Rewiring the American Mind: On Tracy K. Smith and the Future of America’s Civic Identity

Jonathan Reiber Considers the State of the Union in the Most Important Election Year in Its History

“When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”

–President John F. Kennedy
Remarks at Amherst College on receiving an honorary degree, 1963

 * 

A sometime denizen of New York and a longtime lover of jazz, I often put on Miles Davis’s song “Flamenco Sketches” to set a tone at home in Oakland. It is the second to last song on Davis’s seminal album Kind of Blue, released 50 years ago, the same year James Baldwin completed his New York-based novel of race and love Another Country.

Kind of Blue is a near perfect album, regarded by jazz historians as one of the best records ever made. It touches a part of the American experience and in each note you hear a people striving to live out their dreams—a morning in a café; an evening with friends in a bar. It leaves you feeling “the long reach of the present,” in the essayist Rebecca Solnit’s words, a feeling of hopeful struggle that extends from Davis and Baldwin’s pre-Civil Rights New York jazz bars to now, turning the present into a place “of overlapping gestures, of people looking backward and passing something forward, of the coherence of a storied landscape.”

It reminds us of who we are and who we can become.

Then the music comes to an end. The world was bright for a moment but now the light falters at the illogic of events around us: the racism of the presidency and his followers, hate-filled gun violence, and a deep uncertainty about America’s future. Aggression radiates from the White House and across the Internet and into the American mind. Something terrible has happened in the United States, and it will not go away on its own like a common cold.

One of the jobs of a good leader in the United States is to lift up the whole and never denigrate or make vulnerable any of its parts. This practice has kept the Union alive throughout our history and at points in time, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, the US president has had to use his role as narrator-in-chief to confront aggression and channel forces within the country towards constructive ends.

Most recently, Barack Obama did so in the summer of 2016 following a period of acute gun violence and racial tension. “There are times when we are overwhelmed by sudden calamity, natural or manmade,” he said in a eulogy for five fallen police officers in Dallas that year. “All of us, we make mistakes. And at times we are lost. And as we get older, we learn we don’t always have control of things—not even a President does. But we do have control over how we respond to the world. We do have control over how we treat one another.” With an open heart, he said, quoting the Prophet Ezekiel, we can turn towards one another with love.

How do we tell a whole country you will lose, but keep the faith, you will learn to stand again?

That same proposition stands today. Now our political problems feel acute, science fiction-like. The award winning Civil War historian David Blight has written that “this most diverse nation in the world is still an experiment, and we are once again in a political condition that has made us ask if we are on the verge of some kind of new civil conflict.” He’s right.

We feel our political condition with a pervasive sense of uncertainty. We feel it also with sharpness. Abroad, the president has acted recklessly in matters of war and peace. At home, gun violence has long plagued the United States, yet for the first time in recent memory we can now draw a direct, causal line between two kinds of thoughts: One proffered by the executive himself, send her back, and one in the mind of the individual, pick up this gun. The commander-in-chief himself has helped set a narrative of violence and civil unrest within the United States.

Now we need to undo it.

*

We are in winter, roughly a year before the inauguration. This winter, I want to know what it will take to quell David Blight’s question and rebuild our Union so his speculation doesn’t come true. The process will not be so simple as putting a new leader in charge, although the time has come for that. I’m talking about how we set our expectations as individuals. What we expect from the world, and what we demand of ourselves. I am talking about rewiring the American mind.

At times the United States requires a call to grace to see its way forward. Now may be such a time. David Blight’s question is a macro one for our people—are we on the verge of some new kind of civil conflict. If so, how will we confront and transform aggression—in ourselves and in the people around us—to keep our families, communities, and Union strong? How will we respond to the world when things don’t turn out the way we want or expect?

This winter, we are gearing up for change. There’s a deadline associated with it. Between now and the day of the vote, and for a period long after that, we need to revise the American narrative and change our patterns of mind. The words we choose, the way we speak about each other, the way we imagine our country. If we do not, our divisions seem certain to grow deeper.

Poetry gives us a starting place, and for our political present there is no better “touchstone of our judgment” than the words of Tracy K. Smith. She recently ended her tenure as US poet laureate; appointed by the librarian of Congress, she sat for two years on the eastern end of the National Mall, on the opposite end of the Mall from Abraham Lincoln’s statue. Like Lincoln, she has traveled the country excavating our past and looking towards our future. And like Lincoln, she gives voice to a moment of historical change and calls us forward.

This winter, I wish the whole country could stop and ask what we can give back. But it doesn’t take a whole country, it just takes a portion to ask the right questions and turn back in service and leadership.

We need a way out of this surreal, civil strife. Lincoln and Smith show us that the path to victory lies in part through the human heart. There can be no return to a halcyon past, no achievement of expectation that will alter the human condition. But we can change how we see and act towards the world. Word-by-word, action-by-action, we can right the course of our Union. We’ve done it before and will do it again.

*

With malice towards none, with charity for all.
The grass bends, then learns to stand again.

*

Let’s start with a message that helped bring us all here.

When my son was four he called Abraham Lincoln “the circus man” due to his black top hat. Brad Meltzer’s children’s book I Am Abraham Lincoln introduces our 16th president at repetitive intervals as the guy on the penny (to which my son replies, “What’s a penny?” I say: “A small copper thing that came before ApplePay.”) His name is Abraham, and one day, I tell my boy, when you’re all grown up, his story will become unreal in its proportions. His story but also that of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others that fought for freedom—including, kiddo, this poet Tracy K. Smith. “I want to be a freedom fighter when I grow up,” he says. The son of an Obama administration political appointee and a South African activist and artist, this sentiment, unlike the future of our country, has always been pre-ordained.

