Murmurs and Antagonisms

Orthodoxy via Heresy

Category: United States

The Failure of American History

American history is, too often, a failure. This isn’t to say that America is a failure since, by most standards, we’re pretty powerful and successful (though, I’d argue, in the wrong areas). Rather, the way American history is taught is a failure. History is a construction, just like anything else. Events occurred and years down the line we attempt to construct an accurate, or acceptable, image of what occurred. And, so far, American history is taught from the constructed narrative of the dominant group, namely white folks of European descent and with liberal values. Yes, history textbooks will mention the slave system, the forced migration of large swaths of people to not only America but the West in general. Sure, they’ll mention a few stories about the Trail of Tears and the brutality that Andrew Jackson committed against Native Americans. But rarely do they emphasize how intimately tied to the growth of America these policies and actions were, and to some extent, still are.

The slave system is presented, conventionally, as a sad misfortune in this great land of Liberty. The opposite is in fact the case, as Du Bois states, “It was the plain duty of the colonies to crush the trade and the system in its infancy: they preferred to enrich themselves on its profits.” Instead of dealing with this evil the founders blatantly ignored it. The early history of America from, say, 1780-1830 were formative years in which the slave system was advanced in the name of profit. Andrew Jackson forcibly removed Native Americans from their lands to sell land to investors for cotton growth. Millions of acres taken by force and with bloodshed for the benefit of white landowners and that great profit maker: cotton.

Yet, somehow American history has been taught in a way that makes this unfortunate rather than a central focal point of the industrialization of America. Baptist notes in The Half Has Never Been Told that, “the 3.2 million people enslaved in the United States had a market value of $1.3 billion in 1850 – one fifth of the nation’s wealth and almost equal to the entire gross national product” (pg. 352). The slave system was one of the most disturbingly efficient means of production in the modern world. On those 3.2 million people’s a good half of America’s wealth came through primary, secondary, and tertiary effect. This wealth fueled the industrialization of America (Baptist’s book is a powerful resource on this).

But this isn’t taught in American textbooks. We weren’t taught that our first President spent three years attempting to catch an enslaved person who fled for her freedom. We minimize the complicity of our leaders and the men we admire. And American history has failed to deal with this properly. As Rabbi Abraham Joseph Heschel has noted, “that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Whether we like it or not our history has failed. We’ve failed to teach what founded this nation. And I wonder what it would look like differently. I also wonder what it means that Oklahoma lawmakers want to suppress this “bad” side of American history. For white Americans we are responsible, whether we like it or not. And we need to look at our past and deal with it seriously. We also need to realize the implicit racism we are born into and with. American history has failed to deal meaningfully with its past, a past built on the blood and labor of human beings from it’s inception well into the 20th century. All founded on whiteness as being the dominant group. I wonder what a re-centering would look like. And I don’t have an idea what it might look like but it needs to happen.

God Cried First: Thoughts on SELMA

[Critiques are welcome. Just thoughts I had right after seeing the movie last night.]

I don’t cry during movies. It’s not my type of coping with the feelings and experiences in a film. But I cried twice tonight. And it wasn’t just because the images on screen were moving— though they were. It’s more than that. It’s knowing that we’re not past the past, that my brothers and sisters of color are still fighting. And maybe they’re fighting me. And maybe they’re more broadly fighting the dominance of whiteness that has over run this country. In fact, there’s no maybe’s about it—they are. Tonight I saw the film “Selma” for free (theater chain let students in for free). And tonight I saw art. Art that spoke. Art that silenced.

The entire time in the theater I knew factually what was going to happen, at least to Dr. King. But it was no less pressing and beautiful to watch nonviolent (potentially the most violent) action happening on screen. So many thoughts are flooding my mind right now, too many to track and catch and tie down meaningfully…

I don’t think I should try to tie them down. I should just write. And as I write I think and think and think of what else to say. And there’s nothing. As my friend stated on Twitter: “‘Selma’ is singular,” and I think he’s right. Of the films nominated for Best Picture only two make sense to me : “Selma” and “Boyhood”. “Boyhood” only because it’s so artfully done and is a masterpiece of cinema and what slow film making can do. But “Selma”…”Selma”, I hadn’t even heard of it till about three weeks before it came out, and I normally keep up on films. It came out of nowhere. And of course I read reviews and all were correct on their praise.

