Over the past two centuries, many of our greatest politicians and writers have called on us to see American history as fundamentally tragic: Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address; Frederick Douglass in his campaign to support Reconstruction; Robert Penn Warren, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Civil Rights Movement; Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Cornell West and others since.
This tragic mode is an often-overlooked tradition in American thought. It challenges our linear models of history as progress. Tragedy understands that injustice and human suffering are central to human life, and that no idealism is immune to failure.
On June 17, 2015, nine Black Americans were assassinated as they studied the Bible in Charleston. They sat in a church founded by former slaves, on an avenue named for the slaveholding senator who had made forceful arguments for slavery and for Southern succession. These nine Black Americans died fewer than five miles from the site where Confederate artillery fired the first shots of the Civil War.
Eulogizing the pastor of Mother Emanuel, Clementa Pinckney, a few weeks after the Charleston shootings, President Barack Obama began to sing. The national hymn, “Amazing Grace,” structured his entire speech. The terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel AME could not be redemptive, the president said; it required Americans to use God’s grace to see—“I was blind,” Obama sang and riffed, “but now I see."
“We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other,” he said. But it has to be used.
For tragedy contains a small seed of hope: That out of even the greatest catastrophes, we can gain new knowledge of who and what we are.
“To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it,” Baldwin wrote to explain this perverse hope. “An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”
Just recently, the Confederate battle flags that flew at the Alabama and South Carolina State Capitols for 54 years—raised at each to commemorate the Civil War Centennial in the midst of the civil rights movement—were, we hope, lowered forever.
That cotton symbol has weighed down much of the country’s last century. Perhaps its lowering will be a symbol—not of final victory, but of the potential of this moment. We hope this symbolic change comes out of and builds upon tragic knowledge so our country may leave behind old myths and grow towards responsibility and justice in more than just symbols.
We’ll soon have another test of the depth of our reckoning. August 29, 2015, marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Louisiana. We hope that on this anniversary, our country is ready for a full accounting—and a push for healing.
Great writing, we hope, can help in our civic struggle today and can be a tool, in Baldwin’s words, so “that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”