Category Archives: History & Political Science

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Becoming King colorMartin Luther King dreamt of a nation where all inhabitants of the United States would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by their personal abilities and qualities. King became the face of the civil rights revolution through adhering to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence and leading a movement based on peace, not conflict. On August 28, 1963, 250,000 demonstrators stood before the Lincoln Memorial while King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, one year before the United States passed a law prohibiting all racial discrimination.

Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 11.13.14 AMFor his tireless dedication and commitment towards civil rights and social justice, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on this day in 1964. At 35, he became the youngest person to have ever received this esteemed award.

In honor of Dr. King, his legacy, and the 54th anniversary of his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, here is an excerpt of his acceptance speech, which he made in Oslo, Norway on December 10, 1964.


 

“Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness, Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice. I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.

Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 12.29.27 PMAfter contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 12.30.27 PM.pngThis faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.

Today I come to Oslo as a trustee, inspired and with renewed dedication to humanity. I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood. I say I come as a trustee, for in the depths of my heart I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally.

I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners – all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty – and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.”

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A Conversation with Kwoya Fagin Maples, author of Mend

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 12.46.43 PMKwoya Fagin Maples, author of Mend: Poems, amplifies the forgotten voices of black women whose bodies were used to further science at the expense of their humanity through her profoundly intimate, and sometimes devastating, verse. This collection of poems explores imagined memories and experiences relayed from hospital beds. The speakers challenge James Marion Sims’s lies, mourn their trampled dignity, name their suffering in spirit, and speak of their bodies as “bruised fruit.” At the same time, they are more than his victims, and the poems celebrate their humanity, their feelings, their memories, and their selves. A finalist for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, this debut collection illuminates a complex and disturbing chapter of the African American experience.

How did you first become acquainted with James Marion Sims, and did you learn about his experimentation on enslaved women at the same time, or did that knowledge come later?

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 12.51.35 PM.pngI didn’t intentionally set out to write historical persona poems. I was at a time in my writing career where I was weary of writing about myself. I’d just graduated from my MFA program and I felt a little lost—not knowing the direction I wanted my writing to take. Before Mend, I mainly wrote lyrical or language poems. During a Cave Canem summer workshop another writer mentioned the story of enslaved women—mothers, who were the subjects of gynecological experimentation conducted by Dr. James Marion Sims of Montgomery, Alabama. I’d been asking her about her own experience with motherhood. When I got back to my room, I googled the story, and I was immediately captivated by it. There was so little information online about it at that time, and no record of the women’s experiences. Not even all of their names. All of this was stunning and heartbreaking. I suppose from the beginning I deeply connected with the women emotionally—as if they were my family. At that time, I knew this story had not been told from their perspective. I imagined they’d been waiting on it to be told. I wrote one poem that same night. It was titled “The Door.” It is fortuitous that my editor, Lisa Williams, later chose it to be the book’s prefatory poem.

Can you describe the research you did in preparing to write these poems?

I began by collecting and studying slave narratives. Most of my research was conducted by use of the Library of Congress. I listened to music recordings from that time period and studied photographs of southern enslaved women in order to develop voices. I read Sims’s autobiography, surgical notes, and letters. By the time I finished writing Mend, I’d poured through hundreds of slave narratives and read several books surrounding the case, including Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, which related several cases of medical experimentation conducted on people of color in the United States. Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other unnamed women of Mt. Meigs were not alone. I found that medical experimentation was commonly practiced by doctors and slaveholders. In her book, Washington uses the term “medical plantations,” arguing that what yielded for these doctors (instead of a traditional crop) was advancement in their respective fields and establishment of wealth. The poem I wrote in direct response to this idea is “What Yields,” an eleven-sectioned sonnet corona in Mend.

After spending so much time in research, when the poems came again for the book, they came in the voices of the women themselves. In 2011, at a writing residency provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, I began writing. I hadn’t written anything since that first poem a year earlier. I didn’t feel I’d have permission until I’d done my due diligence of researching. I didn’t automatically feel as though I could tell these women’s stories just because I was a black woman. I’d never been born a slave. Something that happened in the process of writing this book that I didn’t expect was how my own experience with matrescence would affect the work. In March of 2012, I found I was pregnant for the first time. After having written poems that endeavored to show the scope of the women’s lives, including their motherhood, there was so much I wanted to go back and revise. I didn’t plan on how being a mother would affect my work or the poems of this collection, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

How do the persona poems in Mend compare to your other poetry?

