The late, recently departed George Garrett, a white Southern writer of wide range and liberal sentiment, included this emphatic statement of principle in his memoir Whistling in the Dark: "I, too, must bear my burden of contemporary guilt like a student's obligatory backpack. But I flatly refuse to add to it one ounce, one feather's weight of historical guilt for anything. I am not guilty of or for the actions of anyone but myself."
Amen. Garrett, descendant of Confederate (and Union) veterans and the son of a Klan-busting Florida lawyer, wrote his disclaimer in reference to the Civil War. But in this year of Barack Obama when America's decency and honesty will be sorely tested, Garrett's rejection of historical guilt should be published and posted where every liberal—and especially every conservative—can see it and think about it.
We'll hear much about liberal guilt this summer, and not only from the right-wing rear guard snarling its furious retreat on Fox News and talk radio. (What does a weasel do when he can't attack a candidate with words of open racial hatred, or even—just since last year—refer to his wife as a "nappy-headed ho"? Assault his masculinity, what else? Already the probationer Don Imus, from somewhere under his scarecrow hairdo and Richard Petty's old hat, has libeled Obama as a "sissy man.")
But white enthusiasm for Obama is only mistaken for guilt by reactionaries who confuse their own prejudice with patriotic nostalgia: "What kind of a country is this when a man can't stand up and call these people the same names his grandpa called them?"
Unless perhaps you actually marched with Martin Luther King Jr., "Southern conservative" is not a self-respecting thing to call yourself because any nostalgia for the way we were implies open hostility to the aspirations of African Americans. In a year when historic change is possible and the South can play such a critical role, the neurotic behavior that might embarrass us isn't guilt but denial. The South of our fathers' and grandfathers' time was a dismal, dangerous place for people of color. Some of the fathers and grandfathers who made it that way, or did nothing to change it, are still living. We don't inherit their guilt, but we look like them, do you see? We look just like them.
A lot of Americans are like German tourists, who never harmed or perhaps even met a Jew, and are amazed to find a chilly reception in Tel Aviv. Though Jim Crow was considerably more recent than Adolf Hitler, lapel-pin patriots and insulated media hypocrites experience acute shock—or feign it—when they hear the heated rhetoric of black pride and empowerment from people like Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I'm still shaking my head over a Wright-bashing column by Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, invoking "liberal masochism" and "liberal self-laceration" to condescend to Bill Moyers, a journalist worth several hundred Joe Kleins. I hope Klein is always remembered for this grudging micro-concession, inserted parenthetically into his predictable denunciation of Wright: "He surely does have a historical beef." A "beef," Wright has? Play that over a couple of times, if you're not an African American. Would four centuries of enslavement, murder, rape, intimidation, segregation and humiliation entitle your people to a "beef"?
Inside what impenetrable bubble, in what deep reality-proof caves have Klein and the media lemmings been living? Wright is perhaps hyperventilating when he blames the AIDS epidemic on Dr. Mengele in Washington, but what else has he said that isn't worth considering? Osama bin Laden and Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber are terrorist murderers who deserve no forgiveness. Yet their critiques of the United States of America seem rich in insight, to me. Louis Farrakhan was never subtle enough to separate dirty, garden-variety anti-Semitism from the politics of the Middle East, but on the whole, his influence on the black community has been positive and much of his rhetoric defensible. As an epithet, the black militant's "Whitey" may never have the sharp bite of "Nigger," but you better believe it has a bite when you hear it in racially mixed company where you can't hide your pale face. The writer James Baldwin was no militant, but he wrote from the heart in Notes of a Native Son, "I wanted to do something to crush the white faces, which were crushing me."
"In my early years," historian John Hope Franklin writes in his memoir, Mirror to America, "there was never a moment in any contact with white people that I was not reminded that society as a whole had sentenced me to abject humiliation for the sole reason that I was not white."
"The history of the Negro and civil rights in America is not a pretty picture," Franklin once reminded a federal commission that wanted him to write a whitewashed version of African-American history. Franklin, who is 93, carries personal memories of every racist outrage, every grisly chapter except slavery itself. In 1921, his father's law office in Tulsa was burned in a race riot. In 1934, as an undergraduate at Fisk University in Nashville, he tried unsuccessfully to present President Roosevelt with a petition protesting the lynching of a black teenager who was abducted three blocks from the Fisk campus chapel. Franklin himself was threatened with lynching by a white mob in Alabama. And you don't have to be 93 to own ugly memories. Henry Louis Gates Jr., who used to teach at Duke with Franklin, writes in his memoir, Colored People, of a traumatic attempt to integrate a college bar in his native West Virginia in 1968: "A homely white boy with extra-greasy blond hair recovered and began to shout 'Niggers' as his face assumed the ugly mask of hillbilly racism. I stared at this white boy's face, which turned redder and redder as he turned into the Devil, calling on his boys to kick our asses: calling us niggers and niggers and niggers to help them summon up their courage."
