I am revisiting this interview with Harry Williams, Jr. from February 19, 2010. Harry was and is the Laird Bell Professor of History at Carleton College. Among the courses he teaches are “African American History,” “Black Atlantic History,” which focuses on the relationship between Ghana and the United States, and “U.S. History from 1865-1945.”
Harry views the world from what he calls a “tragic conception of history and a tragic conception of life, ” which means -— in his words — that “we accept the bitter with the sweet.”
Harry balances that realistic view of the world with an unbounded joy. I was supposed to travel to Ghana with Harry and a group of Carleton students in 2014, but the ebola outbreak in West Africa led to the trip being cancelled. To not travel with Harry to that part of the world that he knows so well — to not be in the presence of that unbounded joy while on the road— was one of the greatest disappointments of my career.
“Who is going to be in charge of creating the terms of reconciliation? Reconciliation on what terms, on who’s terms? Who’s doing the defining? What are the requirements of reconciliation and are Americans adult enough to engage in that painful process?”
“I don’t think that I will ever become peaceful, if by that I mean acceptance or full accommodation to some horrific things that have happened to people of African descent in the United States. I don’t ever want to make peace with that. I hope in some sense, to go out screaming, not because I would fear death, but to be a witness at the end that we’ve made some horrible mistakes toward what is professed to be a more perfect union, a more civil society. And I want to remind people of that.
I don’t think I’ll ever make peace if peace means being satisfied with the history of Black people in this United States. That’s not an area for acceptance. But I am developing — if I dare say — a more sophisticated analytical approach and thought about transformative possibilities, but also a quality that Derrick Bell calls “racial realism.” And racial realism according to NYU Law Professor Derrick Bell, speaks to the fact of the great power differential in American public, civic, economic, political life, and that the majority rarely, if ever, does anything that does not immediately accrue benefits to the majority.
Now that’s a racial realist position and that theory is controversial because it goes against the grain of a great American optimism. It goes against the grain of the myth of enduring ascendency, progress, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I have come to believe that we live in a tragic age — let me put it like this — I think a racial realist requires a perspective that admits that we live and have lived – and as we as a Black man now – in a tragic age. And by tragedy, I’m using that definition that a tragedy is the opposite of a “Little Mary Sunshine” optimism, a “We are the World” optimism, a s”mile and be happy” optimism.
A tragic conception of history, a tragic conception of life means that we accept the bitter and the sweet. A tragic conception forecloses blind optimism. A tragic conception requires one to conduct oneself in the world with a kind of optimism, but a kind of optimism that does not mean when failure inevitably occurs once it is catastrophic.
A tragic sense means that I see the world as it is, that evil – well I’m speaking now like an old Calvinist or something – that evil even marches, and I believe evil marches in the world. I believe that there are evil people in the world; that people do evil for any number of reasons. And that evil in a biblical sense and a spiritual sense is in enduring combat with good. I accept that. I don’t like it, but a racial realist forces me to accept the good and the evil. And as it pertains to the historical experiences of Black people in the United States, my reading if history and my living for 61 years tells me that I can no longer afford to be an internal, unabashed, unaltered optimist; that I must make peace unwillingly with the reality.”
Harry Williams, Jr. Short Audio:
Harry Williams, Jr. Long Audio:
- Share your initial response to Harry’s story.
- Do you embrace this tragic conception of history?
- Where do you find optimism in the face of difficult realities?
- What does Harry mean by “the myth of enduring ascendency?”
- How has our world changed in the 10 years since Harry’s interview?
- Does this make his points more or less resonant?
- What could racial reconciliation look like in the United States?
- What are some historical realities you have trouble making peace with?
- Is there damage that happens when we fail to acknowledge historical pain?
- What does Harry mean when he says, “We are red in tooth and claw.”?
- How do we create an authentic space for healing?