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 brownness and blackness were thrust upon me as I learned to grow up. My adolescence coincided with America’s post-9/11 reconstruction. My late-teens coincided with the rise of Barack Obama. These moments reconstructed the hegemonic codes and weight of race, identity, heritage, and religion in American life. Childhood for me, like many Americans, demonstrated the flexibility and tenacity of race’s roots in America. My peers, however, were indifferent to this background noise — something that remains perplexing to me.
I am neither white nor black and, hence, find parts of myself in both. But, of course, most parts of myself thrive outside these bounds. I am among the bystanders in the wake of America’s racial floundering, subjected to its consequences and provided without any designation.
Consequently, I have come to understand that brownness represents a very daring obscurity between blackness and whiteness. My life has been a testament to this place between the two Americas; a place that most Americans continue to be oblivious and unconcerned about. Such prolonged invisibility and indifference inspire a deepening disquiet. Its longevity compels a sense of normalcy that quickly becomes a scar of patriotism, of ‘belonging’.
To be an American is to be ambiguous. It demands the tasks of self-discovery and recreation — what Malcolm X and Barack Obama described as acts of self-renewal and reclaiming ancestry. I have indulged this journey myself, recovering lost progenitors, travelling to abandoned ancestral lands, and finding my touchstone somewhere around the tombs of my forerunners. As America reckons with its split personality, its marginalized identities, and the inheritances that these features entail, will the two Americas remain, and us between them?
LOCATING THE ‘NESS’
Race is one of the many imagined landscapes that we narrate into our social reality. America’s racial imagination is particularly vivid. It dominates by operating as caste and, in many circumstances, predestination. America remains hexed by race and its enduring determinism. Many historians, writers, and psychologists have examined and discussed the significance of black-ness and its infinite complexities. Such experts have also considered the importance of white-ness and its employ as a device for responding to black solidarity. This ritual tension results in black homogenization for the sake of fraternity. Blackness becomes monolithic and, thus, inaccessible.
The artist, Kehinde Wiley, has discussed the creative challenges of transcending such racial opaqueness. In 2015, he told Christiane Amanpour of CNN, ‘I understand blackness from the inside out. What my goal is, is to allow the world to see the humanity that I know personally to be the truth’. Wiley suggests that blackness, as an authentic conception, must be refreshed by truths from personal experiences to yield any human value and usefulness.
Naturally, then, blackness becomes a perpetually contested, reiterated idea. I remember watching Oprah Winfrey interview the rapper Jay Z on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009, where they disagreed about using the N word. Winfrey is mindful of the word’s wicked vileness and weaponization against black Americans from slavery through segregation to today. She said that when she hears the word, ‘I still think about every black man who was lynched — and the N word was the last thing he heard’. Acknowledging this, Jay Z contended, ‘My generation hasn’t had the same experience with that word that generations of people before us had. We weren’t so close to the pain. So, in our way, we disarmed the word. We took the fire pin out of the grenade’. Many black musicians, like Jay Z, continue to use the N word in this cathartic way. By doing so, the terms of blackness continue being revised, despite and considering its history.
Blackness is far from decided — it is deeply transient, as this exchange reminds me. Yet, how can such stubborn symbols, that demarcate the daunting importance of race, be so welcome to fluid changes and personalized meanings?
The activist, Tim Wise, provides a dramatic answer: That blackness and whiteness were devices invented by American colonial plutocrats intended to ‘trick’ and segregate the working- and indentured-class. While privy to necessary debate, Wise’s argument raises important questions: What is whiteness beyond blackness? And, what is blackness beyond whiteness? Are these worlds mutually constitutive? Is the war for whiteness the war for blackness? The disintegration of race, then, could be catastrophic to these worldviews.
AMERICA’S ORIGINAL SIN
The United States enshrined promises of freedom, liberty, and justice in its founding. However, America’s founding fathers betrayed their causes by protecting, propagating, and policing slavery. If America has an original sin, it is slavery.
Consequently, racial anxiety is both ancient and fresh in the American mind. Slavery has had many offspring since its broad abolition in 1865 (slavery remains legal in some forms). These heirs keep slavery present in spirit but elusive in style and form. Today’s Americans may not adorn the cloaks and words from those forefathers who sought to leave slaves in our inheritance. But we are heirs nevertheless and genealogy doesn’t lie.
The wisdom of inalienable rights is bounded by the coils of the noose — as due process is by the whip’s crack and separation of powers by the festering scars of bondage. The two Americas were intertwined by slavery, unwound by abolition, frayed by Jim Crow, rethreaded by the civil rights movement, and resewn by Barack Obama’s election. Will this new American fabric hold together?
THE OBAMA GESTALT
The election of Barack Obama to the American presidency exploded norms about race in the United States. He is popularly regarded as the ‘first black president’. But Obama’s ancestry proves him to be equally ‘white’ as he is ‘black’. Obama was betwixt the two Americas. In his memoirs, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, Obama reflected on his experience of traversing race, class, and meaning in a world segregated by such constructs.
