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Young Barack Obama on Identity, the Search for a Coherent Self, and How We Fragment Our Wholeness with Polarizing Identity Politics

“Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind.”

Young Barack Obama on Identity, the Search for a Coherent Self, and How We Fragment Our Wholeness with Polarizing Identity Politics

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Tolstoy proclaimed in his diary. “A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” How we draw and accrue our allegiances as life flows through us and we through it is a centerpiece of our human experience, for we are, in the words of philosopher Amelie Rorty, “the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves.”

The interplay of identity and agency is what Barack Obama (b. August 4, 1961) explores with uncommon vulnerability and intellectual elegance throughout Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (public library) — the immensely lyrical 1995 memoir that gave us the young future president on what his mother taught him about love.

Barack Obama in his teens
Barack Obama in his teens

Young Obama writes:

The fissures of race that have characterized the American experience, as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — [continue to] mark our modern life.

Looking back to his own youth as a basketball-obsessed teenager, Obama reflects on the culturally inherited norms which freeze that natural and necessary fluidity of identity:

I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood. Yet at a time when boys aren’t supposed to want to follow their fathers’ tired footsteps, when the imperatives of harvest or work in the factory aren’t supposed to dictate identity, so that how to live is bought off the rack or found in magazines, the principal difference between me and most of the man-boys around me — the surfers, the football players, the would-be rock-and-roll guitarists — resided in the limited number of options at my disposal. Each of us chose a costume, armor against uncertainty. At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage. And it was there that I would meet Ray and the other blacks close to my age who had begun to trickle into the islands, teenagers whose confusion and anger would help shape my own.

Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack
Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack

With an eye to his own complicated constellation of identity, as the son of a white mother and black father, he considers how limiting our language becomes as we engage in these costume-identities shielding us against the uncertainty of a more nuanced and dimensional self-definition:

White folks. The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first; I felt like a non-native speaker tripping over a difficult phrase. Sometimes I would find myself talking to [my black friend] Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile, and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot would come in to say she was going to sleep, and those same words — white folks — would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.

[…]

I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.

Young Obama intuited poet Elizabeth Alexander’s notion that the self lives in language. (More than a decade later, Alexander would become the fourth poet in American history to read at a presidential inauguration when she welcomed Obama to the presidency with her stunning poem “Praise Song for the Day.”) He recounts searching for the language for his fragmented self in books as a teenager:

I gathered up books from the library — Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois. At night I would close the door to my room, telling my grandparents I had homework to do, and there I would sit and wrestle with words, locked in suddenly desperate argument, trying to reconcile the world as I’d found it with the terms of my birth. But there was no escape to be had. In every page of every book, in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even DuBois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels.

Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life. And yet, even as I imagined myself following Malcolm’s call, one line in the book stayed me. He spoke of a wish he’d once had, the wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that, for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border.

As he wades his way through this journey of self-discovery and self-definition, young Obama adds:

My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there. At least that’s what I would choose to believe.

But as much as the self might live in language, it also lives and reveals itself in community, be it forced or organic. Obama reflects on the frictions and fissures, both internal and external, that he discovered in college:

The position of most black students in predominantly white colleges was already too tenuous, our identities too scrambled, to admit to ourselves that our black pride remained incomplete. And to admit our doubt and confusion to whites, to open up our psyches to general examination by those who had caused so much of the damage in the first place, seemed ludicrous, itself an expression of self-hatred — for there seemed no reason to expect that whites would look at our private struggles as a mirror into their own souls, rather than yet more evidence of black pathology.

In his quest to find a community that would hold his fragmented self with assuring firmness, Obama meets and forms “an uneasy alliance” with a community leader named Rafiq al-Shabazz — a man who operates from a place of polarity and deep anger, and belongs to “a Hobbesian world where distrust was a given and loyalties extended from family to mosque to the black race.” But Obama eventually comes to see that Rafiq’s extreme is equally unhelpful in healing the fissures of race. He writes:

I wondered … whether a black politics that suppressed rage toward whites generally, or one that failed to elevate race loyalty above all else, was a politics inadequate to the task.

