We have done this to ourselves…

After the events of the past two weeks, I am just about written out. What more can be said about the harrowing journey we have taken-how quickly the story we have always believed about ourselves turned into a nightmare. What we witnessed on January 6, is as ugly and disheartening as it was inevitable. Those of us who have blogged this era have hit on the themes and their consequences for a while now. That is how obvious it has been and how imminent it seemed once Trump was installed as president. It has been a long, hard slog, has it not? A Donald Trump was always going to be a chapter in the story of our nation, precisely because he is the persistent embodiment of an unresolved past. So, in this time of revelation, I look back on one of my favorite observers of the struggle that has engulfed our nation from its inception. James Baldwin’s hopefulness for the nation he loved and pummeled with his words, give me hope that this chapter is not our last.

Jimmy Baldwin has always been able to shine a light on our dark and shameful relationship with bigotry and the power that it has held over us. In his book of essays, Notes of a Native Son, he says at one point what I believe is the truth about what we have just lived through and the choice it presents:

“The people who think of themselves as White have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant.
Or — as they are, indeed, already, in all but actual fact: obsolete. For, if trouble don’t last always, as the Preacher tells us, neither does Power, and it is on the fact or the hope or the myth of Power that that identity which calls itself White has always seemed to depend.”

Baldwin was a gifted author, poet, playwright, and activist whose brilliance was wrapped up in his ability to get at simple truths. He was born a poor black man living in a white world that was obsessed with the myth of power. A world that believed power was innately theirs and was something to hold on to and never share. A mistaken belief that power was their divine right without a past-due date. If you read Baldwin now one cannot help but think he had foreseen the Trump era and its quashing of the myth of America as a land of freedom and equality for all. Baldwin always knew there were exceptions to the myth-for blacks, for gays, for those other than white Christian and mostly male. It was inherent in the dubious philosophy of Manifest Destiny that fueled western expansion which made a virtue of white supremacy. In a letter written by Unitarian preacher William E. Channing to Henry Clay in 1837, Channing cited the immorality of the movement:

… the Indians have melted before the white man, and the mixed, degraded race of Mexico must melt before the Anglo-Saxon. Away with this vile sophistry! There is no necessity for crime. There is no fate to justify rapacious nations, any more than to justify gamblers and robbers, in plunder. We boast of the progress of society, and this progress consists in the substitution of reason and moral principle for the sway of brute force….We talk of accomplishing our destiny. So did the late conqueror of Europe (Napoleon) ; and destiny consigned him to a lonely rock in the ocean, the prey of ambition which destroyed no peace but his own.”

Destiny should be so kind to our current president.

The cognitive dissonance of America’s expression of freedom and equity, when compared with its history of relations with non-whites who may get in its way, is what we are living with today. Baldwin wrote that he loved America “more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” And criticize her he did. But his gift was in the clarity with which he recognized that America’s weakness would lead it to harm itself as it did on January 6:

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

Is there a better understanding of our Achilles Heel than the recognition that our greatest enemy would rise up from within? The corrosive ignorance of white privilege as embodied by Donald Trump and his ruthless following reveals to our enemies and detractors our susceptibility to self-destruction. As Baldwin noted in many of his works, America the notion has been at odds with America the nation since the first white man landed here. January 6, 2020, was inevitable because we could no longer pretend that we had extinguished the racist fires of our past. Jimmy Baldwin knew it and he wrote about it with a prescience that has become so apparent now.

What will America do after Trump is gone? As America ages, demographics put an end to the misconception that its greatness lies in its past. That America’s ascendancy is the result of accomplishments of its white majority, denying the major role played by an intrepid underclass who provided the brawn and expertise that shaped their visions. We have experienced the election of our first black president, and the promise that power may soon reside in a black and Asian woman, both events portending a different version of American greatness. Yet both were central to the rationalization for the assault on the Capitol. Our true greatness will lie in our future only if we can finally conquer our past.

In this time of great sadness for our nation and in the disappointment in our inability to change, I choose to be hopeful. With Donald Trump gone there can be space for hope, for recognition that this is an opportunity to work toward a greater and more hopeful future for the notion that there could be a self-governing “nation of nations” that sees diversity and comity as values rather than weaknesses:

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
― James Baldwin,
The Fire Next Time

Like a fire that destroys old growth to open up room for the new, let us hope that January 6th marks both an end and a new beginning. As Eddie Glaude, Jr. writes in Begin Again, his work of social criticism based on James Baldwin and his work:

“Since the publication of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin had insisted that the country grapple with the contradiction at the heart of its self-understanding: the fact that in this so-called democracy, people believed that the color of one’s skin determined the relative value of an individual’s life and justified the way American society was organized. That belief and justification had dehumanized entire groups of people. White Americans were not excluded from its effects. “In this debasement and definition of black people,” Baldwin argued, white people “debased and defined themselves.”Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

On January 6 the words of Jimmy Baldwin were made manifest in the actions of the rioters who stormed the Capitol. Realizing that we have done this to ourselves is both a curse and an opportunity for redemption. Baldwin has assured us that facing our past is the first step in changing it.

Had enough of Trump? Who hasn’t? If you want a review of all the turmoil as it unraveled a presidency and has come close to taking down our democracy, You may consider “What the hell were we thinking?: A blogger’s guide to the Trump era…” a compilation in real-time of the antics and crimes committed over the past five years. From the campaign in 2016 to the thumping he took in 2020, this book chronicles the events as they happened and records how we felt living through the worst presidency in history.

Originally published at https://vincerizzo.substack.com.

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Former president of the International Association of Laboratory Schools (IALS) and a founder of a charter school based on MI theory.

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Vince Rizzo

Vince Rizzo

Former president of the International Association of Laboratory Schools (IALS) and a founder of a charter school based on MI theory.

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