Illustration by Aaron Marin for TIME; Source Photos: Getty Images (3), NYPL (2)
Ideas
August 5, 2022 7:00 AM EDT
Stewart is an award-winning writer, minister, and author of Shoutin' In The Fire: An American Epistle.

On a cold, brisk January afternoon, I am sitting in my favorite local coffee shop in Augusta, Georgia, Buona Caffe. I am talking with my thesis advisor in a dimly lit area. We are speaking about the connection between James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.

This shop is just a few miles north and a few years removed from where the fires burned during the 1970 Augusta Uprising—what local public historian Nefertiti Robison reminded me of as the largest black uprising in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. This is a southern, old mill city that is graced by thousands every year during the Master’s golf tournament. I tell her about the work I want to do to help, as I have heard it before from one of the local parishioners at my church, Tabernacle Baptist Church, “move this old, old city forward.”

On this particular day, this professor, well-versed in critical readings of black literature, smiles a bit and nods three times up and down when I describe what I felt when I heard Toni’s words in eulogy of James Baldwin. “They both knew us and loved us and love for them meant seeing us and talking about and to us and accepting all of us,” I said, feeling the cold air touch my cheek as someone walked in slowly from the left. This person, I noticed, paused a bit, looked downward intently at my copy of The Source of Self Regard and Just Above My Head.

Moments later, as I’m heading back to my car, saying my goodbyes to the baristas, holding my worn copy of Toni’s pink book under my left armpit, the same lady who gazed at the books twenty minutes earlier, asks, “So you’re a writer?”

“Yes,” I said, moving closer to the door, secretly hoping it wouldn’t be one of those conversations.

“Nice, I love how you were talking about your books and things,” she said. “That’s what my work is in: education.” I nod. “That’s cool.”

I stopped for a moment and we began to talk about education, and then about her work on curriculum, and then to me saying how our children needed a curriculum that tells better stories about what black people have done in this country. She told me about her doctorate in education. She paused, her shoulders getting a bit uptight, and put her hands together and began to tell me about all of the “problems” in the world, naming books by black authors as one. “Well, our children need a more balanced telling of history,” she said. And when she said “balanced”, crossed her arms and titled her head to the side, I knew what that meant: we need less Black people, less Indigenous people, less women, less poor, less gay people, less trans people, and less of any who would upset the ideas of American innocence and goodness. I sighed and thought to myself: the audacity–white audacity. It is one thing to have an opinion of the world. It is quite another thing to think that that opinion of the world should erase and harms others just because you’re a bit uncomfortable or called upon to show a little decency and respect for another person’s humanity and right to live at peace. Audacity.


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She was grieving. The loss of a world. A world that, in her imagination, was once perfect, as white as snow, as peaceful a Southern country morning. She was grieving. The shifting of language: untethered from the known American tongue, losing the power to define and uproot and, ultimately, keep safe. Her perceived struggles spilled over into complaint about how fellow citizens had become a danger and how the world didn’t just feel the same or sound the same or look the same. Yet, not all grief is good grief. Some grief is violent—especially the kind of grief that is nostalgic of a past where she could say and do whatever she want without a young Black man ever possibly unearthing her myths publicly. Nostalgia is a powerful tool of ignorance and retrenchment of the social order.

And this is the rot beneath the surface of words like freedom, democracy, citizen, and unity: there are so many who resist the truth that words can and must change—and must be able to bend to the will of love.

As I think back on that moment, this white woman’s desire to question those who were non-white, non-straight, and non-Christian and our right to be and say whoever we want, and really our desire to change this country, I can’t help but think about this historic moment, the upheaval in the world.

I remember how I felt that day I watched Judge Kentaji Brown-Jackson endure the questioning not only of her qualifications but also of her right to be where she is or when I read the words of a North Texas superintendent: “We’re going to be conservative” or when I sigh as I remember that it took more than 100 years to get an anti-lynching bill or when the Supreme Court is wielded as a weapon to make the world less free or when I grieve over the fact that we live in a country where white people have most of the power but believe they are experiencing all of them pain and the fact all of this, in some ironic way, has become normal or, as sociologist Gary Younge puts it, “another day in the death of America.”

And then there are the guns, the worship of them, the inability to believe breath in another person’s lungs is worth more than hot led from the barrel. And then there is Buffalo—Black elders, having endured the worst of this country’s past are murdered by the worst of one of its children. And then there is Uvalde. Weeks ago. I remember the days when I would drive in my car, drop my son off to school, and hear the reporter from the radio: There is funeral for this person and this family and, now, neither their names or their stories could outlast the cruel ways “breaking news” rushes the world past your grief.

