After George Floyd was killed I posted a story on Instagram about reading a book called The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson. I did. Perhaps it is a faux pas that Walter Johnson is white and this is the book I chose to read. I had the book on my stack because I came across it in the New York Times Books section, and when George Floyd happened, it seemed like the right book to read. The book should be required reading. Johnson is able to give substance to the phrase “systemic racism.” Johnson does it by focusing on the facts wrongly relegated to the footnotes of American history, the collateral damage that, as high school and college students, you learn about as if they were regrettable though necessary sacrifices for a greater purpose. Johnson also raises issues on the wonkier side of things, like urban planning and municipal budgeting. Each discussion, whether in-the-weeds wonkish or outright shocking, is executed with zest, clarity and force.
Throughout his story, Johnson puts America’s national lore on trial. He retells much of the American history we learn about in school, but traces it all through St. Louis. Johnson draws a damning through-line from Lewis and Clarks’ expedition to the book’s terminus in Ferguson, Missoui, with the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown.
I was in St. Louis — in Ferguson on Florissant — the night of the eruption unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. The second wave of unrest came on November 24, 2014 when a grand jury failed to indict Officer Darrel Wilson. If you have ever experienced an earthquake, you are familiar with the early shake and the harrowing silence and stillness that follow. I and countless other students crowded the television to catch a glimpse of the grand jury announcement. Stillness followed. Rather than watch things unfold on television, two friends and I drove to Ferguson to see things for ourselves.
It is difficult to say when you are witnessing something of signficance. Novels reveal facts to readers, one after the next, as the author intends. Plot can be difficult to see sometimes, but it’s there. Reality is different. It is near impossible to know when you have reached a watershed in reality. Near impossible. When the grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson, there was no question that the system had failed Michael Brown in life and then in death. I suspect it is the same sliver of brain responsible for the keenness of sense and perspicacity of movement one experiences during midnight earthquake tremors, that is responsible for our ability to make a choice or to experience an event and know without knowing its gravity.
My experience in St. Louis ended with the late titan of civil rights and civil disobedience, John Lewis. From his commencement speech, I still remember two lines precisely. First, Lewis said: “You have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to do your part.” Second, Lewis said of growing up black in a shotgun house in the deep South: “I know here, in St. Louis, at Washington University, you don’t know what I’m talking about. You have never seen a shotgun house. I know you’re smart and gifted, but you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Contemporary readers do not think of St. Louis as the heart of America, much less a broken one. Before living in St. Louis, I paid that whole part of the country little mind (I honestly do not think I knew how to spell Missouri). Once I moved back to Los Angeles I began to see St. Louis everywhere: on beer, on pet food, even in the political conversation (many of Trump’s “great” lines originate with Pat Buchanan’s editorials in the St. Louis Globe Democrat newspaper). In law school St. Louis was at every turn. In landmark cases about everything from personal jurisdiction to restrictive covenants to equal opportunity in higher education, the events precipitating the court cases happen — too often to write offas coincidence — in St. Louis. It was the Frequency Illusion at work. I finally noticed the gorilla running across the basketball court.
This essay began as a simple book review. Then George Floyd was killed. Meaningful dialogue ensued and then something unforuntate but not altogether unsurprising followed: among the righteous calls for justice and anti-racism, sounded insidious antisemitism.
This brought to mind an understated but nevertheless striking character from Johnson’s story: Mr. Ben the Jewish Grocer. He appears only once with little information offered about him. Mr. Ben is a neighborhood grocer in an account given by the incisive comic Dick Gregory, (who Dave Chapelle emulates often, e.g., “Not poor, just broke”), of his childhood in East St. Louis. Gregory talks about Mr. Ben as if he was a fixture, simply part of the landscape. This struck me because this is how Jews were talked about in Polish literature for decades leading up to the nineteenth century. (This lightbulb went off because I read Yankel’s Tavern, for a class in college).
The Jewish tavern-keeper in Polish literature and culture, like Mr. Ben for Gregory, was a fixture of the landscape. As if the Jew were a tree, it were simply part of the natural order of things. The tavern itself meant more than our contemporary watering holes do to us (although during quarantine, our memories of them and their hallowed debauchery mean a whole lot). In the Polish countryside, the tavern was the only communal gathering space, the heart of many rural communities. Depictions of Jews, and their security in Polish society changed in the nineteenth century for the worse. The Jewish tavern-keeper became suspect, and a traitor who sold out Polish farming peasantry to Tsarist Russian military units.
The history is not identical, of course. The harder you examine the analogy the less apt it might seem. It is, I think, apt enough to propose that there is less that divides Jews and Blacks over the course of history than it might seem today. It’s undeniable that Jews have benefitted as of late from their “whiteness.” Germans’ doing so in St. Louis is a subject of a great deal of Johnson’s analysis — at first they were foreign, but racial capitalism absorbed them by pitting them against Blacks. Like the Africans hunted and taken captive in the slave trade for centuries, Jews have also suffered unimaginable atrocities at the hands of other “whites.” It was Jews’ ability to integrate so effectively into Central and Eastern European society, owing partly to the color of their skin, during the Haskalah that gave rise not only to Jewish nationalism, a renewed ambition to maintain Jewry as a distinct People, but also to a savage antisemitic impulse, and wave after ferocious wave of blood libel trials and pogroms.
Measuring one People’s suffering against another’s is a waste of collective energy. John Lewis’ charge to “do your part” in building his beloved community, and his pointing out the limitation of the graduating class’ learning are two sides of the same coin. Lewis’ was a proposition of cultural pluralism that can tame the racial capitalism — system that harvests wealth from Black people, and survives by pitting groups against one another with promise of spoils of whiteness — that Johnson narrates in the Broken Heart of America. Voting is necessary. Laws are necessary. But as Lewis himself conceded, voting and laws are not sufficient. They are not the end, but the beginning of change. Not anti-Karen laws. Not holier-than-thou chirping of “check your privilege.” And not cancelling things we do not like to hear or see. Confronting inequity and understanding its origins and depth. Learning about, questioning, and appreciating the fixtures in the landscape is what, I think, on an individual level, John Lewis meant for all of us to do.
This, I think, is the essence of his fabled beloved community. Compassionate consciousness is itself an act of good trouble.