The fundamental irony of American history is that we follow the better angels of our nature when we honestly and compassionately confront the devilish realities we would like to ignore or deny. The founding of this most American of periodicals was motivated, in part, by a courageous resistance against the American institution of white- supremacist slavery. We must never forget that when this grand intellectual forum was established, the precious U.S. Constitution was, in practice, a pro-slavery document. To put it clearly yet crudely, the deep democratization of America was pitted against the ugly niggerization in America.
Democratization is the best of the American idea—in principle and practice. The sublime notion that each and every ordinary person has a dignity that warrants his or her voice being heard in shaping the destiny of society remains a revolutionary force in the 21st century—in the face of the power of autocratic empires, plutocratic states, and xenophobic communities. Niggerization is neither simply the dishonoring and devaluing of black people nor solely the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of them. It is also the wholesale attempt to impede democratization—to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful, and helpless subjects.
Since the ugly events of 9/11, we have witnessed the attempt of the Bush administration—with elites in support and populists complacent—to promote the niggerization of the American people. Like the myopic white greed, fear, and hatred that fueled the niggerization of black people, right-wing greed, fear, and hatred have made all of us feel intimidated, fearful, and helpless in the face of the terrorist attacks. And, as in the 19th century, we’ve almost lost our democracy.
The future of the American idea—both then and now, here and abroad—depends on the vision, courage, and determination of decent and compassionate people to engage in Socratic questioning of the powers that be, to take the risk of prophetic witness, and to preserve a hope for democratization. Our nation and world now have the blues, so we must learn from our blues people—from the grand examples of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Myles Horton, and Muriel Rukeyser. The American practice of niggerization must die for the American idea of democratization to live—yet again.