As we mourn the dead of Charleston, let us remember. As many of you know by now, this was not just any church. This was Denmark Vesey's church. It was a living symbol of a Black freedom fighter. Let us remember. Let us reject White frames of remembrance that cast Robert E. Lee as noble and Denmark Vesey as threatening. Let us remember that African Americans were both Christians and Americans in the South at a time when few Whites wanted anything to do with the genuine article of either.
"What one begs the American people to do," the Black writer James Baldwin declared in 1965, is simply to accept our history."
Half a century later, this act of remembrance is still the great task remaining before us.
By their very presence, Black Americans have always represented a threat to the White "system of reality" (Baldwin's words). When American law said Whiteness was a prerequisite for citizenship, Black Americans insisted they were entitled to it anyway. When the idea of America as a "Christian Nation" was sheer farce, African Americans gave lonely expression to a genuine faith. It makes sense that the terrorist targeted a Black church this week. The Black church challenges, at once, the entire system of White racial-religious myth that continues to hold sway in our imaginations. To the present day, forthright expression of Black perspectives evokes extraordinary anger and defensiveness among White Americans. To this day, Black Americans represent a threat to our very identities. Let us remember.
James Baldwin saw this more clearly than any writer I know. At a debate in Cambridge, England, in 1965, Baldwin said, "Until the moment comes when we, the American people, are able to accept the fact that...my ancestors were both white and black; that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other; and that I am not a ward of America; I am not an object of missionary charity; I am one of the people who built the country--until this moment there is scarcely any hope for the American Dream..."
Too many of us want to construct this new identity on the cheap. We want a "post-racial" future without the reality of our oppressive past. The problem is, deep in our bones, White Americans understand the awful logic of retribution. We intuitively, if subconsciously, understand the magnitude of what Black Americans could justly demand. Yet Black Americans have repeatedly rejected an eye for an eye. They
have taken the fake Christianity of the enslaver and produced a faith
worthy of the name of Christ, a faith we saw so richly in action in the words of
grieving family members as they spoke forgiveness for the Charleston
Most Black Americans have not embraced the cold logic of revenge to which they are entitled. Baldwin was one of many who instead asked for something as profoundly simple as it is difficult: acknowledge our history. Admit the full humanity of Black Americans. Admit that they took a country that was never intended for them, and made it into something different for all of us. Admit that their experience is unlike any other group in American history. Come to grips with why race was made. Confront the causes and consequences of White advantage here and now. Many White Americans would rather corrupt our entire "system of reality" than face an honest accounting of the history to which we belong.
Remembering is not a culmination but a beginning. Remembering is not sufficient for justice in 2015, but it is a precondition for it. As the flag of enslavement, torture, rape, and treason flies high in South Carolina, the need for a reckoning remains. What kind of social sickness must stalk the land that would allow such a hateful emblem to be open to interpretation?
Baldwin's opponent in that debate of 1965 was the founding father of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley. His sneering response to Baldwin has much to tell us about the White American imagination then and since.
He insinuated that Black Americans were either culturally or genetically inferior. At a time of state-sanctioned oppression, he castigated Black Americans for supposedly not taking advantage of the opportunities available to them. In a bizarre and chilling conclusion, Buckley warned that if made to choose
between the American Dream and Black demands, White Americans would embark on a
race war to defend their civilization. And they would do so with confidence in the rightness of their cause, just as the
British had done in their fight against Nazis a generation before.
In Buckley's rhetoric, Black Americans constituted a threat to traditional American culture, economic systems, and political practices. The American Dream stood in opposition to Black demands for inclusion in it. Blackness, analogized as Nazism in Buckley's imagination, threatened the very meaning of America.
It is somehow fitting that Buckley warned of a race war fifty years ago. A friend of presidents, prolific author, maker of a movement, recipient of the nation's highest civilian honor, host of an award-winning public television show--Buckley was anything but marginal. Indeed, he had a brilliant mind. His morally sick system of reality was not exceptional; it was representative of the nation he loved.
By all accounts, Dylann Roof acted alone when he shot nine people this week. But the ideas animating him are as American as apple pie. He wanted to start a race war.