Of Fireworks and False Memories: Reflections on History, Race and Nation
By Tim Wise
“...the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further…the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” (James Baldwin, 1952)
I have this fantasy, the indulgence of which I resist, due in part to the impracticality of it, but also, and mostly out of a general distaste for inviting potential violence upon my person. It only comes to mind once a year really, on this day in fact, as cities and towns across the United States gear up for their respective July 4th celebrations, replete with fireworks, hot dogs, and lots of red, white and blue banners, flags and wardrobe accessories ubiquitously assaulting the visual landscape from sea to shining sea.
In the fantasy, it’s incredibly hot out, even as the daytime sun recedes, giving way to the darkening skies that will soon serve as the canvas for a colorful explosion of incendiary art: the end product of two unstoppable forces—American self-love, and Chinese manufacturing—brought together in an audacious display of grandiosity, not unlike, say, Siegfried and Roy, or at least Peaches and Herb.
As Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” blares from the back of a sound system loaded onto a truck, and the yearly Independence Day parade begins, I bide my time. Then, just as the first procession of Boy Scouts passes by, I turn to the man standing next to me, the one with the big “God Bless the USA” button on his hat, and say:
“Why can’t you just get over it? I mean, why do you people insist on living in the past? That whole ‘breaking away from the British thing’ was like more than 200 years ago for God’s sakes. Isn’t it time to move on?”
In the fantasy, the man’s head explodes, bloodless but powerfully and very, very final, at which point I move on to the next reveler, knowing that I only have so much time in which to put an end to this special brand of sanctimony by thought-murdering the assembled. After all, once the big sky-booms begin, no one will be able to hear me.
Truth is, I’m not a violent person. But if I thought this would work, I just might try it. This is, of course, exactly the kind of thing that whites (especially white conservatives) say whenever the subject of racism is raised, and always, if it is linked to the brutal national legacy of enslavement, Indian genocide and imperialistic land grabs. As in, “Oh, that was a long time ago, get over it,” or “Stop living in the past,” or as one intrepid soul explained to me last week in an e-mail, “Shit happens.” That an otherwise literate, and by his own claims, well-informed individual would think nothing of turning hundreds of years of oppression—during which millions perished as a result of white supremacy—into the equivalent of a bumper sticker, should be more than enough to dampen the enthusiasm with which we celebrate our nation at this time of year. At least, it would be if the moral calibration of the people of said place played any role whatsoever in our understanding of the national self. Naturally though, it doesn’t.
Shit happens. In other words, the past is the past, and we shouldn’t dwell on it. Unless of course we should and indeed insist on doing so, as with the above-referenced July 4th spectacle, which is, to put it mildly, about some old shit. Or as many used to do with their cries of “Remember the Alamo,” or “Remember Pearl Harbor,” both of which took as their jumping off point the rather obvious notion that the past does matter and should be remembered, but which underlying logic apparently vanishes like fog before noon when applied to those historical moments we’d rather forget. Not because they are any less historical, but merely because they are considerably less convenient.
Truth is, we love living in the past when it venerates us. When it elevates us. When it places us upon the pedestal we have grown accustomed to seeing as our national birthright, as something to which we are entitled, as if placed there by the very hand of God Almighty, who of course speaks only English, lives in the suburbs, and drives a Hummer. If the past allows us to reside in an idealized, albeit mythical place, from which we can look down upon the rest of humanity as besotted, benighted inferiors, who are no doubt jealous of our greatness and our freedoms (and so that, of course is why they hate us and why some attack us), then the past is the perfect companion: an old friend, or lover, or at least a well-worn and reassuring shoe. If, on the other hand, some among us insist that the past is more than that—if we point out that the past is also one of brutality, and that this brutality, especially as regards race, has mightily skewed the distribution of wealth and opportunity in our nation—then the past becomes a trifle, a pimple on the ass of now, an unwelcome reminder that although the emperor may wear clothes, the clothes he wears betray a shape he had rather hoped to conceal. No no, the past, in those cases, is to be forgotten. Or if not forgotten, at least it is to carry no weight in the halls of power, such as the Supreme Court, which has reminded us repeatedly, and most recently this past week, that as regrettable as the history of anti-black racism is in this country (a history in which they themselves have played more than a mere supporting role), there is virtually nothing that can be done to remedy the effects of that history. It is, in the eyes of the court mere “societal discrimination,” a bloodless and apparently perpetrator-less crime, mentioned in a dismissively clinical tone, and without regard for possible repair. In other words, shit happens, sayeth Justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy. So suck it up.
