Convergence / Politics / Vol 3. No. 1

Darkest Before Dawn?

Christopher "Daze" Ellis, A Memorial

Image Credit: Christopher “Daze” Ellis, A Memorial, (2020), acrylic, oil, spray paint, respirator on canvas
54 x 60 ins. 137.2 x 152.4 cm. Courtesy of Christopher “Daze” Ellis and P·P·O·W, New York


(for Cheryl Wall)


I’ve known for awhile now that birthdays do not necessarily measure or accord wisdom, and for sure, their passage does not at all secure a body against shock and the harvest of grief and disappointment that seven decades of living in the United States (or anywhere else on the topside of God’s green earth, I’d imagine) are likely to rain down on any uncovered, unsuspecting head. I had the next one four months ago now and can lay claim to no experience—unless I could introduce the utter opacity and uncanniness of dreams to the picture—that has prepped me for the wreck and ruin of the moment. It tickles me only occasionally, which gesture is often choked off into a chill, that parody has lost its savor, insofar as our contemporaneity outruns it: 6 January 2021, now seared into public memory, is precisely the kind of scene that the preconscious mind, in the deepest recesses of the mental theatre and in no knowable semiotic signal or grunt, “tells” the dreaming mind to knock it off, don’t even go there. In that regard, 6 January is the nightmare we’ve always known could fructify, except that a modicum of grace—and this is the merciful work of hope—might keep it at bay. The violence unleashed during those four indelible hours was both stunning and very familiar, as several writers in this issue have turned to the event as a keystone of the Trump era. But it also dredges up from the depths the image horde of a long, hurtful history, as Nathan Grant in “Dred Scott’s Blues” reminds us in his powerful evocation of the race-driven massacres at Elaine, Arkansas and Tulsa, Oklahoma, or as Rich Blint, in “To Outwit History,” precisely captures the domestic warfare inherent in his figuring of “screaming white mouths terrorizing black citizens” more than sixty years ago in the desegregation campaigns of civil and human rights activists. In the malice that compelled it and the sheer outrage to truth that continues to oxygenate radical right activity of which it remains the poster child, the 6 January Insurrection has not only earned itself a capital letter, but in its granular particularity sums up what we mean by “rupture” and “dislocation.”

We could justifiably regard it as the most definitive break with political culture in the United States since the Civil War (and second only to it), which means that no one presently alive can conjure up any image or memory of the closest example; as far as we can tell, no president of the United States before the Former Guy has committed treason against the country and given rise to a fifth column of activity, inhabited by a major news outlet, Fox News (whose Australian owner has battened himself and his family on the wealth that he has had enhanced in the USA), active saboteurs, conspiracy theorists, and the usual run of nuts, revanchists, neo-confederates, racists, fascist sympathizers, and the mentally unstable, all operating as a shadow government under the auspices of a tissue of lies. These forces that check all the categories of race, class, gender, sexuality/practice, and geography are succinctly identified here by Chris Winks as “. . .the classic bourgeois social base of fascism.” In his powerful writing,  “For An Anger That Moves,” Winks instructs us that the “enemy” is not so out-in-the-open as we should like to think, as the Ku Klux Klansman of old might have been, though, ironically, hiding in plain sight, insofar as he or she nestles neatly in our sense of domestic order and tranquility—he is, of all people, your accountant! That really nice guy who leased you your car year before last, or might he be the sweet, calm voice of that IT tech who successfully showed you how to convert a document into a PDF? In other words, the Americans who breached the nation’s Capitol were not all of them the Qanon shaman in animal skins, or the roaring lout who broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office and rammed his booted feet up on her desk, then “selfied” himself doing so, and posted it to his favorite social media. When we think “insurrectionist,” we must now adjust the content of the reel by placing the Proud Boys in the same frame with the men and women of the “Silent Majority,” of the preacher and parishioners of the Church of Christ, the real-estate agent, the off-duty cop, the friendly salesman. In short, the ruptures and dislocations that we’re witnessing, post-insurrection, have disturbed every habit of thought, every static notion of order and degree, and moved across every unruffled surface of civility that lends cohesion to the everyday world. As Winks describes it, the dogmatizers of modern capitalism, who are quite capable of attempting to shore up their dubious legitimacy by fomenting fascistic modes of violence, have morphed over two centuries from the “drivers of Negroes,” decried by Samuel Johnson within James Boswell’s hearing, into today’s voter-suppression campaigner and crusader against critical race theory. But the massive effort to “paper over” the deep fissures of US society and to mute “anything having to do with the truth of US history,” as Winks puts it, hastens the comprehensive collapse that the insurrectionists were apparently dreaming of, but one should be careful what she wants. 

