Culture and History for the Age of Trump

History doesn't always tell us how to get it right. It sometimes warns us of the cost of getting it wrong. Art steeped in that history, like John Lewis' graphic novel trilogy, March, can remind us, if we're paying attention.

March: Book One
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
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August 2013
March: Book Two
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
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January 2015
March: Book Three
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
Top Shelf
August 2016

The Little Art Theater in Yellow Springs, Ohio, was packed for the late night show on the Saturday after Election Day. But we weren’t there to see a cult movie.

We gathered to see one of the village’s favorite sons, Dave Chappelle, host Saturday Night Live for its first episode after Donald Trump was elected President (Chappelle lives here; I wrote about that connection in 2006). Movie theaters don’t normally get to host screenings of live network TV shows, but somebody had a brilliant idea, somebody else made a few phone calls to get the requisite permissions, and the party was on.

And goodness knows we needed it. Yellow Springs is a tiny oasis of deep, progressive blue in southwestern Ohio’s swath of deep, conservative red. The surrounding towns all went for Trump, which surprised absolutely no one. But many in Yellow Springs spent the days after the election in a haze, trying to come to grips with the election’s results and worrying about the fate of the nation. We were only beginning to emerge from that haze by the time the show aired, and some laughter would indeed be a mighty good pain killer.

Chappelle provided it in his opening monologue, decrying America for electing an internet troll as its President, and in the following skit, in which he and Chris Rock poo-poohed white liberals for their onslaught of despair, as if black folks hadn’t ever experienced such a thing here. Overall, the evening was a hit, as it gave the town a chance to exhale and gird itself for the long slog ahead.

An important part of that evening was the show’s musical guest, A Tribe Called Quest. They’d just released their first album in 18 years: We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, a rippling mélange of beats, rhymes, and political life made all the more powerful by the passing of Tribe member Phife Dawg in March, after much of the recording had been completed. On the show, Q-Tip called for the studio audience (and, by extension, us in the Little Art) to stand and join hands, before launching into the of-the-moment “We the People” (“all of you black folk you must go / all of you Mexicans you must go”), with Tribe unfurling a mural of their departed comrade when it came time for his verse.

But while the album’s release may serve as black pop’s first post-Trump marker due to the timing of its release, the record was made back in the winter and spring, well before any general election votes were cast. Tribe wasn’t responding to the popular vote or the plight of Rust Belt whites, but instead to the realities they see and feel as grown-ass black men, working together in joy for the first time since like forever. Such love and validation have been hard to come by lately, what with black folk of all ages and gender identifications getting shot on a seemingly regular basis. Hillary Clinton winning the election wouldn’t have changed much, if anything, of the album’s real impact or meaning.

While those of us who were around back then still cherish Tribe classics The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993) and see the new work in that light, we can only wonder what younger generations make of it. Tribe’s storied past might mean little to them, as it presumably doesn’t for the blissfully ahistoric Lil Yachty. But does the album’s full-bodiedness — rhythmically, lyrically, vocally and production-wise, it’s nothing if not urgent and immediate — mean anything to ears weaned on this era’s lonely-at-the-top ennui or minimalism and vocal manipulations? Or, in the wake of Kendrick Lamar and Black Lives Matter, are they hungry for music that speaks to their wokeness?

If it’s the latter, then it’s entirely appropriate that such a message comes from some of the genre’s elders. We are about to plunge into uncertain and possibly terrifying times, but as Chappelle’s SNL humor noted, we have been through uncertain and terrifying times before. Art that reminds us of those times, and of how we faced them down then and can do so again, maybe especially valuable at the dawn of the Trump presidency. “Hard times”, sang Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band 40 years ago in a song that referenced the styles of 40 years before that, “we can get over”.

A few days after the SNL broadcast, I ventured down a winding back road outside of Yellow Springs to Wilberforce, to see an adaptation of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles: 1992 at Central State University.

Smith created Twilight in the wake of the 1991 beating by police of motorist Rodney King, videotaped by a random citizen years before cell phones, but spread virally all the same, and the violent disruptions of 1992 after those officers were found not guilty of any crime. She interviewed about 200 Los Angelinos about their emotions and experiences, from cops to King’s relatives to reporters to Reginald Denny, the truck driver caught at the worst possible place at the worst possible time for a white man to be caught. She distilled 25 of those characters into a one-woman show in which she performed each story as a monologue, reflecting a city about to come apart at its cultural seams, needing only the one good tug the verdict provided. As adrift as those voices were from each other, it became an ex-gangbanger known as Twilight who tried to express some hope:

And I know
That in order for me to be a full human being
I cannot forever dwell in darkness
I cannot forever dwell in idea
If identifying with those like me
And understanding only me and mine.

