The Past Belongs to Those Who Use It
Ta-Nehisi Coates uses a great post on dispelling the myth that Robert E. Lee opposed slavery (a myth I remember endorsing in my 6th grade project on the Battle of Gettysburg) to open a broader discussion about the uses and abuses of history, and indeed the shame and pride that comes from ambiguous historical legacies.
He movingly compares white Southerns who must come to terms with their ancestors’ slave-owning pasts to American Blacks who shudder when reminded that fellow Africans sold their ancestors into slavery.
This is about a lancing shame, about that gaping wound in the soul that comes when confronted with the appalling deeds of our forebears. Lost Causers worship their ancestors, in the manner of the abandoned child who brags that his dead-beat father is actually an astronaut, away on a mission of cosmic importance.
I know how this goes. For us, it’s coping with the fact that people who looked like you sold you into slavery. It’s understanding that you come from a place that was on the wrong side of the Gatling gun. It’s feeling not simply like one of history’s losers, but that you had no right to win. The work of the mature intellect is to reconcile oneself to the past without a retreat into fantasy–in either direction. Claiming to be the descendant of kings and queens is just as bad as claiming to be thankful for the slave trade.
After debunking the myth of the benevolent Robert E. Lee, Coates goes further, blaming “the problem of nationalism” for the worship of false heroes. Rather than look to Lee, he suggests Southerners commemorate their ancestors who actually opposed slavery, or even the slaves themselves who fought so hard for their freedom. Martin Luther King Jr. was “a product of The South” and should be celebrated as one of the region’s greatest heroes.
This leads him to “the question of how we claim ancestors, a question that is more philosophical than biological.” Coates had opened his post by quoting Ralph Wiley, who responded to Saul Bellow‘s sneer, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” with “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” And so he concludes:
Africa, and African-America, means something to me because I claim it as such–but I claim much more. I claim Fitzgerald, whatever he thought of me, because I see myself in Gatsby. I claim Steinbeck because, whether he likes it or not, I am an Okie. I claim Blake because “London” feels like the hood to me.
And I claim them right alongside Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin and Ralph Wiley, who had it so right when he parried Saul Bellow. The dead, and the work they leave—the good and bad–is the work of humanity and thus says something of us all. And in that manner, I must be humble and claim some of Lee, Jackson, and Forrest. What might I have been in another skin, in another country, in another time?
Decades ago, W.E.B. Du Bois famously stated that “he sits with Shakespeare, and he winces not.” Ralph Ellison went a step further. Several years ago, I heard a talk by Arnold Rampersad who noted that Ellison divided writers into two broad categories, his “relatives” and his “ancestors.” To his “relatives,” contemporary African American authors like Richard Wright and James Baldwin, he offered the faintest of praise, and instead found literary influences in his ancestors, white European and American writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner.
Rampersad also noted that Ellison was something of an asshole, particularly to Alain Locke, the intellectual godfather of the Harlem Renaissance who went to great lengths to help him. As regular readers of this blog may be aware, I’m writing my dissertation on Alain Locke and Horace Kallen. Both Kallen and Locke shared an affinity for philosophical pragmatism, and this affinity influenced their thinking on matters of race and culture.
As I’ve referenced here before, Locke, in 1911, delivered a speeches to the Negro Historical Societies of Philadelphia and Yonkers. In these speeches, whose incomplete, tattered, hand-written remains are housed at the Alain Locke Papers of the Manuscript Division of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University (where Locke taught for several decades), demonstrated Locke’s firm belief that culture belonged to those who used it:
I justify the claim to American institutions and utilities on the grounds not that the constitution says that they are the common property of all men, but on the grounds that they are utilities, nothing more, and that they are therefore to be had [for] the earning…. America stands for the common ownership of all the so-called benefits or utilities of civilization. It is not a question of our right to these things, but of what ends we are going to use them after we have obtained them.
Indeed, three years earlier, delivering a speech called “Cosmopolitanism” before the Oxford Cosmopolitan Club in June of 1908, Locke contested those racists who claimed that Blacks had no “birthright” to American civilization. Locke had “little doubt” that with the tools of Western civilization at their disposal:
the ideal heritage of that transplanted race will reassert itself not as political ambition or economic greediness, but as a distinctive and vital national idea embodied in a race literature, a race art, a race religion and a sense of corporate history and destiny.
To Locke, the essence of the Harlem Renaissance (which he began to conceive in pre-WW1 England) was African American’s pragmatic employment of Western/American artistic tools to shape and mold their African and American heritage into a modern, dynamic and aesthetically impressive cultural movement. And Blacks brought their own tools and rhythms and methods to art and culture as well, tools that they could share with other peoples, to preserve and add to their own national heritage and to create new, hybrid fluid cultures as well.
Peoples should not be afraid to confront their past; in 1950, Locke wrote an essay where he noted that “self-criticism” was a mark of a group’s sophistication, “a necessary and welcome sign of cultural maturity,” Groups should remember and criticize what was shameful in their past, which will better enable them to take pride in what was honourable.