Black folk start with the raw history, the raw reality and the mortality denied by most of American culture and civilization: that we are a people who have been on intimate terms with forms of death in the most death denying, death ducking, and death dodging of all modern civilizations. The mainstream may go sentimental and talk about purity and he or she who is pristine and for the happy ending but we start with slavery as a form of social death in the midst of this death denying civilization.
-Cornel West, University of Washington, Jessie and John Danz Lecture, April 27, 2001
This is such a fascinating statement from West, who was reflecting on the black experience in America from slavery to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement.
West never mentioned the civil religious term “American exceptionalism” in this lecture of thirteen years ago, but he captured the collective African American ambivalence to the idea. While closed American exceptionalism (Americolatry) posits a pristine and innocent America, African Americans know better. African Americans encounter closed American exceptionalism from the perspective of having the shared historical and visceral experience of slavery and subsequently what West called the “institutional terrorism” of Jim Crow. No other ethnic group had this particular set of shared historical experiences.
Many of us white folks wonder why African Americans do not seem to be able to overcome slavery and Jim Crow as paradigmatic lenses in their collective interpretation of many of their contemporary social experiences in America. Why, many whites ask, must African Americans seem to always go back to race as the overarching explanation for social ills and injustices? Why, for example, do African Americans so frequently seem to first blame police in incidents such as the one involving Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO?
And why, some whites ask, do African Americans think that something called “white privilege” exists, even in the 21st century? And why is it that closed American exceptionalism is often more of a thing for white people and not as much for black people?
I must admit, I myself have been one of those white folks to ask such questions. For most of my life (and without realizing it), I have been a follower of one of Francis Bacon’s four idols of the mind. Specifically, Bacon’s idol of the cave has subtly enthralled me. This is a pattern of poor thinking that a person follows because his mental habits have been formed by his background, his education, his formative years, etc.
Let me explain: from my childhood, I revered my ancestors who fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War. My great-great-great uncle, Howell Cobb of Georgia, served as Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan, and later represented Georgia in the Confederate Senate. His brother, my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Reade Roots Cobb, was a Georgia attorney who codified the Georgia law code, founded the law school at the University of Georgia, and led the committee that drafted the Confederate Constitution. He served under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet as a Brigadier General at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. The units under his command hurled back the main Federal assaults on Marye’s Heights from the Sunken Road, inflicting enormous casualties. Cobb was himself killed during the battle–Cobb County in Georgia is named for him.
My great-great-great grandfather is not only famous for these noteworthy achievements. He was also the leading proslavery spokesman for the Georgia legal community. He wrote An Inquiry Into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America in 1858 in which he argued that slavery was essential to the maintenance of virtue in the American republic.
As I grew into an adult, studied Christian philosophy, theology, and the Bible, and then became a Christian intellectual historian, I grappled with the tension existing between the love and pride I have for my family and the base unrighteousness of the causes for which some of them dedicated their lives–slavery and Southern secession. As a Christian, as a member of my family, as an historian, and as a human person–I still grapple, still struggle.
But even as I have grappled with this great tension, as a white man I found it difficult to understand why race seemed to be one of the most powerful explanatory paradigms of social ills for African Americans. After all, from my perspective as a white man, I could see no racism anywhere near me. I was sure it happened occasionally, but since institutional racism was gone for the most part, what’s the problem, I thought.
This is a sad commentary on myself–not until recently have I begun to understand a bit better the answer to these questions about the role of race as explanatory paradigm for African Americans. As a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, I have not had the collective, historical experience of my country turning on me, whip or noose in hand. Now it’s true, hardly anyone in the 21st century has experienced this on an individual basis (although some have). But African Americans–as a people group–possess this historical experience of being on the receiving end of mortal persecution in America. And it has only been in the last fifty or so years out of three hundred ninety five years of African presence on this continent that individual African Americans have shared any semblance of equal status with whites in this country. That should be a particularly arresting fact for any honest person, white or black. It certainly has been for me.
Many white Southerners continue to embrace the heritage of their Confederate forbears. Some still display the Confederate flag, saying “heritage, not hate,” although those numbers are growing fewer and fewer year by year. Still, many native white Southerners like myself–maybe even the majority–would say that their historical experience as a people shaped their culture, their values, even their religious upbringing. It is normal and natural to make such a claim.
And many African Americans, like Dr. West, see their ethnic/historical/communal experience as defining them, shaping their interpretations of circumstances, forming their value systems, creating their culture, and constructing their cultural presuppositions. It is as normal for African Americans to be shaped by their historical and communal experiences in this country as it is for any ethnic group to be so shaped. If more whites could appreciate this profound fact about African Americans–and the representative legion of differences from their own historical/communal experience–perhaps some misunderstanding existing on the part of many whites could be ameliorated. This does not mean whites should respond with pity toward blacks. It means that whites think more about how to understand where blacks are coming from. It means that whites demonstrate more empathy as they consider how social ills in America often affect African Americans disproportionately. And it means that instead of debating whether or not there is such a thing as “white privilege,” whites could unite in solidarity with black and brown people to search for solutions to social ills before it is too late. We should all know by now, that if one ethnic group among us goes down, we all go down.
If I may, let me tell you about another relative of mine of whom I am very proud. My great uncle, the late Charles Weltner, served as U.S. Congressman representing the 5th district of Georgia (Fulton County). He was elected in 1962 and was the only representative from the Georgia delegation to the House to vote in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He lost his seat in the ’64 election because he took that stand. But he didn’t care, because he knew that he was doing the right thing, and that knowledge sustained him.
That brings me back to the civil religious belief of American exceptionalism (what doesn’t, these days?). Closed American exceptionalism–the exceptionalism that leads to idolatry of the nation, because it sees the nation as innocent–refuses to engage in any form of critical self examination. In closed American exceptionalism, it’s “America, love it or leave it,” or “my country, right or wrong.” The problem here is that when the country is wrong, closed exceptionalists remain with the status quo and they hesitate to deal with genuine injustices. Rather, they diminish or deny those injustices. Those injustices fester, and ultimately create crises that tear the country apart (see War, Civil).
But open exceptionalism–that idea that calls on the unique ability of Americans to critically assess the morality of their actions–animates the advances America has made in the direction of justice for all. Dissent makes America genuinely unique–exceptional–as a civilization. Open exceptionalists, like my Uncle Charles, find their dissenting voices and even though they may go down to defeat in the short term for taking their stands, even though some of them may even sacrifice their lives, they ultimately make invaluable contributions to the restoring of the beautiful ideals that make America truly wonderful–equality, human dignity, and God-given individual human rights.
Closed American exceptionalism shuts out the possibility of critical national self reflection. Therefore, as long as closed American exceptionalism abides as a dominant form of American self-identification, there will be little hope for racial reconciliation and understanding.
In 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in reply to the question, “What is Americanism?” these words–
Americans in the immediate future should place most stress upon the abolition of the color line. Just so long as the majority of men are treated as inhuman, and legitimate objects of commercial exploitation, religious damnation, and social ostracism, just so long will democracy be impossible in the world. Without democracy we must have continual attempts at despotism and oligarchy, with their resultant failure through the ignorance of those who attempt to rule their fellow men without knowing their fellow men.
May we all, white and black, in the authentically patriotic tradition of open American exceptionalism, join hands in mutual and sincere friendship, respect, admiration, understanding, forgiveness, justice, and love.