Looking for Answers to the Nation’s Problems

Looking back, the details from that time are not hard to remember, at least some are not. They haunt and somewhere lodged in the cracks and crevices of the memories are indications of what was to come. Past as prologue, I guess, or as prophecy.

I have avoided returning to these lectures for over a decade now. Perhaps “the troubles” of the intervening years have corrupted my attention. So much has happened since those three days at Harvard in September of 2011. In between then and now, the horrors of this country and of our times pressed in. The excitement of the Obama years waned as the bodies piled up like the images in an Alexander Gardner Civil War photograph. Police killed black people at an alarming rate. Americans witnessed only a fraction of it on video, but far more than we could handle. Some of the images have stayed in my head even when newer horrors nestled up beside them.

The Tea Party ran John Boehner and Paul Ryan out of the halls of Congress. White supremacist organizations became increasingly dangerous. They rebranded themselves as the Alt-right and, like a virus, infected the body politic with a more virulent and shrewd strain of a familiar and native disease. They made themselves known in Charlottesville as they marched and shouted, “Jews will not replace us,” and left Heather Heyer dead in the street. More death would follow in El Paso and in Buffalo. Fear and panic grabbed hold of the country as demographic data revealed the “browning of America,” and white people, at least those who felt they could be nothing but white, clung to their gods and longed for the days when people who looked like me knew their place. The so-called racial reckoning sparked by protests around police killings waned as white grievance and fears intensified. Donald Trump was at the center of it all, but he was not the cause. This was the ugly underside of the United States. Trump simply turned the country over so that all could see the shit hidden underneath.

I suspect now, looking back, that this particular line of inquiry was about something more than the white backlash, false prophets, and the state of Black politics. It was, in part, about me. And I suspect, if I am to be honest, this looking back is part of the ongoing work of gathering the broken pieces that I am. I needed to find my feet. Grief and bitter disappointment – the noise and whip of the whirlwind – had caused me to lose my bearings.


At the end of Imani Perry’s extraordinary book, , she describes her love of Easter, from the sacrifice of Lent to the passions of the cross and Resurrection. This confession comes on the heels of a beautiful account of the challenges her boys will face in a world such as ours as well as her gentle and loving effort to hand over to them the beauty and power of their inheritances. She recalls singing the hymn, “Up from the Grave He Arose,” on Easter Sunday:

He arose, with a mighty triumph over his foes.

He arose a victor from the dark domain,

and he lives forever with his saints to reign.

Perry’s account of the victory of Easter is the culmination of all that she wants to give to her boys: a kind of resilience and triumphant grit, an inheritance that equips them to face the storms, because, as James Baldwin said, the storms are always coming.

She whispers to her sons, who are no longer excited about Easter baskets and dressing in seersucker and linen on special Sunday mornings, that “I will keep taking you [to mass] because I know you will need it even if not precisely in this way: something in the wake of all this death; the eternal spring.” The intimacy and intensity of the passage reminds me of that moment in Baldwin’s essay, “Nothing Personal,”

I have been, as the song says, ‘buked and scorned and I know that I always will be. But, my God, in that darkness, which was the lot of my ancestors and my own state, what a mighty fire burned! In that darkness of rape and degradation, that fine, flying froth and mist of blood, through all that terror and in all that helplessness, a living soul moved and refused to die….

She gives her babies the armor of love.

The confrontation with the ugliness and evils of our world, and the madness that results, demand something of us. Something more. Something rooted in a heritage that belongs to all of us: that eternal spring. This is not a guarantee that all will be well; that in the end darkness will give way to light. Spring always comes. So does winter. But Perry guides the eyes of her sons, and her readers, not only to what was and is, but to what is possible, to the as-yet, and that imagining becomes the basis for a different kind of orientation to the world, what she calls a revolutionary possibility. We are more than our circumstances. We are more than what the world says about us. Just look at how we got over and fly!

Mine is an abiding faith in the capacity of everyday, ordinary people to be otherwise and in our ability, no matter the evils that threaten to overwhelm, to fight for a more just world. That faith isn’t naïve or a fantastical evasion of the ugliness of human beings. It reflects my willingness to run ahead of the evidence, to see beyond the limit conditions of my current experience, and to ready myself to act on behalf of something not yet in existence. It is also part of my inheritance: a faith bequeathed to me by those unknown souls who survived the absurdity of the American project when they could have easily chosen death.

Americans find themselves, and there is no reasonable way to deny this, in a moment of profound crisis. The country is changing, and the substance of that transformation is not clear. Americans are divided and those divisions go well beyond ideological differences. They cut to the marrow of the bone. Too often we see each other as enemies. Disagreement is saturated with contempt. Mutuality drowns in the bitterness of our public discourse. The sense of common purpose and public good has been thrown into the trash bin as we huddle in our silos. Race shadows it all. Great replacement theory, panic and terror around demographic shifts, assaults on voting rights and affirmative action, bitter debates about American history. We find ourselves living among men and women, once again, mad with the fever of a distorted view of liberty and willing to throw away this entire experiment in democracy as they cling to their racial fantasies. Hubris clogs the nation’s throat.

The answer to the troubles in this country, as it has always been, rests with the willingness of everyday people to fight for democracy. Not to outsource that struggle to so-called prophets and heroes but with the realization that the salvation of democracy itself requires, in part, “the creation of personal attitudes in individual human beings” that affirm the dignity and standing of all people. It requires that we understand that democratic flourishing cannot be in John Dewey’s words “separated from the individual attitudes so deep-seated as to constitute character.”We must be the kinds of people democracies require.

Hatred gums up things up, gums us up. From the beginning, this has been so. It blocks the way towards others. It straitjackets the imagination and places us behind iron bars. I find that insight in the tradition, rightly understood, that Perry commends to her babies – the insight that blooms in spring. Baldwin wrote in “In Search of a Majority,” that “[t]o be with God is really to be involved with some enormous, overwhelming desire, and joy, and power which you cannot control, which controls you. I conceive of my own life as a journey toward something I do not understand, which in the going toward, makes me better.”

It is “in the going toward” that salvation can be found. That imaginative leap, which allows us to see beyond ourselves and to reach for another. To be vulnerable, to tend and to love, to rip off the mask that blinds us to the beauty of the human being right in front of us. To recognize the distorting and disfiguring effect of hatred and fear, and the exacting power of love.

No matter how vague the invocation