It was a painful thought to consider, as painful now as it had been years ago. It contradicted the morality my mother had taught me, a morality of subtle distinctions — between individuals of goodwill and those who wished me ill, between active malice and ignorance or indifference. I had a personal stake in that moral framework; I’d discovered that I couldn’t escape it if I tried. And yet perhaps it was a framework that blacks in this country could no longer afford; perhaps it weakened black resolve, encouraged confusion within the ranks. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and for many blacks, times were chronically desperate. If nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites, or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence.

Mostly, he finds that the raw material of the nationalists was “just talk” — the selfsame kind of vacant propagandism to which this ideology was supposed to be a counterpoint:

What concerned me … was the distance between our talk and our action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people. That gap corrupted both language and thought; it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication; it eventually eroded our ability to hold either ourselves or each other accountable. And while none of this was unique to black politicians or to black nationalists — Ronald Reagan was doing quite well with his brand of verbal legerdemain, and white America seemed ever willing to spend vast sums of money on suburban parcels and private security forces to deny the indissoluble link between black and white — it was blacks who could least afford such make-believe. Black survival in this country had always been premised on a minimum of delusions; it was such an absence of delusions that continued to operate in the daily lives of most black people I met. Instead of adopting such unwavering honesty in our public business, we seemed to be loosening our grip, letting our collective psyche go where it pleased, even as we sank into further despair.

The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan — didn’t self-esteem finally depend on just this? It was that belief which had led me into organizing, and it was that belief which would lead me to conclude, perhaps for the final time, that notions of purity — of race or of culture — could no more serve as the basis for the typical black American’s self-esteem than it could for mine. Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we’d inherited.

Barack Obama as a boy, with his father.
Barack Obama as a boy, with his father.

Obama finds that finer pattern to draw on the drum of identity when he travels to Africa in search of his father’s bloodlines. He writes:

Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind. And perhaps it was that fact that left me so unsettled — the fact that even here, in Africa, the same maddening patterns still held sway; that no one here could tell me what my blood ties demanded or how those demands could be reconciled with some larger idea of human association. It was as if [my brothers, sister, and I] were all making it up as we went along. As if the map that might have once measured the direction and force of our love, the code that would unlock our blessings, had been lost long ago, buried with the ancestors beneath a silent earth.

At last, he discovers the beginnings of an answer at the edge of a cornfield in Kenya, between two graves at the foot of a mango tree — one with an unmarked tombstone, belonging to a person whose identity would remain forever lost, and one belonging to his great-great-grandfather. Obama recounts the revelation of that moment:

For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America — the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago — all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.

Dreams from My Father remains an immensely powerful and poignant read, radiating ever-new ripples of timeliness more than two decades later. Complement this particular fragment with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of what makes a person and Walt Whitman on identity and the paradox of the self, then revisit Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s fantastic forgotten conversation about identity and race.

BP

A Gentle Corrective for the Epidemic of Identity Politics Turning Us on Each Other and on Ourselves

“So many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them.”

A Gentle Corrective for the Epidemic of Identity Politics Turning Us on Each Other and on Ourselves

“It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person,” philosopher Amelie Rorty wrote in examining what makes a person through her taxonomy of the seven layers of identity. I have thought about Rorty often in watching the steamroller of our cultural moment level the beautiful, wild topography of personhood into variations on identity politics, demolishing context, dispossessing expression of intention, and flattening persons into identities. Half a century ago, James Baldwin shone a sidewise gleam of admonition against this perilous tendency as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves: “This collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.”

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

During a tense recent dinner table conversation about these tensions, I was reminded of a lesser-known legacy of the great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008), who has written beautifully about selfhood and the crucible of identity.

