When I contemplate the violence of American life today—the hate speech, the mass shootings, even the feeling that the people whose cars swarm my own at rush hour are close to the edge, pounding their steering wheels and shouting curses I cannot hear (as my infant son sits in the back seat)—I don’t know where to begin, and I fear where it will end, so I have to start with my own violence: my history of hatred in thought, word, and deed.
* * *
In the loneliest time of my boyhood, when I suspected I was far stranger than anyone else in my little Christian school class, when I was passing from elementary to junior high, I learned the consolations of hate. It was not that I didn’t know it was wrong to hate. But when I belittled other boys I felt better, strangely more normal. Okay with myself. I was not randomly cruel, but strategically so, targeting those, I judged, who were even less secure than myself.
There was a boy whose parents were divorced. His father was a Jew and his mother had sent him to Christian school. He played the drums, which was much cooler, I thought, than playing the trumpet, my chosen instrument. I envied his air of reckless confidence, and so one day I insulted him and threatened him, grabbed him by the shirt. We were standing in the band room, on a day we had a substitute teacher, and I remember he didn’t strike back. Holding his shirt in my hands, I looked in his eyes. When I saw his fear and his passivity—his vulnerability—I felt bad, as if only his reaction, some further perceived insolence, might have made my attack feel justified. Perhaps he had never had anyone else grab him like this, so he wasn’t primed, as was I, to fight back. I remember this episode in connection with recent attacks on synagogues; the memory is especially acute now that I, in the process of conversion to Judaism with my family, now attend one.
Another episode of violence recurs to me. I thought of this again recently when a transgender woman shot up a Christian elementary school in my home state, where she had been mistreated as a child. In this episode, I joined in the ridicule against another boy who seemed strange to me. I didn’t know what “queer” was, but I knew this boy was strange. Yet he was maddeningly indifferent to all of us at recess who played football, absorbed instead in books. When we lobbed an insult at him, he replied with hissing or quacking. I didn’t get why, but this made me even more furious. Perhaps he was telling us we were acting like animals, and he would respond in kind. Yet he said no word in his defense, as this was beneath his dignity. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I felt my own dignity was at stake, and this attack on his dignity had not gone as planned.
I remember, too, a thin, darker-skinned boy, ethnically ambiguous, who always had a smile on his face and was unafraid to smile, even at girls. Tall and nimble, he was good at basketball. He scared me, as I was afraid to do what he did, to speak with the girls I had crushes on. I wondered if this boy was laughing at me. I spoke harshly to him, and when I shoved him on the basketball court during PE class, I remember how light his tall body felt against my hand. Again, he didn’t react, and later I recall our becoming friends. We never spoke of the earlier fight; we must both have been afraid to do so.
There were two Black boys in my class. They were the only definitely Black kids I remember at our East Tennessee school in the years I attended at the end of the twentieth century.
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One was well-liked, a class clown, which put him in competition with me, I thought, because I liked to cut up, too. He was pudgy, and I really did think he was a clown. I did not speak to him but regarded him with suspicion. The other Black boy was thin and serious, a hard look in his eye. I don’t recall his name, but he seemed angry and fiercely poised. I remember his straight spine and starched clothes. I envied his evident self-respect. Much later, when I was in college, I ran into another boy with whom I was friends in elementary and middle school. He related, chuckling, how I used to say the n-word: “At least I’m not a n—–,” I would say. He also repeated to me some strange notions about Black people’s sexuality that I had told him. Hearing my childhood friend, I was mortified, of course; but more significantly, I was surprised. I did not remember saying those things or learning those things. I was able to remember the bullying of the others, but I did not remember the racial slurs I had used.
I do remember that neither boy stayed long at our elementary school; I believe both were gone after a year or two. That happened about thirty years after the fall of Jim Crow, but my behavior is the same as the behavior of the students who jeered and spat on the Little Rock Nine in 1957. Or even closer to home, in Clinton Tennessee (at the high school I would have attended had I not gone to a private, Christian school), is the same as the violence inflicted by white supremacists who rioted and bombed the school in protest of court-ordered desegregation.