And then there is the clear difference in the ways this society continually protects the various lines constructed and imagined and guarded with dire desperation: you cannot convince me that the idea or the soul of America is not in trouble when parents are afraid to leave their children at school or at church or at a park or that women must fear what others will do to their humanity because religious beliefs justify harm against their bodies or gay and trans people must struggle to breath because the country suffocates their personhood or when Christians can spend years upon years fighting a successful fight against democracy.

Are they not worth more? Of course, they are. We all are. We deserve better than our lives being guided by the fear that someday, some person, somewhere would consider my reality a problem. “This is not normal,” I hear in my subconscious mind as I scrolled the news the other day, “Do not get used to this.”

No nation is immune from death or can circumvent its eventual destruction. And for centuries, the stench has risen from the soil, and so many people who put their hands over their hearts and stand erect at the national song have go on with life—never being moved to question if this is what it truly means to be free. “I too live in a time of slavery,” theorist Saidiya Hartman has written, “by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.” The past is never really the past. It is always present in our bodies and our memories and our language and our denial.

People often speak of historical moments as “unprecedented,” thinking that what we are experiencing now is somehow new or unheard of. This moment is not new. What we are seeing is an old commitment to keep the country, in the language of James Baldwin, “white and free from sin.” It was also Baldwin who once wrote: “These architects decided that the concept of Property was more important—more real—than the possibilities of human beings.” From it’s birth, America has always been at war with itself. A war so vast. So deceptive. So dangerous. So bloody. So heartbreaking, leaving in its trail these questions: can what we have inherited actually be built again? Did the real patriots—those who knew love mattered more than a flag or a gun—suffer in vain? Shall the dead and the dying be silent forever? Shall not the children be given a world that is less traumatic, more delightful, less terrorizing, and more free—something like the kingdom of God?

What we are seeing today is a sad, brutal, and clear and continual reminder—whether by way of refusal to remove a statue, or change a name, or change funding distribution, or lack of will to protect the rights and freedom or the voice of the most marginalized communities—that there are people in our country believe that talking about racism and white supremacy is worse than racism and white supremacy, that niceness and proximity and patience is the best marginalized communities must hope for, that the idea of America is fixed never to be challenged, expanded, or altered.

The audacity.

 

We must remember this: Progress is not a Given. It is Won.

In 1963, James Baldwin gave a talk to teachers. “You must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty,” he said, “you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.”

Amid the explosive, strategic rise in book banning, anti-gay and trans policy, communal disregard of our public health, religious bigotry and conservative crusades, and the enduring exposure of marginalized communities to overt racist violence and incidents that takes a toll on their bodies and spirits, we must realize that this has always been a strategy for those who don’t want America to progress in ways that they so claim our founding documents to achieve. It is not so much that these changes in the order of our country hurts their feelings as much as it hurts their arrogant ideas of their god-given right to control and harm others with little to no consequence or resistance. We have been here before.

Whether it is the court, the church, or the classroom, each of these have always been a battleground for white supremacy. And in this regard, those of us who sit at the margins of society, have had to show a fantastic amount of compromise and composure in hopes that what we have built and desired will not be destroyed in the name of those who still selfishly and violently are baptized in the “Lost Cause.”

In a 1998 letter to Toni Morrison from the Texas Department of Corrections it was cited that her novel Paradise was banned because it “contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of commuting information designed to achieve a breakdown.” Though Toni Morrison books are being taken off banned list, such as The Bluest Eye in a St. Louis district, her work, and the work of others who want this country to be better, still face an onslaught of backlash from parents and politicians. The supposed breakdown the Texas Department of Corrections noted was the similar breakdown citing a connection between black literature and critical race theory. Making the connection between what black people create and what black people desire is not the problem—for we want a world where we are protected and at peace as much as we want a world where we have creative freedom and possibility. The problem is that people want a world where we are silenced and docile. I cannot stress this enough that this is what is at the heart of this resistance and this problem: white unjust grief, nostalgia, power and control.

Controlling and criminalizing other people’s words, other people’s dreams, and other people’s worlds has always been a tool of white power. At the heart is white people’s long-standing fear that, and that in the regard of black writers and a black woman chosen as a supreme court justice, an educated and empowered black person is a dangerous Black person. It is here that we see the fear of so many in this country. Some time ago, right-wing media personality Charlie Kirk shared openly, in response to the historic choosing of Judge Brown-Jackson, what many in believe in private: “Well, KBJ,” she says, “Kentaji Brown-Jackson-is what your country looks like on critical race theory.” The total ignorance of this statement at the heart represents the fear of so many. Many white Americans claim to care about critical race theory. What they really mean is that they refuse to live in a country where black people in general, and black women and LGBTQ persons in particular, are in power and what they fear that will mean for them and their supposedly white country.

