Two recent incidents have made clear to me how the culture wars can stultify the fecund complexity of our common life. Recently, my wife and I attended a lecture on James Baldwin, whom I consider a fascinating figure. The presenter, assuming the presence of only staunch liberals, made a passing comment on how Malcolm X would also be a great figure to study. And, in the next breath, the presenter stated that “even though he had conservative friends,” he felt that conservatives are evil.
Putting aside, for the moment, how demonized labeling of opponents, or of anyone, is at the base of many of America’s current challenges—I thought to myself, “is he remotely aware of how conservative Malcolm X was?” Malcolm X, for example, was committed to absolute marital fidelity, communal economic self-reliance, communal self-defense using weapons, faith, and, importantly, internal communal reform and responsibility as means of empowerment. Interestingly, this sounds a great deal like many white farmers, welders, and truck drivers I have known.
About a week after that presentation, a wonderful couple joined my wife and me for dinner in our home. Jeff saw a large black and white photo print of Richard and Mildred Loving on our wall. Now, such a portrait of the parties to the Supreme Court case declaring anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional was bound to have meaning to the two interracial couples there that evening. However, Jeff candidly explained that the Lovings were very different than he has thought they were most of life. I mean, as Jeff declared, “he was a redneck!”
Yee Haw! It is precisely because Richard and Mildred represent the deep earthy country roots of both whites and blacks in America that we love them so much. They were, in many senses, libertarians. They just wanted to be left alone to love and marry whom they chose, farm and cook, live simply without bother, and take care of themselves.
The Loving ethos represents America’s best hope. White self-reliant communalism is well known. It is seen in movements ranging from confederate succession, to white nationalism, to the Tea Party, to more beneficent renderings such as those by Wendell Berry, Patrick Deneen, and Rod Dreher. But black self-reliant communalism is just as strong and just as important—not only for American tradition, but for American hopes for future flourishing. It can be traced from Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, to slave freedom schools, to Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. Consider the words of Booker T. Washington in Up from Slavery:
Among a large class, there seemed to be a dependence upon the government for every conceivable thing… How many times I have wished … I might remove the great bulk of these people into the country districts and plant them upon the soil—upon the solid and never deceptive foundation of Mother Nature…
But, alas, it can be easy for liberals to dismiss Booker T. Washington as part of an aberrant line of black conservatives leading up to Clarence Thomas and, I suppose, Ben Carson. And so it is important to also consider Malcom X and the Black Panthers, who are much more revered by both black and white liberals. And so it is fascinating to compare words of Black Panther Huey Newton with George Washington, both declaring the necessity for armed self-defense against outside centralized tyranny. In his tract In Defense of Self-Defense, Newton declares “an unarmed people are slaves or subject to slavery at any given moment.” And George Washington proclaims in his First Annual Message to Congress that “a free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite. . .”
A more accurate narrative is to see egalitarian gains as a product of black communal and local empowerment—freedom schools, Rosa Parks, civil rights movement, the NAACP—which skillfully triggered helpful outside forces within particular historical contexts
Perhaps this understanding of self-reliant communalism within the black tradition may change the way we view the African-American narrative and thus allow more of us to jettison the labels of conservative and liberal, leading to less cultural and political dysfunction and, perhaps, lay the foundations for greater civility. The black narrative is widely understood to have a philosophical commitment to the need for a benevolent exogenous force to eradicate local communal bias in favor of equality: thus, the central belief in the importance of Lincoln, FDR, the Supreme Court, Kennedy, etc. But, I would argue, a more accurate narrative is to see egalitarian gains as a product of black communal and local empowerment—freedom schools, Rosa Parks, civil rights movement, the NAACP—which skillfully triggered helpful outside forces within particular historical contexts, but which, for communal health, must not become dependent upon outside forces. The movement for greater racial equality through the arm of centralized federal actors up to the 1960’s was contextually pragmatic, and not a philosophical approach. Such a narrative could understand that in our current epoch, with the breakdown of family, community, and intermediate structures, it is time to lessen reliance upon centralized outside solutions (albeit slowly).
Culture war narratives continue to divide black and white middle and working classes, to the detriment of both communities. And the populism of each group is largely motivated by external enemies rather than a desire for internal renewal, which is the lifeblood of healthy communalism. However, local, self-reliant communalism, I would argue, is the central aspect of each community’s American tradition, and we should emphasize this commonality to build stronger coalitions. Of course, unfortunately, the self-reliant communalism of both blacks and whites has too often been xenophobic and parochial. We must never uncritically mine the past, but we must draw on the best of the past while forging forward. And thus we can emphasize a Loving ethic (obvious double entendre intended), in which our localism recognizes the beauty of all of humanity. There is need to outline further community and policy principles based upon such a loving self-reliant communalism. But the first step is to recognize that dysfunctional government is not the end of the world. Rather, it is the hummus in which vibrant human communities can take root.