Obama’s election wasn’t merely the story of a black man becoming president — and all that that comes with. Obama’s presidency represented the very reconciliation of blackness and whiteness. Certainly, he was a sobering idea for a society barely a half century past the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, Obama’s remarks about race have been historically momentous and enduring. His inspired speech at Philadelphia in March 2008, ‘A More Perfect Union,’ is easily the most brilliant exposition on race in America since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at Washington, D.C. 45 years earlier. The speech, and its reception, all but paved Obama’s path to the presidency.
Yet, the first black president contends that though he is ‘rooted in the black community,’ he is ‘not limited to it,’ as Enid Logan notes. He is a black man having been raised in white households. Obama doesn’t see himself as a victim of race but a survivor of it. Through Obama, American identity shifted from a narrative of ‘heritage’ to one of ‘tapestry’.
THE TRUMP BINARY
The election of Donald Trump to the American presidency imploded norms about race. The resurgence of demonstrations and attacks by terrorist groups like the KKK and Neo-Nazis has paralyzed popular ideas about equality and freedom in America. With Trump, white supremacy unsheathed itself as being normal with Obama (and blackness) as the ‘exception to the rule’. Trump’s political relevance emerged and sustains under the terms of racism; by denying the legitimacy of Barack Obama.
In 2011, Trump propagated the lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. He lied about supposed evidence to support this ‘accusation’. As popular interest in Obama’s birth certificate grew, the White House released Obama’s birth certificate, reiterating the president’s birthplace as being Hawaii, diffusing Trump’s momentum. A few days later, Obama embarrassed Trump by publicly roasting him at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington, D.C. Since becoming president, Trump has made it a point to skip the annual event.
From its inception, Trump’s candidacy and succession to the presidency has been a demonstration (or at least benefactor) of white supremacist nationalism. The image of Trump taking the presidency ‘away’ from Obama follows old narratives about whiteness humiliating blackness, about exploitation for the sport of greed. Race has become more vivid, less elusive, and more undeniable (though nevertheless denied) because of Trump. The Trump mythos empowers segregated accounts of American Life, the black and white, the binary version of freedom.
However, academics like John McWhorter warn against giving Trump credit for his impress on race in America. He argues that many black Americans have had due reason to support Trump’s broader politics. Lee Adams of VICE recently reported on the stigma surrounding the black conservative movement and its support for Trump. For McWhorter, Trumpism is an opportunity to reflect on assumptions about the power and consciousness of black Americans. Then, what are blackness and whiteness beyond Trump and Obama?
COMPLEXES AND COMPLEXION
Crisis and violence have obliged changes to America’s conception of racial justice — a bloody ritual shared between the two Americas. The February 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old boy in Florida, was a match point for America’s racial injustice. Capturing immense public attention, Martin’s murder and his killer’s acquittal ignited outrage about the differential treatment of black people by American law and justice.
These informed concerns were yielded unprecedented legitimacy when President Obama remarked that Martin ‘could have been [him] 35 years ago’ or ‘could have been [his] son’. Similar media events followed black men and children like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Jr., Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Tony Robinson, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, and others who died at the hands of police across America. If American law enforcement doesn’t have a problem with black people, then its indifference to them is consistently deadly.
Since these events, racial justice advocacy groups have found no ally in President Trump. Infamously, Trump has expressed sympathy to white supremacists and fascists — describing them as ‘very fine people’ — who committed violence against peaceful protesters at Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. Racial transgressions and hate crimes have surged since Trump became president, according to the FBI. If Obama sought bringing light to racial injustice, Trump has demonstrated ideas, behaviours, and policies aimed at extinguishing that light.
Nevertheless, racial animosities have festered. But many social scientists and historians offer alternative conclusions as to why: Charles E. Cobb, Jr. of Brown University suggests that the Civil Rights Movement was more pro-firearms and characterized by violence than popularly remembered. Rana Faroohar of The Financial Times has argued that broader social complexes relating to racism are not acknowledged — that economic injustice is inseparable from racial injustice. Scholars agree: we are missing the full picture of how broader complexes shape, support, and challenge racial injustices. How the two Americas envision themselves is part of the problem — one with vicious consequences.
THE CURSE OF SIMULTANEITY
The two Americas have collided. They did so when Donald J. Trump succeeded Barack Obama as president. An irreconcilable image, though somehow inseparable — the simultaneity of whiteness and blackness. These two Americas have grown closer in proximity and their differences more evident.
The inseparable and absurd are here to stay, waiting for the blind eye to grow tired and curious. What was, if anything, shared between two presidents, Obama and Trump, when they shook hands to signify the peaceful transition of power? What happens when blackness and whiteness meet eye to eye? We begin to notice an America in colour, not of colour.
INNOVATIONS ON INEQUALITIES
American cinema has seen a black renaissance particularly with films and filmmakers since Obama’s rise. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), about a slave who becomes a bounty hunter and begins slaying white outlaws, seemed to commence an innovative cinematic reconciliation of black history that continues today.
