What is the United States of America?

 

“Has it been like this in the past or is this something new?” my friend Pádraig asked.

We were sitting in one of the coffee shops close to Purdue’s campus, and around us I could hear the familiar chatter one associates with a café that caters to college students, professors, and artsy town folks. For the past three years Podge and I have had a standing coffee date where we mostly discussed the field of history, and where we were in our respective research projects. But on that day intermixed with the chatter of planning the upcoming fall semester, I could hear the words “Virginia,” “Nazi,” and “Antifa” swirling about the tables as if it were an espresso machine mixing seemingly unrelated ingredients together in an uncomfortable froth.

It was the Wednesday following the white supremacist rally and neo-Nazi terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several pro-democracy protesters were injured, one was dead. And Lafayette, Indiana, like much of the rest of the country, was discussing what it meant.

“Yes and no,” I answered. Three years earlier, Podge had immigrated to the US from Ireland. He was somewhat familiar with American history, but it was not his primary research focus.

I explained to Podge that such attacks and demonstrations of white supremacy were, in fact (and unfortunately), not unprecedented in US history.

As I explained the history of the US, framing it as a larger project of British imperialism that made use of (and in many ways created) white supremacy to justify the white English speaking people’s conquest of North America, I remembered back to the class I had just finished teaching for the summer. It was the first half of US history, and as I explained to Podge the long, sordid history of events like Bacon’s Rebellion, American slavery and apartheid, and the southern Confederacy, all the previous lectures I had just finished flashed through my mind.

Throughout the class I had encouraged my students to think of the first period of US history, roughly the 1600s to 1860s, as a period which provided a way for us in the present to understand how nations formed.

“What is nationalism?” I asked in several lectures. “It is an imagined community, a social and cultural space in history that gives rise to a sense of shared purpose, identity, and cause.”

(Benedict Anderson, obviously, had been the honorary theorist for the semester)

“But how does that shared identity and community work,” I asked in one lecture, “if the US is built on, and perpetuates, a system of white colonial settlerism?”

The easy answer would be to say that the US national project was unachievable, that any push for democracy or revolutionary change in the US context was impossible at best, a dream meant to dupe the naïve at its worse.

But, as I explained through the course, such a cynical reading of American history erased the very people who had been subjected to that colonial hierarchy, and who had fought, resisted, and rebelled against it. From the Enclosure Acts, to the forced removals of Indigenous Americans, to chattel slavery of Africans, peoples on multiple continents had been brutalized and resisted the broader rise of global capitalism in the Atlantic World. Rebellions, “Frontier” Wars, and uprisings were as much a part of the early history of the United States as was the history of upper class colonial rule. In so far as the US was a civilization dedicated to revolution, liberty, and democratic equality, it was such a society because of those who fought back and rejected the broader project of imperialism.

My major point for the course, therefore, was that at the very heart of American national identity sat a deadly contradiction, one that had never been fully addressed.

“Understand that,” I explained to the class, “and you will understand the rest of US history. We are a national community based on high ideals of equality, self-determination, and a democratic political ethos. But the US was also born out of white supremacy and imperialism, and that history is just as important as any democratic ideal.”

A revolutionary democracy and a colonial settler state. A dichotomy that generated historic conflict, and which framed US history. This understanding drew a bloody red line from Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 to the “Unite the Right” fascist rally in Virginia in 2017.

Once I finished explaining it, how Richard Spencer and company misused history to falsely claim that whites had been “noble” explorers “taming” the “New” world, Podge sat for a moment quietly taking it in.

“So,” he said at last, thinking about his own home of Ireland, “it’s all the fucking British Empire’s fault.”

“God save the queen,” I replied dryly.

+++

Prior to the fascist terrorist attack in Virginia I had already planned on organizing my survey classes by asking a series of overarching questions that would hopefully lead to a broader understanding about past and present periods, and what had led to our current moment.

Modern World History, 1490-2000s would focus on the question “What is modernity?” and would use the class to get students to understand that the concept of “modernity” was in large part a socio-political ideology which argued for a certain trajectory of historical development.

The two other sections, History 151: US History Until 1877 and History 152: US History From 1877, would deal with the question “What is a nation?” and “What is democracy?” respectfully.

This pedagogical approach would steer my survey classes away from the typical slog of facts, figures, and dates most textbooks followed, and instead encourage the students to see history as a complex and everchanging conversation between the past and our own present period. But in order to do this I first needed to frame the classes as a conversation, and not a few weeks of me preaching an established set of information. Instead, for the conversation to take place, we would need to begin with a basic question, the first step in any process of learning via dialogue.

By understanding that modernity is a political ideology, students would be able to question the entire project of our current civilization, one that many in power want to convince them is a steady march toward unending, automatic, progress. Next, by asking what historically is the basis of a modern nation they would see how events that occurred in the past radiated into our own period, informing the very way we relate to one another on a cultural, social, political, and economic basis. And finally, after having seen that an ideology of modernity created an unquestioning faith in progress, and that this “progress” helped sustain the very white supremacist colonial project at the heart of US nationalism, students would be able to take a third class that completed the exercise by asking “What is democracy?” exactly, and as a result begin seeing that the social, political, and economic movements to win dignity, power, and security for people were a broader historical project to alter society and move beyond history’s longer shadow.

It remains to be seen how successful this approach will be, but the hope is that once I am working full time as a college instructor, students would be able to take all three of the survey courses and develop a broader set of historical skills and comprehension.

It is a set of skills that I think are vital for us in the present. After Podge and I finished our coffee and he headed out, I began reading for a project I was working on, and couldn’t help but overhear the two men behind me.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about Antifa,” the first guy said.

“Yep,” the other answered.

“I mean, look, I am against the Nazis, but Antifa just goes too far.”

“What? Why?” the second guy asked.

“Well, you know… they destroy property and stuff,” anti-Antifa guy answered.

“Fuck that shit,” the pro-Antifa guy responded. “That is neoliberal bullshit. Property? Who gives a fuck. Nazis are talking about genocide, literally murdering people, and society wants me to think some business’ profit is the most important thing to worry about? Antifa is fighting to try and stop these fascist pricks from getting more power. If the state did what it was supposed to do, then Antifa wouldn’t even need to exist.”

I went back to taking notes. Online and on campus the sentiments expressed by the two friends arguing over “Antifa” were nothing new. Antifa was literally just the “antifascist movement,” but it was typically meant to designate the more radical anarchist street groups who engaged in direct militant actions, such as physically fighting back against the fascists in places like Virginia. Antifa was getting more attention as their tactics to intimidate and stop Nazis gained more attention, and were credited by people like Cornel West with having saved lives.

