Web Extra: Harry Williams Jr.
Harry Williams Jr. is the Laird Bell Professor of History at Carleton. Among the courses he teaches are “African American History;” “Black Atlantic History,” focusing on the relationship between Ghana and the United States; and “U.S. History from 1865 to 1945.”
I’m Harry McKinley Williams, Jr., named from my father, obviously. I am the Laird Bell Professor of History at Carleton College. It’s too bad I don’t have a quote before me of James Baldwin—I’ll have to paraphrase it. In the book No Name in the Street, Baldwin goes to see one of his childhood friends who lives with his mother and daughter in Harlem, and he has taken with him the suit that he wore either at Martin Luther King’s funeral or at a Carnage Hall event in which King also appeared, and he tells his friend—or really he tells the reader—“Well time has gone on and exacted its inexorable mathematic.” And then he says something to that he quotes to the effect, “But who am I now but an aging, lonely, politically outrageous, sexually dubious freak?”
Sometimes I use that expression to describe myself. That’s a paraphrase, but I think I have all of those descriptors there. He’s being ironic I think. Certainly at that point in his life, he was aging, had plenty of friends, but was still lonely. Sexually dubious speaks of the fact that in a hyper-heterosexist society to be gay as he was, and then trying to be bisexual really, was something that would make him sort of dubious—a dubious sexual entity to the majority of Americans then and now. I would say that having all of those descriptors as a composite would indeed make one freakish as it were, but I certainly would like to think in my better moments that he was being ironic and self-mocking.
I’m also 61 years old. I’ve been at Carleton for 21 years. I teach African-American history, black Atlantic history focused on the relationship between Ghana and the United States. I’m going to teach a course next term on the second half of U.S. history, 1865–1945. I also teach a course on American intellectual history from the romantic period on transcendentalism called the “Concord Intellectuals.” I have many interests.
How I define peace in my life is a function of where I am in chronological age and probably a historical age too. At this juncture, I’m seeking and striving after personal peace in my own life. Again quoting Baldwin, “I’m not going to live another 61 years.” That may be unfortunate, that may be for the good. I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. But at 61 years, one starts thinking about legacy, and I’ve also started thinking about the opposite of that—of the future. And even the present, those three components.
At present, I want to make peace with my great anger at America. I want to make peace with myself. I want to make peace with the people I hold dear and close—my bosom buddy friends, my thick and thin friends. And when I say peace, I’m defining peace in those domains as a more humane, a more positive orientation toward self and others.
Now the first one I mentioned was peace with America. I don’t think that I will ever become peaceful if by that I mean acceptance or full accommodation to some horrific things that have happened to people of African descent in the United States. I
don’t ever want to make peace with that. I hope in some sense, if this is out of contradiction, to go out screaming, not because I would fear death, but to sort of be a witness at the end that we’ve made some horrible mistakes toward what is professed to be a more perfect union, a more civil society. And I want to remind people of that.
Now this is all contradictory, I know it. It seems all muddled. But going back to that first part, I don’t think I’ll ever make peace if peace means being satisfied with the history of black people in this United States. That’s not an area for acceptance, if by acceptance I mean peace. But I mean peaceful in a sense that I am developing, if I dare say, a more sophisticated analytical approach and thought about transformative possibilities, but also a quality that Derrick Bell calls “racial realism.” And racial realism according to NYU law professor Derrick Bell speaks to the fact of the great power differential in American public, civic, economic, and political life, and that the majority rarely if ever does anything that does not immediately accrue benefits to the majority.
Now that’s a racial realist position and that theory is controversial because it goes against the grain of a great American optimism. It goes against the grain of the myth of enduring ascendency, progress, etc., etc. I have come to believe that we live in a tragic age. Let me put it like this: I think a racial realist requires a perspective that admits that we live and have lived—and as we as a Black man now—in a tragic age. And by tragedy, I’m using that definition that a tragedy is the opposite of a “Little Mary Sunshine” optimism, a “We are the World” optimism, a smile and be happy optimism.