Mend is my first collection of historical persona poetry. I’ve written only a few other persona poems. My other work draws from my personal impressions and life experiences. I’m not an overtly political poet, but my work is political, nonetheless. Often, an argument is being made. The book I’m currently writing draws mainly from my childhood, and shows my obsession with the ocean. I’m from Charleston, SC, and that enters my work as well.

Earlier this year, the statue commemorating Sims was removed from New York’s Central Park and will be relocated to the Brooklyn cemetery where he is buried. It will include a plaque explaining the “legacy of non-consensual medical experimentation on women of color broadly and Black women specifically that Sims has come to symbolize.” Is this an appropriate step for the city to take and what more can or should be done concerning his memorials there and elsewhere?

The Sims statue removal in New York was pivotal and refreshing. It meant that people were hearing the story of Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the unnamed women, and listening. Later in the year, when I heard that the mayor of Columbia, SC was interested in having the statue of Sims removed from the Statehouse there, I knew I wanted to be part of efforts to make it happen. I contacted Joy Priest, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, and we began organizing a protest in the form of a poetry marathon. I traveled from Birmingham to South Carolina. The protest was held in front of Sims’s statue. All day we read poetry, essays, and facts related to this case in medical history. Poetry is a powerful form of resistance. While we held up posters, we also passed out fliers with information about Sims and the experimentation. We reverenced the voices of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy along with all the unnamed women by bringing them into the frame.

People who cause trauma to others should not be reverenced or held in such high esteem that they have statues erected in their honor. People with any moral decency should agree. Sims’s actions as a doctor jeopardized the lives of human beings and caused irreparable harm. Sims’s monuments were built in his honor without consideration of the circumstances surrounding his success. The women whose bodies he profited from became meaningless the day his statue was erected. Their existence was completely ignored. With these statues and others like it, marginalized people repeatedly receive the message that their experiences are of no importance. When we rectify our mistakes by removing or modifying problematic monuments or statues, we give people an opportunity to heal.

Remembering Dr. Paul Karan

Dr. Pradyumna (Paul) Karan, long-time University of Kentucky professor of geography and Japanese Studies, passed away on July 19, 2018. Dr. Karan was a highly regarded and respected professor and colleague. In the words of Anne Dean Dotson, Senior Acqusitions Editor at the University Press of Kentucky, “He will be missed dearly . . . . He was a special, patient soul, and his familiar chuckle will never be forgotten.”

Karan

Born in India in 1930, growing up with the importance of education stressed by his parents, Dr. Karan studied economics and geography at Banaras Hindu University, and later got his PhD from Indiana University. Hired in 1956, Dr. Karan was one of the first international faculty members in UK’s history. Over his sixty-year career, he was a professor of human geography, director of Indian Studies, taught in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures, and was heavily involved with the UK Japan Studies program. Dr. Karan traveled extensively to Japan, China, and India for research and speaking engagements. He also taught at several universities across the United States, Europe, Russia, Japan, and India.

Dr. Karan worked extensively to understand the connections between economic development and the environment, particularly in India, Japan, and the Himalayan states. He conducted research that aimed at reconstructing and rebuilding in Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011, among other work focused on simultaneously preserving local cultures and the environment.

The University Press of Kentucky is privileged to have published a number of Dr. Karan’s books over the course of his career. In honor of this esteemed educator, here are some of his works:

Karan book 1

 

Japan in the 21st Century explores the crucial political, economic, demographics, and environmental challenges facing the nation now and moving forward. Karan highlights challenges that will face Japan in the coming years, and offers insights into how these problems might be addressed.

 

 

 

Karan book 2

 

Japan in the Bluegrass, edited by Karan, examines the regional and local impacts of the globalization of Japanese business in the United States. Particularly focusing on the impact of Toyota in Kentucky, these essays explore beyond politics and economics, delving into the social, cultural, and environmental effects of Japanese investment in Kentucky.