The two friends continued to argue some more, mostly about what was most effective in stopping the spread of fascism, but instead of focusing on the anti-Antifa guy, I was genuinely curious about the pro-Antifa friend. Although perhaps not a majority, he was voicing something that I was finding to be a growing opinion.

Fascism is evil. Those who fight it should not be chastised, but thanked.

Again, it got back to what I hoped would be achieved by asking students to ask the broader question, “What is democracy?” By showing them that past actors had been forced to fight, sometimes with force, for basic rights they would hopefully see that US history wasn’t predetermined with the “good guys” being endorsed by society at large. Instead, activism in all periods had been met with some form of opposition, be it government, religion, or corporations. Therefore, activism then and now, was not about automatically being on “the right side of history” but instead it was a longer engagement with society to win major concessions to expand democracy, centering sovereignty and dignity in the individual, and not government power.

Democracy is therefore a way of life, and as such it is more than a political system to delineate power. It is, in simple terms, an ethical and moral outlook that imbues the people of a given community with automatic and inalienable rights. These rights are normative claims that position the individual as a being deserving of dignity. We afford these rights to one another not out of fear that someone may eventually try to harm us, or because humans are alienated individuals who must go it alone, but because as ethical actors we acknowledge that beings have a fundamental dignity to help guide and shape the community we share. In other words, democratic rights serve a dual purpose of empowering an individual and bolstering a democratic civilization.

Democracy, in other words, is not apolitical. It is not an arena where “anything goes,” and it sure as hell shouldn’t be a “marketplace of ideas” where popularity alone determines the validity of a principle. It is a socially constructed sphere where we engage in meaningful dialogue, decision making, and self-exploration so as to improve ourselves, our societies, and our collective knowledge.

One could not trust the weight of “modernity” to carry this forward, anymore than one could assume the relations of a modern nation would sooth over continuing issues of oppression. Only through conscious effort to expand the democratic sphere, pulling out of history’s death grip gravitational pull, could people in a particular period hope to better themselves and future generations.

As such, not all political views are compatible with democracy. Some are, in fact, anti-democratic. Authoritarianism is anti-democratic. Fascism is anti-democratic. Religiously based terrorism is anti-democratic.

Therefore, when people fight authoritarians, or fascists, or religious extremists especially in the cases where those ideologies have a historic legacy of hegemonic power, then the person in question is not “just as bad” because they fought. Fighting and resisting evil is not itself evil.

The the Antifa, BLM, and left-wing socialists and liberals are not evil for fighting Nazis.

Decades of reducing historic understanding to shitty B-movies where John Wayne strutted around on camera talking about “fighting the bad guy” has produced a widespread ethical outlook that simultaneously celebrates violence when it is the US military blowing things up, while shrieking in terror when people organize and protest actual Nazis.

In fact, one could argue that the celebration of such American figures, like John Wayne, has not just produced a confused ethical outlook on violence, but has in fact created a cultural script that normalizes certain types of violence, even celebrating violence when it is violence in service to the broader imperial project of the United States. As we all know, the western portions of North America were not “settled” in any real sense of the word by English speaking colonists. Indigenous people had long lived in the multiple areas the US eventually claimed as territories. Yet even beyond this, the Spanish, French, and Latin Americans had a long standing presence in these areas, in some instances dating back centuries.

That history is still present in the very words we speak.

Los Vegas. Los Angeles. Baton Rogue. New Orleans. Santa Barbara.

All of this makes the present day cultural essentialists, freaking out about multiculturalism and multilingualism, all the more ridiculous.

The US discovered nothing, no matter how one looks at it, in its economic and geographic expansion. Instead, the “settling” of the West was really an incorporation of these areas into the East coast’s rising industrial corporate capitalism. In so doing, the US established a multicultural sprawling empire that had a bizarre relationship with violence as a political and economic tool.

Violence in the expansion West? This is typically treated in many mainstream understanding as just an unfortunate by product of a “clash of civilizations,” as unavoidable as a planet’s gravitational pull.

Violence used against foreign governments, such as the US’s use of violence in the Allied cause against German, Italian, and Japanese fascism? That is not only tolerated, but is in fact celebrated, with movies, monuments, and holidays dedicated to the organized violence the US deployed.

How, then, can the current inhabitants of a country like the United States, especially those who take part in celebrating and honoring certain expressions of violence, retreat in terror when they hear groups make the argument that white supremacists and fascists need to be forcibly opposed?

A movement, such as the fascist movement in modern America, is fundamentally anti-democratic. As such, if that movement were to ever gain widespread power (and take a hard long look at many elected officials to see how possible that is) then the very democracy we say we cherish would be destroyed.

To further illustrate how ridiculous saying fascists have democratic rights, imagine the following:

We do not debate whether or not Christians should be put to death, just as we do not have a dialogue over how many rights we are going to strip from heterosexuals, just as we do not have a friendly discussion over how many white people will be murdered after the next election. To entertain any of these ideas, especially in a political movement, would be met with alarm and terror. And that is the cognitive disconnect many white people have when they say “Nazis have a right to march and try and convince people in the public sphere.” It reeks of privilege, because for the white person there is no widespread danger that should the fascists succeed they would be harmed. Their nation, their imagined community can survive it. In fact, it was built on that very delusion.

In other words, it walks up to the question, “What is democracy?” and fails miserably to answer it.

Now, granted, even the white liberal and conservative would not be safe should fascism ever succeed. Fascism is never content with just a moderate amount of power, since as an authoritarian movement it believes in stripping the individual of any and all dignity (i.e destroying democracy). Only those with the savagery to will themselves to power via violence are to be respected. Compassion and tolerance are weaknesses to them, and that is the world the white moderate would permit to come into existence by tolerating fascists to first be normalized, and then gain power. It is why the pro-democracy movements have been so vital in US history, and it is why I hoped that by being able to answer the question “What is democracy?” historically, students would have a basis for a usable past to construct ethical and meaningful actions in their own lives once they left the classroom.

Perhaps that is far too naïve on my part, but it is what I hope nonetheless.

+++

The day after the fascist rally and white supremacist attacks in Virginia, Allison and I went to the vigil activists in Lafayette had planned. We met at Riehle Plaza with hundreds of other community members to protest and resist both what had happened in Virginia, and what was happening in the larger Trumplandia, USA.

