“No river can return to its source, yet all rivers must have a beginning.” — Native American Proverb
“And now let us welcome the new year, full of things that never were.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
When Donald J. Trump refused to concede to President-elect Joe Biden on November 7, 2020, most of us were not at all surprised by his consistent behavioral trait of “grandiose narcissism,” a known characteristic among those who struggle to accept any form of defeat due to their denial of weakness, excessive need for self-enhancement, and demand of entitlement while relentlessly performing acts of aggression and dominance over others. They in fact never fail to project their higher self-esteem and inflated self-worth whenever and wherever they can, regardless of small or big opportunities. We were indeed hoisted into facing the fact that no presidential candidate in modern history has ever refused to concede. What does it mean we wonder?
Let’s remind ourselves of the Charleston church shooting on June 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia from August 11–12, 2017, as two events associated with white supremacy. Call it what we will—neo-Confederate, neo-fascist, white nationalist, neo-nazi, klansmen, far-right, alt-right, etc., etc.—we all recognize it began with the Lost Cause movement, the pseudo-historical negationist ideology that created a distorted version of American Civil War history, authored by Edward A. Pollard and Jubal Early. Their writing was based on the three key beliefs: the Confederate fight was heroic, enslaved people were happy, and slavery was not a root cause of the war. These beliefs were justified as magisterial virtues of the antebellum South. Consequently this led to the founding of the UDC (United Daughters of the Confederacy) in Nashville in 1894 which recognized that in order to preserve Confederate culture for future generations to come, the group would need to deploy its fundraising and lobbying capabilities to achieve two main goals: First, to influence and pressure local governments to erect monuments memorializing the heroic figures of their history in prominent public spaces, including state capitals, courthouses, parks, college campuses, roadsides, among other places that were remotely related to their campaign; and second, to introduce children to Confederate veterans and to control the historical narrative of the Civil War and their Southern heritage by monitoring school boards and libraries and rejecting “Northern influence” in their own textbooks. Yet, to ensure these doctrines would reach far beyond the classroom, the UDC created a youth auxiliary called the Children of the Confederacy to activate extracurricular participation by reenacting scenes from known battles or being rewarded for reciting long passages of important Lost Cause rhetoric. We can imagine how the warping of children’s identities to such visions would enable those children to grow up to become segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s. Having lived through the Trump presidency, we’re reminded that the fragility of this country’s ongoing experiment in democracy has deep roots in systemic racism that have been cultivated for a long time.
It’s hard to believe that post-Civil War in Wilmington, North Carolina, there was a majority Black population that was thriving and establishing a legitimate middle-class, with entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and elected officials. There was a “Fusion” party, formed by the white farmers’s Populist party and the Republicans who worked towards reforms in favor of Black Americans and working-class whites. This Fusion party ended up winning elections in 1894 and 1896 against the Democrats. (We’re reminded that the Democratic and Republican parties were then the polar opposite on the political spectrum as they are today; most African-Americans were Republican voters while white supremacy was associated with the Democratic Party.) It’s not hard to believe this multiracial government was the Democrat’s greatest humiliation, which soon compelled party leaders such as Furnifold McLenden Simmons, Charles Brantley Aycock, and Alfred Moore Waddell to focus on Wilmington as the target of their campaign to lure white Populist voters away from their Black alliance by stoking white anger and resentment. They undertook endless aggressive propaganda, including publishing their own party handbook with the declarative phrase “this is a white man’s country and white men must control and govern it” and printed countless racist political cartoons in a local newspaper The News & Observer exaggerating the threat of “Negro domination” and Black men as a threat to white women, hence white men must take measures to protect white womanhood.
How can we forget Alexander Manly’s response (the owner of the Black-run newspaper Daily Record) in defense of Black men against Rebecca Felton’s racist claim of lynching as punishment of Black men who pose any threat to white women. This consequently led to the infamous Wilmington insurrection of 1898, a mass riot and insurrection organized by white supremacists on November 10 that overthrew the Fusionist government, expelled its Black and white officials, destroyed all Black-owned properties and businesses, burnt their only newspaper, and killed at least 60 people.
What have we learned again from Trump’s presidency and the recent election? Have we forgotten the Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League), Hitler Youth, the Fascist Youth, Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, among others? In addition to the late Howard Zinn’s 2007 essential A Young People’s History of the United States, we must demand the US Department of Education produce new textbooks for our children, from kindergarten to high school that includes entire, real, and complex histories. We must begin by first acknowledging the Native Americans whose land we’ve taken; then African slaves who built famous landmarks such as the White House, the US Capitol, Monticello, and Wall Street; the Chinese who made significant contributions to the construction of railroads; the Mexicans who work on our farms, the Japanese, Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, among others from the Far East, Latin America, Australia, and Africa who built the infrastructure of this country. It’d be impossible to reach any form of reconciliation without acknowledgment.
The Rail, as a collective and a living organism, recognizes the severity of how fragile our democracy is, hence we were determined to make our own contribution at the beginning of COVID-19 through the activation of several ongoing initiatives inducing our daily New Social Environment Lunchtime Conversation, We The Immigrants, the Weekend Journal, and a few forthcoming curatorial projects focusing on global warming and climate change, all of which are aimed at elevating the indispensable functions of the arts, humanities, and sciences in our cultural life. While keeping our journal free for 20 years thus far, we never failed to nurture cross-pollination in the center as well as the edges while reaching a wide audience of more than 2 million annually. We’re more committed than ever to keep the Rail free, independent, and above all relevant. Please join us to celebrate our 20th-year anniversary throughout next year in 2021.
Happy holidays, with love and courage,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. We’d like to thank our friends and colleagues at The Guston Foundation and The Vilcek Foundation for their support of our We The Immigrants project. We’re also grateful to Matthew Rose, Pascal Spengemann, Chris Larson, Tomas Vu, Agnes Gund, Tony Bechara, Jack Flam, Lauren Bon, John Elderfield, and Jeanne Collins for their generous contributions to our 20th-year anniversary celebrations.