But something hit home during the movie. Something beautiful seemed to click for me, or I guess, something’s been clicking for a year or so and sealed itself (more) firmly. For a year I’ve been trying to unlearn my ties to whiteness, I’ve desired to center black persons and bodies. And I know I’ve failed and messed up. But “Selma” made me realize something beautiful (a lot of beautiful things actually). During the final sequence when you have Dr. King and a whole army of beautiful souls singing freedom and smiling and walking proudly, the camera frame centers them, focuses on them, emphasizes them. They are the center. And I think it clicked for me that to take seriously the centering of black bodies I need to take seriously history. I need to take seriously what Laverne Cox so beautifully called, “The practice of freedom.” To do that I, we, need to take very seriously what Du Bois said:

“Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,—we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?”

Du Bois is right. And that’s what the movie reminded me of. Not my struggle. Not my song. Not my cheer, and not my blood. Martin Luther King Jr’s., blood, Malcolm X’s blood, and the thousands hung from trees and posts in the South. Their blood, their suffering, their toil, that’s what brought America to where it is. They are the heart of America, literally. I think I truly believe that now. I think I finally in some way see it now. I see more clearly what Du Bois was saying through this movie. As Dr. King (the character) says early on in response to a grandfather mourning the death of his grandson at the hands of police, “I know this…God cried first.” God cried first for Trayvon, for Michael Brown, for John Crawford III, for Tamir Rice, for Eric Garner, for Islan Nettles. God cried first for these bodies. God cried first. And I see humanity more truly, more beautifully than before. I left the movie in awe of the actors, actresses, director and screenwriter(s), everyone involved in the film. But I left humbled. I am part of “Jim Crow under a bald eagle,” whether I like it or not.

“Selma” is vital to the American consciousness I think. It makes black bodies matter to white people who only payed lip service previously. It made them matter more to me and I hope I haven’t just paid lip service. It’s odd and wonderful what a film can do to you. I think it made me more human. And I think it’s a reminder that God cried first. God always cries first when a black body is torn from this world by white supremacy, by the white supremacy I am embedded in.

Remarks on Jesus’ Blood

Blood is weird.

Anidjar thinks blood exists everywhere and he’s not wrong. Blood functions within Christianity rather oddly. This function is summarized nicely by the line, “Oh, how precious is the flow/that makes me white as snow/no other fount I know/nothing but the blood of Jesus.” I’ve been thinking about this line, about the ironic ability of red blood to make white (or is it white blood making white?). Even that phrase, “makes me white as snow,” seems odd. Making white, odd. In American history blood and sin tie together in intimate ways that reflect a strange back and forth between blackness as privation and salvation as life in whiteness.

I think my hesitance with this hymn stems from the fact that it bears a similar line of argument to that of Samuel Cartwright’s abhorrent argument regarding the blood of African Americans. His argument goes as so:

It is the red, vital blood, sent to the brain, that liberates their [African Americans] mind when under the white man’s control; and it is the want of a sufficiency of red, vital blood that chains their mind to ignorance and barbarism, when in freedom.

Earlier Cartwright states that the blood of a person of color is darker than that of a white person. And if Anidjar is correct in states that “Blood must become a category of historical analysis,”(44 of Blood) then the logic of Cartwright and the hymn go hand in hand and a brief look at the function of blood seems apt.

Without the white washing blood of Jesus one is unable to be “saved” which really only means, in American Christianity, being more white. “Christian master, enter the dark cabin of thy servant [read: slave], and with the lamp of truth in thy hand, light up his yet darker soul with the knowledge of him, whom to know is life eternal…” (A.T. Holmes, “The Duties of Christian Masters”). The gospel no longer stands as an end, but a means to extract labor, to civilize. The ultimate goal of the message of Jesus seems to be: blackness is the privation of the saving blood of Jesus that makes white as snow the “still darker soul” through enslavement’s catalyzing effect on blood flow.