To put it in perspective: It took months of planning for the American Nazis to get only 500 people to the University of Virginia. Yet, in less than 48 hours after their vile acts, over 700 counter marches sprung up around the country. This obviously does not equate to an automatic victory, but it shows that those committed to justice, equality, and democracy are not weak or few. We, as denizens of this moment, have the ability to change the world and move beyond the US’s long shadow of hate and oppression, be it a shadow cast by history, the current President, or a statue of a Confederate general.

Of course, current attitudes are not permanent, and over time this broad support could evaporate.

But this is a concern that is far from new. To me, the issue of opposing fascism is not some “new” issue that we are suddenly charged with undertaking. Instead, it speaks to a much longer history in the US of struggling to define exactly what “The United States of America” means as a civilization, a nation, and a historic political culture. Much of the work of what that antifascist movement looks like has been pioneered, both by previous generations of social movements, and even in more recent times with platforms and agendas put out by broader coalition of groups, like those associated with BLM.

In those platforms calls for transgender rights, global justice, reparations from governments which have benefited from theft and oppression of people of  color, and a broader multi-racial alliance against racism have been clearly articulated.

As one such site for the Movement for Black Lives (#M4BL) argues, “In response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country have come together with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda. We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”

The BLM group continues by contextualizing the fight to define and control what the US should be is a project with global implications.

“While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation. We also stand with descendants of African people all over the world in an ongoing call and struggle for reparations for the historic and continuing harms of colonialism and slavery. We also recognize and honor the rights and struggle of our Indigenous family for land and self-determination.”

In other words, the fight against fascism and white supremacists is a fight with historic precedent. We will continually return to this point, where the very worst elements of the US are highlighted by fascists in the streets and white supremacy in the government, and the very best is demonstrated by the people’s of the US who push for greater democracy, greater inclusion, and sustained fights for social justice.

We are not a species doomed to repeat the past. We are just historic actors in a period of time that have inherited a society. These issues will eventually be resolved. The US will, eventually, cease as a civilization (that is the nature of historic change). I just hope that the better angels of the US prevail in that time.

As we met in Riehle Plaza for the antifascist rally, a few of the locals spoke about the importance of fighting fascism and racism on all fronts. One couple even framed their justification for fighting white supremacy by explaining in very broad terms how “whiteness” was something colonial elites created centuries ago to keep people apart and control the masses. It was far from a perfect retelling of US history, but it was essentially right. There, in the streets of a small town in Indiana everyday people were voicing a fairly radical critique of US history.

Again, one counter march does not win any victories, but it is a reminder to me that a united popular front against white supremacy is not only possible, but in fact already exists. We simply must figure out how to utilize it for ourselves and future people. Our efforts will go a long way in defining the US.

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20/20 at the Carnegie Museum of Art

20/20: An exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, July 22nd through December 31st 2017

REkOGNIZE: An installation by Bradford Young at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, June 16th through December 31st, 2017

When you explore the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of images on display. That this museum connects to others—scientific and historical—and a grand library—filled with books with images as well—only adds to this effect. One knows as well that there is always more. In this sense of the museum as a collection of horded paints and statues, it is easy to miss the little contexts that ascribe the material place behind the unworldly image in focus. In particular, it is easy to look over the smaller squares of text in small-caps on the identifying tags and museum guides that explain how a particular piece came to the museum. A women’s collective raised the money to place a Greek statue of a naked, male torso in the museum in the early 20th century, a time in which female artists would be denied access to male nude models for life study. Dozens of paintings appeared in Carnegie International shows and were bought for the permanent collection, with a yellow tag to indicate the year they appeared. (Marie Cassatt’s Young Women Picking Fruit [1891] is an interesting example, having been featured in one of these shows but not purchased until several years had passed.) Many pieces offer a history in which the art was an exchange in which the artist was personally involved and had a notion of what was going to happen to the artwork once it was purchased. In a small area of the museum dedicated to African and pre-13th Century art—a deep red, narrow hallway—the identifiers become more elliptic. A large sarcophagus covered in carvings of gods in sensual pleasure scenes offers no information on where exactly it came from, though it is clear that this was removed from a grave site. What has happened to the body? The Asian, Egyptian, and Roman art contains identifiers that tell the story represented in the images, naming the gods and their relationships to each other. The African pieces—several of which are from the 20th century, and are mingled with little to distinguish from older works—often are described only as headdresses, masks, or sculptures. There is only mystery, not mythology. A 20th century mask from the Bamileke culture, Cameroon, is just “Mask,” followed by a list of materials that it’s made of, including human hair and shells which were weaved into the hair to create a beaded cloak. The description of the way it got to the museum is as follows: “Gift of Walter Ogrodnik, Peace Corps Volunteer, 77.16.” There is no volunteering of information.

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Mask. Carnegie Museum (Photograph by the author)

There is an uneasy relationship between Western museums and non-western—or “not-white”—art. The praise brought about for artistic representations from non-white cultures has often focused on the “primitive” or “unrefined” aspects of a piece of statue or a mask, rather than focusing on the merit of the image itself. The primitivist craze of early 20th century modernism had the effect of both creating new space for artists of color within the white gallery space, while at the same time compounding and reinforcing racist and eugenicist ideas about intelligence and development in those who wanted their ideas validated. “Whiteness is a kind of cultural canvas upon which American existence is depicted in myriad artful visions of the possible,” Patricia J. Williams writes in a preface to Maurice Berger’s White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art (2004). “And blackness has been for too many generations whatever was left over” (19). The space allowed does not offer much room for movement, and the tolerance that can proclaim and justify Duchamp’s readymade can, in the same paragraph, damn artworks made from found material by contemporary Brooklyn artists as “not art.”

The 20/20 exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of art, a collaboration with The Studio Museum in Harlem, is a means of addressing the schism between “white art” and “not-white art,” specifically black art. Inspired by a portrait of the young Lincoln by Horace Pippen from 1944, the exhibit attempts a fractal portrait of representations of blackness through the last century. The artworks are varied and travel in subject matter to address centuries of misinterpretation and the voluntary ignorance of assumption. Artworks in this exhibit have a tendency to lean towards the simultaneous depiction of multiple histories, commending on past and present in equal measure, occupying two spaces at one time. As the title implies, one of the aims of the exhibit is the correction of vision: not only the images of the black body in art, or what these images lack, but the black artist—particularly in their previous absence.

