The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics VIII
“The problem of the twentieth century, wrote the African American intellectual W. E. B. DuBois in 1903, “is the problem of the color-line.” Nearly every book on race relations in the United States that has been published since, especially over the last several decades, has dwelled, if implicitly, on the prescience of DuBois’s observation. Writing on the 40th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which pronounced the slaves as henceforth free and thus entitled to lay claim to the Jeffersonian formula of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, DuBois saw instead that the “very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.” That shadow, which the white man called “prejudice” and no more—something that could be undone, presumably, with education, cultivation of the virtues, goodwill, informed legislation, and social engineering—condemned the black person to “personal disrespect and mockery”, “ridicule and systematic humiliation”, indeed “the disdain for everything black.” (See W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk , Mineola, New York: Dover Publications. 1994), v, 6, 9, 111).
However emboldened black people in the slave-owning slaves may have felt at the end of the Civil War and through Reconstruction, a period that some unrepentant whites characterized as one marked by ‘Negro swagger’, their liberty, such as it was, did not last very long. Black America had to be brought to its knees, a project that still continues however disguised the forms in which such oppression takes place, however loud the voices clamoring for diversity, multiculturalism, respect, and tolerance. Though DuBois would have been scarcely alone in his assessment of how the black person had become disenfranchised and consigned to what he unequivocally termed “a second slavery”, he deployed a striking metaphor to characterize what had befallen America and “the souls of black folk” (p. 7). Early in life, he says, it dawned on him that he was shut out of the white world “by a vast veil”. This “veil” is something like Churchill’s “iron curtain”, but DuBois pushes the metaphor much further. The numerous 18th century slave revolts, which suggest that “the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves,” had the effect of “veiling all the Americas in fear of insurrection.” And yet more, since “the Negro” is himself born “with a veil”: in what is the book’s most arresting insight, albeit one where the language is anticipated by Hegel in his discussion of the master-slave dialectic in Phenomenology of the Spirit, DuBois describes the veil as one which “yields him no true self-consciousness”; the Negro can only see “himself through the revelation of the other world”, through the eyes of the other. DuBois termed this phenomenon “double consciousness” (pp. 3, 28, 7). Malcolm X was among those who drew on this idea in drawing a distinction between the “Field Negro” and the “House Negro”: though the former was able to maintain some, howsoever indistinct, form of autonomy, the latter was profoundly colonized, unable to see the world except through the eyes of the master.
DuBois’s metaphor of veiling remains apposite for our times, and may have yet ever greater salience, and not only because much of contemporary political discussion, and white anger, in the United States and Europe has swiveled around the figure of the veiled Muslim woman. The ban on veiling, or more precisely on covering one’s face, in public has been in effect in France since April 2011. Muslim women are not necessarily the only ones who are affected by this ban, nor are Muslim women mentioned explicitly; indeed, besides the burqa and niqab, the ban also covers masks, scarves, and helmets. But, of course, the ban is targeted mainly at the practice of “Islamic veiling”. Offenders are fined 150 Euros, or about US $165-180 depending on the rate of exchange. Remarkably, one man, Rachid Nekkaz, had by April 2016 paid the fine on behalf of 1300 women charged with illegally veiling themselves in public, thus incurring a personal expense of 235,000 Euros. This is in itself an extraordinary story, one that compels us to think anew about notions of tolerance and charity, and the ethos of hospitality: but a story for another occasion.
The United States has no such ban on “Islamic veiling” or, more broadly, on covering one’s face in public. Yet, it is white America that shrouds itself in a veil, unable to look upon itself, incapable of the self-reflexivity which would suggest both maturity and a capacity to confront the naked truth. To unveil America’s unshakable grounding in a virulent and diseased whiteness, we can do little better than turn to the events that transpired not too long ago in a picture-postcard town in the state of Virginia, which housed the principal capital of the Confederacy.
What Happened at Charlottesville
Charlottesville, Virginia, a two-hour drive from the nation’s capital, was home to two of the country’s “founding fathers”, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Each served as the Governor of Virginia and as President of the United States, but Jefferson also has the distinction of being the founder of the University of Virginia and the architect of the university’s signature building, the Rotunda. In recent years, Charlottesville, perhaps in keeping with the notion of a ‘university town’, acquired something of a reputation as an outpost of liberal thought in a state that has long been a bastion of conservatism.
In July 2014, the US National Bureau of Economic Research pronounced Charlottesville the “happiest” place in America. In the received view, it is a small town with most of the assets and none of the liabilities—traffic gridlock, pollution, social anomie—of a big city. The scenic Blue Ridge mountains are nearby, the climate is temperate, and paeans there are many to the town’s supposed gastronomic refinements. (This is surely one of the many ways in which the US has changed over the last few decades: not only are tofu and yogurt widely available, and these were virtually ‘foreign’ foods in late 1976 when I first arrived in the US, but there is the cult of the chef and much hullabaloo over ingenuous culinary creations. Universities lure students and faculty with the promise of gastronomic delights—one of many recruitment tools.)
Happy are those who know little of the past, one might say: Charlottesville, not unlike the state of Virginia, has ugly racial antecedents. Its black population was not permitted to build their own church until 1864, not coincidentally in the thick of the civil war; even more ominously, considering that the US had partaken of two global conflicts to save the world from fascist tyranny and enshrine democracy as the supreme value, in 1958 the city responded to federal court orders to integrate white schools, issued in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) that declared segregation unconstitutional, by closing all its white schools as part of a concerted strategy of resistance. A similar strategy was pursued by other cities and school districts in many of the southern states.
If the town has indeed become more liberal, or more receptive to diversity, Charlottesville’s black people appear to be thinking otherwise. The black share of the population has fallen from 22 percent in 2000 to 19 percent at present [Eligon 2017]. Many will put this down to gentrification and rising rents, but of course those have precisely been some of the ways in which black people have been run out of town and excised from the white world.
It is in this pleasure dome of happiness, then, that white America erupted recently as it does every now and then. The ancient Greeks and Indians were among two people who understood that happiness is ephemeral; as the lawgiver Solon informs the vain king Croesus, “But in every matter it behooves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.” On the night of August 11th, as a prelude to the call by the white supremacist Richard Spencer to “Unite the Right”, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan marched through the campus of the University of Virginia bearing torches and swastikas, all to the accompaniment of slogans such as “blood and soil”, “White Lives Matter”, and “You will not replace us”.
The following day, they gathered in force at a public park in Charlottesville. The ostensible reason for this gathering was a decision by the town council to remove an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who unsuccessfully attempted to lead the slave-holding states in secession from the Union. These exponents of white terror found themselves facing a vigorous and much larger opposition comprised of liberals, left activists, ordinary citizens—a motley crowd of decent people. Clashes ensued; the police stood by: much of the world, but not most of gun-loving America, would have watched in astonishment at the sight of people openly flaunting assault weapons, automatic rifles, and handguns. Before the day was over, a young neo-Nazi sympathizer had, with intense deliberation, plowed his car into the crowd of protestors, thereby killing 32-year old Heather Heyer.
(To be continued)