The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats
Although humans appear ultimately incapable of listening to and then acting upon our great capacity for art—which is an extension of our great capacity for compassion, love, and good—literature may offer some solace in a time when the US has announced itself still a racist, sexist, and xenophobic people, hiding behind the codes of “conservative,” “family values,” and “Christian nation.”
How low do people have to stoop before they have their Lady Macbeth moment:
Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?–Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
Shakespeare’s dramatization of guilt and being complicit is, let’s not ignore, an allusion to Pontius Pilat and the “assassination” of Jesus:
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” [Matthew 27:24, NIV]
If we can have that moment in which we admit, confront, and atone for our responsibility in the evil that humans do, we must finally listen to James Baldwin:
And to Langston Hughes:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
And face our children with our failures, against which Maggie Smith struggles:
Life is short, though I keep this from my children….
The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children….
Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children.
The US and its majority white population have the greatest opportunity before them, a free and powerful nation of riches, and daily, that opportunity is squandered because of our “rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”
The US is undeniably inequitable, and to balance among gender, race, etc., we have only two options: to take away or to give to—but in either case, white privilege is erased and white sensibilities are challenged.
There is no evidence the white majority has the ethical backbone to make changes for equity or even to tolerate them.
On a dark mourning in America, I recommend reading or rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—a sobering imagining of the worst of white responses to the rise of the Others they have created.
We are now on that path, and it is ours to make the decision to turn around or move forward into that oblivion.
5 thoughts on “Dark Mourning in America: “The world is at least/fifty percent terrible””
Rosa Parks by Nikki Giovanni
voices would be raised singing the praises of God and exhorting
us “to forgive those who trespass against us.” But it was the
Pullman Porters who safely got Emmett to his granduncle and it
was Mrs. Rosa Parks who could not stand that death. And in not
being able to stand it. She sat back down.
One question I have been asking myself related to James Baldwin’s words on our “rigid refusal to look at ourselves…” is this: how complicit are we in facing the mirror? Is it a lack of desire and willingness, or is it simply a lack of the ability to do so? I find myself more and more lost in trying to understand why this refusal exists.
Neither Lady Macbeth’s selfish motives nor Pontious Pilate’s cowardly ones could justify the evil they did. Their handwashing was an outward demonstration of guilt that they had no power to remove. In our society, no amount of handwashing can remove the stains of a selfish, wicked past. Even more troubling is the way we continue in our selfish ways. People are arrogant and self-centered. We justify our own desires and concerns as good, and we expect someone else to make things right for us. We need to embrace responsibility, stand for right and truth, and work for change, not for our own glory, but because we are committed to making America a better place for everyone.