 

 

 

Karan book 3

 

The Japanese City, edited by Karan and Kristin Stapleton, is a collection of essays aimed at addressing the issue of inner-city violence in American cities, particularly through examination of the city of Tokyo. Factors, such as urban landscape, spatial mixing of social classes in the city, and environmental pollution, are utilized in comparisons between Tokyo and the American city. This work offers a comprehensive look at the contemporary Japanese city.

 

 

Karan book 4

 

Written by Cotton Mather, Paul Karan, and Shigeru Iijima, Japanese Landscapes: Where Land and Culture Merge is a visual guide for Japanese landscapes. The authors look at the complex interaction of culture, time, and space in the evolution of landscapes in Japan. By examining everything from home gardens to roadside shoulders, this work offers a unified analysis of the Japanese landscape.

 

 

Karan book 5

 

Local Environmental Movements, edited by Karan and Unryu Suganuma, examines how grassroots organizations have worked to promote sustainable development in the face of defeatist attitudes towards environment crises. Drawing on a series of case studies, this work illustrates how local groups in both Japan and the United States are working for environmental protection and cultural preservation.

 

Karan book 6

Edited by Karan and Shanmugam P. Subbiah, The Indian Ocean Tsunami analyses the aftermath of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Focusing on the response and recovery to this tragedy, this collection studies the environment, economic, and political effects of the tsunami.

 

 

 

 

Karan book 7

 

Japan after 3/11, edited by Karan and Unryu Suganuma, considers the complex economic, physical, and social impacts of the 2011 earthquake that triggered a tsunami and the Fukushima meltdown. This collection includes strategies for reclamation and rebuilding, interviews with victims which explore the social implications of the disaster, and much more to serve as an invaluable guide to the planning and implementation of reconstruction.

 

Top 3 Lincoln Myths and Conspiracy Theories

In Edward Steers Jr.’s Lincoln Legends, Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President he shows us some of the more outlandish ideas and theories concerning the fourteenth president of the United States. Here are some very memorable highlights from his work.Lincoln Legends Cover

Top 3 Lincoln Myths and Conspiracy Theories

#3 Dr. Samuel Mudd’s innocence

There was the claim ardently pushed by the Mudd family and Dr. Samuel Mudd himself that he was not a part of the conspiracy to kidnap President Lincoln. The story goes that he was simply a gentle country doctor who had never encountered Booth before and was persecuted for holding to the Hippocratic Oath and tending to the wounds Booth acquired during the assassination of Lincoln. The conviction goes that he was a member of the group that plotted Lincoln’s kidnap and that he had encountered Booth multiple times before.

#2 Abraham Lincoln was not the son of Thomas Lincoln

This theory states that Abraham Lincoln was actually the son of Nancy Hanks, his mother, and four possible Abraham Enloes who were said to be candidates for the fatherhood of President Lincoln. This was a theory even during Lincoln’s lifetime, and he received numerous challenges to the legitimacy of his birth during his political career.

#1 Mary Todd Lincoln was a Confederate sympathizer and possible spy

During the Civil War, rumors were spread of a southern spy in the White House, and due to her birth place being Kentucky, her brothers’ service to the Confederate army, and her stepsister’s marriage to a Confederate brigadier general, Mary Todd was seen as the most likely suspect. There was even nearly an investigation into her loyalties that was quashed by Lincoln’s testimony of his family’s loyalty to the Union.

If you are interested in more stretched truths, odd ideas, and engineered falsehoods, check out Edward Steers Jr.’s Lincoln Legends, Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President as well as his other work Hoax: Hitler’s Diaries, Lincoln’s Assassins, and Other Famous Frauds.

Black-Eyed Peas, Tradition, and the New Year

When it comes to ushering in a new year filled with good fortune and prosperity, certain foods are said to bring good luck. Every culture has variations, but a recurring theme is that black-eyed peas—resembling coins or closed circles signifying the end of one year and success in the next—symbolizes a positive direction in the upcoming year.

One explanation of the superstition says that black-eyed peas were all the Southern slaves had to celebrate with on the first day of January, 1863—the day when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. From then on, peas were always eaten on the first day of January.

In Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine, Kelley Fanto Deetz draws upon archaeological evidence, cookbooks, plantation records, and folklore to present a nuanced study of the lives of enslaved plantation cooks from colonial times through emancipation and beyond. Deetz not only uncovers their rich and complex stories and illuminates their role in plantation culture, but celebrates their

deetz

living legacy with the recipes that they created and passed down to future generations.

Below is an excerpt from Bound to the Fire:


Ingredients and recipes tell the history of enslaved cooks, from their ancestral homes in West Africa, throughout the middle passage, and into Anglo kitchens, where their talent became irreplaceable.

[. . .]

It is challenging to tease out the precise influences of West African foodways in the colonial Virginia. Colonists were transferring a plethora of foodstuffs, some of which were West African in origin, and quickly became part of the Virginian and Atlantic cuisine. What culinary historian James C. McCain calls the Atlantic Circulation, also known as the “Columbian Trade” drastically transformed the global markets, which were previously semi-bound to land. 

Black-eyed peas, okra, millet, and yams are some ingredients which directly transformed both the new colonies’ crops as well as the dinner table. However, the essence of culinary influence is not simply found in these key ingredients, but rather in the techniques of the African cook, whose memories, creativity, and effort transformed crops into cuisine. While many different factors helped flavor the plantation cuisine, the Igbo’s use of okra is one of the most prevalent legacies in Southern foodways. Used as a thickening agent, enslaved cooks relied on this ingredient and one can assume it became a good substitute for a roux. Presumably enslaved cooks had knowledge, either first-hand or passed down, of making certain foods from their homeland. For example, palm wine was a common staple in many parts of West Africa, as was fried foods and stews. Their organic culinary knowledge was easily transferable to the needs of elite plantation culture.

[. . .]

Enslaved plantation cooks singlehandedly transformed American food, and gave birth to Southern cuisine. The West African ingredients and cooking techniques passed down through generations melded with the European methods and ingredients and allowed cooks to author distinct menus. These contributions are undeniable, yet often their cultural roots were ignored, and forgotten.

Celebrating James Baldwin

Today, on what would have been James Baldwin’s 93rd birthday, we’re celebrating by sharing an excerpt from A Political Companion to James Baldwin edited by Susan J. McWilliams (forthcoming November 2017). In this selection, eminent scholar Eddie S. Glaude Jr. explores why contemporary activists follow Baldwin in a radical cultivation of democratic individuality in the service of racial justice.


James Baldwin and Black Lives Matter

By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.9780813169910

I want to think about Black Lives Matter in a different register, one that connects this complex movement with the extraordinary insights of James Baldwin. My reflections were triggered by citations of Baldwin by protesters (and serve as kind of run-up to a more extensive engagement with his disturbing book on the Atlanta child murders, The Evidence of Things Not Seen).[1] To put it bluntly, Jimmy is everywhere. People, especially young people, seem to be reaching for him as way of accounting for the latest disaster—the latest national panic around race—that has defined this country since its beginnings. In fact, when I think about the protests and the damning precarity of black life in this country, Baldwin’s words come to mind: “America sometimes resembles . . . an exceedingly monotonous minstrel show; the same dances, same music, same jokes. One has done (or been) the show so long that one can do it in one’s sleep.”[2] To be sure, there is something familiar and wholly unprecedented in our current moment. No wonder activists are reaching for Baldwin.

My thoughts are preliminary; they are inchoate. They reflect my efforts to think about Baldwin as a kind of exemplar of a perfectionist tradition that takes shape under the conditions of domination. I want to suggest that Black Lives Matter refracts this tradition in particularly interesting ways. Of course, against the backdrop of events in Ferguson and Baltimore and the deaths of so many black women and men at the hands of the police, the assertion that black lives matter takes on added significance. We utter the words in the context of life-and-death circumstances—at least some of us do—circumstances that seem to be a constant feature of what it means to be black in this country.

