Certain white people like to bitch about identity politics. There are elements of this argument that I understand, and partially agree with. But if we’re going to discard identity politics white people should go first.
Last weekend I saw “I am Not Your Negro” a documentary film based on the words of James Baldwin. You should go see it. It helped me formulate some ideas I’ve been mulling over since listening to the soundtrack to the Hamilton musical. If you voted for Clinton, the chances are higher you know all about Hamilton. If you voted for Trump you may have no idea what I’m talking about it. The video does a fairly good job of explaining the phenomenon.
What follows is another white guy pontificating on race relations. Feel free to avoid it.
I believe that the United States could have a post-racial future. As James Baldwin says in the video above, we can forge a new identity on this continent. Many would argue that we already have. Most of my college professors held that the concept of “Whiteness” as currently practiced in this country is a wholly American invention. This was always served with heaping mouthfuls of Marxist interpretations of labor relations, so I’m not sure I’m completely on board. But I’ll eagerly concede that “White” and “Black” are slippery definitions. Italians weren’t necessarily seen as white 100 years ago, and the Irish weren’t 50 years before that.
Some would argue that the definition of “Whiteness” requires an “Other” to use as contrast. In this view the Italians and Irish assimilation to US whiteness relied upon the out group of African Americans to look down on. I’m not sure I buy that. But I’m happy to retire the concept of whiteness entirely. If the 20th century was the story of the color line, why not let the 21st century be the story of its disposal?
Accession to white privilege used to be the sign of successful assimilation. We can do better. Here’s a standard white privilege line: “What’s with all the hyphenations!? Why can’t we just be Americans!?” I’m actually kind of sympathetic to that, not that it’s my business how folks define themselves. Most people pushing that line, however, would probably take issue with the video above. In particular the fact that the only white guys in Star Wars movies seem to be the bad guys nowadays has been a real sticking point for a lot of white people. There seems to be a growing movement for “White Rights”.
Leaving aside about a million other objections to that idea, it strikes me as the wrong strategy. If you’ve got a problem with “identity politics”, jumping on the bandwagon is exactly the wrong way to go about opposing it. If you’re interested in a color-blind “American” identity, then you should be celebrating the de-whiting of our national mythology. An “American” identity should be built on our civic culture and history. To do that well, we need to make that culture and history as accessible as possible.
US history has never just been about folks from Europe. Paler folks were in the drivers seat for a lot of it. But people of color were making contributions every step of the way, and not just involuntarily. We need to do a better job of highlighting that fact. “Hidden Figures” my pick for the year’s best film, does an excellent job of just that. It surfaces the true story of African American women who contributed to the engineering of the space race. It’s also a lot of fun. These uses of history are to be applauded, and we need more of them.
I take history very seriously, I’m a big fan of Western Civilization and I’m also a committed Anglophile. The details of the ideas and culture that shaped the Founding Fathers are incredibly important. We should never lose sight of those things. But it’s also important to recognize that our sense of the American Founding isn’t completely accurate at the expert level either. 150-odd years of US friendship with the UK has probably over-emphasized the example of the British system in our study of law and government. Examples like Switzerland and an array of Southern European republics were more important to the Founders than is currently recognized. It doesn’t make sense to be sticklers for a particular expert vision of the Founding Fathers, because it’s not “perfect” either. History is always incomplete.
History nerds like me will always be playing in this toolbox, and that’s great. But US history isn’t just history. It’s also myth, renewed and changed with every generation. On the popular level, things like “European Heritage” and “Judeo-Christian Tradition” are over-emphasized. Lincoln saw these United States as the “last, best hope of Earth”, not the last best hope of white Christian dudes.
Look at that picture of “Black Thomas Jefferson” above. How cool would it be if 100 years from now, the main thing people saw as weird about the depiction was the fact that his clothes look odd? Perhaps that oddness would prompt a future student to look further into the details of the Founding Fathers. Depictions of the Founding Fathers that “look more like America” could lead to a broader class of US history nerds. And what could be better than that?
Oh, one last show note. If I remember my history (and my Hamilton) correctly, Thomas Jefferson was out of the country during the writing of Constitution. That could be construed as an error in the video. Sorry. If you caught and were annoyed by that, I love you, and am grateful you’re watching my stuff.
Video Transcript after the jump…
So on Saturday night I went and saw I am Not Your Negro, and incredible film based on the words of James Baldwin, a writer and civil rights activist who died in 1987. I saw it in Portland Oregon, with an enthusiastic progressive crowd. 72% Portland is the whitest large city in the United States. It got me thinking about another cultural artifact dealing with race that’s largely only available to rich white people… The musical Hamilton.
I can’t get tickets to Hamilton, but I’ve listened to the soundtrack and I love it. It uses the life of a lesser known founding father to tell the story of the American Revolution. It’s told in the form of a hip hop musical and most characters, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, are portrayed by people of color. It’s been tremendously successful, and tickets are very hard to get. Every rich American who has seen it, from Barack Obama to Mike Pence agrees that it is very, very well done. And I think it helps us begin to deal with a problem that James Baldwin identified.
It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.
It comes as a great shock to discover the country, which is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you. The disaffection, the demoralization, and the gap between one person and another, only on the basis on the color of their skin begins there…
Every culture has its heroes, and for too long the heroes of the United States have been white. Civil Rights Heroes like Martin Luther King have made their way into the pantheon of course, but that’s not enough. And that’s why Hamilton does such great work. It takes the country’s founding myth and makes it into one that all Americans can own fully. This is a great service.
And honestly the Founding Fathers don’t have much in common with white people today anyway. 250 years makes a difference. When it comes to lived experience, these guys are as remote from modern life as any religious figure. WHITE JESUS BLACK JESUS. Their words matter, deeply. But there’s no reason why our physical image of them should be rooted in old inaccurate paintings. There is a lot to be gained by letting that image fade a bit. Of course we should remain aware of theses men as historical figures, just as we should never forget their failings either.
But the living tradition of a country is much more than historical fact. By letting the whiteness of the founding fathers fade we help to build a better America. One of the best things about US culture in 2016 is the way that films are, for political and economic reasons, becoming less white. Hidden Figures, a delightful film about the US space program, highlights the important role African American Women played in our race to the Moon. Hollywood’s need to appeal to overseas audiences has diversified the action hero. This kind of thing is of course no substitute for real progress on criminal justice or inequality. The stories we tell about ourselves aren’t everything, but I think they are much more important than we recognize…
And until that moment… until the moment comes… when we, the Americans, we the American people, are able to accept the fact that I have to accept for example, that my ancestors are both white and black, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other. And that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity. I am one of the people who built the country. Until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream… because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it. And if that happens it’s a very grave moment for the west.Thank you.
So when are we getting the Hamilton movie? I want to see this thing, and the rest of the country should too.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe. And please consider signing up for my e-mail list as well. I’ve got some non-Youtube stuff coming up in the coming weeks, and the e-mail list is the best way to hear about it…