A tragic conception of history, a tragic conception of life means that we accept the bitter and the sweet. A tragic conception forecloses blind optimism. A tragic conception requires one to conduct oneself in the world with a kind of optimism, but a kind of optimism that does not mean when failure inevitably occurs once it is catastrophic. I don’t know if that makes sense or not.
A tragic sense means that I see the world as it is, that evil—well I’m speaking now like an old Calvinist or something—that evil even marches, and I believe evil marches in the world. I believe that there are evil people in the world, that people do evil for any number of reasons. And that evil in a biblical sense and a spiritual sense is in enduring combat with good. I accept that. I don’t like it, but a racial realist forces me to accept the good and the evil. And as it pertains to the historical experiences of black people in the United States, my reading if history and my living for 61 years tells me that I can no longer afford to be an internal, unabashed, unaltered optimist; that I must make peace unwillingly with the reality. That’s long and convoluted, I know.
But indeed there is a richness. There’s a great richness, there’s a great complexity. I tell my students, “Life is very dirty. Life is messy,” you know. The birth process is messy. I’ve never seen anyone really die except on TV in \film, but that’s all staged, that’s all prettified, you know. But I’ve heard about it. For example, when one of my uncles died 20-some years ago and a statement that stays in my mind is that Uncle Emmett had “a rough way getting out of this world.” Cancer, of course. I saw my mother dying of cancer, but I wasn’t there at the moment of death and I know that she suffered. I have to come to terms with that, and that’s all part of the peace process; shall I dare use that term in this sense? But that richness—that richness, that variety, that complexity, that complicatedness, is what gives us our humanity, really. It gives us a sophisticated, non-naïve worldview. My fault is that Americans are too optimistic, but then you may come back to me and say, “What are the benefits of pessimism?” These are philosophical questions about the meaning of life that I’ve been grappling with for some time.
One of the heretical things that I’ve done according to my friends, is I’ve taken out all the telephones in my house. I have been without a landline apparatus for over a year. I still pay my telephone bill every month. In fact, just three weeks ago I went to Radio Shack and there was a sale. I did my little research—Consumer Reports is it? Yes. I went to Radio Shack, and their phones were on sale. I think I got three phones— one for upstairs, one for my bedroom, and one for downstairs in my study. I have yet to hook them up. I’d gotten to the point that it absolutely shattered my tranquility at home to hear a telephone.
My home is a sanctuary. I’ve made it into a space that’s full of art and books. I have thousands of CDs. I’ve made this little space, this little island in Northfield that I repair to after giving 110 percent of my life to the liberation of my call from students. And so when I go home I put my Brooks Brothers pajamas on, sometimes I make a pot of tea, I read, and I’m not disturbed by the ringing of the landline.
It’s interesting that I still pay for the bill. At some point, I’m going to hook up. I’ve been saying for the last two Saturdays, “Harry, connect the phones, charge the batteries.” Now, what would be the freakish part, if I can go back to that, is that I have two cell phones. I love gadgets. In January, I bought an iPhone. Two years ago, I bought a Blackberry. So now I have a Blackberry and I have an iPhone. I love gadgets. I’m a technological dinosaur, but there’s something about the new technology that I absolutely love.
I was at the Mall of America at the Apple Store about three weeks ago on a Saturday. It absolutely drove me crazy. That was not peaceful. That reminded me of my mother who avoided crowds when she was my age. And when I was much younger I said, “Oh, that’s an old fuddy duddy, that’s a strange person.” But now I understand how a source of peace is not being in the masses, in a throng like that. My equilibrium was destabilized, and I could hardly wait to get out of the Mall of America.
So I’m saying—this is all coming back to the point. That started that process (and this is ironic too) of disconnecting myself from landlines. I pinpoint it to coming through my return from China. My first visit to China was three years ago, and I was away for various projects the whole summer. When I got back in September, I had all of these messages. The red light was just beeping. I said, “I don’t have time to answer this. I don’t have time to answer this.”