[ . . . ]

In no way do we live in a society like apartheid South Africa (that would be an example at the extreme), but we do live in a country where black people confront every day the reality that we are less valued; it is experienced, as Clarissa Hayward argues, in the very built environment of this nation—in our neighborhoods, where we go to school, and the places we work.[3] The data are crystal clear. African Americans suffer chronic double-digit unemployment. We lead the nation in rates of heart disease and HIV/AIDS. African Americans make up nearly 1 million of the 2.4 million Americans in prison. When we think about the differences between whites and blacks in high school graduation rates, among those with college degrees, mortality rates, in access to health care, in levels of wealth, differences in salaries with the same level of education, in the percentage of children in poverty, we can see, independent of individual acts of racism, that white Americans, particularly those with money, matter more than others.[4]

We ought to understand the Black Lives Matter movement as a rejection of this belief. More to the point, we ought to understand it as a rejection of the belief that white lives are presumed more valuable than black lives. Because, it is that belief—the view that animates so much of the mess that has undermined democratic life in this country—that limits our ability to reach for higher excellences (and I mean this for both black and white Americans).

I use the language of excellences purposefully. I want to think about the Black Lives Matter movement in the tradition of what I call black democratic perfectionism: that is, a radical cultivation of democratic individuality in the service of racial justice. Within the Black Lives Matter movement, we find an insistence on the expansiveness of black life—at the forefront of the protests are black members of the LGTBQ community, the working black poor, and others challenging the state as well as narrow conceptions of black political leadership and action—all in the name of a robust form of black individuality (and I don’t mean some facile bourgeois idea of individualism consistent with the political rationality of neoliberalism—although it is certainly susceptible to it).[5]

My model for this view is James Baldwin. In his essay “The Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin clearly states what he takes to be the “Negro Problem”:

I’m talking about what happens to you if, having barely escaped suicide, or death, or madness, or yourself, you watch your children growing up and no matter what you do, no matter what you do, you are powerless, you are really powerless, against the force of the world that is out to tell your child that he has no right to be alive. And no amount of liberal jargon, and no amount of talk about how well and how far we have progressed, does anything to soften or to point out any solution to this dilemma. In every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world, some way to make the child who will be despised not despise himself. I don’t know what the “the Negro Problem” means to white people, but this is what it means to Negroes.[6]

Here Baldwin foregrounds the idea of white supremacy that I put forward earlier: that the fact of growing up, of coming of age, in a place that denies you standing distorts one’s sense of self and disfigures one’s character. It arrests one’s capacities, and, in that light, it is with great effort and risk that one takes up the task of self-creation in such a world.

This is what Baldwin tries to convey to William Buckley and the young students at Cambridge in 1965. Here Baldwin insists on a sense of perspective: how the question of who we are gets handled, managed, and pursued under adverse conditions matters. It matters if one bears the brunt of the police baton and if one does not, if one is a descendant of slaves or of slaveholders. Both may be inheritors of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call upon us, but the difference matters greatly. As Baldwin writes, “To persuade black boys and girls, as we have for so many generations, that their lives are worth less than other lives, and that they can live only on terms dictated to them by other people, by people who despise them, is worse than a crime; it is the sin against the Holy Ghost.”[7] This is, and it must be said without concern for hurt feelings or guilt, undeniably white supremacy.

Baldwin makes explicit the primal scene of instruction: it is a context in which black people are seen as disposable. This scene, in all of its messiness, casts in relief what Stanley Cavell calls Emersonian perfectionism.[8] For Emerson, we have the task before us to ascend to higher forms of excellences. But this task isn’t rooted in some fixed destination or some final resting place of perfection (the spiral stairs going upward—taking each step and leaving others behind). That final resting place, however, differs for each person. Life’s journey consists of better and more excellent versions of who we take ourselves to be. Each experience of significance calls us to a higher sense of ourselves and requires the abandonment of older versions. Jeffrey Stout puts it best: “The higher self congeals out of the highest intimations of excellence you can intuit from where you stand. Excellence and sacred value are the kinds of goodness that matter most for living well.”[9]

But the daunting challenge of seeking a higher self in a world that denies one standing gives new meaning to W. E. B. Du Bois’s cry of “two unreconciled strivings.”[10] For African Americans, as Langston Hughes said, life ain’t been no crystal stair.[11] To embrace perfectionism across the proverbial tracks, then, requires something more fundamental; it requires a confrontation with what Baldwin calls reality. For Baldwin, reality is a denotative term for whatever happens in experience: the doings and sufferings of people transacting with environments that result in joys and suffering, even though white people are seen as more valuable than others.[12]

Baldwin asserts a form of perfectionism in such an environment, and that assertion requires an unflinching encounter with the ugliness of who we are and a rejection of comforting illusions that hide the lie and all of the rot underneath the American Idea. Here our moral and ethical senses are profoundly distorted, and any robust idea of the public good is obscured. As Baldwin put it: “What is most terrible is that American white men are not prepared to believe my version of the story, to believe that it happened. In order to avoid believing that, they have set up in themselves a fantastic system of evasions, denials, and justifications, which system is about to destroy their grasp of reality, which is another way of saying their moral sense.”[13] This adds another layer of complexity to the context of the black democratic perfectionism he commends. It is not just white supremacy—the fact that life as it is in this country says over and over again to the black child of fifteen and to the black woman of forty that you are less then (and it says this in every possible way)—it is also the maddening fact that the country denies what it has done and continues to do to black people, a kind of willful ignorance. As if Baltimore or Ferguson is somehow a surprise just as Harlem and Watts and Detroit were shocking some fifty years ago. That innocence is the crime, as Baldwin noted, and it corroborates what he mercilessly described as the monstrous quality of this place: “There is something monstrous about never having been hurt, never having been made to bleed, never having lost anything, never having gained anything because life is beautiful, and in order to keep it beautiful you’re going to stay just the way you are and you’re not going to test your theory against all the possibilities outside. America is like that. The failure on our part to accept the reality of pain, of anguish, of ambiguity, of death has turned us into a very peculiar and sometimes monstrous people.”[14] The reality of white supremacy and its repeated evasion or outright denial makes the idea of abandoning older versions of ourselves damn near impossible. We seem to be comfortable right where we are—permanently docked in the station.

But for black folk, especially those who languish in the shadows of America’s ghettos, to stay right where we are means to surrender to death. So, Baldwin’s insistence on reaching for higher forms of excellence under captive conditions demands an unflinching encounter with the uses and abuses of the past. As he says in “The White Man’s Guilt”:

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more human and more liberating.[15]

Such an approach to history requires a black self, in particular, that isn’t reducible to sociology as Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray described it—the flat statistics and stereotypes that trap Americans in the farce that is race relations.

I am not talking about the version of the story that trades in the Willie Hortons, Bigger Thomases, the welfare queens, the thugs of the world—those black people who are natively criminal or, because of their woeful circumstances, destined to be criminal. I am not talking about that. Instead, black democratic perfectionism requires a self with a rich and complex interiority, what William James refers to in The Varieties of Religious Experience as a two-storied self—an interior that has been, whether we want to admit it or not, terribly wounded by the inescapability of what Toni Morrison describes as a nastiness that will dirty you on the inside.[16]

[ . . . ]

Baldwin commends perfectionism in the context of a system of domination that denies black selves any standing. He also insists on a vibrant and complex black interiority in a world that reduces us to flat, predictable characters and narrates its history to corroborate such descriptions. Both are bound up, constrained by, an idea of history that corroborates the lie that some people matter more than others. But, again, this is not some bourgeois preoccupation, some private affair with no public consequence. Black democratic perfectionism has radical implication for the order of things. As Baldwin puts it, “When a black man, whose destiny and identity have always been controlled by others, decides and states that he will control his own destiny and rejects the identity given to him by others, he is talking revolution.”[17]

Baldwin’s witness entailed aspirational claims about what kind of society we hoped to live in and what kind of persons we aspired to be as well as claims, rooted in care, about the historical depth of where we now stand (that is, about the enduring legacy of white supremacy that deforms self-formation and about the history of struggle that constitutes the backdrop of current efforts). His democratic perfectionism is situated in the histories of black life in particular and American life more generally—stories that narrate the litany of events and the chorus of black voices struggling for freedom and resisting the arbitrary use of power. These histories carry with them an ethical ought: that the struggle and sacrifices of so many require of those who are its immediate beneficiaries a commitment to treating one’s fellows justly and to ensuring a society where all can flourish—a society in which all of us can reach for higher excellences.

Invocations of that history can spur or constrain; they can serve as “wind beneath our wings” in the context of creative engagement with the present, or they can limit the range of actions to a stale, ossified set of practices that purportedly best represent our efforts. Baldwin’s democratic perfectionism commends the former. He insists that we look the facts of our experience squarely in the face and challenge directly the idea that white people matter more and upend a world comfortable with the senseless death of black people.[18]

To my mind, Black Lives Matter, at its best, works in this register. Young people all around the country are challenging the underlying assumptions of white supremacy. They are putting their bodies on the line, disturbing the peace, and “asking hard questions and taking very rude positions.” This is what our moment requires. Turning our backs on the status quo and demanding a revolution of value. But it also requires that we abandon older versions of ourselves. That we break loose from stale models of black political engagement and confining ideas of black community and obligation. We can no longer suffer from what I want to call catalepsis: that political condition characterized by rigidity and fixity of posture; it is that which arrests the perfectionist impulse; it paralyzes us, keeps us where we currently are, allows for a black political class to exploit that fixed position in the name of progress, and desensitizes us to the pain and terror of what it means to be black in this country. We remain trapped.

But these young folk are daring to break free (with all of the complications that daring and risk entail). They are asserting the uniqueness and distinctiveness of their own voices. In short, they are daring to be—and that, if I understand Baldwin, is a revolutionary act in this country. As he put the point in a short piece written in 1959 titled “A Word from Writer Directly to Reader”: “What the times demand, and in an unprecedented fashion, is that one be—not seem—outrageous, independent, anarchical. That one be thoroughly disciplined—as a means of being spontaneous. That one resist at whatever cost the fearful pressures placed on one to lie about one’s experience.”[19] To my mind, Black Lives Matter, at its best, enacts this formulation courageously and, to take a phrase from Henry James, “at the pitch of passion.”[20]

Notes

[1] James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (New York: Holt, Reinhart, 1985).

[2] James Baldwin, “Black Power,” in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, ed. Randall Kenan (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 81.

[3] Clarissa Rile Hayward, How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[4] I am mindful of arguments like William Buckley’s and other conservatives that attribute much of this state of affairs to the pathologies of black people. In his debate with James Baldwin at Cambridge in 1965, Buckley mobilizes this argument in response to Baldwin by citing Nathan Glazer. Here Buckley shifts the blame, after citing the progress that Baldwin himself represents, onto shoulders of black people. Baldwin’s eyes were ablaze upon hearing this “nonsense.” But Baldwin answers this argument clearly in his essay “The Uses of the Blues” (which first appeared in Playboy in January 1964).

The fact that Harry Belafonte makes as much money as, let’s say, Frank Sinatra, doesn’t really mean anything in this context. Frank can still get a house anywhere, and Harry can’t. . . . [W]hen we talk about what we call “the negro problem” we are simply evolving means of avoiding the facts of this life. Because in order to face the facts of a life like Billie’s [Holiday] or, for that matter, a life like mine, one has got to—the white American has got to—accept the fact that what he thinks he is, he is not. He has to give up, he has to surrender his image of himself and apparently this is the last thing white Americans are prepared to do.

See “The Uses of the Blues,” in The Cross of Redemption, ed. Kenan, 60–61. Well, Buckley is clear about this. In fact, he says if it comes down to America’s precious ideals, then they “will fight the issue.”

[5] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone, 2015).

[6] Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, ed. Kenan, 60.

[7] Ibid., 84.

[8] See Stanley Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[9] Jeffrey Stout and Ron Kuipers, “Excellence and the Emersonian Perfectionist: An Interview with Jeffrey Stout, Part 1,” in The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture (September 1, 2009), http://theotherjournal.com/2009/09/01/excellence-and-the-emersonian-perfectionist-an-interview-with-jeffrey-stout-part-i/.

[10] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 7.

[11] Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son,” in The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: Works for Children and Young Adults: Poetry, Fiction, and Other Writing, ed. Dianne Johnson (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 81.

[12] The connection to Emerson is strong. In the beginning of “As Much Truth as One Can Bear” (1962), Baldwin strikes an Emersonian note, recalling the beginning of Nature, as he seeks to open space for young writers who write in the shadow of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and Faulkner. I was particular struck by this formulation. It gives one a sense of the different stakes in Baldwin’s perfectionism: “We live in a country in which words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not to wake him up; and therefore, it seems to me, the adulation so cruelly proffered our elders has nothing to do with their achievement—which I repeat was mighty—but has to do with our impulse to look back on what we now imagine to have been a happier time. It is an adulation which has panic at the root” (The Cross of Redemption, ed. Kenan, 29).

