By Jonathon Van Maren
I noticed this week that the great American composer George Walker died a few months ago at the age of 96. His name might not immediately trigger recognition, but his story is a powerful one: He was the first black man to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, and he ended his life laden down with awards from a panoply of prestigious institutions.
I interviewed Walker last year, although not to discuss his brilliant musical career. Walker was, at that point, one of the only Americans left alive who had heard about what it was like to be a slave on a Southern plantation in the 1800s first hand. When he was a boy, his elderly grandmother had shared some of her experiences as a slave with him. “They did everything but eat us,” he remembers her saying solemnly.
I wanted to talk to Walker because race relations have been such a prominent subject over the past few years, as identity politics continues to divide and toxify everything from the political atmosphere to debates within American evangelicalism. Although I am in many ways a very conservative person, I dislike how easy it is for some to completely ignore recent history as if it occurred eons ago—when, as Walker’s memory proved, many of these things happened, historically speaking, just yesterday. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner once noted. “It is not even past.”
These days, the populist Right has a tendency to ignore history, with the exception of a few fiery culture wars over statues and ancestors, while the progressive Left uses revisionist history to inform identity politics and bludgeon opponents while forgetting or ignoring the rest. We have lost the ability to place historical figures in their context, to understand that what animated them was often far different than what animates us, and that people are imperfect products of their times. (To admit such a thing, after all, might force some uncomfortable introspection about what we are getting wrong.)
The populist Right is beginning to get fed up with iconoclasm, and thus veers dangerously close to the trap of excusing genuine historical wrongs (think of the anti-Semitic slaughters that accompanied the Crusades, which have become a popular meme). The progressive Left has embarked on an eternal journey of discovery: As it turns out, virtually all of history is filled to the brim with transphobes, anti-gay marriage bigots, and other such scallywags. And so history ceases to become a fascinating field of study with much wisdom available to anyone who wishes to seek it, and instead becomes another culture war battlefield in which dead men are dug up and put on trial by opposing ideological factions who often have no idea what they are talking about.
The Left is disinterested in history unless it serves some purpose as a revolutionary tool, and some segments of the populist Right are occasionally goaded into defending distasteful parts of our collective past that should not be defended (a longstanding example being the Confederacy, a nation created for the express purpose of maintaining the institution of slavery.) History itself is the casualty, as well as our ability to discuss our collective heritage, to understand our past, and even to learn from and enjoy the great masterpieces that emerged from those times. A recent example of this would be Harper Lee’s great civil rights-era novel To Kill A Mockingbird.
Earlier this month, I noticed Lee’s novel is again attracting negative attention, this time in Ontario, Canada. Some teachers, apparently, simply cannot understand the historical context for the book—or what the intended purpose of it was. From the Ottawa Citizen:
English literature teachers in a large Ontario school board have been urged not to teach the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird because it is harmful, violent and oppressive to black students, and its trope of a “white saviour” makes its black characters seem “less than human.”
“The use of racist texts as entry points into discussions about racism is hardly for the benefit of black students who already experience racism,” reads a directive to teachers in Peel, a suburban region northwest of Toronto. “This should give us pause — who does the use of these texts centre? Who does it serve? Why do we continue to teach them?”
The memo notes that the racist slur known as the n-word appears 19 times in the book. “Though this is not the only way that the novel is harmful, it does add to the violence of the book,” reads the memo, written by a senior school board administrator…
The teacher [who disagreed with the memo] was particularly bothered by the suggestion of white supremacy.
“White writers write from their own schemas, their own perspectives and white supremacist frameworks that reflect the specificity of their culture and history on racialized peoples,” the document says.
“That’s a dangerous thing, to refer to a white writer as a white supremacist,” the teacher said.
The teacher said the novel is typically read in Grade 9, and that it is always taught with a critical eye to racism and the story’s historical and political context, and author Harper Lee’s own orientation, as a white woman, to the racism of 1930s Alabama, where the story is set, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when it was published.
The teacher said, for example, that there is typically a discussion of the true story of racially motivated false accusations on which the book is partly based.
“Mentioning the history of racism, to me, isn’t racism itself,” the teacher said. “We’re not promoting racism, we’re referring to the reality of it.”
The teacher asked to be anonymous for fear of reprisal. The teacher said English teachers in Peel already seek out new and diverse authors, and teach more familiar canonical books through a critical lens, as the memo suggests.
What a strange time we live in: Harper Lee’s great anti-racism novel is now, according to some post-modern piffle, a potential purveyor of white supremacy. It is not just in Ontario, either—the American Library Association notes that To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the top ten books targeted by banning campaigns. Lee herself responded to these efforts during her own lifetime:
“Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners,” she wrote. “To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of double-think. I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism.”
I had a wonderful conversation with one of Lee’s close friends, Dr. Wayne Flynt, on his memoir Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee some time ago, and Flynt dismisses the controversies as so much bunk. Yet, they are gaining traction—and one of the reasons for this is that history is becoming a battle in the culture war. And during wars, there is often a side that finds itself propelled by dogmatism to engage in book-burning.
History is important because we are much closer to it than we sometimes imagine, and we are products of our past regardless of whether we are willing to admit it. It is easy to reflexively defend everything our ancestors did, but that would mean we refuse to learn lessons from their lives and their experiences. It is even easier, as the progressives do, to simply dismiss the many great men and women who went before us as ignorant bigots—because that allows progressives to ignore their often intimidating example and the realization that in many cases, they were far stronger and more honorable than we.
History, at the end of the day, is the story of ourselves. We can put dead men and women on trial, but they have already done their deeds and departed. Our actions have yet to be judged. Perhaps it would be wise to consider that carefully, quietly, and devoid of the arrogance that makes so many somehow believe that we are the first generation to get everything right even as society descends into chaos.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.