Of course, so as to put a more benign and intellectually appealing gloss upon their position, white folks will often dress it up in the language of compassionate concern. Thus, they insist that dwelling on past injustices, or the present-day effects of those, is unhealthy, whereas dwelling on the supposed glories of the past is perfectly salubrious. Yes, those bad things happened, they might admit in a moment of temporary honesty, but to spend too much time on such matters is to create, or perpetuate an already-created mentality of victimhood among the, well, victims, though we shouldn’t think of them as such. And so the right, with this master stroke presents itself as the defenders of black and brown dignity, merely seeking to protect them from the self-imposed straightjacket of victimization, rather than as the charlatans they really are: people who never, in any era gave two shits about the well being of people of color, and who stood in opposition to every single advance towards racial equity in this nation’s history, but who now deign to pose as modern day inheritors of the legacy of MLK.
But their hypocrisy in this regard is stunning, or rather, it would be, were one capable of being shocked any longer by the patently dishonest pedantry of such persons as these. After all, it seems beyond obvious that they would never tell the parents of a murdered child to “get over it,” or to “move on,” nor warn them that their continued recitation of their family tragedy was somehow turning them into carriers of a deadly social pathogen known as victimhood. No indeed; rather, crime victims are able to parlay their victimhood into celebrity status, and market their suffering to the masses, who will then elevate them to the status of experts on the subject of crime, as with John Walsh or Marc Klaas, whose only claim to expertise on crime control policy comes from the fact that their children were viciously murdered. But if this is all it takes to be an expert on crime, then I guess the fact that I once got food poisoning from eating a bad oyster in Tacoma means I’m qualified to weigh in on quality control standards in the nation’s fisheries. And no, I am not analogizing murder to food poisoning. For the record, a good childhood friend of mine was murdered exactly 29 years ago today, but this sad truth fails to imbue me with special insights on the particulars of proper crime control, though Nancy Grace would beg to differ I suppose, and although I would, as a result of this fact, reap the never-ending compassion of the very people who inveigh against the adoption of a victim mentality when the victimization is because of race.
Likewise, those who claim to be concerned only about the debilitating effects of a victim mentality never tell Jews to stop dwelling on the Hitlerian holocaust—indeed, historic Jewish victimization is today used to justify virtually any depredation against Palestinians, all in the name of Jewish nationhood, surrounded by cries of “never again”—and they don’t say it to Cuban exiles who still can’t get over their families’ lost financial stake in Batista-era casinos, or to the Kurds who were gassed by Saddam, or, for that matter, even to the religious fanatics who claim to be victimized by the fact that they aren’t allowed to recite a decidedly Christian prayer over the intercom in a public school. Oh no: to these there is nothing but sympathy. Their victimhood is recognized, honored and cultivated like soybeans in the post-Dust Bowl midwest. It is ennobled, even as the victimization of peoples of color is disregarded, downplayed, dishonored and turned into a subject of ridicule.
Of course, that the right—and especially its white members—would prove to be hypocrites on the subject of the harms of “victimhood” should hardly surprise. After all, this is a bunch that has, in every era, posing as the arbiters of tradition and defenders of all that is holy and true, played the consummate victim. Even as they sought to conquer the indigenous of the Americas they claimed victim status, notably, whenever those they sought to extirpate opted to fight back, rather than to go gently into that good night. And they claimed to be the victims of witches in Salem, and Papists, and foreign potentates (against whom those seeking to become citizens must still today swear a vow of bitter enmity), and abolitionists, and impoverished immigrants, and Jews, and evolutionists (also known in some quarters as scientists), and communists, and union bosses, and integrationists, and fluoridated water, and the United Nations, and hippies, and secular humanists, and feminists, and more communists, and the New World Order, and now Mexicans, and Mexicans, and Mexicans, and affirmative action, and multiculturalism, and of course big government, and taxes and welfare, and the liberal media, and gay marriage and Muslim terrorists.
The white right loves victims, as long as they are the right kind. In keeping with their great admiration of victimhood status, Glenn Beck inveighs on behalf of such an elevated and salutary identity as this, every time he implores Americans to return to “who we were on September 12th” of 2001. Such an entreaty takes as a given, after all, that we should bask in our victimhood, wallow in it, let it envelop us like a warm blanket, or perhaps an old discarded chrysalis, no longer functional but oh so reassuring about the place whence we come. Yes, if we can just get back to that, Beck assures us, we will recapture the purpose and mission that is ours to claim; we will soar to new heights, on the wings of the wronged, the attacked, the victimized, never allowing ourselves to forget for one minute what happened, nor even to get two days beyond it, always bringing it up, always using it as the excuse for anything and everything we do to anyone else in the world. It will allow us to claim the mantle of victim in perpetuity, until the end of time. And if we waver in our commitment to living as permanent targets of ill-fortune, never fear, perhaps Osama bin Laden will slaughter a few thousand more of ours in a new terrorist attack: something for which one of Beck’s TV guests recently hoped, and with which Beck took no umbrage nor uttered even a syllable of indignant protest.
