Hernan Bas (American, b. 1978), Memphis Living (running out of room), 2014. Acrylic and spray paint on linen, 60 x 72 in.
Red berries lips
Are eaten at mingled
(On my walk in the park; iphone 5)
SALON: Anyone who studied music history or American history knows that this country has a complicated and, at times, tragic, relationship to race, but it seems that even with that background, the last few years has been particularly fraught. It seems at times like the nation has sort of flipped out. I wonder if you noticed this, and if you have any sense of what’s happening. It strikes me that the Civil War has never really been settled.
GREIL MARCUS: Well, that’s for sure. It’s not even over. I mean, I remember being so surprised and fascinated and kind of shocked in the early ’60s when the civil rights movement was really dominating the news, when it was the national story. The most important national story, the one that everyone had to have opinions about one way or the other, but not just about the civil rights movement, but this event and that speech and that outrage and that atrocity and whatever might be happening. It was the ruling question of national life, and it was so clear that the Civil War not only had never ended, it had never been … nothing had ever been resolved for countless people. Black and white, in the South particularly, but in the North, too. Everything was still open, everything was still being fought over.
And you learn something about history when you look at things that way. You learn that it isn’t … that what is passed on from generation to generation is often passed on whole. Nothing’s lost, nothing’s diminished, it’s very scary. With Barack Obama’s election, and a lot of people my age never, ever thought they would see a black president in their lifetimes, and it was shocking when it happened. People were weeping, and they weren’t weeping out of joy, they weren’t weeping out of sorrow. They were weeping out of … because they were coming apart, the whole conceptual apparatus that they used to construct themselves as social beings was coming apart because of this event, and it was just so overwhelming that you didn’t know how to talk about it, so you cried.
It happened to a lot of people, but I remember thinking, and I remember writing, right after Barack Obama was elected, that this country was not less racist the day after his election that it was the day before, and it might even be more so. And that I thought a lot of really ugly, scary things were going to start coming out of the ground. And it didn’t take very long for that to happen. And I’m not just talking about people at Tea Party rallies saying there’s a lying African in the White House and showing a picture of Barack Obama with a bone through his nose and stuff like that, which is disgraceful enough.
There has been a breakdown in decency in this country over the past number of years to the point where, just this weekend, somebody showed up at a Vikings game where Adrian Peterson, their running back, had just been suspended or not suspended … suspended by his team for a game because of child abuse indictment. Somebody shows up at the Vikings game in Minnesota wearing an Adrian Peterson jersey and carrying a tree switch, of the sort that he used to beat his son. It’s like, what kind of … how sick do you have to be to even think of doing that? Let alone do it.
But with Barack Obama, racism has become ordinary discourse since his election in a way that it wasn’t before, and the contempt and the ridicule with which Republicans treat him. Not even Bill Clinton, who they felt they could disparage because they thought he was a dumb white cracker, not even Bill Clinton has been treated the way Barack Obama has been treated. He’s been treated as if he’s an impostor, an interloper and as scum.
I mean, the things that have been said about Michelle Obama, the way she’s talked about on Fox News, you know, forget about Twitter or comments on news stories or anything like that where all the morons live, but the way she’s been talked about, can you imagine Laura Bush ever being talked about that way? Laura Bush actually killed somebody. But that was never mentioned, that was never talked about, because it was impolite to bring it up.
Anyway, don’t let me go on like this. But, yeah, yeah. And when you look at the things … when you look at the murder of Trayvon Martin, when you look at the murder of Michael Brown, when you look at those situations, it’s not unrelated to Obama being president, but it’s more the way in which the country has reframed itself or rewritten itself since his election, with all kinds of people saying to themselves, maybe never putting it into words, just feeling it, “There’s a fucking n—er in the White House? Well fuck you, n—er, whoever you are.” And an inchoate loathing and hatred that seeks out its targets.
I’m not a psychiatrist, I haven’t sat down and interviewed George Zimmerman or the cop who shot Michael Brown, I don’t know what their motives are, I don’t know what kind of people they are, what kind of childhood traumas they have experienced. But I don’t think it’s nuts that in a certain way, when that cop killed Michael Brown, and when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, they were killing Barack Obama.
Chic, “Your Love (12” Remix)” (Warner Bros., 1992).