America – the Past is never really Past

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“What was is never over.  There have been moments in our history, brief ones, where the meaning of the Civil War has seem settled.  This isn’t one of them, not when the illusion that this country might become a post-racial society lies in tatters. Again.”
— Michael Gorra, “The Saddest Words:  William Faulkner’s Civil War

I’ve not read Faulkner in a long time, and still believe as ever that to know American history we must know our Civil War, its genesis, its aftermath of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, a lingering Lost Cause, the Civil Rights movement and today’s anger after George Floyd/Breonna Taylor and others.

Gorra’s book takes on that unfolding history – our endless encounter with a racial past, and with it Faulkner’s own confrontation with race in his native Mississippi.

As he writes, “…is the past ever really past?  It is, and is not.  It was, and that’s why it can’t be changed or fixed, why it still has power and weight.  That’s why it hurts.  Was — a determining force, on which we can  have no purchase, and for which there is no redress. The past stays with us, irrevocable and unrecoverable.”

What we can do, and that is the work in progress I always call America, is fix today and tomorrow.  We fall back, push forward, again and again, and find ourselves at a perilous crossroads, a political civil war, even now.  What road now waits?

As someone wrote this weekend, of the unprecedented assault on our electoral system by a sitting president, of that assault’s embrace by so many Americans, of the threats against civil servants who followed law and duty. “What happened? What happened here in this country? Who are we as people?”

Yes, who? The everlasting American question…

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Mike James was a long-time anchor newscaster at KING TV.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Mike James. In your essay, your eloquence enhanced clarity. I remember the South after the Civil War being described to me as the only part of the United States ever occupied by a hostile military power. I also remember my high school English teacher, the best teacher I ever had, reading aloud those lines from Faulkner, a dialog in which one character defends the liberation of slaves on human grounds and the other meets every argument with references to blacks as animals–Faulkner arguing with himself.

    As dreadful as the Civil War was, I believe Reconstruction was more traumatic for the South. In the war battles were fought and either won or lost. In the war Southern armies eventually surrendered and the political leadership was arrested and tried. But during Reconstruction, nothing was ever directly resolved. Despite the success of Black state legislatures in improving the lives of all Southerners by supporting education and social aid programs, White resistance, a majoritarian effort in all but South Carolina, was relentless.

    From an outsiders’ perspective, Southern whites have made consistently wrong decisions: Poor whites sided with rich planters instead of supporting the abolition of slavery even when it would have benefited themselves economically. As poor men they fought in a rich mans’ war. They joined fundamentalist movements in churches supporting literalism over humane interpretation. They joined the Klan, supported Jim Crow laws, fought unionization, voted for corrupt ‘Good Old Boys’, supported segregation and and voted for trump. My first inclination was to submit this list as proof of incorrigible stupidity but now think it the residue of the trauma of war and of living in the post-war South. The much touted Southern traits of independence, loyalty, familial hospitality and patriarchy seem expressions of emasculation. I believe the South remains the nation’s most intriguing, enigmatic and compelling region. justly famous for a literary tradition that produced such gifted and troubled writers like Faulkner. Thanks again. DB

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