On January 20, 2008, Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States. In his inaugural address, he pointed out that “…a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” The 2008 election was a hard fought and bitter contest in a divided nation, but even many of the new president’s most ardent adversaries recognized that his election might signal a turning point in the history of race relations in this country.
Three years later, it is obvious how much further we have to go. The nation’s reaction to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin in Florida on February 26 has exposed the divisions that remain. Even though both white and black Americans are outraged by what happened to this teenager, shot dead while walking home from buying candy at a store, they interpret this incident very differently. Commentary on this event written by white Americans almost always focuses on the complexity of the issues involved: the uncertain facts, the checkered histories, the ambiguous law. Although they know that what happened was terrible, most white Americans are not sure who is most to blame.
Many African Americans, on the other hand, have taken to the streets to protest what to them is a straightforward and familiar story. This story is simply that a young, black boy came under suspicion and was killed because he looked and dressed like a young, black boy. And after he was killed, the local authorities were willing to let the man who killed him get away with it.
To a large extent, white and black Americans still live in different Americas. White Americans live in an America that has flaws, that sometimes fails, but where these failures are slowly being addressed through the institutions of government and law. Black Americans live in an America that continues to fail every day, that does not really care about what happens to young black men and where racism, more often than not, is protected by the powers that be. When white and black Americans can interpret one event so differently, the process of racial reconciliation in America is far from complete.
This past October, members of the National Network of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts gathered at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, the cradle of the civil rights movement, for their 2011 National Conference. The conference’s theme was “Reconciliation in History, Literature, and Music,” and two of the its plenary lectures are published in this issue. In his talk, “Are We Still of Any Use?” Charles Marsh spoke about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time in the United States, a period when he learned how to live the life of an engaged scholar. And in “The Terrible Pangs of Compromise,” Trudier Harris explored what a century’s worth of African-American literature can teach us about the painful path of reconciliation.
It is one thing to eliminate formal, legal racism or for African Americans to assume a larger role in our nation’s leadership; it is entirely another to achieve genuine reconciliation between white and black America. Reconciliation creates the possibility of a new community. It occurs only through a long, slow process, and as important as Barack Obama’s election was to this process, the process of racial reconciliation in this country is far from complete. As President Obama observed three years ago, “[B]ecause we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass.” Americans of all colors believe that reconciliation is happening and that someday it will finally be achieved. But for now, it remains a dream of one beloved community, a dream as yet unfilled.