If we lose it, if we lose the democracy, no one wins. But Republicans, with their lack of sight and insight, believe that they are winning. The systematic protocol that Republican leadership has adopted at both the national level and state by state to impede the suffrage, if not outright destroy it, is perhaps the single most brazen anti-democratic move that this writer has ever witnessed. George Wallace, bellowing down in Alabama, and Mississippi’s Ross Barnett, standing in defiance of James Meredith’s admission to “Ole Miss,” are, by comparison, choir boys to today’s Republican operatives because the GOP is no longer a political party in the normative sense, but, rather, has been transformed, apparently willingly, into a criminal gang, for all intents and purposes. Devoted to the will of a single “strong man” and his minions, the former party has lashed itself to whatever nefarious, stupid, irremediable practice or conduct that drops onto its path. We could only explain the alarming behavior of certain “Red State” governors—Ron DeSantis (Florida), Greg Abbott (Texas), and Kristie Noem (South Dakota), among them, immediately come into view—as the manifestation of a veritable sickness of mind that seems to have overwhelmed the now-misshapen party of Lincoln. As discouraging as this general spectacle is, art might save the day, at least one practitioner believes. Tootsie Warhol in “Donald Trump is Still a Threat to Our Democracy,” calls here on the artist to continue using art “as a medium to press back on that tyrant we all know too well, red tie, blue suit, gold hair and all.” It is hard to accept, though, that Trump’s leading supporters, if not the man himself, since the man himself appears to be missing a few marbles, can survive their own self-loathing, that they can fantacize themselves into the belief that they are safe from the universal harm that they have set in motion. But this misprision is the very essence of deluded thinking, which reigns over the used-to-be-Republican. No lie or misstatement is too outrageous, too far, no moral abomination too repulsive, too depraved for contemporary Republicans to embrace. What blight must have ravaged some season of conception and pregnancy to yield a Kevin McCarthy, for instance, a Ted Cruz, a Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the human beings who sicced them on the country? No longer a political affiliation, Republicanism is today a state of mind.

Alan Nadel’s “Trump’s Dog, Reagan’s Whistle, and the Republican Party Core” tells us how we got here. It is not often observed that the current condition of the GOP does not demark a sudden turn of events, but, as Nadel precisely notes, springs directly from the Party’s recent history; as a result, the 6 January insurrectionists, indoctrinated over a lifetime “by the mantra, ‘government is the problem,’ “ were the monstrous growth that fattened in the dark. Trumpism appears to be unique, sui generis, but to the observer, looking at national politics over the last fifty years, the phenomenon that Trumpism defines is “not a departure from Reagan Republicanism, but rather its apotheosis,” just as “Morning in America” anticipates “Make America Great Again,” with its cult-like obedience to an unreflected identity. As Nadel unfolds the picture, US Latin American policy under Ronald Reagan oversees the instauration of dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala, for example, and a “relentless campaign of death squads that tormented—often tortured or beheaded—civilians and members of the clergy.”

