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OPINION: Racial Tension is Not Disappearing Into the Past

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by Baron Wormser

In late 2013 my novel about race in Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1962-63 was published. I worked on “Teach Us That Peace” for five years. I wrote the book for a fairly simple reason: If you grow up somewhere in this country where race is an active, day-to-day issue and you are a serious writer, then you should try to write about it. According to my reasoning, a lot more books about race in America should be written and published than get written and published.

Then again, books need readers, and unless something “happens” like what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, then nothing is “happening.” America is beyond race or indifferent to race or consistently racist or all at the same time because America is a very big word. Since my novel is historical, it is in a nebulous category known as “the past.” There is not necessarily much interest in that past even though that past deeply determines the present moment. The past is not very exciting. It happened. The verb tense condemns it.

But it is not the fate of my novel that I’m writing about. What I’m writing about is the sheer emptiness of discussion about race in the United States. We live in a nation where everyone could read books by Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston and Gwendolyn Brooks and not just read, but talk about, those books. We would have to admit that this nation is founded on two tragedies — the slaughter of native people and slavery — and that the stain of tragedy never goes away. Adulthood is the admission of that stain. That’s not to say we should revel in the stain or be guilt-ridden, both pointless stances. It’s to say that tragedy is what haunts this nation, and until the nation is able to face up to that in some sort of focused way — such as education that makes that tragedy palpable — then there will be much talk but little to counter the despair of many black people in this country.

Despair? It’s not a word that makes it into the discussion on television when something bad “happens.” Yet it seems to me the crucial word. As churches have weakened, as family ties have slackened, as the economics become more and more brutal, as the advertising machine touts worthless wares relentlessly, as guns and drugs are glorified, despair has grown. “But, but, but . . .” I hear you say, but there is no “but.” The United States is built on the idea of individuals pursuing happiness. If they are blocked then there will be hell to pay. To understand the nature of that pursuit is probably the single most important thing an education can do for an American, since otherwise he or she is bound to a kind of excited darkness.

There is no shortage of books that tell truths about race in this country. The police in Ferguson could read those books and talk about them. The outraged young people could read those books and talk about them. The police and the outraged young people could even sit and talk with one another. I’m saddened that it takes a murder to provoke a discussion. In writing “Teach Us That Peace,” I read and thought a great deal about Martin Luther King Jr. There is no bringing that remarkable man back, but there is always the opportunity to pick up a book or teach a book or stand up to the forces of business-as-usual. Surely Doctor King did.

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