As I type this, I feel a little weak; the very shame of it causes me to withdraw from myself. This shame is important, a point to which I will return. For years I did not speak about these memories, and gaps in memories, because of shame. I was not brought up to be cruel or hateful; I was brought up to be nice, good, religious. And so whatever I did that did not fit into the categories nice, good, or religious, were forgotten or swathed in the silence of shame.
Shame has covered those things I did and said, and I said and did them because, deep within me, from the very first, I felt shame. The authorities in my life—parents and teachers and ministers and other older, wiser people—had given me a nice, good, religious template that did not apply to me. To be violent (to say and do hateful things) was as close to self-affirmation I could do. Not feeling I was good enough, I sought to tear others down.
I do not know to what extent the insecurity, hatred, and shame I felt was typical; but I do know it is typical of the history of White people in America (Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United States). I also know that, for whatever reason, the color line, the racism, the invidious distinctions I drew between myself and other boys mirror the various racial and class fractures of American history. These are the fractures that have thwarted people from working together to establish a more just union. That’s an uncanny, remarkable fact, somewhat thrilling. It casts a different light on the hatred and shame that I inherited by being White, male, and American. The effects aren’t only violent but redemptive. They are not secret shames but the basis of public good and transformation.
Ralph Ellison wrote, “In the beginning was not the shadow but the act” (304): by this he contrasted the foundational acts of American racial violence with the shadows, the representations, that persist into the present. The metaphor might be pushed further, complemented by the Jungian sense of shadow: the echo of the violence of the past is disavowed in the shadows of some, like me, whose ancestors established the violence.
Those of you reading this who struggle with some internal form of hatred—and I’m not just appealing to White readers here but anyone in this strife-ridden nation or world—you can learn to see this struggle as a blessing. For it’s you who have been given the means to redeem the soul of America.
Recently the news reported that the debate about gun violence had returned to its accustomed equilibrium—its impasse—where conservatives advocate for mental health reform and liberals for gun control reform. To extend the metaphor of mental health and control, I imagine Democrats and Republicans as two partners showing up for couples counseling. One says the other’s behavior is the problem. The other person needs to change, not me. I don’t have the issue here; the only issue would be me backing down, compromising on my moral principles, my truth. And I’m going to stand my ground.
And each party harbors the comfortable feeling that the other won’t budge, either. There is comfort in this bloody status quo; at least it is predictable.
Meanwhile, we, the public, may be scared and outraged, but the political theater makes good reality TV.
* * *
As a child, I soon learned that hateful speech and hateful action were not acceptable in school, and certainly not beyond it. I learned to suppress and channel my resentments. By high school, I was known as a very nice boy, a straight-A student, pious. That piety, being an act and a refusal of the shadow, was agonizing and would not last long. I found reasons to doubt my conservative religious ideology, and by the time I entered the university I found I was left without any beliefs at all; a void opened in my mind. More than that, I felt a gulf between myself and every other person.
The conservatism of my youth had been reduced to a mere negation: an individualism that held I was all right, so long as I didn’t harm another; and an indifference to anyone I didn’t count as part of my community.
A vivid memory emerges from the fog of my first depression, as I sat alone in my dorm room and the US military invaded Iraq, the fall of 2003. A pollster called on the landline with a survey measuring youth political involvement, and I was grateful to hear a young woman’s voice on the other end of the line: Do you vote? She asked. Do you belong to a political party? Are you politically active? A series of questions to which I repeated No. After the phone conversation I felt a hollowness I hadn’t known was there, and then an even deeper depression.
A year later, a strange force within me had jerked me from my depression. This was called mania, I would learn from the psychologist at the Student Health Center, but for me it manifested immediately as an insane caring about life. (In denying my deep hatreds, I had also closed myself off from love.) Mania for me meant buttonholing everyone I passed as I walked down the streets around Fort Sanders and downtown Knoxville; it was exuberant passion for sex; and a political awakening in which I read the Communist Manifesto on the campus mall to passersby, and preached, at the top of my lungs, against the war and George W. Bush, who was seeking a second term. Mania was indeed insanity, and it led to a night in jail, lost jobs, flunked classes, and quite a few painful, ephemeral romances.
Yet my soul, my concern for things and people beyond my own self, had come alive. The psychotherapist R. D. Laing saw mental illness as a process that must not simply be suppressed by medication (though I concede sometimes medication is necessary); it is a voyage that must be carried out until one returns home.
