Was Charlottesville the Exception or the Rule?

SEP 13, 2017

by The White Card Playwright Claudia Rankine

This article was originally published in The New York Times Magazine on Sep. 13, 2017.

In 1918 the Peruvian poet César Vallejo completed the collection of poems “Los Heraldos Negros,” known in English as “The Black Riders,” “The Black Messengers” or “The Black Heralds,” depending on the translator. “There are blows in life so powerful, I can’t answer” is a literal translation of the first line of the title poem. In the original Spanish, the line is “Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes. … Yo no sé.” As with the title, there has been some disagreement around how to translate “yo no sé.” “I don’t know,” “I can’t say” and “I can’t answer” are just three possibilities. Each translator has to confront Vallejo’s lacunas for the ungraspable experience of having to bear unbearable acts of power.

I’ve thought about this poem often over the past year as I have encountered many who feel they, too, cannot translate the horror of what is happening in America. They are shocked, and they are speechless. They don’t have the words; they can’t say; they can’t answer. How could this happen? Their disbelief is followed by “We won’t go back.”

“History is not the past,” James Baldwin said. “It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” These are words that should be repeated every day. The horror we seem to only now be noticing is an effect of our country’s longstanding commitment to white supremacy. But I am unclear about when we ever lived without its effects. Was there ever a moment when the persecution of nonwhite Americans wasn’t the norm?

As is so often the case, I wondered what I wasn’t seeing. Didn’t America elect a presidential candidate with white-nationalist sympathies? The same man who appeared reluctant to denounce a former grand wizard of the K.K.K. when that man supported him? Yet for many people, it was the alt-right’s march in Charlottesville and President Donald Trump’s initial refusal to condemn those marchers that became the truly untranslatable moment. This confused me. I reached out to a friend, the theorist Lauren Berlant, to ask whether I was misunderstanding what I felt to be an everyday kind of condition, even as others described it as unnamable terror. The K.K.K., white supremacists and the altright were being referred to as if they beamed down into our democracy, I said to Lauren. She replied that certain groups are now considered the source of white supremacy rather than its amplification.

It’s true that our president’s refusal to become “presidential,” as the pundits are fond of saying, is amplifying what is, but what is— whatever the tweets, whatever his state of mind, whatever his ultimate agenda—remains what was. Some Americans want to believe that unconscionable behavior—like marching in the name of racial hatred or plowing a car into a crowd of civilians—is an ungraspable blow to all Americans. But there’s nothing new about any of this. Heather Heyer was killed in an action meant to express the violent intent and threat of the messengers walking the streets of Charlottesville with lit tiki torches in hand—much like lynchings across our history. Attempts to whitewash white supremacy have been the de facto policy in this country.

Do we really need to go over the history? It feels as if we do. Americans, of all races, have accepted the erasure of our history and the muddying of events. But if our executive branch has no interest in distancing itself from white supremacy, it could be because our government has been in support of a similar white-nationalist agenda since before the K.K.K.’s formation, in 1865. Even as former Confederate soldiers terrorized newly freed African-Americans, the Black Codes were passed. These laws, which did everything from restricting the jobs black people could hold to limiting where they could live, structurally and institutionally supported the K.K.K.’s efforts to cripple African-Americans attempts to just live. White supremacists reinstated themselves in American life, expanding from the South to the Midwest and then on to the West; by 1925 the Klan had as many as four million members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and, in some states, “considerable political power.” In “The History of White People,” Nell Irvin Painter notes that “in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 police and sheriff’s deputies joined Klansmen in a pogrom against African-Americans, destroying homes, businesses and lives in an attack hardly mourned as an assault on Americans.” What was once known as “Black Wall Street” was erased from the landscape after bombings from the air and people being machine-gunned down in the streets. Later, Jim Crow laws only reinforced the agenda of the earlier Black Codes. And when those laws were struck down, each administration in the second half of the 20th century (including Bill Clinton’s) bolstered a false equivalence among drugs, criminality and blackness that reinstated a Jim Crow agenda through mass incarceration. The terror against people of color, especially African and Native Americans, has always centralized whiteness in defense of itself in its persecution of the other.

