I Know Why the Mockingbird Sings
Originally published by The Republic on March 1, 2019.
How would one describe America now? How could one? To do so is as much an exercise in contradiction as self-incrimination. From which stories, which facts, which heroes and villains should the collective American story be narrated? Where does truth reside in a country set between a white history, a black history, and the unsung others? Between Barack Obama and Donald Trump?
The American political intelligentsia suggests that America is ‘more divided’ than ever. This is a rather peculiar comment to make about a country that has enshrined the importance of tensions — checks and balances, separation of powers, represented and representatives. We Americans have always been divided. Or, perhaps, have our banal divisions grown louder and we more uncomfortable with it? Even the coddled elites have recognized the increasing anxiety of American identity. Are we growing less blind (or less willing to be blind) to our many binaries, such as whiteness and blackness? Do we now see two Americas where we once thought there to be only one? The same two Americas that have been segregated so deeply in the American imagination?
Make no mistake: America as we know it is in the midst of many changes — the postponed reckoning of its many discontents. Changes that will decide, among other things, whether the journey from President Obama to President Trump represents a triumph of diversity or an omen of immorals. The looming answer lies between blackness and whiteness. And, the forecast looks grey.
BETWEEN TWO AMERICAS
When ‘Mahatma’ Mohandas K. Gandhi conducted satyagraha demonstrations in South Africa, he was jailed several times. Then, prisoners were sorted into two wards, ‘whites’ and ‘negroes’. Gandhi, an Indian barrister educated in England, recollects in his memoir that he was sorted as a ‘negro’.
As an American of South Asian Indian heritage, I remember this anecdote when reflecting about brownness and its imprecise context in a country eclipsed by ‘black’ and ‘white’. For me, coming of age in America involved navigating the rigidities and ambiguities of racial orientation. America’s anxieties surrounding…