Though I understand and “accept the diagnosis” of bipolar disorder, and, as for most people with such a diagnosis, I have had to take medicine, it has been largely up to me to understand its spiritual meaning, how it fits into who I am. For me, the upsurge of depression and mania in my early twenties was my soul’s way of saying that it would not be complicit or complacent in what Jacques Lacan called the “normal neurosis” of life: that commonsense insanity that included my moral indifference to people I didn’t consider a part of my community, and that considered my obligation to my neighbor to consist in not openly harming them.
That indifference, for me, was not colorblind: it was the same phenomenon that Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., described as the “value gap” between White people and Black people, or people of color more generally: “the idea that in America white lives have always mattered more than the lives of others” (7). Glaude, in his 2020 meditation Begin Again, writes that James Baldwin “insisted that we see the connection between the disaster of our interior lives and the mess of a country that believed, for some odd reason, that if you were white you mattered more than others” (xxv).
* * *
Following two years of cycling from mania to depression, I arrived for a week in a suicidal depression at the same hospital where, twenty-three years before, I had been born.
It was April 2007. Time slowed down inside the behavioral health ward. There were only a few things on the schedule: get up at six am for medicine; go to the dining hall at seven for breakfast; go to the TV room at ten for group therapy; go back to the dining hall at twelve for lunch, and then a long, yawning afternoon …
Arriving early to group therapy, I joined the other patients watching the news about the Virginia Tech Massacre, thirty-two dead plus the gunman. I saw pictures of the disheveled young man who had executed all those fellow students. Somehow, to my horror, I identified with him. I felt that I had enacted the violence, and I felt guilt I dared not tell the others in the therapy group.
Now, during that deep depression I had some crazy notions. For instance, I blamed myself for causing the stench that seemed to be emanating from the air conditioning unit. This was a delusion. Wasn’t my identification with the Virginia Tech shooter delusional, too? Yes, perhaps, but I had been violent towards other boys as a boy. And who knows what consequences that kind of violence can have? I don’t know whether it had a lasting long-term hurt. We have seen recent massacres of young people who have snapped and enacted random vengeance on the people or institutions they perceived caused their pain. Further, prior to entering the hospital I had been planning an even greater violence: ending my own life, and I had been reminded by a minister to whom I confessed my desire how devastating that violence would have been to my family and my friends. I had checked into the hospital in order to avert that violence.
Freud, writing of the loss of self-esteem that accompanies depression, or what in his time was known as melancholia, notes the delusional aspect of this loss, yet he also highlights its unique insight: the person suffering “has a keener eye for the truth than others who are not melancholic” (156). I could admit things to myself about myself at that moment that I have rarely been able to in my “sane” states of mind. It was in the hospital, late at night, when I could not sleep, that I remembered the racism of my youth. It was also in the hospital that I was forced to accept that I would need to take medicine; and, more significantly, that I was forced to decide what I would do with my life. A condition of my release from the behavioral health ward was that I decide on a profession: and it was this choice that led me to the graduate school where I met my wife.
* * *
After President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Malcolm X notoriously commented that the killing was a matter of “the chickens coming home to roost” (Cone). By this he suggested that America had put out a great deal of violence in the world, and now the violence spectacularly returns on the most prominent perpetrator of it. My wife recently suggested that the increased violence of recent years is a kind of karmic effect like the one that Malcolm X was talking about.
I take it that the violence we see today has its roots in the hearts of those whose ancestors created a society based not only on ideals of equality and self-government but of the peculiar notions that those made in the image of God, and stewards of an earth that belongs only to God, are somehow ranked into a racial and gendered hierarchy of worth, some naturally deserving more of that world than others. Those notions and consequent behavior that sets us against one another and gets us comparing ourselves to one another—these are some very old roots of our violence.
I would have no such ideas were it not for my wife. When we first met, I would have been horrified to even discuss my violence of thought, word, and deed with her. I was too full of shame. Furthermore, White people barely confess their racism to one another; they are too ashamed. But they certainly don’t confess their racism to Black people. My wife is Black. Yet, as we are both human, and we love each other, our marriage has given me a place to see my own truth and to allow myself to be healed, or to continue in the process of healing.
When, at the beginning of my relationship with my wife, I shunned self-confrontation with the racism of my past, it seemed too much for me to countenance: that I would harbor fear, judgment, false assumptions about the people to which my wife belonged. Love and hatred seemed to be closely intertwined. But it is no mystery, for self-love and self-hatred have always existed in fierce opposition inside of me.
Again, I don’t know if my experience reflects the private or unconscious life or shadow or unspoken histories of any of my readers—you, for instance. But I do know that in our society we are hemmed about with a thousand prohibitions on what can be said and what cannot be said, what questions can be asked and what cannot be asked, what is good and what is bad, and who is good and bad. It becomes dangerous to acknowledge to the extent that we human beings—not just the deplorable ones, but the respectable ones—are capable of hate and violence as surely as we are capable of grace and love and giving. Increasingly, we live in a social media simulacrum of ourselves. It’s hard to see ourselves clearly. We should not confess our negativity in order to feel bad about ourselves or to desperately seek reassurance but to love ourselves, to accept our full humanity, and grow past the ill we feel towards one another.
* * *
We are not supposed to talk about mental illness, racism, or bullying, except in pious ways of saying that these are social problems that need to be addressed. It’s much riskier to own these marks of negativity. Yet they are the shadow of our violent society.
These are not strictly “personal” issues nor “systemic” but both: the ways we allow the system to block our ability to love. Ralph Ellison, no sentimentalist, saw the task of his writing to be a way of fighting through illusions to return to “that condition of man’s being at home in the world, which is called love, and which we term democracy” (“Brave Words,” 154).
A problem with the way we talk about hatred—racism, transphobia, misogyny, or hysteria towards immigrants and refugees, or what have you; the violence of thought, of word, of deed—is that we assume it’s an evil that must be isolated, decried, exposed, and expelled. The community must be purified through an irreversible ceremony of scapegoating: a cancellation. This is no more an antidote to the hatred that ails us than imprisonment is a cure for crime. We must rather see what the hatred is teaching us about ourselves and our neighbors. And we mustn’t negate that hatred (or worse, pretend it’s not there, that it only exists in our neighbors, not ourselves). Rather, we must hold the hatred to the light and look closely at it, discover the fissures and soft parts and wounds that mark it, then we must transform the hatred into something us. See where it went wrong, and make it right.
* * *
Given my admittedly idiosyncratic experience, what would I recommend to those struggling to overcome racism, misogyny, homophobia, and evil thoughts about other people?
Certainly, it’s important to educate ourselves, especially to read history and examine how these evil thoughts and feelings came about. For instance, reading Howard Zinn’s classic People’s History of the United States on the various divide-and-conquer strategies that sever groups from one another was very helpful for me. Reading Henry Louis Gates’s recent work Stony the Road, which shows how racist representations of Black peoples were used, especially following the end of Reconstruction, to exclude them from democracy, was also illuminating.
Educating oneself at least helps us change beliefs, especially conscious ones, and the new beliefs touch on redemptive possibilities. To read history means to discover the moments when our current world was created but a different one might have been—moments like the Second Great Awakening, which might have integrated worshippers across the color line, but largely didn’t (see Tisby), or the contributions of Black Reconstruction that might have transformed democracy, but was abandoned and, for a long time, dismissed or forgotten (see Du Bois). It’s both heartbreaking and heartening that there was nothing inevitable in our violent past of settler colonialism or chattel slavery.
But violent ideas touch us more deeply than our conscious minds, psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem argues. What he calls “white body supremacy” is trapped not merely in false ideas that we try to scrub from our minds and our speech but also in the trauma our very bodies contain, and even inherit. Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands provides a therapeutic process for different groups—Whites, Blacks, even the police—to work through what he calls racialized trauma. He cautions that this working-through of racialized trauma is a process that is necessary to undergo prior to engaging with one another in community, lest re-traumatizing occur.
While this is true, self-reflection is a waystation on the path towards community. One cannot ultimately overcome violence—and I want to be clear I haven’t arrived at this point—without relationships of love, of friendship, or what Jeffrey Stout called “relationships of mutual accountability.” “All real living,” Martin Buber wrote, “is meeting” (11). We must learn to love one another without assumption or judgment, with openness and courage.
It’s important to explore, whether in a group or through techniques of introspection, what it is in ourselves that gives hateful or violent thoughts their weight, their pull or purchase. For me, tipped off by a strong strain that runs through the writings of James Baldwin, the pull to judge others has been a lack of self-love. When we love ourselves, there is no reason why we should bother with hating our neighbor. In fact, as is often remarked, “love your neighbor as yourself,” that central tenet of monotheism, is dependent on your ability to love yourself.
I would stress, if my limited experience is an indication, that we don’t emerge from the cave of our prejudices into a gentle illumination where everything is soft, clear, and lovely ever after. Rather, the light is dazzling; in my marriage, for instance, I make mistakes and get defensive or angry to cover my shame; and it usually takes too long for me to regain my senses and remember that my purpose is love, not self-assurance.
The work of making a democracy, a multiracial one committed to the flourishing of all, Ellison suggests, contains the same kind of difficulty of making a marriage work: and no marriage can survive without love as well as a measure of unity across differences, rooted in respect. Though the US is not “exceptional” in the old imperialist sense, it is so in its very averageness, its bringing together of peoples and desires from across the globe. In this sense the world looks to us with skepticism and hope that we can abandon our violence and open our hearts.
* * *
When I look at the great social movements of American history, I am struck by a few qualities of them: first, they are carried out primarily by those with a stake in the movement. The major movers and shakers of the civil rights movement were Black people; the major activists of the feminist movement were women; the major players in the AIM movement (American Indian Movement) were Native; the great leaders of queer movements were queer, etc. This is not to discount the importance of allies, particularly in a movement like abolition, where many of those primary rebels against the system were still enslaved and did not have the freedom to fight against it. But it is to note that the conviction that these actors felt hardly moved beyond the actors themselves. They were able to achieve much by moral suasion, by media pressure, by political coalition, etc., yet often their demands were met, to an extent, without fundamentally altering the hearts and minds of others who are not involved in the movement.
In Racial Formation in the United States, Michael Omi and Howard Winant characterize the effect of the civil rights movement as a thoroughgoing “politicization of the social.” So many apparently marginal groups were energized, catalyzed to fight for recognition, rights, full citizenship, etc. And we see such movements being extended further with immigrant, transgender, and other groups today.
However, in a sense, the saturating effects of the sixties movements were radically incomplete. They have not reached many people, particularly many White people, in our bones. Although the movements have created, and continue to create, institutional and legal and systemic shifts, the system is quite stubborn because most people’s hearts and minds have not been deeply affected. That’s why what’s needed in the United States, and the world over, is a moral, even a spiritual, change, to rise to the level of the demands for political change. Some activists, such as the Rev. Dr. William Barber, in foregrounding the moral aspect of the “third reconstruction,” have seen that we need change at the level of the heart if we are possibly to see a time of healing, of reparation, of justice, of fulfilling the promises of America. Reconstruction cannot happen without repentance. We can’t want or wait for lack of ways to repair this world—they are as wonderfully various as our souls. So I’m challenging whoever reads this essay to see how they contribute, or have contributed, to the violence that is happening now. I’m not saying this to shame anyone or make them feel bad. It’s actually quite empowering to know that we’re responsible for what we see on the news. Instead of wringing our hands, we can rewrite the script.
Barber, William J., II, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.
Bly, Robert. A Little Book on the Human Shadow. Edited by William Booth. New York: HarperOne, 1988.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1937.
Cone, James H. Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Free Press, 1998 .
Ellison, Ralph. “Brave Words for a Startling Occasion.” 1953. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited with an introduction by John F. Callahan, 151–54. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.
—. “The Shadow and the Act.” 1949. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited with an introduction by John F. Callahan, 302–309. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” Collected Papers, Vol. IV, trans. Joan Riviere. London: The Hogarth Press, 1953.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. New York: Penguin, 2019.
Glaude, Eddie S., Jr. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York: Crown, 2020.
Laing, R. D. The Politics of Experience. New York: Pantheon, 1967.
Menakem, Resmaa. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017.
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. Third edition. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Peck, M. Scott. “Healing Human Evil.” In Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, 176–180. New York: Tarcher / Penguin, 1991.
Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019.
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