This spring (before the George Floyd protests, but after Breonna Taylor and so many others) in my Contemporary Civilization class we ended the semester by reading W. E. B. Du Bois, Franz Fanon, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston among those who wrote so powerfully about race in the 20th century. These voices and my students’ responses to them will keep me company through the summer, resonating ever more urgently in light of recent events.
“The Nation has not yet found peace for its sins” Du Bois wrote of the color line, which continues to serve as a “concrete test of the underlying principles of a great republic”—its “unattained ideals” and “systematic humiliation” (Souls of Black Folk, 1903).
In another time and place Fanon spoke about “a reign of terrible violence,” “the violence of the colonial regime and the counter-violence of the native” that “balance each other & respond to each other” in an “extraordinary reciprocity” (The Wretched of the Earth, 1963).
“I know my situation cannot be endured,” Baldwin spoke in a conversation with Margaret Mead about the state of policing in Harlem, “I know their role in my life” he said, “and I will not accept it […] The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger” (A Rap on Race, 1971).
“Besides the waters of the Hudson, I feel my race” Hurston wrote from Barnard, “I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again” (How It Feels to Be Colored Me, 1928).
We read and walked by the Hudson too (almost a century later)—the river now significant with the echoes of the night protest.