In 1997, the Irish broadcaster and radio producer John Quinn conceived of a summer series titled “Webs of Wonder” — a modern embodiment of Descartes’s conviction that “wonderment is the first passion of all,” exploring the elemental sublimity of wonder through poetry, music, literature, and philosophy. Quinn enlisted O’Donohue in the philosophical component of the program. In a hotel bar in Kinvara, the two sat down to explore the tessellations of wonder in a roaming hourlong conversation, the transcript of which was published as Walking on the Pastures of Wonder: John O’Donohue in Conversation with John Quinn (public library).

John O’Donohue (Photograph: Colm Hogan)

In one of the most poignant portions of the conversation, O’Donohue considers the trap of identity, the relationship between limitation and wonder, and how the unquestioned confines us to smaller and smaller compartments of ourselves:

Every human person is inevitably involved with two worlds: the world they carry within them and the world that is out there. All thinking, all writing, all action, all creation and all destruction is about that bridge between the two worlds. All thought is about putting a face on experience… One of the most exciting and energetic forms of thought is the question. I always think that the question is like a lantern. It illuminates new landscapes and new areas as it moves. Therefore, the question always assumes that there are many different dimensions to a thought that you are either blind to or that are not available to you. So a question is really one of the forms in which wonder expresses itself. One of the reasons that we wonder is because we are limited, and that limitation is one of the great gateways to wonder.

[…]

All thinking that is imbued with wonder is graceful and gracious thinking… And thought, if it’s not open to wonder, can be limiting, destructive and very, very dangerous.

Two decades after O’Donohue’s beautiful words, we have somehow found ourselves in an era where even the brightest, kindest, most idealistic people spring to judgment — which is nothing other than negative wonder — in a heart-flinch. Questions invite instant opinions more often than they invite conversation and contemplation — a peculiar terror of wonder that O’Donohue presaged:

One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them. This identity may be totally at variance with the wild energies that are rising inside in their souls. Many of us get very afraid and we eventually compromise. We settle for something that is safe, rather than engaging the danger and the wildness that is in our own hearts.

Paradoxically, in our golden age of identity politics and trigger-ready outrage, this repression of our inner wildness and fracturing of our wholeness has taken on an inverted form, inclining toward a parody of itself. Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others. (For instance, some of mine: woman, reader, immigrant, writer, queer, survivor of Communism.) Because no composite of fragments can contain, much less represent, all possible fragments, we end up drifting further and further from one another’s wholeness, abrading all sense of shared aspiration toward unbiased understanding. The censors of yore have been replaced by the “sensitivity readers” of today, fraying the fabric of freedom — of speech, even of thought — from opposite ends, but fraying it nonetheless. The safety of conformity to an old-guard mainstream has been supplanted by the safety of conformity to a new-order minority predicated on some fragment of identity, so that those within each new group (and sub-group, and sub-sub-group) are as harsh to judge and as fast to exclude “outsiders” (that is, those of unlike identity-fragments) from the conversation as the old mainstream once was in judging and excluding them. In our effort to liberate, we have ended up imprisoning — imprisoning ourselves in the fractal infinity of our ever-subdividing identities, imprisoning each other in our exponentially multiplying varieties of otherness.

Art by Oliver Jeffers from Once Upon an Alphabet.

This inversion of intent only fissures the social justice movement itself, so that people who are at bottom kindred-spirited — who share the most elemental values, who work from a common devotion to the same projects of justice and equality, who are paving parallel pathways to a nobler, fairer, more equitable world — end up disoriented by the suspicion that they might be on different sides of justice after all, merely because their particular fragments don’t happen to coincide perfectly. In consequence, despite our best intentions, we misconstrue and alienate each other more and more.

O’Donohue offers a gentle corrective:

Each one of us is the custodian of an inner world that we carry around with us. Now, other people can glimpse it from [its outer expressions]. But no one but you knows what your inner world is actually like, and no one can force you to reveal it until you actually tell them about it. That’s the whole mystery of writing and language and expression — that when you do say it, what others hear and what you intend and know are often totally different kinds of things.

