Race and Nation- Question 9/7

As we shift from constructions of (a) nation(s)–for can we really call it the same nation– which, to paraphrase Anderson, dream (or nightmare) in historical destinies rather than eternal contaminations, we move to texts that, in various ways, highlight the nation’ unfulfilled commitment/ lack of commitment to the ethnic/ racial equality that both Gellner and Anderson credit the nation with. Speaking generally(or specifically), how would you characterize this shift/ would you characterize it as a shift? What is the significance in terms of depictions “the nation” or even the capacity to depict “a nation”?

16 Responses to Race and Nation- Question 9/7

  1. Mia Edelstein says:

    I don’t know if anyone has the capacity to write the nation or any nation. Because of the intersectionality of identities, we all write the nation from different experiences inconceivable to or even exclusive of many people in the nation. This hasn’t stopped the American canon from privileging white, male experiences of the nation. It deems most others as merely representative of niche populations and experiences – regardless of how much of the American population they make up. For example, Catcher in the Rye is still regarded as a universal coming-of-age story despite its narrow focus on an upper-class, white, male teenager. And while there might be themes that cross racial, ethnic, and gender lines – like coming of age, parenthood, and love – our identities and how others define and respond to those identities are integral to how we experience these “themes.” I think of Anderson when we talk about writing the nation. Depicting our country with authority embodies the idea of an imagined community, where one writer thinks that they can speak for everyone including people they have never met and have little in common with aside from living in the same governmental boundaries. However, very few non-white, non-male writers have been recognized as legitimately representing this imagined community. Maybe it’s too simplistic to believe that one person’s writing can encompass everyone, and we should shift to, in this country especially, embracing that we must read all different voices to even get a sense of what is happening for different parts of the nation.

  2. Noah says:

    I don’t think the current situation is as hopeless as it seems.

    In the past century we’ve shifted into a more acceptingly multiethnic society. Before, it was easy for the dominant culture to believe that ideals of Liberty and Equality actually applied to all, because those who weren’t granted those freedoms were easily marginalized and obscured. But with a socially shifting society and the rise of democratized mass communication, it is now much more difficult for people to blindly accept all the patriotic platitudes about our country, because the oppressed and marginalized are now much more able to publicly communicate their circumstances. It is much more difficult now to silence the voices of the oppressed, and society, as a whole, is much more sympathetic.

    Though injustice persists, there are now very vocal outcries from across the nation denouncing such injustices, indicating that, as a whole, our society is recognizing its problems rather than disregarding them. Awareness of the problem is the first step to improving it.

    • Gilberto Rosa says:

      Noah, I disagree with your statement. Whereas, I can understand what you mean when you say there has been more attention on the fact that black people have been oppressed- this definitely does not equate to actual progress. This is actually a common argument that people make, it kind of falls under the “post-racial society” fallacy. At the bottom of it, it perpetuates the idea that the fight for racial justice falls entirely on the backs of people who are oppressed as a result of racial injustice. Everyone should fight for racial justice because it truly does benefit us all. However, black people have literally been talking about the cruelty of white supremacy since Europeans arrived on the African continent (I can send you some readings if you’d like) and not much has resulted from it. Though many people think that the ending of slavery solved all of black peoples’ problems, others have proven that America has found other ways to keep black people captive. Basically, an increase in surveillance does not equate to actual progress. We need to stop making arguments like this because they are not true and are holding us back from real progress.

    • Sydney Exler says:

      Responding both to you and Gilberto, I think that the shift in representation of the nation can be characterized both as a step, while also not significant enough (validating both of your claims). I think that it is hard to say, at the exact time when the readings we are analyzing were published, what they represented to the people consuming this content; however, retroactively we can comfortably highlight the unfulfilled commitment to racial equality that is evident. This is an important distinction because we can note that there was a shift in the representation of the nation, that should have (as I believe it did) triggered recognition of the evident racial inequality (both in practice and, especially in this case, in representation).