(I’ll note, in a nod to serendipity, that I bought a copy of the complete Twilight monologues years ago, at a used bookstore in Yellow Springs.)

A cast of 13 Central State students, none of whom were alive when Rodney King was beaten, took on the challenge of rendering the voices Smith captured all by herself. The performances were uneven, but they reflected a level of engagement with a time they’d never experienced (the only nods to now: each cast member showed the audience the King videotape from their smartphones before the second act began, making that time’s urgency clear for those who didn’t already know it all too well; and they all held candles and wore TWILIGHT-emblazoned hoodies during the final monologues). I talked to a couple of performers after the show: neither knew anything about the incident before doing the production (What are they teaching in schools these days? Sad!), but both acknowledged how what was happening in America while they were rehearsing this production helped inform their approach to it.

No one thought we’d ever need to say this, but here goes: the 1992 Los Angeles Smith portrayed isn’t all that different from the 2016 America we just lived through. We are all in our own little tribes, preoccupied with our particular issues and scorning the other tribes for not sharing our preoccupation. Los Angeles then did not make the leap of faith to get past those barriers before all hell broke loose. It’s not clear if we will now, and it would be equally unclear had Clinton won. But anyone seeing a production of Twilight nowadays would not be able to claim that our current cultural polarization just started a minute ago.

History doesn’t always tell us how to get it right. It sometimes warns us of the cost of getting it wrong. Art steeped in that history can remind us, if we’re paying attention, of either extreme. But, sadly, there is that telling caveat: “if we’re paying attention”.

Hard Times, We Can Get Over

Many people have been paying attention to March, the biography of civil rights activist John Lewis told in a graphic literature trilogy by Lewis and collaborators Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. The first two volumes, from 2013 and 2015, were widely praised and honored, and the concluding volume received a National Book Award in November.

Culture gives us the tools to understand the past and apply it to the present. It draws us a roadmap, it gives us hope.

March employs the age-old tactic of a flashback to frame its story, but this isn’t just any old flashback. Book One begins on the morning of 20 January 2009, as Rep. John Lewis, an esteemed member of Congress, prepares for the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s 44th President. A visitor to his office that morning asks a random question, transporting us back to Lewis’ childhood on his family’s farm in rural Alabama in the ’40s.

Times were hard, but Lewis didn’t realize how hard they’d been until his uncle took him on a trip up North in 1951, where he wasn’t hounded by the mores of Jim Crow. Woke, he started sneaking off to school when the family preferred he stay home to work the farm. He ended up going to a theological school in Nashville, where he met many of his fellow pioneers in the modern civil rights movement, and also crossed paths for the first time with Martin Luther King, Jr. The teachings on nonviolence he attended answered the yearning he’d long felt for realizing a social gospel. Book One ends in the aftermath of a bloody but successful 1960 sit-in campaign against Nashville lunch counters, with King himself coming to town to commend the activists on their success:

No lie can live forever,let us not despair.
The universe is with us.
Walk together, children.
Don’t get weary.

The pace quickens in Book Two, with Lewis and others facing the full brunt of segregation’s viciousness when they tried to extend the sit-in campaign throughout Nashville. But for a quirk of scheduling, Lewis would have been on the 1961 Freedom Riders bus that was firebombed outside Anniston, Alabama, while challenging federal anti-segregation laws on interstate transportation. The continued insistence on nonviolent confrontation of Jim Crow landed Lewis and others in the notorious Parchman, MS penitentiary for a stretch. The pervasiveness of Southern white “supremacy”, and the brutality Southern officials had no hesitation to deploy in upholding it, made the balancing act especially tricky for the John F. Kennedy administration in Washington, and tested the resolve of Lewis and his fellow activists, especially with a cohort of new activists less committed to nonviolence nipping at their heels.

