I’m revising a talk I’m giving on Missouri writers at the Vandalia Area Historical Society this weekend in between games at my son’s soccer tournament and thinking about the topic that serves as the title of the talk and this post. As I think I am just congenitally wired to do, my thoughts in the talk focus on dark aspects of the state’s history, and on their persistence, but manage to find hope in the way people have confronted them. I’ve given a few talks like this in order to help me think about these things and to get out into the state whose history and writers I’m supposed to be preparing myself to teach about (and in some small way to help publicize the minor in Missouri Studies I’m directing, which got a nice write-up in one of the local papers a few weeks ago).
I’ve felt especially unsettled while working on the talk this time, and I think the reason is captured in the title too. To break some shattering news, the state of the union these days is not strong. Of course everyone who reads a newspaper and is honest with themselves knows this, and I don’t know what to say about the rest other than that I hope their children have good teachers, but I think knowing it and thinking about it are only one of they ways we experience the state of the union. Moving in the past few weeks from the low-grade anxiety engendered by having a man like our current president* at the helm to the the full-blown despair and rage (and no, those words are absolutely not too strong) brought on by recent events and revelations, I’m reminded that people experience the state of the union not only in our brains and our hearts but in our bodies. The refusal to confront the truth by the overwhelming majority of the party in power, the cruelty that again and again seems to be the point, the lack of regard for the impact on everyday lives of the policies being vomited out of Washington–we can feel this in our bones. (And I’m very much aware of the luxury of experiencing this presidency as a white man and citizen and all the other things that make the threat a good deal less existential. But still.)
As I’m preparing to go talk to strangers about the history of a state that’s much more theirs than mine, I’m also anticipating feeling out of place. Given the way the president* and his shameful defenders–offenders–talk about the divide between the regular, real Americans they pretend to champion and the elites they pretend to defend them against, given the mistrust that talk breeds and reinforces, I’ll be opening with a joke about how growing up in New Jersey makes me an obvious expert on Missouri, but it’s a joke that hides (or maybe doesn’t hide) real anxiety. And it’s an anxiety made worse by the state of the union. I don’t imagine whatever red hatters roam the Vandalia area will be hanging out at the Historical Society this weekend, but I do think that those of us who are hatless have the feeling that they’re living inside our heads, and at times are making us see the world through their eyes.
I gave a talk in August at the St. Louis Public Library into which I worked some of what I know about the history of race in St. Louis from the first state constitution to freedom suits to redlining to Ferguson, and the Q & A after devolved into a lamenting of how the adult children of many in the audience had moved away because of some of the negatives highlighted in my talk. I say devolved because, as I said, I can’t help but lean toward the future and the positive. Like many of the writers I talk about, as much as I explore the wrongs of the past, I want to be hopeful, to imagine a future in which people repeat past mistakes slightly less often. Many in my profession find this kind of attitude naive, arguing that history doesn’t work like that, objecting to observations about current events like This is not who we are and We’re better than this, by saying instead Yes, its exactly who we are, and We are not anything other than this.
I have to believe that it’s who we have been but it’s not who we are. I have to believe that “we” is always expanding and becoming more diverse, despite constant pressure and occasional spasms of contraction. I have to believe that the current victory of those who would keep “we” small, who would stoke resentment, isn’t permanent. It’s not an aberration either, as has been recently said. It’s got a long history. But there’s also a long history of resistance. As I drive this weekend from a multimillion-dollar astroturf soccer complex in St. Louis County to Vandalia, pop. 3899, thirty miles southwest from Mark Twain’s Hannibal, ninety-five miles northwest of Michael Brown’s Ferguson, I’ll be thinking about that.