Knowing there are Stains: Some Thoughts on Racism and the Presidency

chris-new-southerner2KAIROS AND CRISIS

Contributing Editor


Thomas Merton defined kairos as “the time of urgent and providential decision,” a time that involves the risk of crisis. This sense of kairos, particularly here in the South, has much if not everything to do with race and religion. These things are bound to our identities as Southerners, whether accurately or stereotypically. They have been wellsprings of goodness and grace, and they have suffered as objects of hatred and ignorance. Always they have required response. Kairos and Crisis hopes to be one such response, seeking nothing less than healing for our places, our neighbors and ourselves.

There are stains
On the beauty of my democracy,
I want to be clean.
—Langston Hughes, “America”

Part I: Agony

In his poem “I Sit and Look Out”—not quite midway through Leaves of Grass, just before the book’s heraldic “Drum-Taps” section—Whitman writes: “I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like; / All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon, / See, hear, and am silent.”

Compare Whitman’s use of agony to Wendell Berry’s in his book The Hidden Wound (published in 1989 by North Point Press, though originally drafted in late 1968):  “The agony of racism, not only that of the blacks, but our own which we have taken such care to hide, is becoming too clear to be ignored or denied.”

It seems that for both men—Whitman of the Civil War era, Berry of the Civil Rights era—racism as they had known it created an agony that necessitated acknowledgment. Even Whitman’s claim of silence in response to the “slights and degradations” cast against black people is its own kind of acknowledgement. To admit to speechlessness in the face of agony is still an acknowledgment of that agony.

Whether the thoughts of Whitman and Berry, particularly as white men, were anomalies in their own times on the subject of racism is beside the point; for today, when it comes to racism, there is hardly any talk of “agony” at all. And this is especially true when white people are doing the talking. “Colorblindness,” as applied to race, is now a virtue. Racism is supposedly no longer anything more than a fringe problem because of the equal rights and equal protection under the law that exists at least— and often at most—on paper.

Yet this is a joke I heard four years ago, shortly after Barack Obama was elected to be the first black president of the United States:

Q: What is Barack Obama’s name in Korean?
A: Coon-Soon-Die

While this was not the only racist joke I came across at the time, it was easily the sickest. There is some hazard, however, in describing this joke as “sick,” because to do so suggests that it deviates from a general standard of racial health, of racial wholeness, that simply does not exist in this country. Agony is still the standard, as it has always been.

We are now faced with the news, for example, of the racist comments shared on Twitter by a number of people, many of them high school students—comments like “we pick a worthless nigger over a full blooded [A]merican”—and are asked to believe such things have no connection to the punditry that questions President Obama’s citizenship and bemoans his Kenyan heritage. We are faced with the “rioting” that took place this Election Day at the University of Mississippi and asked to believe such a thing has no roots in the actual rioting that took place there in 1962 when James Meredith integrated the university under the guard of federal troops. We are asked to believe that the hanging of black figures from nooses in Maine, the chanting of “Assassinate Obama!” by elementary school students in Idaho, the beating of a black teenager in New York by white men shouting “Obama,” and so forth—all things in reaction to Mr. Obama’s 2008 election—have nothing to do with the history of lynching or the twin legacies of racism and chattel slavery in this country that stretch back hundreds of years.

I highly doubt anyone who uttered the “Coon-Soon-Die” joke meant it seriously; such is the nature of jokes. If that can be granted, it seems the great trouble, the agony, is that the possibility for such jokes exists in this country at all, as though people like Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, and Martin Luther King were not killed by such an evil reckoning that was and is serious in the most absolute sense.

While the joke is certainly evidence of the depravity of the mind in which it was conceived, it could only be conceived in an individual mind because it is part of the mass mind. The mass mind need not express itself so crudely, for it knows it has defined the terms: There was plenty of talk leading up to Mr. Obama’s first election, for example, about whether or not our country was ready for a black president. In 2008, doubts about the possibility of having a black president were simply commonplace. Yet hardly anyone seems to see the agony in that.

I had such doubts myself.  I had them when I voted for Mr. Obama four years ago, and I had them when I voted for him four weeks ago. Inasmuch as I have had those doubts, then, I have contributed to the agony in my own way. The agony does not only exist in racist jokes, or in black mannequins swaying from nooses in Maine, or in racially motivated riots in Mississippi, though it exists in such things surely enough. Acknowledging the agony therein might indeed be what we need to do first, for such things are not merely anecdotal, divorced from historical context. The fundamental problem we have is not one of blatantly racist people doing blatantly racist things, but of the unacknowledged racism that informs and that is engrained in the structure of our society through which such blatancy seeps and by which a perfidious silence allows little to change.

Part II forthcoming.

New Southerner contributing editor Christopher Martin lives his wife and their children in the northwest Georgia piedmont, where he studies creative writing at Kennesaw State University and edits the online journal Flycatcher. Chris is author of the poetry chapbook A Conference of Birds, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous places, such as Shambhala Sun, Still: The Journal, Drafthorse, Poecology, Ruminate Magazine and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia. He is currently the featured poet at Town Creek Poetry.

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  1. I have fought with the agony you describe. Even today, I am rather secretive about voting for Mr. Obama. Not once, but twice. When you are born into a house of prejudice, it takes a great deal of courage to turn around and face those family members who feel safe in that dark house devoid of mirrors. I wrote a poem about it, but never had the courage to share it. I’ve kept my shame deep inside. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I think America has a black president and needs to deal with it. Black people don’t give a damn about white people being ready. He was the most qualified candidate. There are white people like the late Ann Braden who grappled with their own racism and white privilege and won the battle by becoming better human beings. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of our mutuality. Now that we are on the verge of destroying the planet it behooves all of us to put aside petty differences and work for the common good.

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