Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been watching with some combination of fascination and trepidation the preliminaries related to the forthcoming trial of Dylann Roof, the twenty-two-year-old white man accused of massacring worshipers, all African-Americans, on June 17, 2015 at a Bible study session held at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, has been charged with nine counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder, and the possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He also faces federal hate crime charges and, if convicted, could be sentenced to death. Earlier this week, Federal District Court Judge Richard Gergel found Roof competent to stand trial. The defendant offered to plead guilty to all charges in exchange for a verdict of life imprisonment, but the government declined. Then, in an unexpected development just a day or two ago, a federal judge granted the defendant’s request that he be permitted to defend himself in court, a right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. Jury selection will now commence, the immediate challenge being to whittle the 512 people in the jury pool down to a mere dozen plus another six alternate jurors. This will take weeks, at least. And then the trial itself will commence.
It would be easy to wave the whole incident away as the act of a crazy person with a gun. After all, how many similar stories have we managed to wave away over these last years on precisely those grounds? To argue that only someone truly irrational could behave with such depraved indifference to the value of human life sounds right enough—and, in this case, the word “depraved” hardly captures the feel of someone gunning down people studying Holy Scripture in the sanctity of their own house of worship. It’s certainly a calming approach, and a soothing one: crazy people by definition do crazy things…so why should this be more than yet another example of that specific brand of lunacy? In a nation that guarantees the right of citizens to self-arm, the ability of such crazy souls to do grievous harm to others is intensified far beyond what it would otherwise be. But how does that affect the reasonableness of dismissing the killer as someone acting on his insane own. And yet…that isn’t how it feels to me and the specific reason this feels different is what I’d like to write to you all about this week.
I’ve just finished reading two books: Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines, published earlier this year by Mulholland Books, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, also published earlier this year by Doubleday and the winner of this year’s National Book Award. The books are not of equal literary merit—Whitehead is by far the more adroit author and his prose is rich and truly gorgeous in places, which Winters’, compelling in its own way, is not. Still, both books are very worth reading and I recommend them both to you all.
Both books are founded on a proposition that will strike many readers—or at least many white readers—as unexpected: that the experience of black slavery in our nation is not only a live issue for the many who consciously ponder its history and the social intricacies of its enduring legacy, but also for many who do not: it is simply there, serving as the acknowledged or unacknowledged foundation stone upon which the self-conception of black America rests even today…more than two centuries after Congress ended the slave trade by passing the “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves” in 1808, and more than a century and a half after slavery itself was made illegal in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Jewish readers will find the concept eerily familiar. The world nods to a horror, clucks over it briefly, then determines that it’s time to move on, to get over it, to let the dead rest in peace. But the survivors and their descendants of the horror in question do not move on so quickly (or even at all), because the sheer magnitude of the events under consideration—and the depth of moral depravity and almost unimaginable violence that characterized them—have been woven so tightly into the group’s DNA as to make them ineradicably and permanently embedded in that group’s sense of itself and its place in the world. And, in the end, it is the chasm between the worldviews of the people who do and who do not belong to the group as focused through this specific issue that makes all the difference in terms of how the group in question fits into the larger mosaic of its host society.
When Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, one of his truly great novels, that “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past,” he was making exactly this point. Jews cannot be “over” the Shoah, because it has become too deeply part of who and what we are; to remove it from our worldview would be akin to removing gravity or centripetal force from the world in which we live, and this includes people who themselves are not survivors or the descendants of survivors in just the same way that gravity affects people with no knowledge of physics. The point of both these novels I’ve been reading is that American slavery plays an analogous role in the self-conception of black people today—including those born long after the last surviving actual slaves passed from the scene in the mid-twentieth century. There are aspects of culture that people acquire almost by osmosis, simply by belonging to a particular subgroup within society. And that is so regardless of how any specific member of the group understands the specific terms of his or her membership.