But if we could intrude a bit of Greek here, we would dare say that blow back—Ralph Ellison’s invisible man called it boomerang—is a bitch: those Reagan-aided Latin American leaders and dictators whom Nadel summons may well turn up as points of reference in Juan DeCastro’s “Latinos for Trump!” which offers a nuanced and plausible explanation for what this writer would regard as an unmitigated puzzle—how in the world do we grasp the increase of support among Latin communities for one Donald Trump! (ditto for black folk!) Among the reasons that DeCastro elaborates, nostalgia for right-wing dictatorships of the 1970s earns prominent place as the idea complements his observation that not only conservatism, but fascist politics “hold a definite appeal for many south of the US border.” We would expect that the role that religion plays, especially Catholicism, in DeCastro’s analysis would match up well with the substantial support that Trumpism enjoys among US evangelicals. But DeCastro’s subtler argument concerning the heterogeneity of Latin communities closes in on all the angles of the demographic dilemma that has always harassed the US republic—how do different populations in a determinedly racialized world co-exist? DeCastro pitches his appeal to Democrats, suspecting, quite correctly, I believe, that the Republican auditory is actually closed to the idea of human others. One of the “core problems” that the Democratic Party must confront in shaping a national message, heterogeneity must be finessed across 20 countries, 14 independent categories, 3 languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese), and their related creoles, as well as varied ethnicities with their “different cultural and racial histories.” 

The deeper and less visible thread of the demographic conundrum is wrapped up in the question of “citizenship,” as Nathan Grant meditates on it here by way of Dred Scott and the notorious Supreme Court decision of 1857; for Grant, the prize of freedom, “despite the pain you may bear in seeking it, can only be untrusted and insecure, even unto the ground beneath your feet.” And there’s the rub. This threat to the imagination—the persistent view that America is a “white” country–dogs the potential to imagine anew, as Nadel reminds us that Reagan’s “ ‘morning in America’ signals the rebirth of a nation whose ‘greatness’ is its whiteness.” The latter, though, from Blint’s point-of-view, has always been “whether or not we are a white country.” And nagging at the back of one’s vision, at the back of the mind is the iconic centrality of Rodney Jamar Spivey-Jones’s black disfigurement. In a work that importunes the reader here—“Please do not avert your gaze”—Spivey-Jones considers the unrelenting, uncanny power of Emmett Till to interpellate us decades after his horrifying death. Till’s disfigured corpse, Spivey-Jones contends, “represents a national metaphor for the ongoing violence of disfigurement.”  I’d say yes to this, but here is the trick: the everlasting legacy of slavery and lynching, of torture and persecution is that inasmuch as you have done these things to me and mine, these things will eventually, in turn, be done to you and yours. But is not the latter the breadth and width of Old Testament social logic? Are we not the epigone, at least in the temporal register, if not the epistemological ways and means, of the New Testament, of the new Dispensation of love and the good news?

Charles Frederick certainly thinks so. Here he executes an exquisite meditation on the liberatory powers of the erotic, asserting that “[o]ur cry for the right to love (and be loved) is the fiercest and most radical revolutionary demand anyone could make.” The demand for “carnal fullness,” Frederick argues, could well lead to the “complete liberation of the human body and spirit” toward the “transcendent capacity of our human existence.” That Frederick could so insist in this historical context of rupture and dislocation inspires the interrogative element of the title of this writing—are we, in fact, living the darkest hours before daylight (as the saying goes)? On this side of things where resides the provisionality of the art and poetry that we embrace in the most wretched of times, the heart settles down a bit, races less, as the pulsing temples calm to something less dizzying; in this state of grace (because it is snatched out of the ceaseless flow of the awful), one considers, one remembers, as does Susan Bernstein here in “Indelible” that offers a lovely memorial to our mutual dear friend, Kathryn Lindberg, and her tough, ironic love of the world, too soon gone.

The too-soon departures press in at all the windows, as the gazing figure in “American Windows” threatens to break the frame. It would not be an exaggeration to read the ravages of the Covid pandemic in the light of a similar insistence; in fact, the first loss that this writer suffered as the universal sickness forced the nation into lockdown last spring was that of my inimitable friend and colleague, Cheryl Wall, whose rich legacy of scholarly work and exemplary leadership belongs to the ages. As Jim Merod’s “Dying While Black,” in tribute to Breonna Taylor, reminds us, and as Gale Jackson’s “this mourning,” which stages recent depredations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict assures us, there will be no separate peace. In the absence of the latter, we look toward the understanding expressed here by A.W. Strouse in “Blood Orange and St. Augustine,” “observing difference while finding commonality is what Augustine would call love, or God.” We couldn’t do much better than that.

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