Statements like that and being reminded of the situation we are in enrages me. But more than that, it breaks my heart not because I can’t deal with white foolishness. But because so many fail to see and embrace our common humanity. I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I wish we lived in a world where white wins aren’t seen as meritocracy and black wins is seen as identity politics, where the freedom of one group means the erasure and the oppression of another. I wish that all the things that destroy us could be wished away, prayed away, believed away. It cannot. I cannot prove my humanity to people who refuse to see me. But that also doesn’t make it hurt less when it hits me. It hurts more.

Racism and fascism, Toni Morrison shares in a 1995 lecture delivered at Howard University, “changes parenting into panicking—so that we vote against the interests of our own children; against their health care, their education, their safety from weapons.” It does not just change parenting into panicking, it changes democracy into domination, religion into hatred, education into indoctrination, progress into war, and citizenship into erasure.

But none of us can be erased if we refuse it. The idea of love, justice, and freedom do not belong to the powerful alone. It also belongs to us.

Breathing the oxygen of freedom into our imaginations, tethering language to our souls, Toni Morrison has told us again and again and again: they do not see us or know us or love us but we do. The flesh we possess is sacred. It deserves the page and the land and the stanza and the verse and the screen and whatever way it is made visible so that we remember just how important we are. When we are faced with so much inhumanity, as we are right now, we need an alternative imagination that accepts our humanity, fights for it, embraces it, and tells us in as many ways as possible that life is not just about fighting but about creating something different, something better.

De-centering the white gaze is not just about refusing to do work for white people or resisting them or reducing our lives to whatever they try to make it. It is also about embracing and exploring the things we have carried and have inherited from the past that reaches out to us.

When Toni Morrison said that it is about us, she meant the everyday, ordinary power of blackness, the ways black people create life, fail, get better, and see what others do not. For Morrison, we are neither heroes nor villains, but we are human and worthy of the page while we live, not just the obituary when we are dead. For Morrison, Black people neither had to be perfect to stay alive, be seen, be loved, and be protected. No human should.

This country, much like a house, is built on a rocky foundation. One in which, through years of settling, as Isabel Wilkerson notes, reveals the cracks and rot beneath the surface. It is not often a pleasant place, for it takes and takes and takes from us. It does not just make life exhausting, it makes life for us harder. It is not black life that is hard, she would be quick to remind us of, it is the ways in which this country refuses to change. Toni Morrison in this moment, I believe, would remind us that we contain so much more – we do know love, we do know how to show up for one another, we do know how to use words on the page to change the world, we do know how to fight for others and fight for ourselves. There are aspects of our existence, that complex, beautiful, and creative existence, that is, as Toni Morrison writes in 1974 New York Times op-ed, “spent neither on our knees nor hanging from trees.”

As a writer and a minister, I care little to speak to the “soul” of the nation. I do care to speak to the soul of the citizens who are grieving. I do not care to celebrate myths or invite my fellow neighbors into unjust nostalgia. I do care about the American imagination, though. The stories and lies and laughter and frowns we deserve and sometimes erase and never experience.

Toni Morrison is right: “Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.” She saw into guts of the nation, the difficulty of love, the loss of meaning of language—snatching truth from the hands of the irresponsible, giving it back to us, so that we can develop our own imagination of freedom.

A country cannot transform itself. Neither does the tireless efforts of the small uprisings that happen everyday in this country go unnoticed. When the fires subside, the embers still burn because some type of oxygen gives it life. What is rebuilt from the ashes will be a testament to the type of people we desired to become and the type of work we left in our names. That future work, the world of the unseen, will be a testament to the ways we desire to write a new story, build new memorials, reveal new names, and exist with a newfound freedom. America, much like many of our social constructs, is an experiment of the imagination. If it has been dreamed this way, I remember author Jason Reynolds saying one time in an interview, it can be imagined again. It is not stagnant. So it was with Toni Morrison and those black people during the Augusta Uprising and those like Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson and those activist and marchers and preachers and lovers and seekers and artists and children.

The resistance to progress is real.

But so is our refusal to let others have the world they want.

You just might lose, that is life. But you just might win. That is freedom.

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