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The verbal dustup between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and journalist Ta-Nahesi Coates that flashed across the country’s television and computer screens last month has faded into blogospheric obscurity, with what passes for national discourse having long since moved on to fresher nodes of rancor and resentment. The occasion, you may recall, was a US House of Representatives subcommittee hearing – the first in more than a decade – on whether to study the possibility of reparations for America’s long, sad history of racism. In anticipation of the hearing scheduled to coincide with Juneteenth, Senator McConnell told reporters:

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened a hundred and fifty years ago when none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that.”

In his testimony before the subcommittee, Mr. Coates addressed the Majority Leader’s remarks directly, saying,

“… for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell …We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.”

The news industry devoted its fleeting attention to these dueling viewpoints, each outlet emphasizing one or the other based on the political sensibilities of its target audience. What’s stuck with me since then, however, is what the exchange reveals about public memory. It’s hardly my place to assign unspoken motivation to either speaker, knowing how particularly unsuited I am to the task. What can be inuited from their words, though, is how particular memories function in their respective arguments. 

In Senator McConnell’s statement, history might be summed up with the opening sentence of L. P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, “The past is another country: they do things differently there.” Following the whiggish tradition of what most people outside the United States still call liberalism, what national faults McConnell recalls have been or are being transcended by slow and steady progress. The guilty are dead and their children should not suffer for crimes they did not themselves commit. 

Mr. Coates’s testimony takes William Faulker’s approach to history as found in his novel-drama of suffering and redemption, Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (It should be noted that McConnell chose to identify slavery as America’s “original sin,” a turn of phrase often associated with Faulkner and his bleak take on Calvinism.) While it’s true that no US citizen currently living owned slaves as constitutionally-protected private assets, Coates nevertheless sees Americans as recipients of stolen property, accessories after the fact for crimes committed before and after emancipation. 

Yet this implies the difference between McConnell and Coates hinges on variant interpretations of history when I think their disagreement is more fundamental: the two men, in fact, remember different pasts. In McConnell’s past, the US “tried to deal with our original sin of slavery” through the Civil War, the military result of which produced three redemptive constitutional amendments. Coates’s past includes Civil War amendments that transferred mass involuntary servitude to the criminal justice system and specifically excludes Native Americans and women. McConnell says “passing landmark civil rights legislation” dealt with Jim Crow and Plessy v Ferguson. For Coates, institutional racism refuses to die. To McConnell, Barack Obama’s election irreversibly shattered a glass ceiling. Even when Coates’s reverential word portraits of Obama border on the dewy-eyed, he sees a complex and evanescent presidential legacy.   

It’s tempting to divide adherents of these alternate pasts along partisan lines. That would be a mistake. The problem, once again, is more fundamental, a conclusion shared by a friend of mine who recently declared his independent candidacy for president. I am not hereby endorsing him, nor do I think he’ll garner enough votes to be a spoiler in November 2020, much less win the election. Mark Charles, whose father is Diné (Navajo) and mother of Dutch heritage, is using the campaign stage to begin an eighteen-month conversation about unresolved foundational questions the major party candidates will pass over in silence. Do with that as you will. I mention him here because, in his campaign launch video, he cites a Canadian First Nations (Dene) leader, Georges Erasmus, who said “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”

I, like Mark Charles, think Erasmus’s words get to the heart of the matter. That McConnell and Coates talk past one another is but a local instance of a systemic malady. I have no idea, however, what moral resources the US might draw on to create that common memory. Perhaps a presidential campaign could start the conversation. Perhaps. 

Such a conversation will necessarily be difficult. Were it easy, it would already have happened. And when talk turns to the fraught history of race, it will prove especially hard on people like me: white, reasonably well educated, and accustomed to controlling the narrative. A truly common national memory will require everyone to shed some treasured myths, but my kind have a lot more mythic baggage to jettison. Far more, perhaps, than we’re willing to part with. 

Central to Robin Diangelo’s argument in her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, is the urgent need for folks like me to stop thinking of racism as something peculiar to ignorant bigots who intentionally engage in overt, race-based discrimination. If racism is limited to those bad individuals among whom I, thank God, am not to be counted, there’s precious little demanded of me beyond maintaining my conspicuously virtuous behavior. I am not the problem.

Yet I am the problem. At least part of it. If Diangelo’s right, racism survives in the US not because mean-spirited individuals perpetuate it, but through well-intentioned people like me who benefit from a rigged system, the faults of which are hidden from view by histories I’d rather not question, myths I prefer to keep, and narratives I’m no hurry to unlearn. 

In a chapter titled “White Women’s Tears,” Diangelo — a white woman herself — shows how white bourgeois liberals hijack the conversation when told they’ve said or done something racist, however unintentionally. The women Diangelo describes are not ignorant bigots. They are well-educated and woke. They’ve been smashing the patriarchy since grade school. They actively discuss racism with people of color. 

Yet when told they’ve unwittingly said something racially insensitive, they collapse into the good progressive/bad racist binary and respond emotionally. As the tears flow, other participants in the conversation hurry to reassure the speaker she’s really a good person. As Diangelo quotes one observer of such interactions, “Imagine first responders at the scene of an accident rushing to comfort the person whose car struck a pedestrian, while the pedestrian lies bleeding on the street.”  

White men, Diangelo quickly adds, also respond emotionally in similar situations. Their default emotion is, of course, anger. But there are other ways for white men to assert their dominance. One of these, Diangelo writes, is through intellectual distancing, often by recommending a book or article — something which, as you can see, I’ve been doing throughout this essay. 

To quote yet another distressing book, “So it goes.” I’m trapped in an invisible web of disordered relationships St. Paul called powers and principalities, and I’m not going to read my way out. Necessary conversations grow more urgent. Common memory doesn’t exist. Real community remains a dream deferred.

This is where I’m supposed to suggest a way forward and offer reasons for hope. The latter is the easier task since hope lasts at least as long as we’re alive. As Wendell Berry writes in an essay entitled “Healing,” “There is the bad work of pride. There is also the bad work of despair, done poorly out of the failure of hope or vision. Despair is the too-little of responsibility, as pride is the too-much. The shoddy work of despair, the pointless work of pride, equally betray Creation.”

How to move forward, however, is much harder to say. Perhaps there’s a place for congressional hearings and remarks to reporters, though the current political climate is, at the very least, uncongenial. Mark Charles’s “eighteen-month long conversation” has some promise, though it will almost certainly take place on the margins of news industry consciousness. That’s not a bad thing, however. The conversations that need to happen will necessarily start small. There will be many moments of awkward silence, painful recognition, and hurt feelings. For folks like me, there will be much to learn and far more to unlearn. There will be plenty of tears and anger. Someone will need to remind me why to keep going. None of these conversations will be easy, but it’s past time they begin.

image source: “Awaken from the Unknowing” by Charles White, public domain


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Brian Volck

Brian Volck is a pediatrician who received his undergraduate degree in English Literature and his MD from Washington University in St. Louis and his MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in various periodicals and journals, including DoubleTake, Health Affairs, and Image. He provides clinical care in Maryland and on the Navajo Nation and is working on a book on the Navajo, history, and health.

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