In other words, victimhood, far from being self-defeating, is a status to which the right has long aspired, and a label they have long sought to wear, like a badge of honor on their lapels. They have wanted nothing so much as to be seen as the ultimate victims, of every evil conspiracy ever concocted: to usurp God and nation and mom and apple pie. Their concern is not that blacks and other folks of color, by remembering history, will somehow chain themselves to a crippling narrative of victimization, but quite the opposite: that by remembering history, they will perpetuate the recognition of who did the victimizing. It is not victimhood they mind, but an honest appraisal of their own implication in the injury.
Which is no doubt why Beck, on this very day—Independence Day—announced on his radio show that he “hates the last one hundred years or so of American history.” For it is that century in which the prerogatives of his kind of people (and the kind of people favored by the right generally) began to be effectively challenged. That was the century in which women got the right to vote, formal apartheid was dismantled, very much against the will of conservatives, child labor was outlawed, and workers received at least some basic protections from exploitative bosses. And so it is that one hundred years that has made a victim out of Glenn Beck and others like him. They now pose as the victims of a new America they can’t even recognize, and can’t abide. They claim to love the country, but actually only love the Leave It To Beaver version of it, which of course was always a fantasy, indulged by those whites too wrapped up in their racial narcissism to recognize how fundamentally insane was their rendering of the national truth.
This is why white folks suffered such apoplexy at the words of Jeremiah Wright, back in the spring of 2008: not because they had evidence to contradict what he said about U.S. militarism, the murdering of innocent civilians by the American empire, or about the regular and repeated medical experimentation done on black folks throughout the years—all of which has been amply documented by whiter and far less “radical” persons than he—but because his words forced a comeuppance with truth, for which they were none prepared. We had preferred the sanitized lie, and were incredulous that some among us might not be willing to play the game as we had played it for so many years.
Sadly, our national willingness to confront hard truths—or more to the point our unwillingness to do so—is a contagion, the likes of which has clearly infected the President, as evidenced by his July 4th message to the nation today, a copy of which arrived in my e-mail inbox as I was writing this, in fact. In it, President Obama—a man who surely knows better but who, having traded honesty for political viability, now finds himself tethered to patriotic blather as a condition of his public image—begins by insisting that on this day we should remember the “courageous group of patriots” who “pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the proposition that all of us were created equal.” Of course, as I’m sure the President learned at Columbia (or for that matter in prep school in Hawaii), most of them believed in no such thing. For many of the revolutionaries, indeed most, freedom and liberty were to be the preserve of white men only. And so, while whites like my own sixth-degree great grandfather received 10,000 acres of land for his service in the war, the 5000 blacks who served every bit as valiantly as he received no such prize. Indeed, slaves who fought rarely even obtained their freedom as thanks for their service. That is the truth of the independence we celebrate today: namely that it would remain a lie, even in theory, for virtually all non-white folks for another century, and in practice, for nearly two.
In other words, whereas Glenn Beck sees fit to condemn the last one hundred years of American history, it is only this century—and especially the last half of it, what with its steps forward, however incomplete, towards racial equity—that true lovers of liberty can possibly endorse and celebrate. The rest is mostly a menagerie of oppression, broken promises and outright lies: fraud masquerading as fact, tyranny posing as freedom, overt white supremacy and racial fascism smiling through the toothy grin of half-assed Constitutional guarantees that weren’t worth the parchment upon which they were written.
And so as the fireworks pop outside my window, and the celebrants of our national glory retreat to their homes, filled with the warm fuzzy feeling that only raw and naked hubris can provide, may the rest of us—the non-celebrants, who value truth more so than comfort—pledge to continue troubling their sleep, disturbing their dreams, and haunting their patriotic consciousness well into the future: a future which, in the absence of an honest appraisal of where we are and where we’ve been, will be little more hopeful than the past from which we’ve only recently begun to emerge.
And if their heads explode, well, all the better.
Tim Wise is the author of four books, most recently, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama (City Lights, 2009).