An excerpt from “Shame”
By Shelby Steele
When I traveled to Africa back in 1970, it was partly because I had been more and more seduced by this great looming idea of America’s characterological evil. It was such a summary judgment, and, at the time, still new and audacious. It had not existed in the original civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. had never charged America with an inherent and intractable evil. He had lived in good faith with America, believing in reform and the innate goodwill of the American character, even as he also lived under constant threat of assassination. Still, when his assassination actually came to pass—with almost macabre predictability—young blacks, like myself (and many whites as well), saw it as a final straw. The evil character of America would always prevail over decency.
I came of age—in my early twenties—precisely when this idea began to take hold. Suddenly it was everywhere among the young. Belief in America’s evil was the new faith that launched you into a sophistication that your parents could never understand. And in linking you to the disaffection of your generation, it made youth itself into a group identity that bore witness to the nation’s evil and that, simultaneously, embraced a new “counterculture” innocence. Coming out of this identity, you owed nothing to your parent’s conventional expectations for your life. You could go to medical or law school if you wanted, but you could also roll in the mud at Woodstock, do drugs, or join a commune.
A result of this generation’s explicit knowledge of America’s historical evils was to make social and political morality a more important measure of character than private morality. In the 1950s, your private morality was the measure of your character; in the 1960s, your stance against war, racism, and sexism became far more important measures—so important that you were granted a considerable license in the private realm. Sleep with whomever you wanted, explore your sexuality, expand your mind with whatever drug you liked, forgo marriage, follow your instincts and impulses as inner truths, enjoy hedonism as a kind of radical authenticity. The only important thing was that you were dissociated from American evil. Dissociation from this evil became a pillar of identity for my generation.
But I was from the working class. I had put myself through college. I couldn’t afford to bank my life on the dramatic notion that America was characterologically evil unless it was actually true. Africa was a continent full of new countries that had banked their fate on precisely this view of their former oppressors. I wanted to see some of these countries then led by a generation of charismatic men who had won hard-fought revolutions against their Western oppressors—Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal. They were all seen as redeemers— redeemers—the selfless founding fathers of newly independent nations. And, having thrown off the yoke of colonialism, there was the expectation that their countries would begin to flourish.
But in fact, they were not flourishing. We left Algeria in the middle of the night and landed the next morning on the other side of the Sahara Desert in Lagos, Nigeria, where we—along with all the passengers on our flight—were held at gunpoint in the airport for several hours for mysterious reasons having to do with the Biafran War. Finally, we made it to Nkrumah’s Ghana, which only looked more and more bedraggled and directionless—a sharp contrast to the revolutionary glory that Kwame Nkrumah had projected around the world. (Kwame was fast becoming a popular name for male babies among black Americans.) Food was scarce and unrelievedly bad even in the American hotel in the capital city of Accra. You saw chickens pecking for food in open sewers, and then at dinner, you wondered at the gray meat on your plate smothered in nondescript brown gravy. Then there were ten days in Dakar, Senegal, where Senghor, the father of “negritude,” was president. But it wasn’t “negritude” that made Dakar a little more bearable than Accra. There were still some French there, and it was their fast-fading idea of Dakar as an African Paris that meant better food and the hint of café society.
The Africa we saw was, at best, adrift. The Africans themselves—as opposed to the Middle Eastern and European shopkeepers and middlemen—looked a little abandoned. Today I would say they were stuck in placelessness. They obviously didn’t want to go back to their colonial past, yet, except for a small, educated elite, they had no clear idea of how to move into the future. They had wanted self-determination, but they had not been acculturated to modernity. How does one do self-determination without fully understanding the demands of the modern world?
In Dakar, an enterprising middle-aged man—someone who would surely have owned his own business had he been born in America—appeared every day outside our hotel trying to sell us the same malformed and unfinished wooden sculpture. Every day a different story and a different price attached to this “sculpture.” The man was charming and quick, but I also sensed anger and impatience just beneath the surface. He scared me a little. One morning, out of sheer frustration, I gave him five dollars (a lot of money then), but then walked away without taking the sculpture. Within a minute, I felt a tug on my sleeve. Angrily, he pushed the money and the ugly little sculpture back into my hands—as if to be rid of not only me but also a part of himself he couldn’t stand. Then he stormed off. I had hurt his pride, and I felt terrible. I chased him down, gave him the money again, and took the sculpture (which I have to this day). His umbrage was still visible, but he accepted the deal.