A generation after James Baldwin asserted that “an artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian [whose] role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” O’Donohue considers the singular artistry of composing a human life, suspended between the doom and the glory of the interior truths that comprise our identity:

Each one of us is privileged to be the custodian of this inner world, which is accessible only through thought, and we are also doomed, in the sense that we cannot unshackle ourselves from the world that we actually carry… All human being and human identity and human growth is about finding some kind of balance between the privilege and the doom or the inevitability of carrying this kind of world.

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Today, we seem to serve not as custodians of our inner worlds but as their terrified and terrible wardens, policing our own interiority along with that of others for any deviation from the proscribed identity-political correctness. And yet identity is exclusionary by definition — we are what remains after everything we are not. Even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of an immutable personhood but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self — for, as Virginia Wolf memorably wrote, “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” To liberate ourselves from the trap of identity, O’Donohue implies, requires not merely an awareness of but an active surrender to the transience that inheres in all of life and engenders its very richness:

One of the most amazing recognitions of the human mind is that time passes. Everything that we experience somehow passes into a past invisible place: when you think of yesterday and the things that were troubling you and worrying you, and the intentions that you had and the people that you met, and you know you experienced them all, but when you look for them now, they are nowhere — they have vanished… It seems to me that our times are very concerned with experience, and that nowadays to hold a belief, to have a value, must be woven through the loom of one’s own experience, and that experience is the touchstone of integrity, verification and authenticity. And yet the destiny of every experience is that it will disappear.

To come to terms with this — with the impermanence and mutability of our thoughts, our feelings, our values, our very cells — is to grasp the absurdity of clinging to any strand of identity with the certitude and self-righteousness undergirding identity politics. To reclaim the beauty of the multitudes we each contain, we must break free of the prison of our fragments and meet one another as whole persons full of wonder unblunted by identity-template and expectation.

Complement this particular direction of thought inspired by Walking on the Pastures of Wonder with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s spectacular conversation about identity and belonging, young Barack Obama on how we fragment our wholeness with polarizing identity politics, and Walt Whitman on identity and the paradox of the self, then revisit O’Donohue on the central pillar of friendship, how our restlessness fuels our creativity, and what makes life’s transience bearable.

Thanks, Krista

BP

Young Barack Obama on What His Mother Taught Him About Love

“Perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer.”

Young Barack Obama on What His Mother Taught Him About Love

In 1990, a promising law student and writer not yet thirty was elected as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. His editorial work for the journal impressed the publishers of the The New York Times imprint into offering him a book deal and so began his quest to capture “the fissures of race … as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — that mark our modern life.”

That young man was Barack Obama (b. August 4, 1961) and that manuscript became his lucid and lyrical memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (public library).

A beautiful writer with an unmistakable voice, Obama reflects on the extremes of ambition and self-doubt familiar to writers, all the more amplified by youth:

Like most first-time authors, I was filled with hope and despair upon the book’s publication — hope that the book might succeed beyond my youthful dreams, despair that I had failed to say anything worth saying. The reality fell somewhere in between.

It wasn’t until Obama had ascended in the political realm, more than a decade later, that his potent and poetic writing garnered the attention which its creative merit warrants. (I am reminded here of Hermann Hesse’s wonderfully prescient wisdom on publishing: “That stratum of writers and intellectuals which seems from time to time to lead because it shapes public opinion or at least supplies the slogans of the day — that stratum is not identical with the creative stratum.”) But his mother, Stanley Ann — one of the most captivating presences in the book — didn’t live to savor her son’s success. She had died of cancer, “with a brutal swiftness,” a few months after the book’s publication.

Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack
Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack

And yet it was she who had taught Obama about what would become the greatest guiding force of his life — the power of love, not only in the impersonally interpersonal political sense of building on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “experiment in love,” but in its most personal manifestation between two human beings who have chosen each other as partners in every dimension of life, the trying and the triumphant, and continue to choose each other every day of their lives.

In one of the most moving passages in the book, Obama tells the story of how his parents got together — an anecdote his mother once relayed, which illustrates the wonderfully imperfect yet unconditional nature of real love. He writes:

She sighed, running her hands through her hair. “We were so young, you know. I was younger than you are now. He was only a few years older than that…”

She stopped and laughed to herself. “Did I ever tell you that he was late for our first date? He asked me to meet him in front of the university library at one. When I got there he hadn’t arrived, but I figured I’d give him a few minutes. It was a nice day, so I laid out on one of the benches, and before I knew it I had fallen asleep. Well, an hour later — an hour! — he shows up with a couple of his friends. I woke up and the three of them were standing over me, and I heard your father saying, serious as can be, ‘You see, gentlemen. I told you that she was a fine girl, and that she would wait for me.’”

Embedded in the story is a broader meditation on time, the universality of the human experience, and what we each most long for as we surrender, often with enormous resistance and at the price of great discomfort, to love:

My mother laughed once more, and once again I saw her as the child she had been. Except this time I saw something else: In her smiling, slightly puzzled face, I saw what all children must see at some point if they are to grow up — their parents’ lives revealed to them as separate and apart, reaching out beyond the point of their union or the birth of a child, lives unfurling back to grandparents, great-grandparents, an infinite number of chance meetings, misunderstandings, projected hopes, limited circumstances. My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father’s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents’ lives. The innocence she carried that day, waiting for my father, had been tinged with misconceptions, her own needs. But it was a guileless need, one without self-consciousness, and perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer. What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father, was … the love of someone who knows your life in the round, a love that will survive disappointment. She saw my father as everyone hopes at least one other person might see him; she had tried to help the child who never knew him see him in the same way. And it was the look on her face that day that I would remember when a few months later I called to tell her that my father had died and heard her cry out over the distance.

Obama began writing this memoir the summer he met the love of his own life, 25-year-old Michelle Robinson. The two were married three years later and he soon came to echo what his mother’s story had taught him about love in articulating his own experience of that supreme human gift. In 1996, when Obama was still unsure of whether he would pursue a political career or become a writer, photographer Mariana Cook — who would later come to photograph some of the world’s greatest human rights leaders — visited Barack and Michelle Obama in their Chicago home as part of a project exploring coupledom in America.

Barack and Michelle Obama, 1996 (Photograph:  Mariana Cook)
Barack and Michelle Obama, 1996 (Photograph: Mariana Cook)

Cook conducted a short interview with the future President and First Lady, in which 35-year-old Obama reflects on the mystery and magnetism of his love for his wife:

Michelle is a tremendously strong person, and has a very strong sense of herself and who she is and where she comes from. But I also think in her eyes you can see a trace of vulnerability that most people don’t know, because when she’s walking through the world she is this tall, beautiful, confident woman. There is a part of her that is vulnerable and young and sometimes frightened, and I think seeing both of those things is what attracted me to her.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s abiding wisdom on the “moments of vision” that make relationships last, he adds:

What sustains our relationship is I’m extremely happy with her, and part of it has to do with the fact that she is at once completely familiar to me, so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways. And there are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.

Dreams from My Father is a tremendously beautiful and insightful read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with Tom Stoppard’s perfect definition of love, Frida Kahlo on how love amplifies the beauty of the other, and Anna Dostoyevsky on the secret to a happy marriage, then revisit philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving.

BP

The Muse of History: Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott on Why Reconciling Our Conflicting Ancestral Pasts Is Necessary for Cultural Renewal

“Maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.”

The Muse of History: Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott on Why Reconciling Our Conflicting Ancestral Pasts Is Necessary for Cultural Renewal

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin asserted in 1960 as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves. But we can only make a broken world over if we first closely examine its parts — that is, its pasts — and take responsibility for the conditions as well as the consequences of its brokenness.