I think I went through three or four months, a whole term, without listening to those calls. Finally, I called the switchboard here and I said, “I don’t want this telephone to disturb me. When I’m meeting students in office hours, when I’m reading, I don’t want to have the phone ringing. I don’t want to be distracted.” Now when you call me on my phone, it says (not even in my voice), “You’ve reached Professor Harry Williams. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.” You want to reach me, send e-mail.
Peace: Another gesture that’s important to me. Again I must emphasize that if folks want to reach me they know how to reach me. Because that’s one of the steps. Another step, I’m going to bed. I’m an early riser, I’m a morning person. I’m awake at 5:00. I mosey around. I’m probably up out of the bed at 6:00. My ritual—I do my tea, Chinese tea. No teabags, loose tea. Then I go downstairs. I turn my computer on in my office, and I sit in front of my sun lamp.
Another gesture toward acquiring a peaceful ambiance and a peaceful inner life: I swim at the senior citizens place. I don’t go where the beautiful people go, I go where there are people —you know, big stomachs and walkers— people who are “seasoned,” as my 21-year-old niece at James Madison University says. You know, you don’t have gray hair, you’re not an old man, you’re “easoned. I go where the seasoned people swim and enjoy the hot tub and the sauna.
Some of the obstacles that get in our way of the attainment of peace: In my view, a principal obstacle would be the failure to engage in rigorous self-analysis and to assess the outcome, however painful, contradictory, or complicated that outcome may be. I think the first gesture, the first movement toward peace, must be intellectual assessment. I mean individual assessment, individual inventory. You know, where do I stand in relationship to you? Where do I stand in relationship to my fellow human beings? Are my motives genuine? And if they are not genuine, how do I acknowledge my hidden agenda? How do I accept and deal with them my motives, revise them, or say (and sometimes we must), “This is the way it is.”
And then if we move from the individual self assessment, self inventory, self reading, we must strive to do that on a collective basis. It sounds awfully romantic. I want to think in terms of our public policy, in terms of our political systems, in terms of our political structure. But that can’t happen because there’re too many obligations, there’re too many perks, as it were. There’s big money. There’s big ego payment. There’s big status in not doing the kind of societal, social, structural inventory taking that I think will lead to peace.
Now coming back to that. A person reading this or a person hearing this may say, “My God, this is a person, a Romantic person with a capital R. This guy is dealing in idealism. This guy is a Brook Farm partisan. That may be so. I guess what I’m trying to say is I actually look at all these issues from all kinds of perspectives, and while they may come out muddled, I think that there is a grain or a strain or a thread that will lead toward my conceptualization of peace. A model.
What immediately comes to mind is a kind of quietness, a kind of awestruckness, a kind of wonder that I’ve felt in communion with others. People I don’t know, say in a great European cathedral. Whenever I go to Europe, I always go to the grand cathedrals. I love architecture, I love those massive, massive structures. I make it a point of going whether I’m in Germany, whether I’m in France, whether I’m in England; but I go into these spaces, and they’re sacred and they’re quiet and there’s a beautiful interior. The stained glass and the wood and the figurines, and there’s a hushness there, and I think that is the epitome of a kind of peace that I cherish.
What’s important about it is that I’m sitting with people that I don’t know. I don’t know who’s next to me or who’s in front of me or who’s behind me. And in fact, maybe there are only five people in the entire cathedral, but we are one. We are one in that sacred space, and I find that awfully peaceful.
Invariably when I’m there, I think about my parents and I always say a prayer for them, and I thank them for their battles and their struggles, and how poor washer women, domestics working in white folks’ kitchens, gave me something, a kind of strength and a kind of fortitude and kind of humility too, that has anchored me all of these years. So I always say a prayer for my mother and my grandmother and my aunts and my uncles. If there’s a candle, I light a candle in their memory. I think for me that’s emblematic of a kind of peace that is just awesome. Oh I want reconciliation, but I think that the country is not prepared to do what’s necessary morally and economically to address what must be done to foster and shape reconciliation.