In 1970, I had no way of understanding an encounter like this. Now a few things are clear. I was conspicuously American. My voluminous Afro only drove that point home. Thus I was an emissary from modernity itself. When I gave him money without taking his sculpture, I didn’t just devalue him and his culture; I virtually mocked his historical circumstance by reminding him of what he already knew: that he was outside of history, that he was not of the modern world and had nothing really to offer me that I wanted or needed. Yes, the world by then knew that African art could be world-class. Picasso, among others, had brought its genius to the West. But he would not have known about Picasso or even much about the art of woodcarving within his own culture. He wanted to be a tradesman, a businessman. But his ignorance even of what he was selling sabotaged his entrepreneurialism. So when I gave him money but rejected his statue, I treated him like a beggar to whom one gives alms, not like a businessman.
And wouldn’t a man like this—and the millions like him all across Africa, the Middle East, and the Third World generally—soon be in need of a politics to fight back with. Wouldn’t he need a political identity that lessened the sting of his individual humiliation by making him a member of an aggrieved collective? Wouldn’t some ideology or other—nationalism, cultural nationalism, pan-Africanism, some version of Marxism, negritude, Islamism, jihadism, any idea of “unity” that merges the individual with the group—come into play to console individual alienation by normalizing it, by making it a collective rather than individual experience? Your humiliation does not reflect on you. You languish outside of history—hawking shapeless pieces of ebony on the streets of Dakar—because you belong to a people who were pushed out of history and exploited, first by colonialism and then by neocolonialism.
Placelessness literally demands a political identity that collectivizes people, one that herds them into victim-focused identities and consoles them with a vague myth of their own human superiority. Léopold Senghor, the first president of newly independent Senegal and the father of “negritude,” said, “Far from seeing in one’s blackness inferiority, one accepts it; one lays claim to it with pride; one cultivates it lovingly.” Marcus Garvey, a popular racialist black American leader in the 1920s, said, “Negroes, teach your children that they are the direct descendants of the greatest and proudest race who ever peopled the earth.” The Islamic extremism that so threatens the world today operates by the same formula: devout followers of Allah are superior to their decadent former oppressors (mere infidels) in the West. The feminism that came out of the 1960s argued that if women were victimized by male chauvinism, they were also superior to men in vital ways. (“If women ruled the world there would be no wars” was a feminist mantra in the 1970s.)
All these identities assign a “place” against the experience of placelessness by giving the formerly oppressed an idea both of their victimization and their superiority. This “places” them back into the world and into the flow of history. You are somebody, these identities say. You were simply overwhelmed by your oppressor’s determination to exploit you. Thus the consoling irony at the heart of victimization: you possess inherent human supremacy to those who humiliated you.
But there is a price for this consolation: all these victim-focused identities are premised on a belief in the characterological evil of America and the entire white Western world. This broad assumption is the idea that makes them work, which makes for that sweet concoction of victimization and superiority. So the very people who were freed by America’s (and the West’s) acknowledgment of its past wrongs then made that acknowledgment into a poetic truth that they could build their identities in reaction to. Once America’s evil became “poetic” (permanently true), the formerly oppressed could make victimization an ongoing feature of their identity—despite the fact that their actual victimization had greatly declined.
And think of all the millions of people across the world who can find not only consolation in such an identity but also self-esteem, actual entitlements, and real political power—and not just the poor and dark-skinned people of the world but also the Park Avenue feminist, the black affirmative-action baby from a well-heeled background, and white liberals generally who seek power through an identification with America’s victims. Today, all these identities are leverage in a culture contrite over its past.
The point is that these identities—driven by the need for “place,” esteem, and power—keep the idea of American/ Western characterological evil alive as an axiomatic truth in the modern world, as much a given as the weather. In other words, this charge of evil against the white West is one of the largest and most influential ideas of our age—and this despite the dramatic retreat of America and the West from these evils. The scope and power of this idea—its enormous influence in the world—is not a measure of its truth or accuracy; it is a measure of the great neediness in the world for such an idea, for an idea that lets the formerly oppressed defend their esteem, on the one hand, and pursue power in the name of their past victimization, on the other. It is also an idea that gave a contrite white America (and the Western world) new and essentially repentant liberalism.
