Today is Martin Luther King Day. There are three ways that occur to me that one can think about Black History in America, and I would like to sell you on one of them. (This, by the way, is an internal discussion among Americans, so if you’re not one, never mind.) There is a fourth way (racism is awesome) that’s off the table. Also I use prototypes below; real people are composites; I get that.
The “conservative” view (for lack of a better word–I’m not trying to put everyone who thinks of themselves as conservative under this description) is to silently acknowledge that the history of slavery, Jim Crow, etc. is unfortunate, but represents an unessential deviation from the greatness of America as a land of freedom and opportunity. If this is your view, you will think of Jefferson as the author of the Declaration, not of Jefferson as the slave owner. And you will tend to think that people who keep coming back to the racial dimension of American history are using it as a pretext to disparage this greatness, hoping to ultimately substitute it with something fundamentally opposed, not just to racism, but to individualism, classical liberalism, capitalism, opportunity, etc.
The “progressive” view (same caveats) is to see this racism as essential to American history. Phrases like “America is founded on white supremacy” are heard. This view may or may not be opposed to individualism, etc. etc. but it is devoid of any sense of historical or communal identification with America as a nation, either in the political or cultural sense. It adopts at best a stance of ironic superiority towards the idea of an American nation, an American heritage. It may do this because it thinks that the only alternative to its view is the “conservative” view… which it tends to think is a disingenuous form of the off-the-table fourth view.
The first and second views hope that someday we will learn to forget all about something, they just don’t agree on what. I want to propose a third view that is committed to remembering. If you are a “conservative” as per supra, then the Civil War is something awkward for you. The most extreme way of disposing of it is to simply demonize the North, Lincoln, etc. and I have on rare occasions seen precisely this. One can draw a line from Lincoln to FDR to a kind of modern federal leviathan, and condemn it. This view, unfortunately, quickly shades off into the fourth, off the table view. If you are a progressive, oddly enough, it is also a bit awkward for you because it means that something of mythic proportions that is central to American identity shows America, the nation and the state, getting something right in an inspiring way for once. If this makes you sufficiently uncomfortable because it threatens your sense of irony, you can try to draw attention away from the Emancipation Proclamation and towards Lincoln’s occasional view that freed slaves should be resettled in Africa; it will not be hard to do this sort of thing because rather few whites in the United States in the 19th century thought and wrote like 21st century campus activists.
The third view goes something like this: America’s greatness lies in its vision of individual freedom, equality under the law, and democratic institutions (not saying we invented these things, or perfected them, but that this is what we are about or aspire to be). But a mature culture and set of institutions committed to these things was not present from the beginning, and did not come into existence overnight. It was the product of a gradual, and often tragically painful, historical unfolding of a latent essence (see Hegel for more on these kinds of processes). The oppression of black slaves was a part of our inheritance from the Old World, from a pre-Revolutionary Old World, a World committed to differences of caste, hereditary privilege, feudalism, etc. and as much as Americans would like to believe that by crossing an ocean and fighting a Revolution, we started from scratch, we didn’t. Slavery and its aftermath was the legacy of these older ideas and practices. (This is starting to sound like the conservative view but it isn’t; bear with me).
Here’s the twist: this historical self-actualization occurs through the dialectic of white oppression, black struggle, white acknowledgement and incorporation of black claims, etc. Here’s a small example: in the US, state governments may not violate an individual’s freedom of speech. This is not because the US Constitution says so in the First Amendment, but because the Fourteenth Amendment, one of the Reconstruction Amendments, protects individuals from acts by states which the Bill of Rights prohibits the federal government from committing. Think about this: if there had never been a Civil War, there would be no freedom of speech at the state level. Need I be more excruciatingly clear? YOU OWE YOUR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION TO AFRICAN-AMERICANS’ STRUGGLE TO BE FREE. I have long maintained that the “libertarian” or radical individualist vision of American politics is primarily owed, not to the Revolutionary era and its ideas, but to the Civil War. Because nothing more starkly educates you about the meaning of individual freedom than slavery does.
[My Nietzschean side cannot resist the following observation: Revolutionary notions of freedom spring, ultimately, from our pagan side, and are perfectly compatible with severe notions of social hierarchy, because they are ultimately rooted in aristocratic protest against tyranny, against the experience of a first among equals who gets too full of himself and dares to disregard the prerogatives of his aristocratic peers. Civil War notions of freedom, by contrast, are ultimately Judeo-Christian (unsurprising: look at the role of religion in the abolitionist community) and harken, ultimately, to the saga of the Exodus. America, like all of the West, is an attempt to synthesize these opposites. And my Hegelian side cannot resist going beyond where Nietzsche leaves it.]
To write slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era out of American history is to blind oneself to our essence, to the tragically painful but inspiring way that this historical process has unfolded, and how essential the struggle for black freedom is to it all. But ultimately the only way that Americans can experience a sense of community, heritage and historical significance is if we embrace this history as our own. Only in this way can we transcend alienation, irony, defensiveness, resentment that is the legacy of the boatload of horror that crossed the Atlantic with us. To do this is not to disingenuously regard “color-neutrality” as starting point and then resent anyone who deviates from it by speaking up about work not yet accomplished. It is to see the overcoming of racism as an aspiration that defines us as a nation, against the backdrop of a history of conflict from which we have learned and achieved many things happier nations never have the privilege to know.
Justice Scalia once said “there is only the American race” and he caught a lot of flack for that from people who misunderstood what he was, perhaps inarticulately, trying to express. The aspiration that defines this community is a community in which whites and blacks together see the nation and its struggles as their own, not in which we are “color-blind” and not in which we divide into separate, racially defined forms of resentment and defensiveness, but a nation in which we are all black and all white all together.
That is a creed. And every creed has its prophets. Scripture teaches not that prophets are perfect human beings, but that they are the voice of something essential that we do not want to hear, whose words subsequently define the community which we are, and thus the person that each of us is. Martin Luther King was a prophet in that sense. I am a proud American and so I am proud to call him my own because he is one of the great ones of My People. I hope you are too.