As an Appalachian boy keenly aware of his southern roots living in Richmond, Indiana in the 1950s, the Civil War was most real to me. Ancestors had fought on both sides, after all, and signs of the war surrounded me both in the north and back “home” in the mountains.
When I was five or six, my parents went to the drive-in, my brother and me in the back seat where we were expected to sleep through an Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift vehicle called Raintree County. I watched, rapt, and remember much of it quite clearly. It focused on the war and on questions of race—and even on what it meant to be ‘a little bit’ black. In college, I found the Ross Lockridge, Jr. novel the film had come from—and devoured it. Like me, it went back and forth, North and South.
Here’s a passage:
There was nothing South that wasn’t impregnated with their presence. Black had builded this republic. Black had bled and labored for White and borne the casual lust of White so that this republic might lift its Doric columns from the Great Swamp. Black had planted and picked the white cotton that made White wealthy. Black had dressed the pampered bodies of White in satin gowns. Black had built the levees that held the dreaded river at bay. Black had bred and trained the swift horses with which White won the stakes at New Orleans. Black had distilled the fine whiskeys and the syrup rums that White sipped on long verandahs. Black had picked and dried and rolled tobacco leaf for White’s long smokes. Black had dug the ditches and tied the bales, had reared the houses and built the roads. Black had erected the court houses and the state houses. Black had made White strong and proud and warlike, leaders of men, statesmen who shaped the course of empire South and West. Black had done it all, nameless and unrewarded, and would go on doing it, nameless and unrewarded.
So the secret of this culture, white and proud, was that it had all been built over the stinking marsh of human slavery.
That “secret” wasn’t only a factor of the South but affected all of American culture. Exposed from time to time, it has come to light again over the past week or so—and particularly over past days (Charleston). Though through pathways quite distinct, both the white woman “identifying” as black, Rachel Dolezal, and Dylann Roof, the deluded murderer who wants the “races” kept apart, have come to the headlines in part because of the long attempt to keep that secret. There’s no other way to see it: Our American refusal to directly address questions of “race” has exacerbated the critical dilemma at the heart of American culture, leading to a sad confusion, in the former instance, and to horror in the latter.
There’s a corollary to that “secret,” one that, if we had examined it openly and in the wide media, would have made us aware that the divide America created through slavery is an artificial one. The corollary can be expressed this way: Due to the importance of slavery and the numbers of Africans brought here, American culture is no more European than it is African.
Few people, no matter what racial category they are placed into, want to admit this; we hide it deep within our cultural psyche. But it has long been true and remains so.
It doesn’t matter the color of your skin or the details of your ancestry: All Americans owe a great cultural debt to Africa, as great as that to Europe. As a result, our attempts to divide things into “black” and “white” are all doomed to produce little more than the awkwardness of Dolezal and the vileness of Roof. And to keep us from coming to terms with ourselves as Americans, as people of a unique dual heritage. Instead, it tears us apart.
Even our sense of individualism, the idea that we make it on our own, is nothing more than an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that we whites have succeeded, in part, on the backs of blacks. It is also an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that, for African-Americans, the race to success is still over an uneven field.
By refusing to confront our dual heritage, we have pushed the “races” further apart, each side claiming certain things as their own and refusing to even consider the possibility of shared influence. Rap, for instance, owes a great deal to cadences in English going back to Beowulf and rock-and-roll developed as white boys (in particular) immersed themselves in black music. Antecedents, however, are not ownership; rap belongs to the rappers and rock to the rockers. Race, historically, should be only of passing interest, not a determining aspect of either, certainly not today.
But it is, of course. Though there are white rappers and black rockers, we have divided the two, culturally, each musical genre “belonging” to one side.
By refusing to give countenance to the idea that all Americans, no matter their skin pigment, are products both of Africa and Europe, we continue the dig the chasm between our racial constructs deeper and wider. From economics to the arts, all Americans, from the most patrician Bostonian to the Gullah off South Carolina, share (though to some difference of degree) the same heritage, for better (for the white population, generally) or worse (for the African-Americans–economically, at the very least, and politically, etc.). Blonde and blue-eyed Dolezal is a great deal more black, in heritage, than she probably recognizes and Roof is definitely a product of African influence—probably something he knows on some level but cannot face, so turns what should be affinity into hate.
There can’t be a “whites only” organization in American, for there are no “pure” whites. Genetic background can’t substitute for the robust truth of American culture. Our culture is as African as it is European—and the combination of the two is what makes America great—and refusal to admit this confluence, the driving force behind all American lives, is what is tearing us apart.
By A. Mondelli and William J. Bennett. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons