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He Had A Dream, and It Shot Him: What Happened to Visions of Racial Harmony, and Why

ISSUE:  Winter 1996

As Huckleberry Finn puts it in an effort to explain how Tom got himself wounded during the chaos following Jim’s “evasion”: “he had a dream, and it shot him.” One could say much the same thing about Twain himself; he had a wonderful dream in which an ignorant, 14-year-old white boy and an adult slave float down the Mississippi, only to find themselves lost in the fog, run over by a steamboat, and forced to share their Edenic world with con men. Granted, lessons are learned, understanding happened, but the towns along the shore, and the people who inhabit them, cannot be dismissed with a wave of one’s hand. For all its highjinks and humor, the world of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a tough, heart-cracking place.

Dreams, of course, come with the American territory. Indeed, they are a defining feature of our history as well as our psychic landscape. Small wonder, then, that John Winthrop’s vision of the new American Jerusalem (what his words aboard the Arabella called “a cittie on the hill”) blend so seamlessly with the final paragraphs of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or the cadences of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech.

That we have seen aspects of the “dream” turn materialistic and then greedy is true enough; but the larger, better vision persists— partly because it promises to close the gap between democratic promise and a compromised reality, partly because the eloquent words of our Declaration of Independence—propped as they are on principles of freedom and equality—still define our nation at its best.

Among W. E. B. DuBois’s most quoted remarks is his worry that the color line would emerge as the problem of the 20th century. He had the elaborate tapestry of Jim Crow segregation in mind, although one might argue that other nightmares ultimately defined our century: the Holocaust precipitated by Nazism, the Stalinesque gulags, the specter of nuclear annihilation, and a host of other threats— environmental, economic, social, and civic—that continue to sound ugly alarms. Still, for Americans, race remains a significant shadow. One thinks, for example, of another 19th-century American writer— Herman Melville—who worried about race in ways that cannot fail to strike us as prophetic. Unlike Twain, Melville’s “baggage” was a brooding Calvinism stripped of its theological underpinning—a revisionist version of Original Sin, if you will, but one that continued to insist on sinfulness as a palpable human reality. In this regard he differed sharply with giddy transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau; and in “Benito Cereno,” he used the occasion of a rebellion on a slave ship to test out not only the warring claims of illusion and reality, but also the effects of slavery on an individual psyche. Don Amasa Delano, the thickheaded, altogether Innocent American captain, cannot see the mutiny before his very eyes just as, later, he cannot fathom the shadow that hangs eternally over Benito Cereno. “You are saved,” he insists—this after the life-threatening rebellion has been crushed. Why, then, is his Spanish counterpart in such a funk? “What has cast such a shadow over you?” he wonders. Benito Cereno’s reply is instructive: “The negro”; and for my purposes it stands as yet another twist on Huck Finn’s quip about dreams that end by shooting the dreamer.

In the decades since the apparent triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, we have found ourselves in conditions that force us to ruminate on the similarities between earlier American dreamers and ourselves. Perhaps no statement about the great dream of racial justice was more eloquent, more moving than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words uttered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

To be sure, King’s speech was a laundry list of “dreams,” orchestrated in litanies and delivered with the full throat of Southern Baptist oratory at its best. He dreamed, for example, of the day when the sons of slaves and the sons of slaveholders would be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood, when the stains of the past would at last be washed clean by the collective will of good people of every color and condition. Justice, he insisted, would then run like a mighty river.

Remembering that day, that speech, I was hardly alone in feeling that our nation had turned an important corner—only to realize, a few decades later, that the ugly shadow Melville’s character pointed toward had arrived. But, then, again, none of us in the innocence of 1963 could have imagined the ingenious spin that deconstructionists could put on King’s words, much less the widespread disenchantment with his integrationist vision. As the poet W.H. Auden points out in his elegy to William Butler Yeats, the words of the dead are “modified in the guts of the living.” Much the same thing could be said of King’s pronouncements.

Here, for example, is literary critic Stanley Fish’s take, his calculated “misreading,” if you will, of the most famous line of King’s most famous speech. To judge blacks by the “content of their character” rather than by the “color of their skin” is to lie down with mighty strange bedfellows. What, Fish wonders, would King say about David Duke’s claim that “What we want in this country is equal opportunity for everyone, not affirmative action for a few” or about those who pepper their prose with phrases like “colorblind” or “race-neutral”? Haven’t they, in fact, turned the eloquent words King uttered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial into “coded” (Fish’s word) messages that are transparent, easy to crack, and end up saying pretty much the same thing—namely, that “those niggers and kikes and faggots have come far enough; it’s time to stop them before they take our jobs, cheat our children out of a place in college, and try to move in next door”?

As Fish’s argument would have it, the same reservations one (rightly) has about David Duke should be logically extended to anybody raising a question about affirmative action and entitlement programs (presumably including Shelby Steele, whose The Content of Our Character meditates on King’s speech in quite different ways from Fish), to anyone lacking a proper enthusiasm for multiculturalistcurricula, and finally, to anyone with the slightest concern about the unum in e pluribus unum. Find yourself in any of these camps and you will discover that Fish writes you off as a racist. Indeed, this is precisely what happened to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. when he had the gall to act as the professional historian he is, and to suggest not only that Enlightenment thinkers (white European males, every last one of them) had more to do with the framing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution than did the Iroquois Confederation, but also that the more insistent demands of multiculturalists threaten to tear the national fabric into Balkanized shreds.

No matter that Fish lacks the scholarly distinction, to say nothing of the sociopolitical track record, of an Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and no matter that there are worlds of difference between the xenophobes of the past whom Fish cites and the Schlesinger he attacks, the plain truth is that Fish means to play as dirty as he has to tarnish Schlesinger’s reputation and to tar his arguments. After surveying Lawrence Auster’s The Path to ‘National Suicide, Richard Brookhiser’s The Way of the Wasp, and Schlesinger’s The Disuniting of America, Fish comes to this conclusion:

What does it all mean? Does it suggest that Auster, Brookhiser, and Schlesinger are racists? Well, if you mean by racist someone who actively seeks the subjugation of groups thought inferior to his own, none of these qualify. If you mean by racist someone whose views about race, if acted upon in political ways, will lead to the disadvantaging of certain groups, then Mr. Auster is a serious candidate; and if you mean by racism the deployment of a vocabulary that avoids racist talk but has the effect of perpetuating racial stereotypes and the institutions that promote them, then Mr. Brookhiser is in the running; and Mr. Schlesinger, with his talk of the inevitable Anglo-Saxon “coloration” of the American character and the necessity of sublimating ethnic strains in a true American amalgam, is a shoo-in.

No doubt Mr. Fish means what he says when he calls Schlesinger a racist (no rhetorical ploys or recontextualizations here), and at a certain point one begins to wonder if King himself would be spared the lash of his self-righteous indignation. After all, King’s talk about the “content of their character” has been enormously troubling, because, slice it as you will, his words make it clear that people are more than the arithmetic of their race, class, and gender; and furthermore, that they should be judged by the moral force of the mare. That idea, then and now, strikes me as one worth fighting for, however much it may be shamelessly exploited by David Duke and others like him. Indeed, King’s words are best understood as part of a long American tradition that values the individual and places enormous emphasis on his or her democratic freedoms.


Fish obviously feels otherwise, and he is so worried about the appropriations that have surrounded the two parts of King’s parallelism—skin color on one side of the equation, character on the other—that he is obligated, even compelled, to reconstitute, even to “deconstruct,” the words I heard on that hot afternoon of 1963 and that have been echoing in my mind ever since. In Fish’s case, the result is everything that is unworthy and dangerous in the current theoretical fascination with making words mean whatever suits the purpose:

I am not saying [Fish begins] that Martin Luther King would have wanted his children to be judged by the color of their skin, as if that were in and of itself an entitlement; but neither would he have wanted the color of their skin to be wholly irrelevant to the determination of what they had to offer to society. He says to those he addresses in 1963, “You have been the veterans of creative suffering.” That is, the strength you here display by participating in this march is the product of your trials in the face of racism; and it is by virtue of those trials that you have become what you are, veterans of a war whose terms you did not choose. King salutes his followers not because their skins are black but because the blackness of their skins has generated the experience that has tempered them. In short, the color of their skin has in some measure been the content of their character. (Emphasis in original)

Small wonder that people throw up their hands and roll their eyeballs when Fish turns plain sense, and plainer language, on its head. Appeals to reason—or for that matter to evidence—count for precious little because only liberals continue to keep faith that “reason” (the term is now surrounded by inverted commas and made to look mighty suspicious) operates independently of any particular worldview. What this means, Fish argues, is that “not all reasons (or reasonable trains of thought) are reasons for everyone.” So, while I think it reasonable (the hell with inverted commas) that Dr. King meant precisely what he said in his “I have a Dream” speech, Fish would insist that such a reading merely reflects something about my worldview and, in this case, probably reveals I was a racist fellow even during the days when I was in the ranks at his marches. And as for evidence to support his curious “misreading” of King’s motivations— evidence from, say, King’s public writings or private papers— apparently none is necessary. What matters for Fish is the political objective closest at hand, and to further its cause you make language, as they say, “work for you.”


To cite a very different example, Malcolm X also knew how to make language work for him. His in-your-face, often inflammatory rhetoric made it abundantly clear that separatism was preferable to King’s dream of integration. There are, to be sure, a dizzying array of Malcolms (the street hustler and criminal, the charismatic disciple of Elijah Mohammed, as well as the man who was assassinated because his dream of pan-African brotherhood ran afoul of the Nation of Islam’s sociopolitical orthodoxies), and it is fair to say that myth-making plays an active role in each incarnation. We isolate the Malcolm X who speaks to our deepest dreams, whether they be of militant separatism or universal brotherhood. All of which is to admit that the debates about legacies—Martin Luther King, Jr. vs. Malcolm X—will probably continue to rage across the generational divide: the young identifying with Malcolm’s revolutionary postures while those who vividly remember what segregated life was like before King will retain a faith (no doubt punctuated by bouts of skepticism and even pockets of despair) in the less romantic business of mainstream politics.

To talk about Malcolm X is to talk about everything—which, of course, is also to talk about nothing. For example, is he primarily the iconic figure whose X adorned baseball caps in the hoopla that once surrounded Spike Lee’s epical film, the philosopher king solemnly studied in a wide variety of academic classes, or simply one more example of a black leader longer on charisma than sound sense? Let me focus, instead, on a single moment, one that predates our current fascination with the “sound bite,” but that serves to illustrate both the raw power of his oratory and the disastrous consequences it could have. During one of his visits to Harvard during the early 1960’s, Malcolm posed the following question: “What do you call a black man with a Ph. D.?” The answer, one clearly designed to cut through Ivy League pretension, was “A nigger.” That his no nonsense, tell-it-as-it-is quip shocked the assemblage is true enough (one might even argue that a certain amount of cutting through the bullshit was called for), but the effect, then and now, was to suggest that educational achievement—yea, even education itself—was as thread-bare as it was bogus. And this at the very school that provided W.E.B. DuBois with what he called “the freedom of the library and the laboratories,” and more important, the opportunities that that education afforded.

Whatever the feel-good advantages of Malcolm X’s remark might be, they amount to precious little when stacked against the sobering realities of life in an increasingly complicated world. And it is here that the very different educational dreams of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois—the former aimed at vocational training, the latter at the intellectual cultivation of a “talented tenth”—turn into nightmare, for if the Malcolm X who stuck it to Harvard’s black professors is right, black youngsters would be well advised to give higher learning the raspberry it richly deserves.

Here, there is much to worry about—not only in the chilling statistic that shows more young black males in prison than in college classrooms, but also in reports suggesting that college students in general read more books during their undergraduate years than they read throughout the rest of their lives. In short, this is at once a black problem and an American dilemma, for the hard truths about international competition are inextricably linked to any reasonable hope that racial tensions will be reduced and something amounting to racial harmony will be achieved. What Jefferson recognized long ago—namely, that democracy itself depends on an educated, enlightened citizenry—is even truer today. What do you call a black man with a Ph. D.? I should hope that the answer would be self-evident: Professor nothing more, but certainly nothing less. Indeed, I would argue that this is as self-evident as are our inalienable American rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

No doubt the Malcolm X who uncorked his zinger at Harvard would insist that America always was, and remains to this day, a racist country rather than a country with a certain distressing quotient of racists. At this point I realize full well that my quarrel with Malcolm is about perception, but the sheer fact that the black middle class is, in Daniel Patrick Monyihan’s words, “doing quite nicely” belies many of Malcolm’s confident assumptions. Educational opportunity has surely played an important role in the equation, just as the despair of the black underclass continues to worry all persons with an inclination toward social justice.

Much of Malcolm X’s dream was wrapped in the folds of the loopy mythology and militantly separatist rhetoric of the Nation of Islam. In his case, it is safe to say that this was a dream which shot him—quite literally—every bit as much as Twain’s dream of an easy, unencumbered dream of racial harmony floundered on the rocks of anti-bellum reality. Add Stokley Carmichael’s 1967 call for “Black Power!” and the result is a world in which well-meaning whites need no longer apply for positions in the ongoing struggle for black self-determination. Here, an ad once run by the United Negro College Fund may prove instructive. It featured a classroom in which black students are told that because the college has run out of money, it has been forced to close. The camera zooms in on one student who is especially distressed, as we watch his face move by increments from shock to anger, and then to rage. The theme of the fund-raising campaign is “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” but its sub-text is a less than subtle reminder that young blacks are as bloodthirsty and savage as the ugly stereotype would have it. One feels something of the same spirit in placards announcing that there will be “no peace” if there is “no justice.”

Carmichael’s dream of black power has been longer on encouraging blacks to reject mainstream politics and the larger American commonweal than it has been on tangible results. If the decades since the passage of the Civil Rights Act have been disappointing, what can one say of the years since the clenched black fist, raised toward the heavens, has been a fact of public life? Is this not yet another instance of a dream that boomerangs? For there is a large difference between what generates media ink and what effectively alters quotidian conditions. In the case of black power, it is forever scouring what it rejects (in Carmichael’s words, “racist institutions and the values of this society”), and pointing toward the unified black consciousness it has yet to bring into being. Meanwhile, the beat of racial division, that long national nightmare from which we have yet to fully awaken, goes on.

Leadership, in short, has been a continuing problem, not only in terms of the vacuum left by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, but also in American politics generally. The relentless assault on American institutions—whether the result of the ascendancy of postmodernist “theory” or simply a fin de siecle malaise—has taken an enormous toll on formerly stable entities. And while the plaint about America’s decline-and-fall is at once too easy and often exaggerated, who can deny the palpable realities of drugs and urban crime, our shrinking economic base or national mood of unfocused anger? Those who care not a fig for poetry know W.B. Yeats’s line about the center no longer holding, and nod their heads in agreement.


Meanwhile, race relations—bad at the moment, and threatening to become much, much worse—exacerbate what can only be called a bad patch. Small wonder, then, that I found myself drawn to the following paragraph from Daydreams and Nightmares, Irving Louis Horowitz’s remarkable memoir of growing up Jewish in an increasingly black Harlem:

The experience of Harlem convinced me that the relationship of blacks and Jews in America has special historical significance. This is not to make fatuous claims about harmony and common cause; rather, to assert that these two distinctly different peoples— sometimes marching arm in arm as in the civil rights struggle, other times in bitter confrontation as in Bedford-Stuyvesant—tell us much about the moral status of the nation at any given moment in time. They tell a story of aspirations realized and thwarted, cultures transmitted yet bowdlerized, and groups seeking security in race or religious solidarity up against individuals seeking to escape the boundaries of group life as such.

As my admittedly selective examples show, Mark Twain was hardly alone in spinning out a dream that shot him. And while I suspect that others could provide countless examples of the same phenomenon, my point is that race is likely to be at the center. For too long now race has been the taboo subject, the topic that most frequently occasions paralysis, and then an uneasy silence. Better to dummy up than to risk even the appearance of insensitivity much less the heavier charge of being a racist. There are, however, signs that the times are a “changin”. One of them is the national debate over affirmative action that may, just may, move beyond the opportunism of presidential politics and the sound-biting it encourages. Another is Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism, a thick, meticulously researched book which argues that if racism has an identifiable point of origin, it can also have an ending. His analysis, as well as his conclusions, are not likely to go unchallenged (indeed, I can imagine readers quarreling with virtually every one of its 700 pages), but what finally matters is a significant change in how we conduct our ongoing debate about race. For we have gone about as far as a shouting match pitting black rage against white backlash can take us. Too much is at stake—for the nation and more important, for our national dream of liberty and justice—to postpone honest talk any longer. We cannot live our lives on a raft, floating wherever the river might take us, but we must find ways to bring what we stand for and what we are into congruence. Too many people—black and white, men and women—have given their very lives to this endeavor for those of us who enjoy the dream’s many blessings to do less.


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