And yet, too often, we flee and burrow in the comforting certitude of our history, which is not the same as our past, no matter how false and hubristic such certitude may be. Baldwin himself touched on this a decade later in his spectacular and timely 1970 conversation with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, where he observed: “What we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.” Without taking such responsibility we couldn’t create that new and better world, for the great drama of its creation — like that of our self-creation — is that of weaving something new and wonderful from the tattered threads of our cultural history and convention.

That difficult, necessary, transcendent will to weave is what the great Caribbean poet, playwright, essayist, and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (January 23, 1930–March 17, 2017) explores in a stirring 1974 essay titled “The Muse of History,” found in his essay collection What the Twilight Says (public library).

Derek Walcott

“Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene,” the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva wrote on the cusp of the Russian Revolution and its attendant cultural revolution as she considered why we must intimately understand something before we can rightfully reject it. Half a century later, Walcott echoes her insight, turning a skeptical eye to the generation of West Indian writers who dismiss hastily and wholesale the complex colonial legacy of the New World. He writes:

Those who break a tradition first hold it in awe. They perversely encourage disfavour, but because their sense of the past is of a timeless, yet habitable, moment, the New World owes them more than it does those who wrestle with that past, for their veneration subtilizes an arrogance which is tougher than violent rejection. They know that by openly fighting tradition we perpetuate it … and that maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.

For those who take this stance, Walcott argues, “history is fiction, subject to a fitful muse, memory.” In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas about the relationship between agency and victimhood, he writes:

The further the facts, the more history petrifies into myth. Thus, as we grow older as a race, we grow aware that history is written, that it is a kind of literature without morality, that in its actuaries the ego of the race is indissoluble and that everything depends on whether we write this fiction through the memory of hero or of victim.

In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates in pathos. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.

Those whom Walcott celebrates as the great poets of the New World — Neruda, Whitman, Borges — reject this model of history and instead uphold a more ennobling alternative:

Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic. In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous wonder. Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece and Rome and walks in a world without monuments and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful magnet of older civilizations… Fact evaporates into myth. This is not the jaded cynicism which sees nothing new under the sun, it is an elation which sees everything as renewed… This is the revolutionary spirit at its deepest; it recalls the spirit to arms.

And yet this potential for renewal necessarily coexists with our shared legacy of outrage, which must remain a wakeful outrage and not a somnolent trance if we are to transcend our history. Walcott writes:

Who in the New World does not have a horror of the past, whether his ancestor was torturer or victim? Who, in the depth of conscience, is not silently screaming for pardon or for revenge? The pulse of New World history is the racing pulse beat of fear, the tiring cycles of stupidity and greed.

[…]

In time the slave surrendered to amnesia. That amnesia is the true history of the New World. That is our inheritance, but to try and understand why this happened, to condemn or justify is also the method of history, and these explanations are always the same: This happened because of that, this was understandable because, and in days men were such. These recriminations exchanged, the contrition of the master replaces the vengeance of the slave.

With an eye to classics like Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and radical poets like Neruda, who made of language a vehicle for redeeming the present without denying the past, he adds:

It is not the pressure of the past which torments great poets but the weight of the present… The sense of history in poets lives rawly along their nerves… The vision, the “democratic vista,” is not metaphorical, it is a social necessity.

Contemplating the challenge and the necessity of reconciling contrasting, often conflicting, histories and heritages — something he termed in another essay “that wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body, as if the flesh were coal from which the spirit like tormented smoke writhed to escape” — Walcott writes:

We are misled by new prophets of bitterness who warn us against experiences which we have never cared to have, but the mass of society has had neither the interest nor the opportunity which they chose. These preach not to the converted but to those who have never lost faith. I do not mean religious faith but reality. Fisherman and peasant know who they are and what they are and where they are, and when we show them our wounded sensibilities we are, most of us, displaying self-inflicted wounds.

I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, acting as men, with the cruelty of men, your fellowman and tribesman not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you, inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks. I give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift.

Complement What the Twilight Says with Walcott’s charming lighter side and his endlessly enlivening poem “Love After Love,” then revisit young Barack Obama on identity, race, and the search for coherence of selfhood.

BP

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