Again, going back to the self-inventory. The unexamined life is not worth living. Well, a lot of people are not examining their lives and they continue to live. So yeah, I’m hoping for reconciliation. I’m hoping for reconciliation, but I’m not going to hold my breath for it. An additional reason I think that would make reconciliation difficult, if not impossible, is an assessment of what power requires, one. Two is, who is going to be in charge of the terms or creating the terms of reconciliation? I think that’s probably the best way to put
it—reconciliation on what terms, on whose terms? Who’s doing the defining? What are the requirements of reconciliation, and are Americans adult enough to engage in that painful process?
We hear on TV all the time, “Now we can heal.” We hear on TV all the time, “A time for healing.” In my experience, I found very few people who are generally concerned with healing. And maybe this has something to do with human nature. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that under this mask of civility we still are in a state of nature.
As one of my professors used to say, “We’re red in tooth, in claw,” you know; that we all have claws, that we all have fangs, and that we enter into a contract, a social contract to ameliorate but not erase our primitive natures. You know, that’s what I mean, that’s what I’m trying to get at—that reconciliation will require an understanding or an assessment of what is necessary for reconciliation, but even having said that, maybe reconciliation is a romantic pipedream. It’s idealistic, and that what we as a people, as a nation must say, “This is the best that we can get.” Given the fact that in a civil society, there’s a contractual arrangement that we won’t go after each other in tooth and claw. I don’t know, I don’t know. I think it’s as good as we can get.
Hints: the prerogative, the imperative for peace, for self peace, for peace for Harry Williams. When I was the age of students that I’m teaching now, I was really idealistic. I thought that things that we’re talking about and doing, the problems that the country has right now would be sup. I’m looking for a book from when I was an undergraduate, because we did Nat Turner in my class. Yesterday, we talked again—all of you who were outside—we were talking about violence. That’s a question I raise. Is violence always bad, or (to be simplistic) can some positive features, benefits, come out of violence? I use the Civil War. Would slavery have been ended by mere rational discourse?
Well the discourses in the 1850s may have appeared to be rational, but in my understanding, in my reading, slavery could not have been ended when it ended without massive bloodletting. Hence the question, “Can we imagine any incidents in which violence produced a positive good?”
December 4, 1968: I was a sophomore in college and we were reading William Styron’s Nat Turner; ten Black writers respond in conjunction with the confessions of Nat Turner. And I brought this in this morning—not on the tailgates, I think that you should keep your books you know—but to tell them, I was reading this for forty-some years ago and the connection right now is, when I was reading that book in 1968, I thought of some of the issues we are talking about right now in terms of the estate of black people, in terms of reconciliation, that we would have been reconciled by now. Now, your listeners or readers may say, “Well, he doesn’t have a proper understanding of history; that it takes a long, long, long, long time.” I recognize that.
This reconciliation is not gonna happen in my lifetime. And the fact that we have Barack Obama as president means very little, because no one person can be an effective agent for change without cooperation and compromise from tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, in fact, millions of people. Barack Obama symbolizes a moment of progress in American History. One of the most ridiculous things we heard—and it was bandied about during the election but particularly after November the 4th—was that Barack Obama is the realization of Martin Luther King’s dream. That’s bullshit. That’s absolute bullshit. Barack Obama is a politician. Martin Luther King was a prophet, and the offices of the prophet and the offices of the politician are distinct.
I don’t think in a straight line, as you probably picked up. I’m all over the map. I’m thinking on my feet, and so if I were to listen to that tape—which I’m not going to ask to listen to, because if I were to listen to tape, I’d say, “You can’t use it,” because I’m all over the map. And it makes sense to me, but it might make sense to your reader and your listener. I said, “Send me the publication, I stand on everything I said.” Yeah.
I was thinking just a few minutes ago about this peace business. We talked about idealism. That John Lennon song, “All We Can Say is Give Peace a Chance.” I think however peace is defined, it must start on an individual level. Lennon and Yoko were giving peace a chance in their individual lives. And some of us, maybe this will be a ramification of the manifestations it took in the way it’s shaped, but I think that urge, that declaration, that call is beautiful. All we can say is give peace a chance. It’s that flower power. I think they realized that the striving after peace is complicated, dirty, but ultimately rewarding and perhaps elusive.