    • Alex Bordona says:

      I’m going to have to disagree with you as well, Noah.
      I don’t think the white majority ever believed that liberty and equality were supposed to apply to all. At the founding of the nation, they applied to propertied white men. Now they apply to all white people, and those in power do not have any intention of granting them to all Americans.
      Many people in the white majority, as is evidenced by a number of the opinions of students on this campus, do blindly accept patriotic platitudes, or at least do no real work to challenge them. There are also many oppressed people in this country that have no voice. The majority of them, I would say. There are hundreds of thousands of people of color, more specifically Black men, that are imprisoned in this country; they do not have a voice. There are working-class people who do not have access to the internet or social media for a number of reasons; they do not have a voice. There are people who are unable to effectively communicate in English; they do not have a voice. Even the few members of oppressed communities who do have a voice are often discredited or overlooked or accused of “playing the race card” or are told “but look at all the progress we’ve made!” In other words, they are silenced.
      If society is more sympathetic, then why do we still have cops not being indicted for killing Black folks? Why are people still silent when trans women of color are brutally murdered? Why do we still talk about “Black-on-Black” crime? Why do we only care about death when it happens to white folks?
      While I do agree that there are outcries happening now, Gilberto is correct when he says that there has never been a time when Black folks were not speaking out about the oppression and injustices they face in this country. The difference is now we’re being forced to listen. Listening, however, does not imply action. White people have been aware of “the problem” since the beginning of this nation. Now that we live in a more public and performative society, some white people feel they have to pretend to care. Most still don’t. In short, not much has changed.

  3. Sarah Terrazano says:

    In Anderson’s definition of a nation as an “imagined political community,” even though a nation is “imagined” because you can never know everyone in it, a nation is still described as a “community.” Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” portrays a starkly different perspective of a nation than Anderson or Gellner had in mind when discussing the “community” of nations, instead exposing our nation’s failed commitment to equality. I think this shows less of a shift in the nation and more of the drastic differences in perspective and privilege across the United States. To characterize the writers’ differences as a shift means that the U.S. at one point fulfilled Anderson’s idea of community, but I do not think inequality was ever absent from the nation. For instance, Anderson asks how nationalism can make people willing to die for the nation. But in the context of “Big Boy Leaves Home,” this question is challenged; Wright instead suggests how nationalism (if that’s what we can call it) makes people willing to kill other members of the nation.

    Because I don’t see the U.S. shifting into a more equal nation, but rather as trying to recognize different oppressions and a history of inequality, I have to disagree with Noah that we are moving to a more equal society because “vocal outcries from across the nation” show that “our society is recognizing its problems.” Just because it is harder to silence marginalized voices doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, or that they are taken seriously. In some ways, the age of mass communication is misleading because vocalization is conflated with progress and equality. Additionally, describing the shift of society “as a whole” is problematic in the same way as trying to write a whole nation — groups are inherently excluded.

  4. Siobhan McKenna says:

    I do think that we can consider this all one “nation” because even though there are many different groups living in this country and we definitely don’t know everyone who lives here, these differences are actually what unites us under the term “American”. To be American, in my opinion, is to be able to live with people who may be different from oneself, and embrace and understand these differences and use them to work together. However, I do agree that it is nearly impossible to write an entire nation, especially one as ethnically and culturally diverse as the United States. Even though we are one nation, there are many sub-nations within the overarching nation of “America”, and it would be a very difficult task to write while acknowledging all of these different histories and perspectives. In addition, not only would it be difficult to acknowledge all the different standpoints, it would almost be inconsiderate to try and write all the nations if one didn’t belong to all the various “sub-nations”, nor had experienced what it was like to live as a member of these groups in America throughout American history. Therefore, I think that maybe the shift we need to make, as Mia stated above, is to acknowledge that nobody can write the nation, and praise the fact that we are in a unique situation where we have so many unique “sub-nations” living under this one “nation”, and also start listening to all these other perspectives and their views on what it means to live as a part of this country, of this nation of Americans. And I guess that’s exactly what this class plans to do, as we turn to reading from authors whose perspectives have been marginalized and skipped over because they were not that of the majority.

  5. Ryan Spencer says:

    Writing a nation is, of course, an impossibility as any individual only has their own insight to write from. Even if one may take into consideration the insights of others, their insight on what a Nation is is still incomplete. Documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were incomplete largely due to the period in which they were written. They were written in a period of slavery and inequality. In viewing a “writing of the nation” we are viewing how one individual views the world around them. In the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution we see hopes, dreams, as well as reality. The Declaration of Independence spoke of the realities of the brokenness and troubles of the colonies for example and then set forth the hopes and dreams of the new nation as it called for equality and freedom. “Big Boy Leaves Home” and similar texts of a time are, in a sense, not far different from the Declaration of Independence. “Big Boy Leaves Home” depicts a brokenness in the treatment of a group of human beings. The Declaration did the same. The difference lies in the ability of the groups seeking independence. While the colonies had more power and ability to fight back against the British, the African American’s depicted in “Big Boy Leaves Home” did not have enough power to fight back. Therefore rather than declaring independence, they must continue to struggle for more power. Literature such as “Big Boy Leaves Home” depicts the reality of the times. It would be futile for Big Boy to stay and fight, such was not true for the colonies. The shift in “Writing the Nation” is shift only in who is seeking independence and how they are seeking independence.

