Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

The Present Order: A Note

Didier William Bois Caiman

Image Credit: Didier William, Bois Caïman (2017), 48″ x 60″

It is safe to say that we have rounded a bend. And by “we” I have in mind, simultaneously, that enduring plea and effort contained in something dubbed a nation, a country, or, not so lately now, a republic; and, a specific and newly energized segment of U.S. civilization. Ten years after the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the 44th presidency, the GOP has managed to hold the majority of state houses across the country, stalled the seating of the then president’s pick for the Supreme Court (thuggishly installing their own, while engineering the retirement of a purported swing jurist), and elected Donald J. Trump to the White House. The blatant cases of gerrymandering, voter suppression, campaign irregularities, systemic graft, bullying, dissembling, and naked incompetence, as well as the administration’s vulgar appeal to, and focused prosecution of, the most xenophobic, racist, and isolationist impulses in the country, confirm what many of us suspected: the symbolic embrace of the nation’s first black president distracted the polity from much-needed action in the face of an organized, well-funded Republican machine intent on wrenching and retaining power, all while re-scripting the history of the republic in its own image as part of a revanchist grab for absolute and near manic authority.

At the end of Obama’s two-term rule, Americans were presented with the rather undemocratic rallying cries of “I’m with Her,” and “Not Trump,” as the platform settled on by an anemic and hide-bound Democratic Party who threw their considerable weight and the future of this increasingly vulnerable nation behind the dynastic ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The fact and specter of Russian involvement in the election has subsequently consumed a population heralded as a beacon of participatory rule, one deemed impervious to unchecked authority. The endless breaking news reporting on meddling, collusion, and the other nefarious developments emerging out of that porous structure on Pennsylvania Avenue and its ever-widening precincts, exposes major fault-lines in the political imagination and organizational acumen of what constitutes the left in American culture—an arrogant, self-interested body that failed to defeat probably the most unqualified candidate to ever seek presidential office.

Before engaging further in the admittedly indulgent exercise of attempting to apprehend “what happened?” it might be wise to posit whether electoral politics is sufficient to the challenge before us. A feature of our democracy long the preserve of the dominant and the ruling, and steadily under covert or explicit attack from forces foreign and domestic, the franchise has gone under-exercised by citizens uninspired by the choices before them, who register little in the way of sincerity and quotidian consequence in this ritualized theater of American free will. Despite the “devastating gain” of emancipation, and the violent ceding of a still harassed vote at mid-century, how might the procedures of democratic governance be redeemed if the relationship between this founding, constitutive community and the state, still “brings to mind the rather unfortunate image of bones being thrown to a pack of dogs sufficiently hungry to be dangerous,” as James Baldwin advances in “Journey to Atlanta” (55)? That there remains such a thing as “the black vote” is the unseemly outcome of the continued estrangement of this population in national life. As Baldwin maintains, “the American commonwealth chooses to overlook what Negroes are never able to: they are not really considered a part of it” (56).

The author’s rather bleak determination is, of course, both true and not. Its wry deployment presented as a pointed indictment of the inability of the nation to achieve a certain historical maturity within the decisive American firmament, while gesturing at the existence of a remarkable grace and intelligence in the face of ongoing terror. This necessary growing-up on the part of the marked and prematurely knowing (I have to know more about you in order to survive) is a fact of human existence the black population cannot pretend operates otherwise. It is also an activity that has nurtured an abiding patriotism, a commitment to kin and country unstinting because so hard and yet-to-be won; it is also precisely this fact, “which causes them to look on politicians [and the vote] with such a disenchanted eye” (54).

The over-determined embodiment of modern preoccupations concerning citizenship, freedom, and belonging, black Americans have always thrown into vivid and potentially liberating relief the fundamental problems of the franchise—so long marshaled as political fodder and not a population to whom one must remain accountable. It it is therefore difficult, if not wholly dishonest, to disagree with Baldwin’s assessment that they remain, ironically, “the trump card up the enemies sleeve” (55). Only slightly more bewildering is how, in the governing racial calculus, the marginal paradoxically represent the lever for those elected or self-appointed to the position of “leader.” Ensnared in the disorienting logics of capitalist democracy, such figures find themselves at a murky historical conjuncture that can only be successfully navigated if one surrenders to the contradictions that define it. Audre Lorde’s 1991 acceptance speech on the occasion of her selection as Poet Laureate of New York insists on a reflective model as necessary in the face of individual ascendancy and recognition. Rising to accept the award after uninspired, perfunctory remarks by the late Governor Mario Cuomo, Lorde seizes upon the unavoidable complexities of the moment. The conferring of this honor to a “black, lesbian, feminist, mother, warrior, poet,” she declared, confirmed we “live in a time of intense contradictions…and that we must learn the lessons these contradictions teach.” Lorde’s self-effacing and historically-alive injunction echoed Naomi Long-Madgett’s 1963 poem, “The Race Question, (for those whose fame depends on keeping the Problem, a problem),” which skewered the inability of contemporary leaders to confront the reality that their positions were “utterly dependent” on what Baldwin had characterized fifteen years prior as the “continuing debasement of [then] 14 million Negroes” (55).

I will not feed your hunger/With my blood/Nor crown your nakedness/With jewels of my elegant pain

For those of us committed to the supranational ideals that supposedly captured the Enlightenment, that drove many in the trafficked Atlantic with egalitarian ambition to the guillotine, the canon, the rope, and the 21th century bullet, the near total crisis of leadership now upon us can only be ameliorated if we can finally admit that a burning house remains a poor location for progressive habitation. This was some of the failure of the Obama administration and the cult of racialized celebrity that clouded it. If we are concerned with the comprehensive health of the country, it might be true that “gonorrhea is not preferable to syphilis,” that evils are never truly lesser (Cross of Redemption 47). Baldwin’s turn inside the national body, the collective interior, is his way of asserting that central question: how will liberal Americans finally bridge the precipitous gap between their external pronouncements and those pressing up beneath the surface?

I could be misremembering, recalling a dream, and might be inviting slander, but I have the distinct memory of watching an interview with Toni Morrison on CBS Sunday Morning some two decades ago. The conversation turned to cross-racial friendship, and she suggested she didn’t have a lot of white friends since she was convinced that some of her countrymen, should the air tighten around us, would yield, as they have, and put her on that wagon. And she meant those who understand “whiteness” as divine inheritance, and not the accident of birth that continues to violently order a world terrifying because too various.

What we choose to do in the face of the obscenity of a resurgent white supremacy will shape our future for at least a generation. The franchise will and should be pressed into service, but without the familiar American innocence and romance. The everyday mythology of that city on a hill must give way to sustained exchanges about the unresolved chasms in the country. And I do not have in mind insulting town halls in the non-existent public sphere, or earnest hand-wringing from so many who simply desire a return to the status quo, to retreat only so far and no further, from where we find ourselves. Something much more bracing, dangerous, and transformative is required. It involves an authority more expansive and elusive, more demanding and rare, than the pulling of a lever. I want to believe that it is rooted in something akin to the revolutionary cosmology of the Bois Caïman ceremony, widely reported as inaugurating the historic Haitian effort in 1791. A power denigrated, yet connected to the accumulated force of human existence—always at the ready.

Works Cited

James Baldwin, “Journey to Atlanta,” Collected Essays. Library of America, 1998, 54-63.

Randall Kenan, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings of James Baldwin. New York: Vintage/Penguin Random House, 2011.

Naomi Long-Madgett, “The Race Question,” in The Black Poets, Randall, Dudley, ed., (New York, Penguin/Random House 1985.