[13] Ibid., 77.

[14] Ibid., 64.

[15] James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” in James Baldwin: The Collected Essays: Volume 2 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 722–23. This echoes Baldwin’s point about God in The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1962). If the concept doesn’t make us larger, freer, and more loving—in short, more humane and more liberating—then it’s time we got rid of him.

[16] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Modern Library, 1902).

[17] Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, ed. Kenan, 81. How might we think of Philip Petit’s notion of freedom as nondomination in light of Baldwin’s position? Petit argues that freedom ought to be understood “as the absence of subjection to the will of others.” He limits this, however, to social, political, and economic questions/concerns. But subjection can happen, and Baldwin insists on this point, at the level of historical memory—how our refusal to confront the past or willingness to disremember that past can do the work of domination much more efficiently, or at least less brutally, than the coercive arm of the state. That refusal to remember, as you recall, results in a startling fact: that white folks are as unfree, if not more so, than black folks. They’re stuck.

[18] This is the connective tissue of the tradition I am trying to outline here. As Ms. Ella Baker said so powerfully, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” This is the direct challenge to white supremacy as I have defined it. It is the ground upon which Black Lives Matter acquires meaning. So it is not about asserting our value; it is about rejecting the belief that snuffs out the ability of others to reach for higher selves.

[19] Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, ed. Kenan, 8.

[20] Henry James, The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and Practice of Fiction, ed. William Veeder and Susan M. Griffin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 235. In The Cross of Redemption, Baldwin writes, “I am aiming at what Henry James called ‘perception at the pitch of passion’” (49).


Excerpted from A Political Companion to James Baldwin edited by Susan J. McWilliams, forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky in November 2017.

UPK Author Selected for the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff’s 2017 Reading List

Layout 1University Press of Kentucky author Brian D. Laslie’s book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam, has been selected for the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff’s 2017 reading list. The list of ten military titles was personally selected by Sir Stephen Hillier, the Chief of the Air Staff. Explaining the purpose of the list, he stated, “Reading makes us better informed, more self-aware, and better equipped to meet the vast array of leadership and conceptual challenges that face our service and country.” Upon learning of his book’s inclusion, Laslie commented, “I am nothing short of overwhelmed and humbled.”

Layout 1In The Air Force Way of War, Laslie examines the revolution in pilot instruction in the US Air Force brought about after Vietnam. The program, named Red Flag, was dubbed “realistic” because it prepared pilots for real-life situations better than the simple cockpit simulations of the past. Students also gained proficiency on primary and secondary missions instead of superficially training for numerous possible scenarios. In addition to discussing the program’s methods, Laslie analyzes the way its graduates actually functioned in combat during the 1980s and 90s in Grenada, Panama, Libya, and Iraq. Military historians have traditionally emphasized the primacy of technological developments during this period and have overlooked the vital importance of advances in training, but Laslie’s unprecedented study of Red Flag addresses this oversight through its examination of this seminal program.

Commenting on the book, Hiller said, The Air Force Way of War “puts into proper perspective the achievements of those far-sighted and determined US airmen who in the 1970s and 1980s grasped the lessons of the Vietnam War and built the solid foundations on which air power became supremely effective during Operation Desert Storm and ever since.”

After the publication of The Air Force Way of War, Laslie agreed to edit a new book series for University Press of Kentucky—Aviation and Airpower. Each volume will bring together leading historians and emerging scholarship in the fields of military aviation and air power history. The series will be a broad-based look at aerial battles, air warfare, and campaigns from the First World War through modern air operations, along with works on the heritage, technology, and culture particular to the air arm, including biographies of leading figures. The series will cover the US Air Force, Army, and Naval aviation, but also other world powers and their approaches to the history and study of the air arm.

Brian D. Laslie is deputy command historian at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) as well as an adjunct professor at the United States Air Force Academy. His forthcoming book, Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force, will be published this October.