The photographs of Gordon Parks are so clear and crisply constructed that his images have the feeling of movement, emotional development, and existential resonance the longer one looks at them. Emerging Man, Harlem, NY, is a 1952 photograph taken to represent a deleted passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a literal representation of the protagonist’s return to the surface after descending into the sewers. Even with the sense of motion in the early day rising behind the subject, his eyes do not blink; nor do they break our gaze. The viewer breaks contact first. This image is contrasted with images taken for the Pittsburgh Courier by Charles “Teenie” Harris, documenting the lives of Pittsburgh’s black community. The subjects of Harris’s photographs look out at the viewer in many cases, looking out at our looking. I was reminded of a passage by bell hooks, from “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination”:

In white supremacist society, white people can “safely” imagine that they are invisible to black people since the power they have historically asserted, and even now collectively assert over black people, accorded them the right to control the black gaze. As fantastic as it may seem, racist white people find it easy to imagine that black people cannot see them if within their desire they do not want to be seen by the dark Other. […] An effective strategy of white supremacist terror and dehumanization during slavery centered around white control of the black gaze. Black slaves, and later manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving, as only a subject can observe, or see. To be fully an object then was to lack the capacity to see or recognize reality. These looking relations were reinforced as whites cultivated the practice of denying the subjectivity of blacks (the better to dehumanize and oppress), of relegating them to the realm of the invisible. (168)

In the Harris photographs as well, the range of expressions and “looks” is worth mentioning. A woman looks out from a distance as she mounts a motorcycle. Another woman, looking tomboyish and ambiguous, rests against the front door of Kay’s Valet Shoppe. This pose is mimicked in one of the last images of the exhibition, Untitled (Gallery) by Kerry James Marshall, which features a stylish black woman posed in front of a gallery wall. In both cases, the look is a challenge, demanding attention and asserting the subject’s own attentions directed at the viewer.

Kara Walker is represented by four large images taken from her larger series, The Emancipation Approximation. These shadow pictures revise the myth of Lela and the Swan, placing it in the context of both narratives of enslavement and narratives of reconstruction. These images recontextualize mythical sexual violence within the too-real history of sexual violence in slavery. Walker’s work is exceptionally difficult to address. Working primarily with the high-contrast of black silhouettes against a stern white backdrop, the details of these delicate pieces contrast with the subject matter. By Any Means Necessary, by Tim Rollins and K.O.S., takes pages of the Autobiography of Malcolm X and places the pages side by side on a giant canvas, covers them with a thin layer of white paint, and then creates a new signature across the surface with the M and the X coming together on a downward slope to spell his initials. Once more, the high contrast of black on white addresses the phenomenon of binary existence, in which all other racial identities are subsumed by the dialogue of race relations as a black/white thing. In the same way, this piece also makes a comment on the revising—the whitewashing—of black figures after their deaths by a white narrative.

Ellen Gallagher
Deluxe by Ellen Gallagher (Photograph by the author)

Ellen Gallagher’s 60-print series DeLuxe, presents a collage of images featuring beauty products marketed towards black women, mostly from the 1940s to the 1970s. Gallagher covers the advertisements with paint, clay, even pasta, to heighten surreal undertones of the images, turning these ideas of how beauty should-be into a different kind of beauty, one that questions the audience of the original advertisements. The scale of this work adds to the overwhelming sensation it produces: there are many ways in which one should “do” beauty; the advertisements proclaim that this product will make you look more white, this product will make you look less black, this product will make you look “authentically.” Beauty is beholden, and the contradictory messages about whether or not to embrace a sense of black-as-beautiful create a tension around the receiver.

Meleko Mokgosi’s text installation, Walls of Casbah, is a reflection on the way in which art historians and curators have perpetuated the cultural subjection of non-white cultures in both the gallery space and academic discourse. An exhibition catalog from the 2009 exhibition Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City becomes the basis of this work of critical theory and artistic engagement, in which the artist’s hand-written notes on the catalog—ranging from questioning word choices and sentence structure to pointing out the demeaning attitude behind particular words—are reproduced and enlarged on several canvases. In one example, Mokgosi’s notes break down and meditate on this sentence:

“Seen from the sea, European Algiers is nothing but crumbling walls and devastated nature, the whole a sullied blot.”

Focusing on “sullied,” Mokgosi’s commentary works from the definition of the word in order to express its impact and the general attitude it conveys:

“defiled or damaged integrity

‘soiled’

Shat on or shat on themselves

Blot (dark stain)

A region “belonging” to Africans (whatever this means) and associated with colonial rule—had been soiled—shat on—made into a dark stain.

Dark stain in the dark continent that only Le Corbusier could fix—bleach out and purify.”

This is a seminar of graduate theory represented in a few pages. It directly addresses issues of appropriation and the frequent missteps white audiences have slipped into when discussing non-white art. The legacy of colonizing attitudes and racist assumptions of superiority are very hard to erase, even when the white writer is attempting to demonstrate how they are “enlightened” to the problems of racism. Mokgosi’s engagement with the exhibition guide is a scene of reassertion not only of the artist’s power over those who write about them, the ability and the need for artists of color to respond to misappropriations of historical narrative, and the necessity of making black art that documents, invents, and cites the lives of the unspoken.

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Walls of Casbah by Meleko Mokgosi (Photograph by the author)

Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire) [Miss Black Bourgeoise] was a performance artwork by Lorraine O’Grady, documented in this exhibition by four photographs of her in the guise of artist-as-Miss America. These images contrast the notion of glamour in beauty pageants and the frequently racist (or racially-based) ideals of beauty remarked upon in Gallagher’s piece, while also calling attention to the relationship of black artists to the history of art. A successful beauty contestant is, by and large, not expected to be known for their ability to speak, but rather, to become a representation of vague ideals such as “beauty” and “purity.” In appearing as this fictitious representation, the artist is embodying a concept of tokenism as well as questioning the importance of patronage in the art world.

Basquiat is represented by a collaboration with Andy Warhol, a portrait of a dollar sign featuring Warhol’s signature silkscreen techniques and Basquiat’s devotion to graffiti and folk/traditional art techniques. The inclusion is mildly confusing to me, not because of Basquiat, but because his work with Warhol is, by comparison to his own, so slight. At the Warhol Museum, for many years these collaborations—which included videos, sculpture, and paintings—were represented by a large canvas (a commissioned portrait of a car that looked as though it was abandoned halfway through) and a sculpture piece of punching bags with each artist’s designs on them. Warhol, who in many respects represents the whitest of white artists, seems detached from Basquiat’s connection to lived experience; Basquiat seems detached from Warhol’s antiseptic and clinically repetitive late-80s work. The disconnect between the two artists, as well as their closeness, shattered by Warhol’s sudden death, was one of the few redeeming aspects of the otherwise troublesome bio-pic Basquiat. (Jean-Michel would die of a heroin overdose less than 18 months later.) Their collaborations feel often like two artists arguing with each other, rather than playing friendly, although this does not seem to be the biographical case. This is, perhaps, the reason that this collaborative work was included over a solo work of Basquiat’s, to represent the black artist’s engagement with the (then as now) majority white art culture and art establishment.