Do I need to keep going? Presidential directives like the recent Executive Order 13769 or bills like the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act (Raise)—which limits immigration through its points system—are just a rehash of exclusionary measures that go as far back as the Naturalization Act of 1790, a law that essentially restricted citizenship to free white people. The historian Matthew Frye Jacobson has suggested that the act was one of our country’s first attempts to equate citizenship with whiteness. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act maintained a quota system based on nationality and barred Arabs and Asians from immigrating to the States. That act made it clear, as Jacobson explains in “Whiteness of a Different Color,” that “Europeanness—that is to say whiteness—was among the most important possessions one could lay claim to.” It seems America has never not been struggling with diversity. When people in Charlottesville walk the streets chanting, “You will not replace us,” they’re just reinforcing the idea that whiteness is itself a possession to be protected.

The language used by the police chief Jeff Ledford to describe Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church, is more than instructive. Officers gave Roof a burger after his capture. “He was very quiet, very calm,” Ledford reported. “He sat down here very quietly. He was not problematic.” For me, “problematic’’ might be the coldblooded murder of nine people. Or the quiet, calm demeanor of someone who knows he is doing the violent work of white supremacy. In his journal, Roof expresses the belief that he will be pardoned, most likely because he, at the very least, understands that on some level his views are supported by the system that privileges whiteness.

Given that the Republican presidential campaign ran on racial hate, this election “outed” America’s affiliation with white supremacy. If that ideology has been empowered over the centuries, the real question for Americans who number themselves among the counterprotesters is, How powerless are we? Can we change an orientation toward whiteness that allows us to understand our homegrown hate groups as also serving our unconscious interests? If our orientation is toward the centralizing of whiteness, with the belief that white people are synonymous with American property, rights and spaces, then any show of racist violence confirming that belief might appear too crude, too obvious but ultimately not contrary to our institutional tendencies.

A real commitment to the defeat of white supremacy begins with a cleareyed understanding that these white men and women chanting “blood and soil” are not aspirational Nazis but Americans supporting an ideology with a less organized program of racial cleansing. It is this understanding that led the N.A.A.C.P. to release a travel advisory this summer calling for African-Americans to exercise caution when moving throughout Missouri. Travel in this state, it suggested, was tantamount to risking your freedoms and perhaps your life.

“It is important that we do not reify institutions by presuming they are simply given and that they decide what we do,” writes the British-Australian theorist Sara Ahmed. “Rather, institutions become given, as an effect of the repetition of decisions made over time, which shapes the surface of institutional spaces.” If we replace Ahmed’s use of the word “institution” with “government,” we can begin to understand how much the path of history still remains in our hands. As former President George W. Bush said at the opening ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”

Americans continue to request that our president indulge our national sentimentality and with a show of good manners denounce white supremacy. He tried, but his words were hollow. Those who voted him in office did not vote for “healing talk.” That was the job of our most recent former president, whose legislation toward a more united America was blocked at every turn by Congress. There is no ambiguity about the message of our new president; no translation is necessary. This past year should have worn away our capacity to say demonstrations of white supremacy and racial violence are exceptions or simply a moment. If we could really see the moment, we should have already begun to see its pervasiveness.

Vallejo’s poem goes on to describe, in one translation, the blows of power as the “deep waters of everything lived through were backed up in the soul.” It was this metaphor comparing the soul to a toilet that made me commit this poem to memory. The unbearable racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia and white rage won’t simply flush itself from the soul of our system.

It’s been a month since the K.K.K. amplified America’s ingrained commitment to white supremacy. In the interim we’ve had major natural storms and the proposed end of DACA, among many other events, to confront. But our lives are not separate from the practices that frame them. How we apprehend climate change or how we protect our immigrant communities is not separate from our recognition of the hold white supremacy has on us. It’s on us to invent other ways to unearth white supremacy from the taken-for-granted. People of color have been opposing white supremacy for as long as they have been fighting for equal rights or, in other words, for as long as black people have been on American soil simply trying to live. That’s also how long they have been demonized and punished for it. And white Americans have been in collusion with white supremacy for as long as they have refused to see their own investment in it. As much as I flinch when I hear people say this moment is an opportunity, it is. As will be all of the next ones.


Claudia Rankine is the Playwright of The White Card. A professor of poetry at Yale University, she is the author of five poetry collections, including Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.

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