It’s in Book Two of the series that we begin to see the challenges of keeping the movement together, and where those who never learned the story before (either through history lessons in school, documentary reporting like the Eyes on the Prize film series or Taylor Branch’s books, or immersive experiences like the one I had at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change) can begin to appreciate exactly how much hell Lewis, King and all the others faced. This is also where newcomers to the history can see the raw faith and courage it took to face and survive the dogs and water cannons of Birmingham in 1963, and the granular strategy it took to mount and realize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28 August 1963.

That moment — best known for King’s Mahalia Jackson-prodded “I Have a Dream” speech, and also for the revolution-spouting speech Lewis was prevented from giving (but is included as Book Two’s afterpiece) — helped bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but not without an awful cost: three weeks after the event, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed during Sunday school, killing those four little girls and obliterating the face of a stained-glass Jesus (as captured in the book’s final image).

That’s where Book Three begins, with the determination that the movement had to find a way to respond. In the wake of that carnage, the decision was made to escalate activities in a small Alabama city where one lone organizer had been working to register blacks to vote: Selma.

Thanks to Ana DuVernay, many of us now know how that movie ends. But before that scene comes the murder of three young activists — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman — in Philadelphia, Missouri, and the audacious attempt of a Mississippi delegation led by Fannie Lou Hamer to bumrush the 1964 Democratic presidential convention. Book Three captures in gut-wrenching detail the anguish of the former, and the high drama and political intrigue surrounding the latter. The actual signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is but a blip against that backdrop. As Lewis characterizes the moment, “We were in the middle of a war.”

Even a head-clearing trip to Africa bankrolled by Harry Belafonte did little to ease Lewis’ spirit. The work in Selma wasn’t getting any easier, and neither was keeping together the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”), which Lewis led. But he and the others on the ground persevered, even getting an endorsement of sorts from Malcolm X.

Lewis faced a conflict with his SNCC colleagues, who didn’t want King to parachute into Selma to lead a march after they’d been doing so much heavy lifting. But Lewis broke with SNCC on that point and took an awful beating the first time marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Book Three’s artwork makes vivid the savagery they faced, taking full advantage of the medium’s ability to evoke the most visceral reactions in a reader’s imagination.

The courage of the marchers, of course, helped lead to the passage and signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, “the last day of the movement as I knew it”, Lewis says in retrospect. Book Three ends with Lewis at home after Obama’s inauguration, going through 28 voice mails from people compelled to call him after seeing a black man take the oath of office almost 41 years to the day after Lewis nearly gave his life for the right of black people to vote.

Anyone wanting to know about Lewis’s life in those 41 years would do well to consult his Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Indeed, there are numerous histories and biographies accounting for the trudging steps of black progress in those years, beginning with SNCC firebrand Stokely Carmichael’s declaration of a thing called “Black Power” and King’s confrontation with Northern racism in Chicago, both a year after Selma. But the March trilogy shows how one person possessed by a vision can unite with others who share that vision to bring it to life, no matter the toll it exacts.

To simply say such a thing can seem like an empty platitude. To see it rendered as a work of culture, on the other hand, makes it more tangible, and by extension more applicable, to and for its audience. March goes places the rigorously researched accounts of the Civil Rights Movement don’t, burrowing into the marrows of its audience so that they not only understand, but also feel what Lewis went through. He and his colleagues not only spoke truth to power, they fought the power head-on and won.

We surely will need much more of what March gives us in the weeks and months ahead. We will need reminders that others once faced much worse than whatever awaits us. We will need encouragement, we will need examples. We will need reasons to believe that whatever we’ll need to do can actually be done.

Culture gives us the tools to understand the past and apply it to the present. It draws us a roadmap, it gives us hope. Ours is still the long and daunting work of manifesting the change we wish to see, but we must always know we stand on proud and mighty shoulders as we trod that path. We must also realize that by drawing sustenance from their example, and by moving the rock however far we can, we also honor them, which is part of our obligation, too.

For its second number on that SNL episode, Tribe performed “The Space Program”, the opening track of the new album. Its chorus reads as follows:

It’s time to go left and not rightGotta get it together forever
Gotta get it together for brothers
Gotta get it together for sisters
For mothers and fathers and dead niggas
For non-conformists, one hitter quitters
For Tyson types and Che figures
Let’s get it together, come on let’s make it
Gotta make it to make it, to make it, to make it, to make it
To make something happen, to make something happen
To make something happen, let’s make something happen

Elders speaking in tongues native to today, to audiences with roots in culture’s soil, and everyone’s eyes on history’s prize. Hard times, we can get over.