Progress Is Not A Given. It is Won
OIt is a freezing January afternoon and I am sitting in Buona Café, Augusta’s favorite coffee shop. In a darkened area, I’m talking to my advisor for thesis. The connection between Toni Morrison and James Baldwin is the topic we are discussing.
This shop is just a few miles north and a few years removed from where the fires burned during the 1970 Augusta Uprising—what local public historian Nefertiti Robison reminded me of as the largest black uprising in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. This is a southern, old mill city that is graced by thousands every year during the Master’s golf tournament. I tell her about the work I want to do to help, as I have heard it before from one of the local parishioners at my church, Tabernacle Baptist Church, “move this old, old city forward.”
This particular day, the professor is well-versed on critical readings in black literature and smiles when I tell him what I see. felt when I heard Toni’s words in eulogy of James Baldwin. “They both knew us and loved us and love for them meant seeing us and talking about and to us and accepting all of us,” I said, feeling the cold air touch my cheek as someone walked in slowly from the left. The person I was looking at, however, stopped a while and looked down intently at the copy of my book. The source of self-regard Only Above My Head.
Moments later, as I’m heading back to my car, saying my goodbyes to the baristas, holding my worn copy of Toni’s pink book under my left armpit, the same lady who gazed at the books twenty minutes earlier, asks, “So you’re a writer?”
“Yes,” I said, moving closer to the door, secretly hoping it wouldn’t be one of Those conversations.
“Nice, I love how you were talking about your books and things,” she said. “That’s what my work is in: education.” I nod. “That’s cool.”
We talked for a bit about education and her work with curriculum. I then mentioned how my children required a better curriculum to tell the stories of what African Americans have accomplished in America. I was told about her education doctorate. She paused, her shoulders getting a bit uptight, and put her hands together and began to tell me about all of the “problems” in the world, naming books by black authors as one. “Well, our children need a more Balanced telling of history,” she said. And when she said “balanced”, crossed her arms and titled her head to the side, I knew what that meant: we need less Black people, less Indigenous people, less women, less poor, less gay people, less trans people, and less of any who would upset the ideas of American innocence and goodness. I thought about it, sighing. the audacity–white audacity. One thing is to be opinionated about the world. It is quite another thing to think that that opinion of the world should erase and harms others just because you’re a bit uncomfortable or called upon to show a little decency and respect for another person’s humanity and right to live at peace. Audacity.
Her grief was overwhelming. It was the loss of a whole world. She imagined a world once beautiful, white like snow and peaceful as a Southern morning. She was in mourning. Language shifting: Untethered to the American language, she lost the ability to create and root and keep herself safe. Her perceived struggles spilled over into complaint about how fellow citizens had become a danger and how the world didn’t just feel the same or sound the same or look the same. Not all grief is bad grief. Some grief is violent—especially the kind of grief that is nostalgic of a past where she could say and do whatever she want without a young Black man ever possibly unearthing her myths publicly. It is an effective tool to suppress ignorance and reduce the impact of social injustice.
And this is the rot beneath the surface of words like freedom, democracy, citizen, and unity: there are so many who resist the truth that words can and must change—and must be able to bend to the will of love.
As I think back on that moment, this white woman’s desire to question those who were non-white, non-straight, and non-Christian and our right to be and say whoever we want, and really our desire to change this country, I can’t help but think about this historic moment, the upheaval in the world.
That day Judge Kentaji-Brown-Jackson was being questioned not just about her qualifications, but her feelings as well. Right to be where she is or when I read the words of a North Texas superintendent: “We’re going to be conservative” or when I sigh as I remember that it took more than 100 years to get an anti-lynching bill or when the Supreme Court is wielded as a weapon to make the world less free or when I grieve over the fact that we live in a country where white people have most of the power but believe they are experiencing all of them pain and the fact all of this, in some ironic way, has become normal or, as sociologist Gary Younge puts it, “another day in the death of America.”
And then there are the guns, the worship of them, the inability to believe breath in another person’s lungs is worth more than hot led from the barrel. And then there is Buffalo—Black elders, having endured the worst of this country’s past are murdered by the worst of one of its children. Uvalde is another. This was many weeks ago. I remember the days when I would drive in my car, drop my son off to school, and hear the reporter from the radio: There is funeral for this person and this family and, now, neither their names or their stories could outlast the cruel ways “breaking news” rushes the world past your grief.
