Sunday, 4 May 2008

Rather Wright than President

The verdict absolving all three police shooters in the Sean Bell slaying has deepened the sense of entrenched racism in New York, and the ongoing reaction to it provides an insight onto where this disagreeable presidential election contest is heading as well. Plenty of people are outraged, and Reverend Al Sharpton has called for civil disobedience on Wednesday to raise the temperature around town.

I sympathize. At the same time, it recalls the fascination long current amid white-dominated leftish movements to be carried off to jail as an objective of political action rather than a tactic to further a cause. Wiser voices than mine have noted that this temptation soon shifts the center of gravity to the activist core rather than keeping the focus on the ongoing battle for public opinion and influence.

I can’t help thinking simultaneously of the ego-parade staged by the peculiar Pastor Wright last week as he did his best to keep Barack Obama out of the White House. No one has yet explained the logic of his actions in any satisfactory way, and I can only conclude that the deepening segregation of our society has left Wright without any sense of how his positions play across the racial divide. Another possibility is that he just doesn’t care. If it’s all about him, there’s no reason to miss out on his 15 minutes of fame.

David Blight’s wonderful framing of two newly discovered escaped-slave narratives, just published as A Slave No More, reminded me that we still have a lot to review and learn about the institution of slave-holding in the United States, which ended only 140 years ago, i.e. during the lifetimes of my great-grandparents, and its continuing impact on our polity. Of particular interest is how the narratives lay bare the vast psychological divide between slave and master, how white Southerners often were convinced that their chattel possessions would want to hurry off to the interior with their masters rather than face the terrible Yankee invasion.

In fact, John Washington describes his fellow slaves as bursting with concealed joy as the enemy troops approached Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the modern reader is hardly surprised to hear it. Yet post-bellum writings abounded with the quickly reinstalled slaveholder narrative that ‘their’ loyal servants were sorry to be separated from such kindly masters and could barely survive without white ‘protection’. The all-important illusions had to be maintained.

Obama briefly promised a healthier approach to these festering historical wounds. Instead, biped bloody-mindedness has triumphed anew.

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