My friend Melanie has written much more beautifully, and holistically, along a similar vein of thought here.

To White People: Protests

This is not the end of the conversation. It is not even the beginning. This is not me laying down truth but trying to understand American history. The accusation and condemnation of riots/protests in the wake of Ferguson speak to an ignorance of our nation’s history. These condemnations speak also to a misunderstanding of the current age, of the function of protests. However, I can’t explain protests, I don’t have anywhere near the definitive grasp on the subject. But I do wonder if (a mild rereading of?) Nietzsche might offer some helpful explanations of the function of protest, in any form (race related, wage related, etc.)

…the underprivileged have no comfort left; that they destroy in order to be destroyed; that without morality they no longer have any reason to “resign themselves” – that they place themselves on the plain of the opposite principal and also want power by compelling the powerful to become their hangmen. This is the European form of Buddhism — doing No after all existence has lost its “meaning.”

This “doing No” presents itself as a subversion of purpose and meaning. Nietzsche casts aside the notion that meaning/purpose are mind independent metaphysical truths or facts. Instead, meaning, like most anything else, is a construct, an invention. And for the underprivileged resistance functions as an active negation of meaning. So too with morality. What has been said of meaning can be said about morality.  Meaning and morality are made by those in power.

Example: Mike Brown’s murder served as a catalyst for protest. But it’s not an isolated incident. Reactions were not so much shocked, it seemed, but angered. And rightfully so. But in the case of Eric Garner it seemed inevitable that an indictment of some sort would be leveled. There was video evidence showing what appeared to be a choke hold, showing police using excessive force, but once more: no indictment. The protests that erupted seem to stem from the fact that the morality handed to persons of color by white supremacy failed. Because of this resignation can no longer be the answer. Instead, forcing the oppressor into a damned if you do or damned if you don’t situation becomes inescapable.

But I’d like to make clear: persons of color have known of this oppression for the entirety of American history. They have been on the receiving end of the violence of whiteness. This post is a white person attempting to make sense of riots and their meaning for other white persons. I’m trying to argue that any riots at any time are a reaction at the failure of morality given by the One (whether that be the State, Company, or Police).

Riots and protests are the cry of a positive nihilism of sorts. I think, for me, this is why discrediting the protestors seems inane. Criticizing the protestors misses the question of Du Bois, asked in their actions: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” That question is being asked still today, Is America really America without its’ minority populations? David Walker was right in his “Appeal” in saying that African Americans were the only ones who truly appreciate the notion of liberty.

Response to Kevin Williamson

[TW: transphobia]

Cox’s situation gave him an intensely unhappy childhood and led to an eventual suicide attempt, and his story demands our sympathy; times being what they are, we might even offer our indulgence. But neither of those should be allowed to overwhelm the facts, which are not subject to our feelings, however sincere or well intended.

This from arguably one of the most poorly articulated pieces on trans folks I’ve ever read. I get what Williamson attempts, and in some misguided sympathy, can admire what he is trying to do. But shock for shock’s sake ought to be governed by some kind of sensibility. And, thankfully, unlike Matt Walsh, Williamson actually writes well and with some sense of vigor. But his article is still garbage.

The main flaw I find with his idea comes down to biological determinism. He constantly appeals to scientific “fact” as if it were some new deity we can bow our heads to in submission. Scientific “fact” however is malleable and extremely subject to change. Never mind that Williamson appeals to basic observable facts and ignores the studies done on the minds of trans folks themselves which seem to indicate more to this discussion than initially thought. So, for all the appeals to science he seems to not actually care about science as it continues to evolve and develop (isn’t that sciences purpose?).

