Americans hate history lessons because Americans hate history.
It’s the dead weight of centuries, jettisoned (we thought) when we left Europe, a drag coefficient on forward movement. And who doesn’t want to move forward in this land of boundless opportunity, bullish investors, consumer confidence, housing starts, Achieving Your Personal Best, and if all else fails, Reinventing Yourself?
But history, especially the night terrors of slavery and Reconstruction and the century after, refuses to stay buried. There are so many rooms in this old house, some of them bricked up, others perfectly preserved, visions of antique elegance and gentility except for those unsettling spatter patterns, not quite faded, on the cabbage-rose wallpaper.
I’m old enough to remember driving through Mississippi in 1965, the year of the Bloody Sunday march on Selma, two years after Medgar Evers’s murder, one year after the slaying of the CORE field workers by the Klan. I was five, a white middle-class kid nose-deep in his comic books, oblivious to current events, but I’ve never forgotten a non-event that was somehow eventful.
My mom got a speeding ticket from a good-ole-boy cop who’d spotted our out-of-state plates. Pay the judge, he advised, so we drove to the proverbial Big House and knocked. The air was viscous in the sticky heat, lazy with insect hum as I recall it, though that might be embroidery on my part, an unconscious borrowing from Twain’s description, in Huckleberry Finn, of a one-horse farm in the antebellum South as “still and Sunday-like,” with “them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody’s dead and gone; and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it’s spirits whispering—spirits that’s been dead ever so many years—and you always think they’re talking about YOU.”
We knocked, the sound echoing through the big, empty house like somebody dropping a coffin lid, and the minutes staggered past, dazed by the heat. At last, a small black boy opened the door. Of course it had to be a small black boy, straight from central casting, just like the cop had to be wearing mirrorshades. Was he really barefoot, or is that just more Hollywood clichés insinuating themselves into my memories, lived experience overwritten by imagery borrowed from Sounder or Roots? Shod or unshod, the boy did have an accent straight out of Huck Finn when he told us the judge, he gone fishin’. We said we’d come back later to pay the fine, and headed for the state line as fast as the speed limit permitted. It was 1965, but in that corner of the United States it was 1865, and may still be, for all I know.
William Saletan, writing for Slate, thinks we’re canonizing Trayvon Martin as Emmett Till. The Zimmerman trial, he argues, is overdetermined, creaking under the weight of too many racial and ideological readings. The problem “at the core of [the Zimmerman] case wasn’t race or guns,” he contends. “The problem was assumption, misperception, and overreaction.” Yours. Mine. The media’s. After wading through seven hours’ worth of videotaped closing statements, Saletan concludes that Zimmerman wasn’t a racist, though neither was he a hero, nor was Martin a “sweet-tempered child.” The howl of the mob for Zimmerman’s head is a grotesque funhouse-mirror double of Zimmerman’s alleged racism, he thinks—“a case study in how the same kind of bias that causes racism can cause unwarranted allegations of racism.”
Saletan quibbles over whether the 911 dispatcher implied that Zimmerman should remain in his vehicle or not shadow Martin at all, when the obviousness of the thing stares us in the face: of course Zimmerman should have stayed in his car, should not have tailed Martin at all, should have called the police because that’s what police are for, in a civilized society.
Which we’re not, as is abundantly evidenced by our depraved gun lust, our conceal-carry laws, our Stand Your Ground laws, our gated communities and Neighborhood Watch patrols, which fan paranoia and scratch the suburban itch for vigilantism while dodging the sociological bullet, namely, that we wouldn’t need Neighborhood Watch if our suburbs were true communities instead of commuter belts, their deserted streets and empty homes a burglar’s best friend.
Saletan accuses “ideologues” of ignoring the “difficult, complicated truths” of the Zimmerman trial, “oversimplifying a tragedy that was caused by oversimplification.” He begs, “Don’t paint the world in black and white.”
For once, though, isn’t this a black-and-white matter? A man jittery with fear, maddened by the housebreaking “assholes” who “always get away,” saw a teenager in a hoodie walking the streets of his neighborhood, a young man unknown to him. It was raining, and the kid was talking on his cellphone, nothing more, but the man leapt to the assumption that he was “a real suspicious guy…up to no good or…on drugs or something,” possibly armed because he had his hand in his waistband.
What explanation is there, other than the color of the kid’s skin, for the man’s fear-rattled rush to judgment, an assumption that cost the kid his life? Another black man lies dead, as black men tend to do in America, killed for a change by a Hispanic man, but acquitted, in the timeless American tradition, by an all-white jury.
The only question is: how many more blood sacrifices does America have to offer up, on its streets, in its execution chambers, before it can put its murderous past to rest and get on with the business of justice in the present, for everyone? Speaking of which, we might start with the justice system: blacks constitute 12 percent of the population but make up 40 percent of the inmates on death row. Since 1977, one in three Americans put to death by the state have been black. On the heels of the Zimmerman acquittal, the conviction, in Florida, of an African-American woman to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot into the ceiling when menaced by her abusive husband has triggered the moral gag reflex of every American with a working conscience.
A breeze fans the poplar trees, and quivers the leaves, and it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it’s spirits whispering—spirits that have been been dead ever so many years—and you always think they’re talking about you, America.