basquiat Warhol (2)
Dollar Sign (Don’t tread on me)  Basquiat & Warhol (Photograph by the author)

Experiencing 20/20 before walking through the remainder of the Carnegie’s collection produces a (perhaps unintended) side-effect of refocusing the white viewer to the pervasive entity that is whiteness on a museum wall. It is, by and large, only with the movement towards 21st century art that we witness an increased range of representations in the visual arts, not just of the subjects on display, but also of the artists themselves. REkOGNIZE, by Bradford Young (June 16-December 31), a visual installation project running concurrently with 20/20 explores documentary photography and the history of violent images in American racial history. Many of the images I saw do not contain explicit violence as the center point, but the cutting between images and the pieces of computer code used to translate the images into a film creates a sense of violence in every moment. To the left and right of the main screen, footage of a streetlamp, barely demonstrating the motion that comes with the passage of time, contrasts with the central images and the score. The score, which is inspired by and modeled after the “raw data” that makes up the images, builds into a cacophony on the level of late Elliott Carter. The effect between the photography, the lines of code flashing on the screen, and the music, is such that the viewer is pushed to the point of having to leave the work within a few minutes. This is a cumulative artwork, a representation of the stress and emotional drainage that comes from violent histories and histories under erasure. The viewer leaves not because they do not want to see what is happening before them, but because the viewer can no longer stand it. It is interesting to contrast this with Howardena Pindell’s video piece, Free, White and 21, in which the artist discusses her experiences with institutionalized racism, starting with her mother’s being burned by a babysitter through to her experiences with institutionalized racism in the art world. The piece ends with a white-faced figure pulling a cream-colored stocking over her head and obscuring their eyes with large sunglasses. What should I care for all of these stories, the figure speaks, for I am free, white, and twenty-one! The declaration of not having to care, of the ability to deny attention, sympathy, and indignation to Pindell’s history, serves as a cruel reminder of the distance an observer can place between themselves and the oppressed.

Screenhot from Free white 21
Screenshot from Free, White and 21 by Howardena Pindell (Photograph by the author)

When looking through the Carnegie Museum of Art, after the experience of 20/20, the temptation to inverse the portraits became very strong. It was not a question of parity—to say that for every white artist, a black artist should be included; for every man, a woman, etc. It is not just a question of numbers, and including art for the sake of meeting a quota often results in the inclusion of disjointed and frankly just bad art. The drive to include a range of artistic representations seems often to be derided as a political stance, rather than an aesthetic one. (I have not noticed in the discussion of Charlottesville a great many people point out that treating whiteness as the norm is also an inherently political stance.) That-which-is-not-there in the gallery space remains a powerful force to be reckoned with. Whether this exhibition marks a start towards including a wider experience of artwork, or whether this is, like the rages of experimentation plucked by modernism, a moment for reflection before it is dropped for a new object, one does not know.

Playing the Riot Box

The beat of the heart my love / Is stronger than the charts my love / Your water sign just lit my fire.

–“No Matter What Sign You Are,” Diana Ross and the Supremes.

There’s a lot of Motown sound coming out of a hole-in-the-wall bar on Christopher Street. That sound, that space, that park, changes with almost every year. The street changes so that elements of its past are forgotten; others are compartmentalized. The voices coming through the speakers are mostly smooth and harmonize with each other. The feeling is sentimental, in an uplifting way—exactly the sort of thing you would expect in any bar with a decent jukebox. Music, while it covers the air, doesn’t cover the less-desirable elements of the bar. You might not want to order a drink, sources say that they didn’t really clean the glassware, and some nights the bar gets so crowded that movement, dancing, even the flow of the music itself seems impossible. The whole scene can seem like something out of an upside-down wonderland. All of these people come together in this space after thinking for years that they were the only ones who lived and loved in a particular way.

 

Record and Glass
Photograph by the author

After the riots, the rebels of the bar go back and piece together the records in the jukebox. There are some questionable selections, but the list holds up, and eventually it is posted to the internet for world consumption. Diana Ross and the Supremes, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, the Fifth Dimension. You can still hold a pretty decent dance party to this list. I did just that, alone in my house for an afternoon with a friend and a bottle of vermouth between us. We put up tissue-paper lanterns and sunflowers on the walls and ceiling of my room and danced and talked in equal measure, making occasional platitudes about gay power and the need to reinvent our revolutions between trying on someone else’s heels.

 

The Stonewall Riots occurred in June 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City. To raid a gay bar was a common enough occurrence. Most gay bars were run by the mafia, and routinely enacted a strategy of blackmailing selected customers, knowing that they would lose their jobs if they went to the police, who had no interest in helping anyway. The bind of pre-liberation queerness—to be caught between the police and the mob—is the kind of drama that pulp novels were made for. Perhaps this is why so many of the first fictions to actually address the subject of homosexuality with explicit detail came out as cheap paperbacks with leery covers that suggested the scandal burning up inside—both inside the pages and inside the characters. The queer was walking down the thin line of their own lawlessness, waiting for the moment of discovery of madness that would tear them apart. Rarely did these stories have any kind of happy or redemptive ending. (Indeed, that’s part of the reason why the charm of Todd Haynes’ film, Carol, was completely lost on modern audiences—Highsmith’s novel was the first lesbian love story pulp to feature a happy, non-suicidal, ending. Even Gore Vidal’s “literary” The City and the Pillar ended in self-violence of one kind or another, depending on which of Vidal’s two endings you consumed.) The bars were dirty—who could complain? Dirty space is better than no space. Holding a space in the realm of Christopher Street was more than could be hoped for by those in suburban areas. The bar scene was mostly younger people, some of whom were not even eighteen the night of the first riot.

 

Mattachine Society sign.jpg
A message from the Mattachine Society, a pre-Stonewall LGBT+ activist organization, painted on the window of the Stonewall Inn in the days after the riots.

