George Yancy's Letter to His Nation
Part I, February 10, 2017
A Turkish colleague sent George Yancy's recent contribution to "The Stone" feature of the New York Times, "It's Black HistoryMonth. Look in the Mirror." with the following message: "I believe we will be extremely busy working on Trump-related issues on Whiteness, discrimination and verbal violence. Prof. George Yancy published this in opinion pages. I thought you may like to see it."
I did like seeing Yancy's essay and reading it as one of many descendents of David Walker's 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World…. Nevertheless, for me Yancy did not inspire the bold courage that Walker provides each time I read his passionate appeal. It is not that Yancy lacks passion. His passion is more deeply nuanced that Walker's , more tempered by philosophical niceties. Thus, I replied: "Thanks for sharing Yancy's extremely polite message to American citizens. Although I wish to share what I'd call his civility and guarded optimism, I find doing so to be impossible. My daily witnessing of our nation's political insanity ---it infects all of us regardless of ethnicity or ideology --- leads me to think the lack of morality is beyond cure. Indeed, if Friedrich Nietzsche's sermons on nihilism have any credibility, I am left with pure dread."
My colleague then responded: "I agree with you, but on the other hand, good comes out of evil. At lease Trump made 'insidious operations of ideology of Whiteness' quite visible, quite a challenge to those scholars or people in general who keep whitewashing race and call U.S. and the world as 'postracial'."
My reaction was to write a period: "You are right. Good comes out of evil, stays for a brief moment, and vanishes; the cycle resumes. I think I'm just flat out weary of the cycle." My colleague had touched a sensitive nerve. I am weary, almost in the sense that Fannie Lou Hamer was "sick and tired." The sinister cycle that is the movement of America's experiment with democracy has long been annoying. In less than a month, the antics of the Trump political reality show have transformed annoyance into resentment throughout the spectrum of our uniquely constructed nation. I resent and explode like Langston Hughes's universally recognized raisin in the sun. My "liberal" act is a matter of exploding to keep from imploding. In "conservative" quarters, mirror images of both my reaction and act are separate in kind but equal in degree. The grounds, reasons, or excuses for resenting are different; the spleen and bitterness match my own. In our nation, the house has many divisions.
Yancy's epistle (although it lacks the generic features of a letter to his fellow citizens who willfully or accidentally occupy the identity position of barbarians) is very philosophical, restrained, ethical, and laden a bit overmuch with noble but disabling concessions ( disabling from the reader response angle of one African American reader: me). Yancy speaks with the grace and charity that has been the bane of more than two centuries of African American, Christ-imprisoned special pleading, much of it devoted to helping those who insist on being "White" (even if they have black skins) to travel the highway to redemption. Redemption is defunct.
I respect Yancy's right to be merciful. Keeping unfettered anger in check is fine, but I am more inclined, as a Roman Catholic with Jesuit leanings , to feel African American epistles in the Age of Trump should imitate Aton and Yahweh not Jesus the Christ and the martyred Apostles.
Part II, February 11, 2017
Yancy's prose is clear, attractively rational even in moments when rhetoric ordains combativeness. He deploys his pronouns well. Consider points he argues in "It's Black History Month….."
(1) "…African-Americans forced the United States of America to look deep into its own soul and to see the moral bankruptcy that lay there."
Objection: Where is the proof that our nation possesses a soul and has the capacity to discern its moral condition?
(2) The exposure of bankruptcy occurred "as African-Americans struggled to live under white supremacy" in a nominal home ---"a home that was already brutally taken from Native Americans by white colonial settlers…"
Objection: The house that race built is neither literally nor figuratively a home.
(3) Our (my pronoun not Yancy's) bodies "were subject to unconscionable white enslavement" and "we lived through forms of carnage, mutilation, rape, castration and injustice that will forever mark the profound ethical failure of this country."
Objection: The trope of victimization does not sufficiently acknowledge the resistive powers of indigenous and "African-becoming-American" minds.
(4) By virtue of survival, "we became far more American than those who withheld America's promise."
Objection: Given that all members of the body politic have never been included in the process of shaping the concept " American" except by dubious theory and praxis, one political animal is not "far more" than all the others. The literary imagination too often deludes itself in belief that it transcends the limits of philosophical actuality.
These post-truth, tendentious objections can suggest Yancy's eloquence serves the ends of prophecy better than the aims of the pedagogy of the oppressed. His admirable intentions are diminished by such default as is innate and regrettably permanent in the motions of human history.
The bulk of Yancy's essay belongs to the tradition of the African American jeremiad. Cultural nationalism often competes in the genre with political nationalism. After quoting Lillian Smith and Frederick Douglass, icons of righteousness, Yancy mentions instances of Donald John Trump's failure to speak truth to Christianity. He insists that we ought to "refuse to forget the often unspeakable atrocities we endured." My objection to an idea that I support ---we should remember daily to remember and not merely remember in February ---is that we have blissfully little remembered the atrocities indigenous peoples in the USA endured and still endure. Many of us are complicit in precisely what we condemn. Yancy suggests that at least one of Trump's famous executive orders bastardizes the Judaic concept of Tikkun Olam, reminding us of a long-standing African American love/hate romance with all things Hebraic. With rhetorical panache, Yancy swerves to recommend "white people" ought to use Black History Month to embrace responsibility and recognize "how white racist complicity and black suffering were historically linked and are currently intertwined." Yancy can anticipate having as much success as Richard Wright had with White Man, Listen! And does this gesture not leave non-white readers in a quandary that wants to be a dilemma? The quandary is compounded by Yancy's invoking two ideas from his fellow philosopher Judith Butler regarding "the essence of the human." Had he invoked Angela Davis I might have been happier, less given to complaint. Alluding to Cornel West's August 24, 2011 New York Times op-ed "Dr. King Weeps From His Grave," urges in conclusion that we should heed the prophetic warning of a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. did not live long enough to preach, one titled "Why American May Go to Hell." People in the Hell that is Yancy's nation do not need warning. They need cold water.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.