, privileged, comfortable, unconscious folks might wish that January 6, 2021, was an aberration, an outlier, a blip on the cultural radar, an exception. We cling to the illusion that this is not America.
But it is. It is not all that America is, but it is some of what America is. We who are privileged must give up our insistence on uncomplicated thinking and try to learn a thing or two about reality in this society, historically and in the present. We have to learn how to think two things at the same time, both of which are to one degree or another true.
I have recently read Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s book, Begin Again. Glaude admits that this book, focused as it is on the thought and writing of James Baldwin, is neither biography nor literary criticism nor history. “Instead,” he writes, “Begin Again is some combination of all three in an effort to say something meaningful about our current times” (Kindle location 191). In my view, Glaude succeeds brilliantly.
While W. E. B. DuBois famously wrote about the double consciousness necessary for Black Americans in his context, Baldwin explored, whether he wanted to or not, the double consciousness of White Americans. “To be sure,” Glaude writes, “the idea of America is in deep trouble.” Baldwin uncovers and returns to this insight repeatedly.
“Though many will find consolation in the principles of the founders or in the resilience of the American story,” Glaude continues, “the fact remains that we stand on a knife’s edge.” We are hearing the plaintive pleas of those who seek that consolation in our founding principles and who promise that in America we can do anything if we do it together.
But such pleas and promises, however well-motivated, tell only half the story. “Donald Trump’s presidency unleashed forces howling beneath our politics since the tumult of the 1960s,” Glaude reminds us (Kindle location 193). That howling became a hunt yesterday as insurrectionists came to the capitol with guns and zip ties, intending to imprison the very heart of American democracy.
Black Americans and American people of color are not shocked by the events of the last forty-eight hours. Nor do they find any news here. In fact, those events are crystal clear examples of the dueling impulses Kendi notes above. Indeed, Georgia voters have elected a Black man and a Jewish man to the United States Senate. That is cause for wild celebration. And the immediate response is an attack on the very system that made such an election possible.
Which one is America? Both are. Until we privileged white folks in the ruling class admit, repent, and reckon with some complicated thinking, we will continue to be stupidly surprised. “The American idea is indeed in trouble,” Glaude repeats. “It should be. We have told ourselves a story that secures our virtue and protects us from our vices. But today,” he concludes, “we confront the ugliness of who we are – our darker angels reign” (Kindle location 329).
Forty years ago, an earnest lay person pushed me on a point in an adult class. I have no recollection of the point. But I do remember the critique. “You don’t sound very optimistic about this country,” he accused. For him, that was a cardinal sin. “I’m not,” I remember replying as a right-thinking Lutheran theologian of the cross. “But because I’m a Christian, I’m hopeful that things can be different.”
I’ve changed in many ways over that span of time, but in this regard, I am the same. Blind optimism is a privilege of those whose positions are secure. We must be willing to see reality, and then perhaps things can be different. “Not everything is lost,” Glaude writes. “Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication,” he declares, “one begins again.”
Glaude reviews with us Baldwin’s diagnosis of American brokenness under the heading he calls “The Lie.” One element of The Lie is that “black people are essentially inferior, less human than white people, and therefore deserving of their particular station in American life” (page 7). The second element is the massive historical coverup of the trauma visited by white people on Black, Native and people of color, both here and around the world. “But the lie’s most pernicious effect,” Glaude writes, “when it comes to our history is to malform events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened by reality” (page 8).
This is the real problem with President-elect Biden asserting that “this isn’t America.” His intention is certainly otherwise. But in that statement, he cooperates with the malformation of our historical understanding that allows white male supremacy to hide in the shadows, adapt to the next bit of anti-racist progress, and then roar back into the spotlight for another round. Baldwin helps us to see all of what is America, not just the pretty bits.
Glaude notes that he uses Baldwin “as a moral compass.” Glaude asserts that we live in a period of racist “after times,” quite like the failures of post-Reconstruction and the judicial reversals of the Civil Rights era in the 1970’s and beyond.
Our after times are still a reaction to the election of a Black man to the office of the presidency. “Trump is the dominant manifestation of our after times. His presidency is the response to the political and social possibilities of Barack Obama’s election,” Glaude writes, “and the radical demands of the Black Lives Matter movement” (page 21). That response will certainly outlive Trump’s tenure in the White House.
That’s because Trump is not an aberration, an outlier, a blip on the cultural radar, an exception. He represents one part of who America is, a part that is more engaged and enraged than any time since the 1920’s. “Trump and his supporters have shattered any illusion that we might have passed through the moment,” Glaude says. “Some thirty years after Baldwin’s death we are still wrestling with the fact that so many Americans continue to hold the view that ours is a white nation” (page 27). Thousands of those Americans sought to commandeer the capitol of the United States on January 6, 2021.
What happens if we insist on thinking only one thing at a time? Not only do we unilaterally disarm in the face of white male supremacy for the sake of our mythical American goodness and innocence, but we become moral shadows as we try to maintain the façade. Baldwin understood that for white people to do to black bodies what we do requires that we drain our souls into the abyss of emptiness. White male supremacy makes and keeps us sub-human.
Saying “this is not America” can morph easily into saying there are “good people on all sides.” The danger is that we white people will come to another accommodation built on the bodies of Blacks and people of color. This was precisely the compromise of 1876 that led to the end of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow system of veiled and legalized slavery. The thin Democratic margins in the House and Senate put us at profound risk of another white man’s compromise.
Glaude quotes Vann Woodward in this regard. “Just as the Negro gained his emancipation and new rights through a falling out between white men, he now stood to lose his rights through the reconciliation of white men.” In the efforts to bring privileged whites back “together,” history tells us that it is likely that Black people and people of color will be sacrificed on that altar once again. That will certainly happen if we think only one thing – and if that one thing is the myth of American innocence.
Read Glaude’s book. And read Baldwin – repeatedly. I finish these thoughts with Glaude’s call to conversion. “We have to muster the moral strength to reimagine America,” he writes. “We have to risk everything now, or a choice will be made that will plunge another generation into that unique American darkness caused by the lie” (page 142).
America has been a system designed to maintain white male supremacy. And America is a place where real democracy can happen. Both are true. We Lutherans like to say that we are simultaneously sinners and justified. No wonder we humans have to think at least two things at once. If we do, we can leave behind the former tyranny and embrace the latter freedom, but only as we are willing to think more than one thing at a time and act accordingly.
Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Begin Again. New York: Random House, 2020.