Brilliant works like Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave (2013), which humanized the brutality of slavery, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016), which apotheosized Nat Turner’s slave revolt (and shares its title with D. W. Griffith’s infamous racial propagandist film from 1915), Denzel Washington’s Fences (2016), based on August Wilson’s play about black working class life, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) about true stories of black power and resistance, and Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), based on James Baldwin’s novel, among many others, have irrevocably reshaped public curiosity, literacy, and empathy about race in America.
These works, which venture to compassionately sift whiteness and blackness, have, among other things, churned newness in American expression.
As this renaissance ensues, academics and researchers have reconsidered the values and identities that surround the politics of race. Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, has become a staple for social science literacy. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book, Between the World and Me, has become a manifesto for the American progressive agenda. These empirical accounts about the systemic violence against black Americans and the casual brutality of race in America have become truths, not mere anecdotes. As Johnnie Cochran (portrayed by Courtney B. Vance) says in FX’s The People vs. O. J. Simpson (2015) after news of O.J. Simpson’s acquittal compels President Bill Clinton to denounce racial discrimination in the justice system, ‘Our story is now out of the shadows’.
Artists like the queer Kehinde Wiley, the mixed Jordan Peele, the mogul Shonda Rhimes and countless others are not merely revising the popular conceptions of black identity. They are reimagining the ideal forms of beauty itself. The embrace of films like Black Panther by the show business intelligentsia and public suggests that white America isn’t merely gazing at Blackness — they’re celebrating it. So derives the emergence of ‘woke’ politics that seeks to include blackness and marginality in its exclusive aims.
America is seeing all of these black artists really searching, doing well, and being accepted. These works are being consumed and revered by all Americans. Yet, are these indulgences indicative of real conversations and right changes happening to advance the broader welfare of America? Are the two Americas merely co-existing in an irreconcilable way or are they integrating in an irreversible way? If both, then by what means? How do Americans even conceive answers to such questions. More importantly, how dare they?
FOR THE CAGED BIRD
Many Americans remember by heart Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words that ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. But, by preaching that justice is inevitable, King was confessing that justice is not necessarily present, observable, or apparent. So describes a country where blackness curses Obama and whiteness curses Frederick Douglass. In America, race confounds justice.
Not perplexing, then, is why Aaron Sorkin chose to adapt Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird for the Broadway stage this past year. The story centres on a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman. Recounted through the perspective of Atticus’ daughter, Scout, the story was adapted in a 1962 film starring Gregory Peck.
The book and film exposed audiences to racial injustice, presenting Atticus Finch as a hero of racial equality and due process. Harper Lee invited readers to question what it meant to harm the disempowered, marginalized by society — to kill a mockingbird.
In 2015, Harper Lee published her second book, Go Set a Watchman, described as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Atticus Finch is represented as a proponent of racial segregation and sympathizer of Jim Crow. Once a bastion of justice and white virtue, Atticus Finch reappears as a racist. One who reluctantly embraces the better angels of his nature for the sake of justice. A resilient Scout experiences disillusionment with her seemingly quaint Southern setting. The legend of racial justice and heroism is ruined. Everyone becomes tainted by injustice — no matter the principles and values. Harper Lee invites readers to consider the role of lucidity against a self-consumed culture — to task a watchman with guarding against society’s collapse.
Hailed for its revisionism and authenticity, Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation meaningfully complicates Lee’s work. Atticus Finch is conflicted. His children are reviled by prejudices. And, their town is decaying. As one critic writes, Sorkin’s play is ‘for our times’. Between the time Lee’s two books were published, American history unfolded. The Civil Rights Movement proved fruitful. Then, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered. Then, the spirit of slavery continued to be exposed by activists and scholars in its derivatives like Jim Crow and racial segregation. Then, Barack Obama was elected president.
During that time, another voice from the South also wrote. Maya Angelou, a black woman and one of the greatest Americans to write in poetry or prose, published an autobiography in 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The universally-acclaimed book positioned Angelou as a prophet on race in America. It captured the wishes of a precocious girl to be liberated from the burden of a racially discriminating, misogynistic, fearful setting. Angelou wrote as the caged bird, singing hopefully about an unencumbered future.
Harper Lee began To Kill a Mockingbird hailing Atticus Finch’s marvellous morality and concluded Go Set a Watchman detailing his contemptuous character. Maya Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings about the trappings of segregation and the liberating promise of opportunity. Both Southern authors were born and died within two years of the other. Two distinct, brilliant voices humbled by the weight of race on their worlds and dreams. And so, they wrote for us — and maybe for each other.
Lee and Angelou attempted to reimagine marginalized narratives to compose a fuller account of America’s truths. By confessing their experiences with race, these women demonstrated how whiteness and blackness need not be static monoliths to be feared but transient tools to navigate the inherent incongruities of America.
They wrote for us to know that the mockingbird sings for the caged bird. But, are we listening? ⎈