Most of the major homosexual writers either frequented metropolitan playgrounds where queerness was an after-dinner reprise, or else left the states to find locations in Europe or some other land with more history and a tradition of classical/historical sexual ambiguity. Vidal alternated between Europe and the coasts, Capote lounged in the gilded worlds usually reserved for soap-opera wives (producing less and less, becoming more and more incoherent with drink and drugs), Highsmith wandered through Europe, settling in Switzerland and alternating between writing the psychological fiction that made her name and anti-Semitic screeds to the local paper, Paul Bowles lounged in Morocco, and Djuna Barnes wasted away in Greenwich Village, barely able to continue writing and being visited on her doorstep by cliques of younger women (including Carson McCullers) at whom she shouted through her window. James Baldwin returned to the United States to chronicle the Civil Rights movement, and witnessed friend after friend assassinated. He would live out the rest of his days in France, returning to the United States for speaking tours and to research for his books, but he would never return permanently. The nature of the city allows for something that the insular suburbs and rural world still do not—a difference tolerated as a new kind of eccentricity, the species “homosexual.” Reading the literature of the time, it becomes clear that to exist as a queer person, to discover one’s voice, one had to be born to one of these meccas, or one had to become an exile.

 

Of all the singers on the jukebox, Sinatra has the most unusual relationship to the gay men of the bar, courting them while reinforcing his own heterosexuality. Sinatra appeared in the film Advise and Consent as the disembodied crooner of the gay bar scene—the first gay bar to be featured in detail in an American film—in 1962. Sinatra’s voice was the object that the queer men were all lusting after, his crooning being directed back at him. How many of us changed the lyrics or the names of songs, adding in boyfriends to take the place of girlfriends? (I’ve sung “I’ve Just Seen a Face” by the Beatles about enough boys that it has almost become a running joke.) The terrible jokes “My Way” inspires have always made the song an object of pity for me, especially when Sid Vicious isn’t the one singing it. Sinatra’s version seems to strike an odd note between sincerity and absurdity, in which the man who did it his way was plodding and pedestrian, with almost nothing original about it. I can imagine someone putting it on at the end of the night, to make everyone go home. At the same time, it asks some of the foundation questions of theorists: “What is a man? / What has he got, / If not himself?”

When the fire comes up the night of the riot, and the police are pushed into the back of the bar, replacing those they sought to harass as refugees in this dark box of a back room, worried that they may have to shoot their way out through the crowd of street kids, the first lines of Sinatra’s song take on new meaning—it’s time to go home, because the world as we knew it this morning is ending. The softness of the voice and the twinkle of old blue eyes retain a hint of the young man photographed in a police mug shot—the crooner who rose up from looking almost like rough trade, growing into his face, turning into a tuxedoed king of the easy listening set.

 

Sinatra Mugshot
Sinatra’s Mugshot in Bergen County, 1938

 

I think about my friends walking down Christopher Street on a class trip and ask myself if I could bare to see them face fire and clubs. So many of the “street kids” involved in the riots were just that: kids. It is the rage and bravery of youths that comes through most in these few images we have. The marked difference between the documentary photographs and odd film clips we have of the Stonewall riots and the pride marches that follow is not ideology—Stonewall was about police violence and the systematic targeting of a minorities by the state; modern prides are about corporatized communities and, apparently, making straight people feel tolerant—but the total, unrepentant chaos of the riot in full motion. There is no pattern to the images apart from what might be seen by an overarching deity as the blood pours off a young person’s chest and a woman nurses a bruise. There is no denying that the first move towards modern pride was the release of a tremendous rage.

 

From A Gay News Chronology: January 1969–May 1975: Index and Abstracts from the New York Times (Arno Press, 1975):

 

4 policemen hurt, 13 persons arrested after hundreds of youths rampage, Greenwich Village, because of plainclothesmen’s raid on Stonewall Inn, bar which police say is well-known for homosexual clientele; police, acting on repts [sic] of illegal sales, confiscate liquor; Dave Van Ronk among those arrested. (6)

 

Listening to the music, looking at the photographs in detail, it is astonishing how much of Stonewall’s history has been whitewashed. There are so many connections with the burgeoning Black Power movement—the same songs that empowered a racial minority empowered the sexual minorities within it. There is no gay rights movement without the movement for black civil rights in the face of anti-black racism. Many of those writers who have commented on the Riots have stated that “Gay is Good” as a chant began as the direct descendant of “Black is Beautiful.” There is also no movement without the trans, gender-variant, and queer people. The movement for queer rights has always been about gender as well as sexuality. The number of Stonewall vets who have been read as white men “dragged-up”—that is, denying the reality of their transgender/gender non-conforming identity (how they present themselves, the legal name changes they applied for, the surgeries they stole for, the marriages to male partners after surgeries, the declaration time and time again that her name is Sylvia once and for all)—is astonishing. Pronouns are difficult and inconsistent source to source, and it becomes more complicated as our own vocabulary changes in the 21st Century. Respect for the names people use for themselves is thin in many accounts—it takes me a while to realize that various sources are writing about Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, because they refer to them by other names, deadnames, and treat their female identities as a form of roleplaying rather than a means of existing as themselves. Identity construction is an inherent part of any civil rights struggle, that is the ability to determine both where one stands in relationship to the world and what that world’s limits are upon your person; how far the world can cut into you, and you cut into it.

Chants beget chants: “Black Is Beautiful” gives us “Gay Is Good” in response. This leaves us asking, Queer Is…?” The mountains of paper generated by theory can only direct, not answer, this question. The riot was not a calculated, planned, act of rebellion asserting the autonomy of those who consented to be in the bar that night. It was born out of exhaustion—tired of being made victim yet again by a state that refused to view them as anything other than a nuisance.

 

Again, from A Gay News Chronology: January 1969–May 1975: Index and Abstracts from the New York Times (Arno Press, 1975):

heavy police reinforcements again clear Sheridan Sq area of NYC when crowds angered by raid on Stonewall Inn frequented by homosexuals sweep through area; 3 persons held. (6)

Riots are something you quell, something that is either beaten back or burns out the soul of their location. Watts, we are told, was never the same after the 1965 riots. Part of why the Stonewall Riots could go on was structure of the square where they occurred. The square is actually an uneven triangle, and it is not hard to run down one street to the other to stop the police for retreat. The triangle is the early symbol of Gay Liberation, reclaimed from the bodies of gay prisoners in concentration camps. The view from Christopher Street comes to a small triangle almost like the tip of a thin dagger. The intersections by Christopher Park are hellish, with traffic seemingly coming from eight directions at once. Even so, when I’ve visited in pilgrimage, the traffic has mostly been from young people exiting the subway. Standing in the Park, one can see how easy it would be to become trapped in this location. My friends and I run around the triangle, away from the Stonewall Inn, across streets with oncoming taxis, and finally back to the origin point, waiting there for us with a drink.