Additionally, for one who presents himself, seemingly, as opposed to the tyranny of the government he seems hell bent on imposing tyranny of science upon a portion of society the tyranny of “objective fact”. Nikolai Berdyaev, in his classic Slavery and Freedom,  states, “The free man ought not to bend the knee either before history or before race or before revolution or before any objective unity which makes pretensions to universal significance” (71). The point being that sex is an objective unity which makes claims to being significant. Male and female somehow mean importance on a universal level. Mr. Williamson engages in a monism which is, “. . . the denial of personality and freedom” (68). Williamson assigns categories to people and thus denies their personality, he objectivizes them and makes them into a mold, an item and cog in the machine of societal functionality.

Look. I doubt Mr. Williamson will ever see this brief response. Heck, even if he does I could care less if he were to acknowledge it since I’m an eighteen year old kid who has a passion for people and loving on them as best I can. All I do have are a few things I wish to say in regards to this topic, stemming from Williamson’s Laverne Cox piece and his previous Chelsea Manning piece:

1. Comparison of a man wishing to be tigress seems inane and superficial. There’s a difference of species to species change and identifying and experiencing dissonance between assigned sex and gender.

2. Seems to lack appreciation for the intersection of language and science.

3. While I appreciate that in his Chelsea Manning piece Williamson actually provides stats and extrapolates on his argument he seems to lack sensitivity to those who experience gender identity problems. In fact, suggesting that there be some sort of therapy to better help people cope with their gender problems (sounds startlingly similar to reparative therapy for gay folks) misses the point. I appreciate his concern for the duty of doctors but I wonder if he realizes some of the more recent statistics regarding trans folks?

4. But I have a problem with how he went about these articles. He has a tone which strikes me as divisive, schlocky, and frankly, poor. Instead of engaging he seems to want to sit on his pedestal and speak “truths”. Instead of engaging, opening up, he shuts down. He misgenders (which is violence) and perpetuates the idiocy of trying to discuss without patience and openness.

So, Mr. Williamson, please reconsider. I admit these are the half formed thoughts of a soon to be college student and I don’t have all the answers. But there’s more to this world, Mr. Williamson, than is imagined in your philosophy.

AIDS: An Ongoing Epidemic

I’m angry.

Angry at people, society, the past, the Church, and how people are silent today. And I’m angry for my friends, fellow members of humanity. My friends who have suffered, who know people who died and are suffering still and face the unbearable wall of silence from . . . everyone. Since the 1980’s, when, for America, AIDS hit home, it took the normal swell of social controversy. Up went the outrage (rightfully so) and after pills came out to help down the swell went. Privilege called and finally the epidemic seemed to recede. But it hasn’t. America and Canada and the Western world generally may have achieved equality for gays and lesbians but only at a cost, a cost which now rages onward, with little to nothing done on the matter.

I’m linking to a post by a friend who says everything much more aptly than I can. He’s opened my eyes to the singular vision that we have in the US, a vision too narrow to get past our own comfort and see how much there is in the world still needing to be done. Read. Listen.

(Side note: I think I’m gonna do a blog series about AIDS and probably post more about it on Facebook and social media. Something needs to be done even if all I’ve got is emotion, a computer, my privilege and social media and time.) Please read the linked article below after the jump.

If LGBTs are scapegoated abroad as the source of the spread of a pandemic that people in the west, in rich nations are blind and clueless to now.

If I express outrage at the horrors inflicted against my brothers and sisters in the news that I see, but not at its source and cause.

If that points right back to our own silence and inaction. If it points to teachings of lapses of morality that we’ve sown in foreign lands.

Then let me stay single and unmarried.  Silence the voice that only cares about my own narrow scope of rights. Silence the voice that has seen much and should know better.

(If I’ve Survived to Achieve it All by Kenny Pierce)

 

Cross as Destruction of Structures

The cross is a violent act, a violent moment in time. On the cross we see a man brutally displayed in all his humanity and without dignity.

Yet, the cross is a self-defeating act, too. For, on the cross, we find a man, destroyed, beaten, by the powers of his age. But the violence done to Jesus is violence done to the structure(s) of the time, the powers, the State. By employing violence on a peace-making Rabbi, the son of God, they employ violence on themselves. Thus, the cross is self-destruction – of the powers and the violence upon which the State is (too often) predicated.