John Hope Franklin died the other day. He was a towering figure for whom all praise is too faint.
Professor Susurro has ably covered his inspirational legacy. Then, in a second rich post, Susurro links a discussion we’ve been having about James Baldwin’s iconic status as a marker of team membership to reflections on her disappointment that amid the general outpouring, the historians’ team has not so far stepped up to memorialize Franklin as he deserves. “As I surfed across the historian specific internet highway, I was waiting for the ‘Yay team!’ moment. I expected it. I needed it. And 2 days later… it still has not come.”
I’m sorry for that. But I must live up to my billing as a ‘cranky prof’ in Susurro’s blogroll. And in this as in so many other ways, I am a bad historian. I just don’t do memorials. In fact, I’m not big on special celebratory occasions of any kind – anniversaries, birthdays, holidays. Although I understand their ritual significance as occasions for community-affirming collective effervescence, I think we could choose better ways to do that, starting with mindfulness in all of our beings-together.
I’m especially disturbed by what special occasions tend to say about the intervening time. Relationships we value could be appreciated and affirmed more regularly. There needn’t be anything left over to say to and about each other on some particular occasion. If you like your mom, don’t let Hallmark tell you when to treat her accordingly, right? High-intensity occasions do not make up for routine neglect or worse, and because they’re asked to carry so much of the weight of what could be continuous solidarity they’re almost inevitably disappointing. As a rule of thumb, the more grandiose the occasion, the more weight of relationship it’s being asked to carry and the more prone to collapse under that weight it is. The biggest weddings are never the happiest ones. If you feel unappreciated, one party isn’t going to fix that for long.
Waiting until folks are dead seems to me like an especially perverse way to handle appreciation. They’re dead now, it’s doing them no good; and the good it’s doing us just distracts from any lesson about treating people better in life we might have learned. Fortunately, John Hope Franklin got loads and loads of appreciation while he was alive, including a lovely building at Duke named after him at which I’ve been honored to attend several conferences. Monumental architecture aside, I imagine he found some satisfaction in the work itself. And his legacy going forward will be people doing work he would have admired; but those people deserve to be appreciated for that work in their own right, not as mere means to the end of his fame.
I’m also dubious about using death and other special occasions for team affirmation or team building. I’m pretty well in touch with my feelings and they’re generally mixed. Individuals and communities are complex things, each with its admirable and deplorable qualities. For both those reasons I’m not a joiner, and in general I think we’d all be better off with a little less joining. Again, mindful being-together is my standard. Therefore, being drafted into performances of unqualified affirmation feels like emotional blackmail to me, the ‘dead vole‘ situation par excellence. Making others feel your emotions along with you or for you is a form of tyranny, as feminists like Arlie Hochschild have shown.
An unusual example from around here may illustrate. From time to time mortuary signs show up by the side of the road asking all who pass to “slow down – death in family.” I imagine grief-stricken aunts and cousins stumbling around in a stupor, wandering into the road in transports of woe. For this I would slow down – no sense compounding the family’s loss by waffling poor old Uncle Chester. But realistically this is not what’s meant. The idea, I think, is that for a moment we are meant to share the family’s distress, join their team and express our solidarity by a brief sacrifice of our convenience.
What’s the problem? Even if one is not clear on whether the deceased or the bereaved in question are people one might have personally liked, playing along for a second is an ordinary kindness. Not even much of a sacrifice all in all, even if one believes sacrifice is a regressive, destructive model of sociability. And although we have no trouble seeing how badly teams/clans/gangs distort ordinary kindness when they are activities, faiths, genders, races, classes, nations not our own, surely these more contingent enlistments do not threaten such systematic troubles. It might even be healthy to extend our concern to unknowns in these meaningful little ways.
I’m on board with the importance of each life and the integrity of each feeling. It’s on precisely this ground that I think it’s rude at best to enlist others in these situations. As an outsider to the immediate circle of concern, I can’t figure out why I’m supposed to care more about this dead guy right here than that one over there. Why is the local woe more deserving of my solidarity than that of similarly bereaved worldwide? What makes John Hope Franklin’s life more fundamentally worthy of celebration than an Ethiopian peasant who died at the same moment? That he was a historian? It’s really just an accident of proximity, or of selective attention. Each and every instance of life and loss is just as special, and just as not special, from the very perspective that asks us to take the pain of others seriously. That’s all others, not just the ones we have affinities for or who did stuff we think is cool, let alone the ones with aggressive recruiting strategies.
Well, pragmatically a state of permanent woe for all the world’s losses is a non-starter, although Johnnie Cash made a nice career out of it. In practice there’s got to be a threshold of active concern where you say, my sympathies but life is going to go on over here. And each of us has to decide where that is, otherwise our sympathies can be leveraged against us, in each instance with equal moral force, to pull us into the vortex.
I’m not willing to withdraw my moral imagination from the fundamental equivalence of human life and feeling, and therefore I’m not willing to have my emotions dragooned into armies bent on colonizing the sympathetic commons. I acknowledge our duty of mutual kindness, and note that it is kind not to make demands on the kindness of others. For each dead person there will be a circle of immediately concerned others for whom that death will hold special meaning, for whatever reason, and we must let that be enough for us.
When someone’s grieving is not the best time to say these things. But someone’s always grieving. So maybe these things should just go unsaid. For better or worse that’s not my style, so I’m going to click ‘publish’ now and take my lumps.