November 6, 2008

"To cease fleeing from reality and to change it"

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

South Carolina representative James Clyburn, a veteran of the violent times, called the results a non-violent revolution, and the victory gathering at Grant Park -- orchestrated, protected by the police, an amassing -- seemed to expel, with the shouting happy presence of 250,000 people, the ghosts of the Democratic Convention of 1968.

The revolution may not be political in an immediately recognizable sense, since it is still not clear that there is any agreement, even among those gathered in Grant Park, where the actual problems are and what their solutions demand. And if not agreement, perhaps not even any meaningful recognition. Leafing through a collection of writing, this scrap of an essay written more than ten years ago jumped out, offering the uncomfortable reminder of the stakes that remain in many ways far from the election of a president, in the struggles of labor and poverty and survival.

Talking about the perils of the community-based organizations that operate among the vulnerable for very limited ends -- neglecting or ignoring the imperatives of any larger, binding civic discourse and actual political negotiation, thereby exchanging the hope for "change" for coercive power in a sphere of influence -- Adolph Reed wrote in 1996:

In Chicago . . . we've gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program -- the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance ("The Curse of 'Community'").

The twelve years between then and now have added much to that rhetorical patina of the embattled kitchen tables where people are made to seek solutions on their own, and Reed has continued to write against the illusion that an Obama presidency will mean joyous change when the fundamental problems -- urban poverty, working strife, a vast prison complex -- will remain, and grow, and be presented as barriers to a particular kind of progress sought by liberal foundations and those invested in the development world.

Those twelve years and the migration from the community-level to the "national stage" has necessarily changed the political role of the Harvard-lawyer-become-president. He seems now to stand in for a withdrawal from the strict claims of some false "authenticity" and the diminishing effects of identity politics. In this withdrawal, and the symbolic force of his presence, actual and rhetorical--a symbolism encountered in the kitchen, on television, through the internet and airwaves--one hopes that the necessary political negotiations can again take place closer to home. We may not witness the stuff of true agonism at the presidential level, let alone a language of an analysis that exposes, in a materialist sense, the constructions of our condition. But given that so many are feeling cast out, compelled into a collective exodus through the wilderness of war and the wider threats of economic havoc, there is also the potential for some new recognitions to also take root on a larger scale; if hope, hope brought through mass pain.

The election two days ago was, after all, the culmination of a slow, cascading, majority rejection of the hateful, the fearful, and the insidious traps of a long history. The votes were cast when there is much to fear. Many refused it even as it still continues to play out across the dim, angry faces that were holding tight to the reactionary non-sense. It remains, brutal and brutish and selfish and naive, but it also seems more isolated than ever before, a shrinking island of death.

In 1962, James Baldwin wrote, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of emancipation, a letter to his nephew, in which he said that this history had bound white America in a terror that it could not understand. He tells his nephew not to retreat from the rooted sense of belonging to Harlem, to America, to possibility, even as "the details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you." The reconciliation of those two truths was to be found, says Baldwin, in "the words acceptance and integration."
You, don't be afraid. I said that I that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never having being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But those men are your brothers--your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, that is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease feeling from reality and to change it. For this is your home . . . do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become ("My Dungeon Shook," The Fire Next Time).