My book proceeds from two premises. The first is that America is an imaginary place with real people living in it (to adapt a line from Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”). Such splendid ideals, and yet so often such sordid realities. My second premise is that slavery and its legacies explain why America should remain so imaginary a place. Both premises assume that slavery and, after it fell, white supremacy generally were—and remain—essential to American capitalism, which requires cheap, unorganized labor. W.E.B. Du Bois observes, in Black Reconstruction (1935): “It must be remembered and never forgotten that the civil war in the South which overthrew Reconstruction [1876-1890] was a determined effort to reduce black labor as nearly as possible to a condition of unlimited exploitation and build a new class of capitalists on this foundation. …This program had to be carried out in open defiance of the clear letter of the law”—and therefore entailed an imposture that kept our national promise illusory.
Or to put the matter in the cooler phrasing of social psychologists Michael W. Kraus, Julian M. Rucker, and Jennifer A. Richeson in a 2017 study: “Race-based economic inequality is both a defining and persistent feature of the United States that is at odds with national narratives regarding progress toward racial equality. … Americans, on average, systematically overestimate the extent to which society has progressed toward racial economic equality.” A great many of us do not know the nation we inhabit; we did not in 1935, when Black Reconstruction appeared (the year after the Federal Housing Administration, a signature New Deal program, was set up deliberately to exclude African-Americans as full beneficiaries); and we did not during the first year of the Trump administration, as Kraus, Rucker, and Richeson indicate.
Through close readings of essays, short stories, and novels by a range of writers, I try to show why this disparity between American ideals and America as it has been remains so durable. So durable, in fact, as still to be news. On the one hand, we have such efforts to rethink American history and literature as the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project at the New York Times, and, at the same paper, a series of editorials launched as the COVID-19 pandemic seized the nation, under the aspirational heading The America We Need. On the other hand, we have President Trump’s retrograde celebration of “manifest destiny” and white nationalism at the foot of Mount Rushmore on the eve of Independence Day 2020. These two visions of America can neither be reconciled nor brought to compromise through some “build-a-more-perfect-Union” via media. Why not? Because the slogan “Make America Great Again” – the entire MAGA program and ethno-state ethos – already assumes that the Union had, at some time in its segregated past, already been perfect. The alchemy of MAGA always transmutes change into decay.
Had my book been scheduled for release in fall 2020, I might have concluded it with a close reading of the Mount Rushmore speech and an account of its militarized choreography. The speech, crude though it is, evokes any number of themes in American literature, and my book everywhere examines intersections of the literary, the political, and the historical. In my introduction, I note how telling it is that, in America, opposition to civil rights so often “presents as” (to use the medical term) a radical defense of private property rights. Were I completing the book now, I’d add, in support of that claim, the president’s May 29, 2020, “tweet” assailing, while misrepresenting, the protests led by Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he quipped, borrowing a phrase former Miami police chief Walter Headley used in a December 1967 press conference setting out his policy for “policing” his city’s African-American neighborhoods.
I’d also add to what I already say about neo-Confederate elements in our literature (and in the GOP) due notice of the president’s embrace of the Lost Cause mythos and of “Southern heritage”- whether in summer 2020 or in summer 2017 (after the white supremacist Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville, Virginia); and of course also due notice of his obstreperous efforts to protect monuments honoring Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, et al (my introduction offers a detailed reading of a characteristic passage in Davis’s Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government ). Finally, I’d take note of Senator Tom Cotton’s “no pain, no gain” theory of American slavery, and his intention to prevent K-12 schools from adopting curricula associated with the 1619 Project. But the book stands as it is, made perhaps timelier in this season of mingled discontent and promise, with all the occasion it offers for re-readings of our national literature, and for renewed reflection upon it. I am glad to make my book available for free as a download, and grateful that Camden House had the idea to do it.
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This guest post was written by Mark Richardson Professor of English at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan.