Of Our Collective Strivings
In 1903, the great African American public intellectual and cultural critic, W. E. B. Du Bois, wrote these provocative words in the opening chapter of “Our Spiritual Strivings” in “The Souls of Black Folk”: ” Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”
The people of the United States of America have created a historical narrative that continues to stress the historical struggle between white and black American citizens, even in the 21st century–with the deliberate exclusion of other ethnic or racial groups in the American society. This ambiguous narrative, which is at the very structure of this country and the American experiment, defines the meaning of life–the American life–in America, resulting in collective suffering and catastrophic pain, and the devalorization and dehumanization of certain lives that some have deemed are not worth living. What if we were to rethink of America as an inclusive democracy, and work collectively toward a new redemptive narrative and a more perfect social structure that promote the dignity of all people? What if we were to admit that there’s something profoundly wrong with the American mentality and that our attitude toward life is bankrupt? I believe our traditional models towards racial harmony and reconciliation, and interracial dialogues are not working at the moment. One of the reasons for this deficiency is because we are not an honest people, are afraid of self-criticism, and we’re certainly not dealing with the roots of our problem, the disease that has plagued this nation since its foundation.
We promote a false narrative to the world that (1) We are the greatest nation in the world, (2) We are number # 1, (3) and that We are a nation that champions human rights and human dignity, social equality, and liberty for all–even outside our borders. Karl Marx would have called the American phenomenon a false consciousness. Our collective pain and suffering, and the American reality are hidden behind those comforting words.
Until we learn that we have a problem and that we are the problem, the new redemptive narrative we are longing for and striving to create together will be another American dream that will not come to pass. America is a nation that excludes people. America is a nation that prioritizes certain lives and disfranchises others. Americans are a people who are afraid of self-criticism and even more afraid to look at themselves in the mirror.
I close this short meditation with the profoundly poetic words of Arthur Symons:
O water, voice of my heart, crying in the sand,
All night long crying with a mournful cry,
As I lie and listen, and cannot understand
The voice of my heart in my side or the voice of the sea,
O water, crying for rest, is it I, is it I?
All night long the water is crying to me.
Unresting water, there shall never be rest
Till the last moon droop and the last tide fail,
And the fire of the end begin to burn in the west;
And the heart shall be weary and wonder and cry like the sea,
All life long crying without avail,
As the water all night long is crying to me.
The problem of the twenty-first century in America is not race (Du Bois) nor religion (Soyinka). It is America itself, and the meaning of America.