 

Streisand, too, is one of the few artists that step out of place in the jukebox. Already a gay icon by 1969, the exuberant lavishness of the Hello Dolly! soundtrack leaves the listener pining on. Remembering her role in the film of Funny Girl, the romantic build-up of “My Man” seems it would do better, mixing with Sinatra’s peculiar “way” of being in the back of a gay bar. Her early voice has the power to hold notes and go without breath for (seeming) minutes. Deviating from the playlist, my friend and I throw in the clip from Funny Girl where a tearful Streisand sings a song of devotion to the man who’s just broken her heart, pulling herself together to end the song—and the film—on a high note, and earning herself a permanent place in queer hearts, in the space that Judy Garland left behind. The seemingly anti-feminist message of the song takes on a different context when placed in the realm of queer triangles of relation, and the devotion that two men can have for each other. In Hello Dolly!, she reembarks into the world after the death of her husband, she makes this her coming out, a way to feel her heart coming alive, joining in the parade marching towards the future, rather than letting it pass her by.

If there is a modern gay pop aesthetic, one can see it forming in these songs on the jukebox. Under the beats, the messages that can be read into the songs demonstrate why they click in this bar. “No Matter What Sign You Are” suggests a love that triumphs over the universe itself, even if the nebulous forces threaten to crash everything. “The Young Folks” draw on the desire of protest and change; “You better make way” because things cannot be the same. The energies of these songs move towards a future desire, the love that is to come around the corner—I love you more today than yesterday, / but not as much as tomorrow. The music pushes towards the energy of love,  even as around the world, Vietnam continues to burn in the year after the My Lai (4) Massacre, Solanas shot Warhol, Martin Luther King is assassinated, and the specter called Nixon takes the Presidency.  The construction of the playlist of jukebox singles is in part a construction of queer identity. Under the rhythm, the beat of the oncoming disco explosion can be heard. The lyrics offer reassurance, the live performances offer a sense of life lived on a larger scale than most people could ever experience. I sometimes wonder if the theatrical bent so many of us queers seem to have has to do with the uneasy feeling that one is always playing a role—theatre offering a legitimate reason to reveal the act of role-playing itself. (When I dress myself, do I dress the part of a homosexual? Only when going to parties.)

White statues stand in Christopher Park today. In the aftermath of the first AIDS crisis, they serve as testimonials to the way the past still walks in the park if you sit and watch quietly. Blue plaques make clear that this is the sight of something important. The Stonewall Inn still operates, with a back room dedicated to the days of the riots, filled with memorabilia and collages to its history. It became a national landmark in 2015—the first dedicated to LGBTQ+ people—and in 2017 its status was “put under review” by the President—quite possibly a record for Government turnaround. The Stonewall Inn is proof that queer people have had something to contribute to changing the face of this country. That the memorial commemorates the progress made in part because of the combination of violent and nonviolent protest, it makes more sense that an agency of power, such as a government interested in making the queers disappear, would have an interest in forgetting it. This music provides a link to this riot and rebellion that would ignite the energy of generations of protest. This is the dance the offspring of Emma Goldman swayed in the sidewalks and narrow alleyways. This is where Edmund White walked as the City Boy he describes in his memoirs, heading towards the trucks that held dozens of bodies cruising in the night. This is the lane of red light neon becoming black streets walked on by all colors living out in the open one night a week, and those living on the street, wandering in to an apartment bedroom for a paid respite. This is where we gather together in a worship called love. This ground is sacred, and the music is our hymnal.

 

 

 

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No History To Speak Of, No Place To Speak From

I often come across many authors and thinkers in my reading who argue writing their own history is an emancipatory practice. In other words, they believe that taking control of the narrative of their past is the first step in creating their own distinct identity, which allows for the development of a particular social and political philosophy.

I understand this argument. The violence of empires leaves us no other choice but to rip the pen from the hand of imperial historians and give it to the people who have been brutalized. Lions writing histories while telling the hunters to take a hike, and all that jazz. But for me, personally, I’ve never felt that way about my own personal history. In many ways, it terrifies me.

Why? Because, I suppose, I see writing down my own history as freezing the fluidity of who I am. Histories have a troubling tendency to become established tributaries to the present moment. Small streams to artificial lakes.

Who are we? We are the rapids in one time period coming to a rest. We are the foam of a particular waterfall easing back into the water. We are waves from someone else’s stone being skipped across the surface. We are change over time.

So, by hiding who our past selves are, by grounding ourselves in the present and in our future hopes, we don’t become the descendants of someone else, the sum at the end of a mysterious mathematician’s equation. We become the birthplace for a new era.

I am fully aware that this is a contradiction.

I’m a historian who feels more comfortable racing to the future than walking in the past. Is this just “white guilt”? Possibly. A good portion of my own collective history is one of being a direct descendant of colonists. Europeans, (some willing, many reluctant), were removed from one continent to work on another. I remember first reading about this history in graduate school. Historians like Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker challenged the older narratives I had been told. Many of my white ancestors had not come for “opportunity.” Instead, it was a longer history of forcing people out into the Atlantic World to create new profit for the newly emerging global capitalist system.

But, despite that, we were still colonists. We were the people who moved into areas, violently pushing others out of their homes and land.

+++

Growing up everyone, and I mean literally everyone, told people in my generation to get an education so we could transcend our socio-economic status.

We should be doctors, lawyers, educated elite people who didn’t have to work in the service industry, one of the last reliable ways of life in mountain towns and cornfield villages.

And some of us did just that. But the further we went with our education and the more we learned, the more we became alien to the very culture that produced us. Didn’t matter that Appalachia had produced its fair share of artists, thinkers, writers, teachers, and scientists (not to mention politically radical movements).

Ohio rural culture had swallowed the Kool-Aid. We were “hillbilly proud”! Our collective poverty not a social problem, but a feature that made us “more honest.” Apparently being on welfare, with poor health care, while white and with cows around you, made you some kind of “noble frontiersman.” Funny, since the same people who argued this thought being in the inner city, with darker skin, and the same socio-economic status, somehow made you a “social degenerate.” This was an attitude shared by both rural whites and many cultural elites. Better to be a “Son of the Earth.” It made you somehow more “honest and hardworking,” I guess.

Is it any wonder then that so many people from rural white communities end up feeling alienated from the very culture that produced them? When your entire education is predicated on the hope that you will “escape,” education and thoughtful expression cease to be the natural elements of that society, and instead become a rocket ship that is constantly struggling to break the gravitational pull of the past.

We create a situation that views a connection with the past as a failure, because conscious, educated understanding is supposed to leave that society once attained. It is the very foundation of the philosophy “get an education, and get out.”

Appalachians and small town Midwest denizens internalize this feeling, creating a popular cultural expression enslaved to the past, conservative in all respects.