  6. rconora says:

    I agree that the writing of the imagined community is fundamentally impossible because of multiple individual conceptions of “nation” and what people feel binds us to our fellow Americans. The nation, when defined as an “imagined political community”, cannot exist without the influence of many individuals comprising said community. These individuals each have their own interpretation of what drives them to identify with a certain “nation” . Many would define themselves as “American”, yet we don’t necessarily have a specific definition for American other than the geographical lines that divide our country from other lands where people reside. In context of “Big Boy Leaves Home”, Big Boy dreams of the north where all people are promised equality. The southerners, meanwhile, have their own imaginings of what it means to be American. I thought it was particularly interesting to look at the differences between killing and dying for “nation”. Big Boy keeps coming back to his father’s shotgun after he was given the power to kill with Jim’s rifle. After killing Jim, he feels that the shotgun can solve all of his problems, and even provide him with a sense of fulfillment in his own death. He soon discovers, however, that the mob chasing after him will never give him such a chance. Vengeance hardly seems to be the reason that the mob forms. It was because of an attack on their conception of nation, their ideals and their beliefs as to the natural order of society when a white man is killed. What separates the mob from the snake and the dog who face off with Big Boy? Big Boy even foreshadows this war of nations when he explains why he went for Bobo’s throat, and the others choose to back down. The other’s back down when they notice their community is wounded and unable to attack. In contrast, when a white man is attacked, the mob takes up arms as is ritual in their perceived “nation”. It is the difference in minority and majority. One holds more power in a democratic nation than the other, despite America’s foundational belief of equality. From a present day perspective, the perception of what the American identity is has shifted, but this combative nature between sub-nations still exists. The majority kills members of a minority that are trying to survive when they crave to be heard.

  7. Abigail Gardener says:

    After reading “Big Boy Leaves Home”, I find it quite difficult to see how anyone could cohesively produce a work that accurately “writes the nation.” I agree with Siobhan’s point that America is so ethnically and culturally diverse that we seem to have many “sub-nations”, and therefore it is hard to write something that truly represents all of these groups’ historical perspectives. “Big Boy Leaves Home” only drove home that point for me. The text, although written in the third person, clearly shows the perspective of a young black man and his community. It is written in a very matter-of-fact tone, showing that these are the realities of the lives of this community. The immediate fear after Big Boy kills Jim, the instantaneous decision that he must leave town before they find him (because it is inevitable that a mob will come for him), and witnessing the lynching of Bobo are harsh realities that white people did not have to deal with, and unfortunately often do not want to see written. This is especially true today, when we hope we are able to say we have made progress in moving towards eradicating racism from our country. Texts like this can be a stark reminder of the horrors we condoned within our own nation, and it makes us wonder whether we can write the story of one nation together if different groups of people have experienced (and still, in many ways, experience) vastly different perspectives.

  8. LaShawn Simmons says:

    TW: harsh language, violent scenes
    As many of you have expressed, it is indeed impossible to write a nation in the midst of ivtersectionalities that rise to the surface in these debates. Any idea portrayed about a nation is inherently limited due to the fact that one can’t speak for everybody.

    The following comments I am about to make are inspired about the various topics surrounding death and the act of dying for a nation. I would like to expand on a beautiful point started by Sarah who talks about death in regards to who dies for the nation and who dies as a result of nation and their exclusionary ideals of natural order.

    Primarily, death in an American context is seen as an approach to symbolize a resilient continuation a nation. As mentioned before, this is can be achieved by maintaining “order” even if preserving social order is at the expense of others (in this case Bobo, Lester and Buck as well as Big Boy’s family to name a few).
    Recall that lynching as stated by Ida B. Wells in The Red Record mentions that people who participated and facilitated lynchings felt that the act was “justified” in its intent to protect the virtues of white women. Jim found himself under a moral obligation to do so (upon his wife, a white woman, reacting in terror when she discovered four naked young Black men leaving the lake) and after his death, the mob continued to uphold themselves to the same task in protecting their own against the same “Black peril” so to speak. The fact that Jim died in an “act of service” under these circumstances is arguably a major sacrifice for their community (or sub-nation). This ultimately resulted in the death of Bobo for example.
    I would also argue that a public lynching is a display of a binding nation and an act of responsibility for the community in this story. It is a performance, a direct declaration of nationalism. Additionally, their nationalism and “horizontal comradeship” is sealed and validated in the song with lyrics such as
    “We’ll hang ever nigger t a sour apple tree…”

    This act can be viewed as an act of extreme nationalism and it illuminates the disparities in “writing of a nation. ” It demonstrates the idea that nationalism has different meanings for other communities and when these ideals are portrayed by the dominant culture, hopelessness reigns over those not included (African Americans for example) in this culture.