Whitehead’s book is brutal and presents the life of slaves in the South before the Civil War in a way that most readers—and particularly ones like myself raised to think that the worst part of slavery was that the slaves weren’t paid for their labor—will find beyond appalling. The story centers on a young woman named Cora who, after being repeatedly brutalized on her plantation in Georgia, becomes a runaway. The surprise in the book is that the author imagines the famous “underground railroad” as an actual railway buried deep beneath the landscape of the south complete with stations, engineers, conductors, and, of course, trains. This allows him to show us Cora settling into a variety of different settings, some marginally more benign than others, but all sharing a level of emotional degradation and social depravity that will shock even relatively sophisticated readers. There are traces of humor throughout, but the overall sense you get is of a level of societal catastrophe so violent, so horrific, and so ultimately corrupt and shameful as to be “fixable” only by escaping from it. And that leads to the unstated paradox lying just beneath the narrative surface: that Cora managed somehow to run away from her masters on the plantation, but her people all these years later cannot flee the legacy of slavery because it is simply too much a part of what it means to be a black person in America today.
The book presents a nuanced image of society—the black people are not all saints and the white people are not all villains—but, overall, the experience of reading the novel opens a vista in to the black consciousness that will unsettle most non-black readers, including the relatively historically astute. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Whitehead is a marvelous writer whose language on more than one occasion truly soars. But it is precisely the contrast between the richness of the prose and the scenes the author’s literary talent is being pressed into service to describe that will be the most compelling for most readers. I’ve read many books about racism in America and specifically about the experiences of slaves in our country before the Civil War, and I found the book not only eye-opening and surprising, but also profoundly unsettling. If great books are those that leave you personally altered by the reading of them, Colson Whitehead’s book has earned its place on my list.
In Underground Airlines, the author imagines a world in which the Civil War was averted when Lincoln was assassinated before the fighting began and a grand compromise in Congress led to slavery being made permanently legal in four states: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the combined Carolinas. The book centers on the exploits of a runaway slave who enters into a devil’s bargain with the U.S. Marshals Service and agrees to assist the authorities in catching other runaways in exchange for his own freedom. Underground Airlines is essentially a mystery novel, and a complex one at that, but the part that was the most resonant with me personally was the strangely bureaucratic feel to the whole operation as described in the book. The slaves, three million strong in the four remaining slave states, are held in bondage not by sadists and brutal, insensate taskmasters, but primarily by bureaucrats, by civil servants who simply accept that the law of the land is the law and that there cannot therefore be any moral problem in upholding it. These are the novel’s equivalents of the most mysterious—to me personally, at any rate—figures in any Shoah memoir: not the emotionless brutes who did the killing, but the indifferent bystanders who watched the horror unfold around them and responded only by feeling fortunate that it wasn’t happening to them.
For me, it is the behavior of the indifferent bystander that is at the heart of the story of the Shoah. And it is clearly at the heart of the black experience of slavery too, at least in its recollective phase as people today contemplate the peculiar institution and ask themselves how otherwise normal, decent people can have abided its presence in the warp and woof of our American society for as long as they did.
As I contemplate the forthcoming trial in Charleston, I feel these thoughts coming to the fore and informing the way I understand the issues in play. Yes, of course, on one level his trial will be about determining the guilt of one man who stands accused of having done one specific series of things on one particular day. But in the larger picture, it will be about our society itself…about the pernicious staying power of racism all these many years after so many of us imagined the issue of racial prejudice to have been laid to rest in the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement; about the sense that black Americans cannot feel totally safe even in church, even in a land that pays endless lip service to the notion of racial equality, even in their own company at Bible study; about the willingness of the world to wave away any sense of shared responsibility for the enduring legacy of prejudice in our country with muttered reference to the craziness of any specific perpetrator. And beneath it all lies the legacy of slavery, the centuries-long story of powerlessness and inhumanity that churns and roils at the heart of any story involving white people murdering black people against a background of racial hatred.
Until I read these two books, and particularly Colson Whitehead’s, I don’t think I fully understood how Faulkner’s comment about the past relates to the black experience in our American republic…and why it would be wrong to wave away an incident like the Emanuel Church massacre as “just” another example of senseless violence in our land. But I’m getting there…and I think my readers will find both books equally illuminating and helpful in coming closer to understanding the invisible issues in play in Charleston.