+++

“Do you refer to Christian thought and belief as mythology in your classrooms?” I asked my friend Podge over coffee one day.

We had been having a conversation about one of the textbooks used in one of the introduction classes at Purdue. He was angry because the text had referred to Christian belief as “Christian mythology.” It was a swipe at the validity of religion, in his opinion.

I disagreed, but understood where he was coming from. It is hard to climb in the head of textbook authors, but anyone who knows anything about the scholarship around textbooks knows that they are as much historical documents as the documents we use to inform the textbooks in the first place.

Referring to Christian belief as “mythology” could be, and probably should be, read within the broader historical context of the so-called “Culture Wars” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, where cultural conservatives and social liberals duked it out for dominance in educational materials. In that context there was “scientific fact” and “cultural belief.” Science equaled “truth,” while cultural belief, that is mythology, was synonymous with “fantasy.”

Podge told me as much. “Wes, science with its belief in unending, continuous progress is as much a myth as any system of religious beliefs.”

I didn’t disagree, but I told him, I thought the real issue was with the scientific materialists corrupting the word “mythology.”

“Myths shouldn’t be synonymous with ‘fake,’” I said. “Myths are just cultural stories we, as societies, tell ourselves to organize our universe. It gives us meaning because it claims to know where we came from, and where we are going.”

It is why I personally do refer to Christian belief as “Christian mythology” in classrooms. But I do so while trying to make my students understand that mythology is not interchangeable with “lies.”

It is not an easy thing to accomplish. In order for people to fully understand that Christianity is as much a system of mythology as Greek religious thought, or Norse belief, they have to first understand that everything we think as humans is historically constituted. There is no system of thought that is either permanent or forever-true.

Sorry, Plato. There are no absolute forms. Just historically constructed variations of ideas dependent on a time period. What is true in one era is false in another. What is basic common sense in one era is utter gibberish in another.

But, this is hard to understand. Why? Because the system of thought we currently live under is a powerful ideology. That’s a byproduct of the hegemonic power of modernity.

“Science” is one way of understanding our place in the cosmos. It orders the world, is open to change, and spins off both beautiful and often terrifying human creations. But science is not the only way of understanding human existence. Furthermore, it only exists if a culture believes in conceptions of historic progress, materialist reality, and human ability to accurately measure and observe said reality. That supposed “truth” is actually a house of clouds shifting through time. It will not always be with us. It will eventually change to the point that the new system of thought that comes from it no longer resembles the previous. Science, as a system of belief, actually is fully capable of understanding this feature of its existence. Evolution, one of the major achievements in thought for science, demonstrates this aspect of our shared reality.

We continually change until we are no longer that thing we used to be.

“Mythology” (categorized as a previous society’s way of understanding) is another way we do this. Myths are the cultural stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our ancestors, and our future generations. It gives us meaning because it connects us with a collective past and common future.

Hercules slays the Hydra. Pandora opens a box. Nudists eat forbidden fruit. Prophets speak to gods. Gods visit wrath on people.

All of these communicate, a universe where humans are just a part of the cosmos. Often, they are not the most powerful in the story. They have choices, to be sure, but that choice is not radically free. Choices lead to new situations, which creates new conditions, which influences future states.

This is the basic principle of historic social change. We are the products of people and forces before us, not just our ancestors, but also large cosmological forces. We don’t pick our past, and we are only able to select a limited set of options for the future. Furthermore, simply because we choose and push for a certain social ordering, does not mean we will actually achieve it.

So, we walk about this world as modern actors with ancient understandings. We are a collage of various time periods.

Lincoln sits in a temple modeled off of Zeus.

Washington is remembered with an obelisk.

The so-called “canon wars” continue to rage in vital ways. Who we collectively deem as our legitimate authors for our civilization determines not only how we talk about ourselves, but it informs how we literally build the intellectual stage for our possible future actions.

It is why that argument of people writing their own histories is so important. Who we deem ourselves to be, and who argues that self-identity is the future’s beliefs, an eventual present’s truth, a probable past’s mythology.

Myths are powerful and they are important. Those stories matter.

But even as I understand this, I find it difficult to write about the past, present, and future of the culture that produced me. Much of what I’ve been told in my life says that in order to produce something worthwhile I should not focus on the factors that created me. Instead, I should look to another’s ideals. Not an archaeologist’s pick and shovel, but an astronaut’s star charts and rocket fuel.

Get out, don’t come back, escape and make a better life for yourself.

This is only complicated by the twin irrational argument that to do the very thing my education was supposed to do is to become arrogant, a know-it-all, an alien in one’s own home world.

What is my collective mythology, then? What orders the subset of the culture I come from?

+++

A few weekends ago my partner and I went home for a weekend visit. As we pulled off the highway I looked out the window at the valley farms, and changing landscape. Buildings I had known as a young person were beginning to decay and fall in on themselves. They were like collapsing black holes dotting the Ohio valley’s landscape, yet instead of gravity, history pulled them toward their destructive centers. Lack of funds and ability to keep up these 19th century homes and barns determined their fate. It was a perfect symbol for what I had been thinking about. History served as a point of destruction, violently pulling the past together until it was destroyed by its own weight. History did not radiate outward.

We drove past several older buildings and before pulling into my partner’s parent’s home, we saw a new barn being built by an Amish family. It was a sign that human civilization in this area would continue, but that it would look different from what we had known.

Perhaps that is just a common state of affairs for all people. But as we crossed the final stream to pull into our destination I thought about how that stream eventually led to the largest artificial lake in the area.

Back in 1937 the federal government had entered the area and drastically changed the landscape. Taking the various swamps and floodplains of the Ohio valley region, the New Deal organizations had flooded close to 3,000 acres of land creating “Seneca Lake.” It was one of the permanent features of my childhood. Every day to get to school involved a half an hour drive around that lake on a school bus.  

The New Deal, one of this nation’s most celebrated ventures into social democracy, had radically altered the landscape of our homes. If you ask most people, especially the tourists who come during the summers, the lake is one of the most beautiful features of the landscape. But we ignore this history, just like we ignore the radical coal miners who fought wars against corporate capital. We ignore this history and instead opt to believe that our area is essentially conservative. Bodies for the masses needed by reactionary movements. Such collective aspirations make people like me unreadable to their home culture. We are placed on starships and told to fly as fast as we can, and then are slightly scorned for doing so.

We drive around the floodplains of social democracy and grasp at what mythological figures we are. What mythological figures we could be. I suppose it will be determined by those who have the wherewithal to write about it.

 

 

 

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