  9. ccalimlim says:

    Because the nation is an imagined community, no individual can accurately encompass the experience of every member of that community. One may try to “write” the nation from a perspective other than their own, but this writing will still be framed and influenced by the author’s experience.

    If “writing” the nation means to (attempt to) speak for the experience of every individual that could be considered part of the nation, it will remain an impossible endeavor. No matter how well-meaning an author is, they will never be able to truly capture someone else’s understanding and experience of a nation/imagined community. But if “writing” the nation means to write about one’s own experience with the nation, then it becomes much more doable. As Mia pointed out, it’s simplistic to believe any one person can speak for a whole people. One can write about a nation without attempting to write the nation as a whole. Rather than trying to find one voice to speak for the whole, we should give individuals space to use their own voices.

  10. Michaela Cabral says:

    The construction of a nation itself, in its existence and distinction from other nations, is already a very disputed and ill-defined process. When a nation is said to exist, even imagined as this may be, there is still an issue of unity within this supposed shared experience. One thing Anderson points to as a provision of nations is that they inspire people to die for them. There are cases, however, where people die at the hands of a nation where there is a) no consent or purposeful self-sacrifice and b) no view of the death as a sacrifice because there is no value placed on those killed by the nation in which they reside. This is just one example of the ways in which those who benefit from the nation varies, even within its borders. These varied experiences cause distinct views and experiences with nation to the point where the nation is not unified. This can clearly be seen in “Big Boy Leaves Home.” All of the people in the story live in the same nation, in a community as small as a single town, and speak with a similar regional dialect. Their treatment at the hands of the nation is so varied, though, that their nations really are not the same. An example of this is that for Big Boy and the other boys, even while they are being childish and innocent, they have to be constantly on guard out of fear that they will make a slight “mistake” that will get them killed. When the white man shoots Lester and Buck, it is obvious he abides by no such caution; due to the color of his skin, he can act however he pleases toward black people without any perceived repercussions. The way that the white people speak about Bobo, Big Boy, and the other black members of their towns clearly conveys that they do not see them as equally belonging in the idea of nation. Depicting a nation implies simplification and generalizations, which often cannot do the reality of a nation justice. Within one nation, particularly the United States, there are varying levels of oppression that disband the unity of a nation because of the people it simultaneously claims to include and excludes.

  11. Laura Katz says:

    The problem that this shift provides for a person’s ability to write the nation is exemplified several times in Big Boy Leaves Home. Wright uses song, voice, and character to develop a nation that on the outside might appear unified because of geographic location and speech but is in essence two countries living within one area. For example, both racial groups sing songs in the story but the songs paint very different pictures, one of a lynching and the other of black boyhood. Additionally, contrasting lines such as “God damn those white folks! Thas all they wuz good fer, t run a ni**er down like a rabbit” and “These ni**ers always stick tergether, they don never tell on each other” exhibit the growing racial tensions which creates and us/ them dynamic. Therefore, while Wright wrote accurately about both races in America, he is ultimately not writing of a unified American concept, but of a racially divided, racist state. Consequently, Wright shows us that it is possible to write of the current state of a nation but the complexity of a nation’s history, themes and peoples is difficult to write out in its entirety.

    • jkoslofsky says:

      This stuck out to me because it reminded me of something I read from Howard Zinn, who observed that Nathaniel Bacon’s rebellion (Virginia 1676) successfully united two marginalized groups. Bacon’s rebellion consisted of both poor white colonists and black slaves, and while this uprising would eventually fail, the prospect of a rebellion based on racial cooperation scared the hell out of the rich rulers. Thus, it was in the interest of landowners to construct a racial hierarchy stronger than any class hierarchy, to ensure that the status of the upper class could not be challenged. This related back to Wright and Big Boy Leaves Home because there is such an inherent similarity within the community Wright depicts here–both sing and speak in a specific dialect, but the hierarchy that keeps this nation of similar peoples divided can be traced back to keeping power in the hands of the same people throughout history.

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