For this last post of a month focused on ethics, it feels appropriate to conclude with an assertion that how we confront our history — as individuals, and as inheritors and influencers of culture — is a profoundly important ethical question.
Though there are surely longer and more complex academic treatments of the ethics of history, today I simply want to juxtapose Gary Clark Jr’s recent single, “This Land,” with a few lines from Wendell Berry’s essay “Still Standing” (1999).
Evaluating the merits of the introduction to 1930’s I’ll Take My Stand — of whose 12 authors many were sometime racists and one remained unreformed until his last breath — “Are we going to disown our forebears entirely because partly they were sinners? (Are we willing to stand judgment before our own descendants on the same terms?)”
Ethics are complex because people, history, and ideas are complex. Seeing the value in a committed racist’s idea about something other than race should give us pause.
But reappropriation is part of the game, and that’s where Gary Clark Jr’s visceral music video shows what art can do to weave the sins of the past and the situation of the present into a single complicated garment.
Like “Let America be America Again,” it’s a brave statement about our common, complex inheritance of a land, a culture, and a dream. Thank goodness that artists, philosophers, and poets still raise their voices from time to time to insist that all of that belongs to all of us.
We are none of us innocent of the past, nor will any of us be held blameless by the future. If we live such that the citizens of the future might say we knew our past and learned from it, that might be enough.
H/t to Texas Monthly for highlighting and praising Clark’s work.