Over at Powerline, Paul Mirengoff makes a sensible argument against Black History Month, echoing calls from an NRO writer. Normally, I’d be at least open to the argument, would sincerely wonder what Shelby Steele would say about it, and would be interested in discussing Mirengoff’s idea that insofar as Black History month can be the earliest American history elementary school-kids regularly get prior to 4th or 5th grade, it skews their overall sense of America.
But not at the moment.
For right now I’m reeling from the impact of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I’m only a third of the way through, but the author Isabel Wilkerson has stunned me with her portrayal of the segregationist South.
God, it was awful.
The sheer weight of that…well within the lived experience of many of us…
Now it shouldn’t be new or surprising to me, as I’ve been captivated by Malcolm X’s speeches, moved by the grit and the border-of-desperation faith pouring into the gospel songs, read life after life on it, experienced art-work after art-work on it, including ones of the James Baldwin and the Richard Wright variety, and gone through the thousands of pages of Taylor Branchs’s civil rights movement chronicles, learning chapter and verse about evil upon evil, well-known or not, dealt out in places like Albany, GA, St. Augustine, FL, and Farmville, VA, but the sheer enormity of it all has never, ever, hit me as hard as it does with this book.
Wilkerson tells the story of the Black migration north through three personal narratives, while also giving the larger history, and the background of thousands of interviews. They are documented and fully lived out–real lives–so it’s not a question of art like Richard Wright’s being too grim in spirit somehow–as it was rightly accused, IMO, by Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, or just generally too framed for literary purposes. And they are everyday lives, so it’s not the (real) “heroes and villains stories” one gets from reading a civil rights movement historian like Branch, but the stories of ordinary folks. In the 80s and 90s the idealistic young man in me gravitated towards the heroic and very political-ideological stories of the likes King, John Lewis, Bob Moses, Bayard Rustin, etc,…and I learned much from them, and not simply idealistic inspiration or left-liberal outrage. But perhaps that political/heroic framework did not allow me to really see what the crimes of the South meant. Now, the older man in me is more deeply struck by how pervasively the oppression of segregation walled in Wilkerson’s three not-terribly political persons in the course of their simply trying to live out their lives, to pursue dreams, have jobs, develop marriages, etc. I see and feel how the system would have worked on any imaginable pre-70s-black me.
To learn anew the old facts about lynching and such (although, yes, Wilkerson has more of them) in this context, the impact is just far greater. As is the impact of perhaps the most damning sentence in American letters…the most damning judgment of the South ever given:
Wilkerson’s book makes it clear that whatever the particular impact of cotton blights, WWI, the basic reason for the black migration north was simply this: the segregation system got worse and worse from the 1880s on, and simply became unbearable.
Back in Songbook #23, I noted that blacks don’t have very many of the classic “goin’ home” songs that you get in American pop-song, especially in country music. Maybe today, that is slowly beginning to change, and in others of my music posts, I have indicated that all American music, but black music in particular, could benefit from culturally “returning Southwards.”
I’m a conservative educator…the sort of person who likes to remind Americans that America’s history matters to them, who gives friends, and assigns students, Thomas West’s wonderful Vindicating the Founders, and agrees with 90% of West’s argument vindicating them from bad PC-agenda-laden history charging them with self-interested racism. I’m actively working to bring Founderism, rightly qualified by a certain contrary voices, into American classrooms. I’m actively working to get students to consider what their heritage means. And I think I’ve made it evident on this blog that I think America has a good deal to learn from the South in general, especially about its religious roots, certain “alternative” agrarian/communitarian traditions, certain Stoic and manly traditions, and its tragic aspects, and especially today–Founderism is good and necessary, but voices like Percy’s and Portis’s must remain heard.
But man, you read something like this book, and you wonder. You wonder about the nice South you live in now, about singin’ along with Charles Portis to a Johnny Cash tune. You wonder how much you should celebrate America, the entire America that tolerated and made the system possible, or even explore its soul. Even if you know with the likes of West, that without the natural rights philosophy, it all could have gone on much longer. So maybe you should be with Shirley Caeser singing about spiritual combat, about “tearing Satan’s kingdom down,” a kingdom that holds territory in the souls of black folks as much as in any, instead of about how this is the land of the free.
A book like Wilkerson’s brings it home that there was a darkness and coldness in the American heart at times that defies all explanation. Whose evil is made starker by its contrast with the founding principles, with the all the various flourishings of freedom in American society. Things like the mad black-power politics that eventually destroyed Detroit, or even things like 90% of American blacks voting this last time for such an obviously badly governing president, become understandable, and even begin to seem trivial. I’m all for many more movies like Lincoln and for the Founder-friendly scholarly movement inspiring them, and sincerely believe such a movement can teach and can heal, but maybe only the South’s remaining serious about its turn to Christianity (it ain’t New England that’s “Puritan” anymore!), and American blacks really seeing that this culminates in serious repentance that embraces them, can begin to loosen the weight of it all.