Mar 9, 2014
The Arc of Justice and the Long Run
Posted on Dec 23, 2013
By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.
North American cicada nymphs live underground for 17 years before they emerge as adults. Many seeds stay dormant far longer than that before some disturbance makes them germinate. Some trees bear fruit long after the people who have planted them have died, and one Massachusetts pear tree, planted by a Puritan in 1630, is still bearing fruit far sweeter than most of what those fundamentalists brought to this continent. Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.
Three years ago at this time, after a young Tunisian set himself on fire to protest injustice, the Arab Spring was on the cusp of erupting. An even younger man, a rapper who went by the name El Général, was on the verge of being arrested for “Rais Lebled” (a tweaked version of the phrase “head of state”), a song that would help launch the revolution in Tunisia.
Weeks before either the Tunisian or Egyptian revolutions erupted, no one imagined they were going to happen. No one foresaw them. No one was talking about the Arab world or northern Africa as places with a fierce appetite for justice and democracy. No one was saying much about unarmed popular power as a force in that corner of the world. No one knew that the seeds were germinating.
Henry David Thoreau wrote books that not many people read when they were published. He famously said of his unsold copies, “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes over 700 of which I wrote myself.” But a South African lawyer of Indian descent named Mohandas Gandhi read Thoreau on civil disobedience and found ideas that helped him fight discrimination in Africa and then liberate his own country from British rule. Martin Luther King studied Thoreau and Gandhi and put their ideas to work in the United States, while in 1952 the African National Congress and the young Nelson Mandela were collaborating with the South African Indian Congress on civil disobedience campaigns. You wish you could write Thoreau a letter about all this. He had no way of knowing that what he planted would still be bearing fruit 151 years after his death. But the past doesn’t need us. The past guides us; the future needs us.
An influential comic book on civil disobedience and Martin Luther King published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the U.S. in 1957 was translated into Arabic and distributed in Egypt in 2009, four decades after King’s death. What its impact was cannot be measured, but it seems to have had one in the Egyptian uprising which was a dizzying mix of social media, outside pressure, street fighting, and huge demonstrations.
The past explodes from time to time, and many events that once seemed to have achieved nothing turn out to do their work slowly. Much of what has been most beautifully transformative in recent years has also been branded a failure by people who want instant results guaranteed or your money back. The Arab Spring has just begun, and if some of the participant nations are going through their equivalent of the French Revolution, it’s worth remembering that France, despite the Terror and the Napoleonic era, never went back either to absolutist monarchy or the belief that such a condition could be legitimate. It was a mess, it was an improvement, it’s still not finished.
The same might be said of the South African upheaval Mandela catalyzed. It made things better; it has not made them good enough. It’s worth pointing out as well that what was liberated by the end of apartheid was not only the nonwhite population of one country, but a sense of power and possibility for so many globally who had participated in the boycotts and other campaigns to end apartheid in that miraculous era from 1989 to 1991 that also saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, successful revolutions across Eastern Europe, the student uprising in Beijing, and the beginning of the end of many authoritarian regimes in Latin America.
In the hopeful aftermath of that transformation, Mandela wrote, “The titanic effort that has brought liberation to South Africa and ensured the total liberation of Africa constitutes an act of redemption for the black people of the world. It is a gift of emancipation also to those who, because they were white, imposed on themselves the heavy burden of assuming the mantle of rulers of all humanity. It says to all who will listen and understand that, by ending the apartheid barbarity that was the offspring of European colonization, Africa has, once more, contributed to the advance of human civilization and further expanded the frontiers of liberty everywhere.”
The arc of justice is long. It travels through New Orleans, the city I’ve returned to again and again since Hurricane Katrina. It’s been my way of trying to understand not just disaster, but community, culture, and continuity, three things that city possesses as no place else in the nation. Hip-hop comes most directly from the South Bronx, but if you look at the 1970s founders of that genre of popular music, you see that some of the key figures were Caribbean, and if you look at their formative music, it included the ska and reggae that were infused with the influence of New Orleans. (In addition, that city’s native son and major jazz figure, Donald Harrison, Jr., was a mentor to seminal New York City rapper Notorious B.I.G.)
If you look at New Orleans, what you see is an astonishing example of the survival of culture—and of the culture of survival.
Maybe you’d have to do what I was doing in early 2011—poke around in the origins of American music in New Orleans—to be struck by the way so many essential parts of it came from Africa in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and some of it returned to that continent again in recent years. I was looking at maps, making maps, thinking about how to chart the unexpected ways immaterial things move through time and space.
The saddest map I have ever seen is the oft-published one of the triangle trade, a vicious circle that isn’t even a circle. It depicts the routes of the eighteenth and nineteenth century European traders who brought manufactured goods from their continent to West Africa to exchange for human beings who were then transported to the United States and the Caribbean to be exchanged for raw materials, especially sugar, rum, and tobacco. It’s a map that tells of people made into tools and commodities, but it tells us nothing of what the enslaved brought with them.
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