In this striking vision of the white Western world as characterologically evil, both the former dark-skinned victims of this evil and its former white perpetrators found a common idea out of which to negotiate a future. This vision restored esteem to the victims (simply by acknowledging that they were victims rather than inferiors) and gave them a means to power; likewise, it opened a road to redemption and power for the former white perpetrators. This notion of America’s characterological evil became the basis of a new social contract in America.
Not much of this was clear to me in 1970 as we traveled through Africa. But one thing did become clearer as the trip progressed. Back home, I had been flirting with real radicalism—not radicalism to the point of violence, but radicalism nonetheless. For me that meant living a life that would presume America’s evil and that would be forever disdainful toward and subversive of traditional America. It meant I would be a radical liberal living in bad faith with my country—“in it but not of it,” as we used to say back then. So here in my early twenties I genuinely wondered if the subversive life wasn’t the only truly honorable life. Wouldn’t it be “selling out” (the cardinal sin of the counterculture) to look past America’s evil and cast my fate in the mainstream?
On some level I knew, even at the time, that the trip to Africa was an attempt to resolve this dilemma. I wanted to see real radicalism in the faces of people in a society where it had actually come to hold sway. I wanted to see what it looked like as a governing reality in a real society. And this is pretty much what I accomplished on that trip. I didn’t understand placelessness at the time, or the pursuit of esteem through grandiose identities. But, beginning with our encounter with the Black Panthers in Algiers, I knew that I was seeing what I needed to see. And I began to feel a growing certainty within myself. My dilemma was resolving itself. The more we traveled—a month and a half in all—the firmer my certainty became. And when we at last boarded the plane in Dakar headed for New York, I felt at peace. I was clear. The American mainstream would be my fate.
The clarity I found that trip was based on one realization: I learned that America, for all its faults failings, was not intractably evil. In the Black Panther villa in Algiers, on those balmy afternoons eating the local shrimp, I spent time with the people who banked their entire lives on America’s inherent evil—and on the inherent evil of capitalism. On one level, they were glamorous figures, revolutionaries ensconced in a lavish villa provided by the new radical government of Algeria. The impression was of a new and more perfect world order just around the corner, and these special people with the moral imagination to see it coming would soon be marching in victory.
Yet I could see that as human beings they were homesick and in despair. As revolutionaries, they were impotent and hopelessly lost. It was like seeing a pretty woman whose smile unfolds to reveal teeth black with rot. They had no future whatsoever, and so they were chilling to behold. We had all grown up in segregation. We all had war stories. And we all had legitimate beefs against America. But to embrace the idea that America and capitalism were permanent oppressors was self-destructive and indulgent. It cut us off from both the past and the future. It left us in the cul-de-sac of placelessness, though I could not have described this way at the time. But I could see even then that someone like DC had gotten himself into the same cul-de-sac as the street hawker selling chunks of wood as art in Dakar. They were both languishing in a truly existential circumstance. And they were both consoled by a faith in the evil of America and the West.
Looking back, I now think of DC as a cautionary tale, an essentially softhearted man who had allowed himself to be captured by a bad idea—that his country was irretrievably evil. Unlike most other Black Panthers, he ended up living and long—if strained—life. Soon after I met him, the Algerian government began to tire of supporting the Black Panthers in their fast-fading glory while so many Algerians languished in poverty. At the end of July 1972, another American black, George Wright, along with four other men and women, hijacked a plane in America en route to Miami and then extorted a $1 million ransom from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The hijackers ordered the pilots to take them to Boston and then Algeria. Eldridge Cleaver wanted the money and wrote an open letter to Houari Boumediene, the president of Algeria, in effect asking the government to continue supporting the cause of black American liberation. But the Algerian government recovered the ransom money and returned it to American authorities. Algeria’s romance with the black American revolutionaries was over.
DC, who by then had made hay of his French lessons, made his way to France, where he lived for the rest of his life in exile from America and the San Francisco Bay Area that he so loved. Wanted always by the FBI, he lived an underground life even in France. He worked as a house painter in Paris and did other odd jobs. He ended up in Camps-sur-l’Agly, France, where, at the age of seventy-four, after a day spent working in his garden, he apparently died in his sleep.
I was lucky. After one of my radical kitchen-table rants against America toward the end of the 1960s, my father—the son of a man born in slavery—had said to me: “You know, you shouldn’t underestimate America. This is a strong country.” I protested, started on racism once again. He said, “No, it’s strong enough to change. You can’t imagine the amount of change I’ve seen in my own lifetime.