In his essay “Stranger in the Village,” James Baldwin wrote: “Joyce is right about history being a nightmare–but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” I can’t help but feel the pessimism of Baldwin’s observation after Charleston. At the same time the persistence of the Emmanuel AME Church and its congregation, the love they have shown for each other and for this country is a continuing triumph. They continue to fight to step out of the traps history has laid out for them.
Beyond that Baldwin also points to a solution: We can only free ourselves from a racist history by acknowledging that history and then ripping the evil of that history from inside us. Which, among other things, would include the taking down of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina state house and from the license plates of various states. The fact that that has not happened and probably won’t happen tells us how deeply this country clings to the nightmare of its racist history.
The Charleston murderer saw that Confederate flag as a symbol of racism and racial supremacy; that was part of his “Southern” pride. What I don’t hear much about is “Southern” shame. Or regret. Or apology. The soldiers of the Confederacy are no longer alive or fighting, but the racism they fought to defend continues. It’s okay to remember and honor these soldiers in the minds of Southern conservatives. But if you point out our history of slavery, conservatives instantly say, “Why bring that up? That was in the past.” Two unequal standards for remembering history. Racism continues to create its own rules to maintain itself–or rather, racists continue to create their own rules to keep their racism.
I am also waiting for someone to point out that the Charleston murderer focused on characterizing blacks as rapists in the same way Donald Trump focused on characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists. The fact that he is a candidate for President in the Republican Party and that Party has not disavowed him once again shows how deeply racism is embedded in our politics and psyches and how the status quo of American life is far more racist than many are willing to acknowledge.