Then there’s the obvious difference in how this society protects these lines, constructed and imagined. I cannot believe that America is in danger when people fear for their safety or their lives.
Do they really have any value?Yes, they do. All of us are. Better than having our lives governed by fears that one day, someone, somewhere will consider my reality to be a problem. “This is not normal,” I hear in my subconscious mind as I scrolled the news the other day, “Do not get used to this.”
It is impossible to avoid death in any country. And for centuries, the stench has risen from the soil, and so many people who put their hands over their hearts and stand erect at the national song have go on with life—never being moved to question if this is what it truly means to be free. “I too live in a time of slavery,” theorist Saidiya Hartman has written, “by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.” The past is never really the past. It’s always there in our bodies, our memories, our language, and our denial.
People often speak of historical moments as “unprecedented,” thinking that what we are experiencing now is somehow new or unheard of. This moment is not unique. What we are seeing is an old commitment to keep the country, in the language of James Baldwin, “white and free from sin.” It was also Baldwin who once wrote: “These architects decided that the concept of Property was more important—more real—than the possibilities of human beings.” From it’s birth, America has always been at war with itself. A war so vast. So deceptive. So dangerous. This is so bloody. This is so sad. Actually be rebuilt again? Did the real patriots—those who knew love mattered more than a flag or a gun—suffer in vain? Do the living and the dead have to remain silent for ever? Shall not the children be given a world that is less traumatic, more delightful, less terrorizing, and more free—something like the kingdom of God?
What we are seeing today is a sad, brutal, and clear and continual reminder—whether by way of refusal to remove a statue, or change a name, or change funding distribution, or lack of will to protect the rights and freedom or the voice of the most marginalized communities—that there are people in our country believe that talking about racism and white supremacy is worse than racism and white supremacy, that niceness and proximity and patience is the best marginalized communities must hope for, that the idea of America is fixed never to be challenged, expanded, or altered.
It’s the courage.
It is not an automatic process. It can be won.
James Baldwin spoke to educators in 1963. “You must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty,” he said, “you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.”
Amid the explosive, strategic rise in book banning, anti-gay and trans policy, communal disregard of our public health, religious bigotry and conservative crusades, and the enduring exposure of marginalized communities to overt racist violence and incidents that takes a toll on their bodies and spirits, we must realize that this has always been a strategy for those who don’t want America to progress in ways that they so claim our founding documents to achieve. This isn’t so much because these changes in our country’s structure hurt their feelings, but it also hurts the arrogant notions of their God-given right of control over and harm other people with no consequences or resistance. It has been done before.
Each of these areas has been an arena for white supremacy, whether it’s the courts, the church or the classroom. And in this regard, those of us who sit at the margins of society, have had to show a fantastic amount of compromise and composure in hopes that what we have built and desired will not be destroyed in the name of those who still selfishly and violently are baptized in the “Lost Cause.”
In a 1998 letter to Toni Morrison from the Texas Department of Corrections it was cited that her novel Paradise was banned because it “contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of commuting information designed to achieve a breakdown.” Though Toni Morrison books are being taken off banned list, such as The Bluest EyeHer work and that of other people who wish this country was better is still being resisted by politicians and their parents in St. Louis. According to the Texas Department of Corrections, the apparent breakdown was similar. They cited a link between critical race theory and black literature. Making the connection between what black people create and what black people desire is not the problem—for we want a world where we are protected and at peace as much as we want a world where we have creative freedom and possibility. People want to be docile and silenced. This is the root of resistance and problem. It is white unjust grief and nostalgia that is threatening power, control, and freedom.
Controlling and criminalizing other people’s words, other people’s dreams, and other people’s worlds has always been a tool of white power. At the heart is white people’s long-standing fear that, and that in the regard of black writers and a black woman chosen as a supreme court justice, an educated and empowered black person is a dangerous Black person. We see this fear among so many Americans. Some time ago, right-wing media personality Charlie Kirk shared openly, in response to the historic choosing of Judge Brown-Jackson, what many in believe in private: “Well, KBJ,” she says, “Kentaji Brown-Jackson-is what your country looks like on critical race theory.” The total ignorance of this statement at the heart represents the fear of so many. White Americans often claim that they care about critical racism theory. But what they mean really is they don’t like living in a country that has black people and women in power, as well as the implications for themselves and their country.