Gates is a few years younger than I am. In 1979, about 40 miles from where I was living, TV cameras captured Klansmen in Greensboro executing left-wing demonstrators at point-blank range, including a black man with an Ivy League pedigree like Gates. No Klansman was convicted of anything, not even disturbing the peace.
Many people know Monroe, N.C., is the hometown of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, one of the South's last segregationist Neanderthals. Most don't know that it was also the home of the fearless Robert Williams, author of Negroes With Guns, a hero of the black power movement of the 1960s and founder of Radio Free Dixie, which broadcast his liberationist message from Havana after he fled kidnapping charges (very dubious, according to Williams' biographer Tim Tyson) in North Carolina. Williams, a local NAACP official, was radicalized when a jury acquitted a white man accused of raping a pregnant black woman in front of witnesses, including one of her children. Earlier he'd managed to attract national attention to the case of Hanover Thompson, eventually freed after North Carolina courts sentenced him to 14 years in prison for attempted rape—because a white girl kissed him on the cheek. Hanover was 9 years old. This was Monroe; this was 1958.
It was Williams, at a press conference in Monroe 49 years ago, who expressed most succinctly the African-American dilemma in a stubbornly racist American backwater. "If the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution cannot be enforced in this social jungle called Dixie at this time, then Negroes must defend themselves, even if it is necessary to resort to violence." Williams was addressing a flagrant breach of the basic social contract, which says that a citizen who obeys the law is entitled to its protection. A contract in which only one side complies is void; when the contract's terms are forced on the compliant by the noncompliant, it's no longer democracy, but terrorism. In the '50s in places like Monroe, where a Klan rally drew as many as 15,000 white supremacists, blacks and whites lived in two countries.
In 1955 David Halberstam, an innocent 21-year-old New Yorker fresh from the Harvard Crimson, hired out as a reporter in northeast Mississippi and covered a local election:
"When it came time for the Democratic primary, which in these days was the only election, Tom Tubb, who was our leading local politician, spoke at a public meeting and warned his electors not to let any of 'them' vote. He used the N-word. If they showed up, he said, take them out in back and take care of them—and if you don't know how to do it, I'll teach you."
The natural human reaction to such outrageous injustice is not resentment, distrust, paranoia or bewilderment—the natural reaction is rage. All Americans owe a great debt of gratitude to nonviolent black leaders like King, whose patience, forbearance and Christian idealism saved this country from so much bloodshed. But the black leaders I could understand, the ones whose psychology most closely resembled my own, were the furious ones like Williams, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Angela Davis. If you weren't angry, it seemed to me, you were either a saint, an accomplished Stoic philosopher or a defeated, humiliated, exhausted human being. Though many of these proud, furious black citizens must have been heroes in the best American tradition—remember dignity, self-reliance and "Don't tread on me"?—white media and white history marginalized them as criminals and traitors.
Williams lived quietly in Detroit, after exile in Cuba and China, and died of cancer at 71. His widow, interviewed shortly after his death, denied that he was ever a racist, a communist or an anti-American. "He loved his country," said Mabel Williams.
Robert Williams had "a beef," and he did a lot more than air it from a pulpit. African-American heroes are scarce in conventional histories because so many of the best, brightest and proudest of previous generations—Williams, Carmichael, Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois and the great Paul Robeson, to name a few—spent much of their lives, or ended them, in forced or voluntary exile. Their stories aren't flattering to the United States of America, and the same frauds who pretend to be scandalized by Wright would prefer to keep those stories untold. ("What I've been trying to do is correct American history," said Franklin. "I've not been trying to create a field. I've been trying to fill in what has been systematically left out.")
Only King, who traded his life for the honor, can be found on mainstream history's front page. But 40 years after his death they're still trying to airbrush his image. The United States Commission of Fine Arts commissioned a 28-foot statue of King for Washington's Tidal Basin and then rejected the martyr's granite likeness, by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, as "too confrontational." They only relented when Lei altered King's stern expression "slightly, to give the hint of a smile." White America may be willing to remember that King had a dream, but it's still reluctant to acknowledge that he had a beef.
The American cult of patriotic denial and moral make-believe has unfortunate parallels in other countries where right-wing parties suppress embarrassing history. In Germany and Austria they strain to delete the Nazis, in France the Nazis' collaborators, in Japan the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army against the Chinese and against its own citizens on Okinawa. The Japanese Right is perhaps the most toxic of all: The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe, 73, is still sued and harassed for disloyalty and lives under a threat of violent reprisal because he wrote books that told the truth about war crimes. Thugs who persecute Oe belong to a generation that played no role in the cowardice and cruelty that shamed Japan. According to Garrett's excellent doctrine, they came into the world scot-free of their fathers' shame. It's only by denying the truth—participating in the cover-up—that you acquire your own share of the national guilt. Only the truth, as always, will set you free. National honor is a tenuous abstraction, a flimsy tissue of rationalizations. Personal honor is all we have.
