Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Marilynne Robinson on the Emancipation Movement: Chick-fil-A Supporters in Historical Context

Last week, as Steve and I drove north from Missouri into Iowa on Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day and as we spotted long lines of cars at Chick-fil-A in Independence, I happened to be reading Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Who Was Oberlin?” (in When I Was a Child I Read Books [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012]).  Marilynne Robinson, who teaches at an Iowa university and who set her Pulitzer-winning novel Gilead, with its rich historical resonances remembering the bitter struggle to eradicate American slavery and, ultimately, establish equality for people of color, in Iowa . . . .

In “Who Was Oberlin?” Robinson notes that slavery was “an enormous global commerce” in which the majority of European nations were involved (p. 179).  As she points out, European nations only began to move towards a ban on the sale of African slaves to the West Indies and Latin America in 1888.  The urgency with which abolitionists, including those who founded Oberlin, worked to gain a foothold in the American conscience in the 19th century reflects the desperation of their task, given how decisively, how unreflectively, the majority of Americans (and Europeans) took slavery for granted as an acceptable moral practice throughout much of the 19th century.  

Robinson thinks that if slavery had succeeded in establishing itself in the Midwest, as the slave states including Missouri fervently sought to effect, it is difficult to imagine how we might ever have extirpated slavery from the nation as a whole.

And then she asks why these historical details matter, why they ought to be remembered:

Why does it matter whether or not this past is remembered?  I will put the question another way: What was lost when this past was forgotten?  We know from subsequent history that the ideals of equality these reformers [i.e., the founders and first students of Oberlin] lived out were not an aberration, that they lay along the grain of American cultural development, that they expressed an understanding of the implications of the founding documents which has been affirmed through legislation and Supreme Court decisions and has come to be acknowledged, by most of us, as quintessentially American.  What would this country be now if justice, as it was practiced at Oberlin 160 years ago, had released the talents and energies and the good will of the great majority who in fact remained excluded? (pp. 180-181).

Ten lessons I take from Robinson's historical reflections here, as I think about Mike and Cathy's defiant Catholic centrist jubilation about the massive turn-out of supporters for Chick-fil-A last week (for the Mike and Cathy reference, see the posting I just uploaded; I'll be talking much more about Mike and Cathy in coming days):

1. Robinson's final question frames for us the central, ongoing problematic of American democracy--the tension between the ideal and the real, a tension in which American citizens who believe in the democratic ideal have always lived painfully: what kind of democracy might we have built, if we had chosen to welcome the talents, energies, and good will of those we have historically excluded?

2. The "ideals of equality" lie "along the grain of American cultural development": those advocating for the inclusion of everyone, for a place for everyone at the table, are advocating ideals that lie along the grain of American cultural development, and are not an aberration of that development.

3. Those espousing equality of slaves with free persons in the period leading up to the Civil War were a tiny, embattled, despised minority working for ideals that lie along the very grain of American cultural development, which we have historically honored not in practice, but primarily with empty words.

4. The struggle faced by those working to emancipate slaves in the antebellum period was a struggle against great odds, because the practice of slavery enriched a large number of powerful people in Europe and America.  The struggle was a bitter struggle since it was a struggle against those who prefigured the 20th-century argument that wealth or corporations are persons and should enjoy the rights of free speech historically allocated to persons and not institutions.

5. When slaves escaped and were assisted by the Underground Railroad to find freedom in the non-slaveholding states, the legal authorities, the courts, the criminal justice system, and most citizens in the Northern states actively assisted slaveholders in retrieving their lost human property.

6. The rights of property (and property owners) have always trumped all other rights in the United States, and the rights of free speech of property owners have always trumped the rights of free speech of tiny minorities fighting to extend the equality that lies along the very grain of American cultural development.

7. It's crucial to remember these historical lessons because many of us now fatuously and with ill-founded self-congratulation imagine that "we" in the past would have been well-disposed to the abolitionist movement and would consistently have done the right thing when it came to helping eradicate slavery and extend equality to people of color.

8. Many Catholics of the Mike and Cathy sort (and their name is legion these days) imagine that they could not possibly have supported racism and racist institutions in the past--any more than they could support homophobic institutions in the present.  Their support of Chick-fil-A and its ilk--of the homophobic religious right--is, they tell us, support of religious freedom and free speech, not of homophobia and the overweening rights of property owners.

9. We in the United States have already forgotten--we have already prettified--the history of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, when black citizens were routinely turned away from whites-only lunch counters in the Southern states, as the Northern states turned a blind eye to the discrimination for many years.  As many Catholics in the Northern states turned a blind eye to the discrimination being practiced in the South for many years . . . . 

10. Those turning black citizens away from whites-only lunch counters consistently cited the bible as their justification for doing so, for separating the races, for placing people of color in demeaning and inferior positions.  The free speech and religious freedom of establishments actively discriminating against people of color in the 1950s and 1960s was hotly defended by mayors, courts, criminal authorities, and, for many years, by a majority of the citizens of the U.S.

Until a tiny minority of those who understood that racial equality lies along the very grain of American cultural development had had enough, and began to speak out . . . . And to act out . . . .  Against great odds . . . . And with almost no support from many American Christians until the movement achieved critical mass sufficient to shame many mainstream Christians into supporting the movement for equality . . . .

(The lines of those supporting slavery, the rights of slaveholding property owners, and the religious freedom and free speech of slaveholders would have been just as long in the antebellum years--all over the U.S.--as the lines of those supporting Chick-fil-A last week.  Abolitionists were as much a despised fringe minority until the years immediately prior to the Civil War as those advocating for LGBT equality have been throughout the 20th century and into the first decades of the 21st.)

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