It is a constant reminder of our current situation and statements like these that anger me. But more than that, it breaks my heart not because I can’t deal with white foolishness. It’s because many people fail to recognize and embrace the common humanity of all. I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I wish we lived in a world where white wins aren’t seen as meritocracy and black wins is seen as identity politics, where the freedom of one group means the erasure and the oppression of another. It would be nice if all of the things that harm us could just be stopped, avoided, or believed. It doesn’t. People who don’t want to know me can’t prove my humanity. But that also doesn’t make it hurt less when it hits me. It can hurt more.
Racism and fascism, Toni Morrison shares in a 1995 lecture delivered at Howard University, “changes parenting into panicking—so that we vote against the interests of our own children; against their health care, their education, their safety from weapons.” It does not just change parenting into panicking, it changes democracy into domination, religion into hatred, education into indoctrination, progress into war, and citizenship into erasure.
However, none of us are eraseable if they refuse to accept it. It is not just the wealthy who have to enjoy freedom, love and justice. This idea also belongs to all of us.
Toni Morrison has repeatedly told us, “They don’t love or see us.” We do. It is holy to have flesh. It should be given the space, the verse, the screen, the page and all the other necessary elements to make it visible. We need an alternate imagination when we face so much cruelty, such as this moment, that embraces and fights for our humanity. It tells us that we can create something new, better, not just fighting.
It is more than refusing work or resistance for white people. We must also stop limiting our life to what they want. The past is our legacy. It’s important to embrace and explore the past.
Toni Morrison meant that the story is all about blackness. She was referring to the ordinary, everyday power of blackness. The ways in which black people can create and fail, find solutions, and learn from others. Morrison believes that we are not heroes or villains. However, we are humans and are worthy of being on the pages while we still live. Morrison believed that Black people did not have to be perfect in order to live, love, and protect themselves. Nobody should.
The foundation of this country is rocky, just like a home. It is cracked and has rot underneath, Isabel Wilkerson says. This is not a place we like. It takes from and takes away. Not only does it make our life difficult, but also exhausting. As Toni Morrison would quickly remind us, it isn’t black life, but the way this country continues to refuse to change. Toni Morrison in this moment, I believe, would remind us that we contain so much more – we do know love, we do know how to show up for one another, we do know how to use words on the page to change the world, we do know how to fight for others and fight for ourselves. There are aspects of our existence, that complex, beautiful, and creative existence, that is, as Toni Morrison writes in 1974 New York Times op-ed, “spent neither on our knees nor hanging from trees.”
As a writer and a minister, I care little to speak to the “soul” of the nation. However, I care about the grieving souls of those who live here. I am not interested in celebrating myths, or inviting my neighbors to indulge in unjust nostalgia. However, I care about American imagination. We deserve the stories, lies, laughter, and frowns that we sometimes forget and don’t experience.
Toni Morrison is right: “Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.” She saw into guts of the nation, the difficulty of love, the loss of meaning of language—snatching truth from the hands of the irresponsible, giving it back to us, so that we can develop our own imagination of freedom.
It is impossible for a country to transform itself. The small, daily uprisings in this country are not ignored. Even though the fires are out, the embers remain lit because they have some form of oxygen. The work that is left behind after the fires have been extinguished will reflect the people and types of work they did. The future work of the unseen will reflect our desire to create a new story and build new memorials. It will also reveal the identities we want to share with the world. America, like most social constructs around the world, is an experiment in imagination. Jason Reynolds, author, once stated that if something has been imagined this way it could be imagined again. It’s not static. It was the same with Toni Morrison, those who were black during Augusta Uprising, Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson, and all those activists and preachers as well as those who loved and sought to find artists and other creative people.
Resistance to progress exists.
However, our refusal to allow others the world they desire is just as important.
It is possible to lose. That’s life. However, you might just win. This is freedom.
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