The next time you hear some history-deprived cable clown ranting about loyalty, think of Oe. But no one can trump Americans for self-righteous amnesia. If you're black and you choose to remember, someone on TV will call you bitter, militant and anti-American. If you're white and choose to remember, they'll call you guilt-ridden and self-lacerating, an effeminate masochist. They run a closed circuit of hypocrisy, this lapel-pin brigade. But everyone with good sense remembers what needs to be remembered. So few years have passed since King's murder, Williams' exile and Jim Crow's retirement. What can we reasonably request, from people so sinned against? We can request civility, and we can ask forgiveness for the old racist dragons still coiled in the branches of white family trees. That's a lot to ask. But amnesia is too much to ask, way too much. If African Americans have to live with the America white people made, white people will have to live with the black people who were its inevitable victims, many of them angry, bitter and disappointed.
The beauty of Obama, of course, is that he is none of these, nor does he have any good cause to be. Born the same year Williams was run out of North Carolina, the child of a white American woman and an African foreigner, he bears no inbred grudges, no blood memory of agony and violation, segregation or slavery. No painful family histories or festering personal resentments. From a white point of view, that should make him the ideal black candidate, the best white America could ever hope for unless it's determined to keep the White House white forever. All Obama knows firsthand of the race scandal is what it feels like to be a nonwhite person in America right now.
But what about his minister, what about his wife? Does he sing "America the Beautiful" in the shower, why is his lapel unadorned with stars and stripes? The blustering, McCarthy-era chauvinism that animates these inquests would be nothing but rich grist for the Comedy Channel if the electorate was more sophisticated, but the Right is smugly confident that it isn't. When Michelle Obama told Wisconsin voters, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country," it was a heartfelt burst of optimism that reflected the feelings of a majority of thoughtful, educated Americans, black and white. Race entirely aside, we live in a country where elected leaders endorse and encourage torture, where the same leaders have squandered most of America's international prestige and moral capital, where we're currently reading about American soldiers hanging Afghani prisoners by their wrists from chains. We all know exactly what Michelle Obama was thinking, but none of us are married to someone—someone nonwhite—who's running for president. The cable news shows played her innocent outburst like a message from Tokyo Rose. As a consequence she's been compelled to repeat, in public, so many times it's embarrassing, "I'm very proud of my country."
Before the campaigns are over, most of the cable news inquisitors and media patriots who vet clergymen and impose the pledge of allegiance will be exposed as jaybird-naked racists, like poor old Patrick Buchanan who has already urged Fox News customers to vote for "one of our own." I have a sad hunch that the 2008 election, like every racially charged battleground, will not be "a pretty picture." But Obama's nomination justifies enough hope to encourage us to hope for more. My enthusiasm for Obama is tempered only by a half century of experience with politicians. He appears to be an idealist and an altruist, though these are fickle voting groups that tend to eat their own: Their candidate is either Christ, Gandhi and St. Francis rolled into one or a sold-out disappointment (beware of the Ralph Nader Left).
The "experience" issue is another tedious red herring. Everyone knows there's nothing that can prepare you properly to be President of the United States. Presidents learn on the job, with the exception of the current president, who has proven to be ineducable. In many ways Obama is untested, even unformed. But symbolically he's an H-Bomb, a supernova, the only possible antidote for the poison that George W. Bush, with his mad oil war and criminal callousness, has injected into the national bloodstream. In every capital of the world, Obama's election doubles the value of America's stock and undermines all its worst stereotypes. He could resuscitate the United States without getting out of bed and leave a lasting legacy if he caught cold at his inauguration, like William Henry Harrison, and died of pneumonia inside a month.
Obama's election would be a stunning step forward. John McCain's election would be a stunning step backward, at a time when America can ill afford another false step. What's wrong with Obama? Not much that I can see, not compared to what's wrong with you if you think his election is a threatening proposition. His biggest problem is his father, that long-vanished African who left him nothing but obvious intelligence and some racial DNA that's never an asset in the Land of the Free. This obsession with race, which plays hell with so many societies and has been no less than a tragic curse for our own, is based on a genetic deviation so minute that it's virtually invisible to science. The difference between a black skin and a white one, according to a 2005 study by geneticists at Penn State, involves a change of one letter of DNA code out of 3.1 billion letters in the human genome. The divergence, they theorize, began with a mutation in one individual somewhere in Europe a few tens of thousands of years ago. Of course we—white people—are the mutants, along with our half-brothers like Barack Obama.