Abraham Lincoln lived in a fractured time of war and blood that we cannot fathom today, however hard we may try. People often forget that the Civil War claimed more American lives than any war before or since. One historian estimated as many as 750,000 dead.

Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address just a few months before the end of the war. The country was divided and exhausted by almost four years of conflict. In a clear-eyed, logical story in the speech, he funnels the audience through the past to understand the necessity of war and then, finally, to see the way forward to national resilience, “with malice toward none, and charity for all.” All in a speech that would have amounted to fewer than eleven tweets.

The line “with malice towards none, charity for all” sets up a singular choice for a divided nation. Instead of malice, which would be so easy to choose after years of war, he beseeches the country to give up its anger and look towards sustaining the whole. He has a litany of specific demands, “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” He focuses his listener not on those who fought, but on their widows and children, the most vulnerable that have been abandoned and left behind.  His mind is on the future. His logic is sound. The work of building a democracy cannot be held back by disunity. It is only through self-sacrifice and self-control that the Union can be led towards health.

Looking at America today from the standpoint of Lincoln’s words, the stakes for our society are nothing like those that he assessed on March 4, 1865. We have grievances all around us: in gun violence, racism, economic dislocation, mistrust and poison online. We are not in a state of declared civil war, however, but a fierce and precarious fight for our identity, for a pattern of following “the better angels of our nature,” in Lincoln’s words from three years earlier. Like all presidents Lincoln had to make hard choices for the sake of the Union; some are easy to understand, some more complex, but he emerges from history as a man who aimed for unity and dignity over political expediency. To shape our identity for a better future: this is what Lincoln was trying to achieve in one of our darkest hours.

If there’s anything we have learned from the last decade of American public life it is that good leaders matter in calling us to this inquiry—but their surety is anything but certain.

The purpose of literature, religious and otherwise, is to help us interpret change within a structure. Like Virgil accompanying Dante through the gates of hell, we turn to resolute voices to help us find our way because we need them. Absent reflective traditions to trigger the mind to our better selves, as the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey said last summer, the mind travels into whatever patterns it has available to it. Patterns like send her back.  

We need directives to turn away from aggression and towards an open-heart, to help heal the wounded and tend to the widow instead of wallowing in our own resentments. Religious and literary traditions tell us to confront the darkness within: this is what Lincoln and Obama both did in their speeches. In his second inaugural Lincoln outlined how every American had suffered during the war; it wasn’t just one group that suffered, but all of us. His rhetoric is right (and also deeply Christian): it is impossible to turn back towards one another in service without first recognizing that each of us has suffered and marches forward imperfect. That is what Lincoln called us to do back then.

*

And that is what Tracy K. Smith calls us to do now.

A native of my home state, born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, who then grew up in my new home region, in Northern California, Smith is the author of three works of verse and one work of narrative non-fiction, an evocative memoir about her mother. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her second book of poetry, Life on Mars, which I’ve carried in my bag every day since 2012 and given as a gift to at least five friends, two in a state of grief, as the book is very much about her memory of her father.

Consider this book. The cover pictures a nebula, a photograph taken from the Hubble telescope on which Smith’s father Floyd William Smith worked for a part of his career. The book is in many ways an elegy for him, a black man who grew up in Baldwin’s pre-Civil Rights era and worked on the Hubble after serving in the US Air Force. Smith has said that her father was “so powerfully moved by the worlds he had known in books, that I took it as fact that words were important.” He inspired her, and the book is a reflection on her life with him and others. Together, the nebula cover, title, and poems make a near perfect whole, something worth carrying from place to place and revisiting. Just like Kind of Blue.

In the book’s eponymous poem, “Life on Mars,” she asks,

Who understands the world
and when will he make it make sense? Or she?

Later in the poem, she answers,

Tina says we do it to each other every day
Knowing and not knowing. When it is love
What happens feels like dumb luck. When it’s not,
We’re riddled with bullets, shot through like ducks.
Every day. To ourselves and one another. And what
If what it is, and what sends it, has nothing to do
With what we can’t see? Nothing whatsoever
To do with a power other than muscle, will, sheer fright?

The best poems ask the deepest questions. Her question here, relevant for all of us in any time but especially the present: In the face of uncertainty, what is the origin of love?

At first reading the idea of going it alone in the vast coldness of space, just us, could so easily become the definition of unbound fear. And what is our defense against fear? We cover it up with actions to order our lives and avoid the deeper roots of what’s going on. Maybe I won’t make it; maybe I will, but it won’t be that great after all; maybe the pain will overtake us. To live in this world, to find love and wholeness, requires jostling up against everyone else—the good and the bad and the ugly. Your life will be a constant balance between power and process, people and things, objects and money. No words can bury the truth; we’re all going to lose something or fail. But words can help us excavate and find pathways for managing change.

So Tracy K. Smith has given us the uncertainty of things. On what to do about it, she has a concluding answer in her poem “Us and Co,” the last poem in the collection.

We are here for what amounts to a few hours,
a day at most.
We feel around making sense of the terrain,
our own new limbs,
Bumping up against a herd of bodies
until one becomes home.
Moments sweep past. The grass bends
then learns to stand again.

This brief coda is the right reckoning with space and time for us now.

Our Union is bent. We must heal it through wise words and policies and wiser leaders. Who we choose to lead our nation must reflect that necessity. But the fact is, as Smith tells us, and as Lincoln and Obama did too, we have to face the world on our own. On our own we seek and find peace in the revealing that comes from constructing a secure sense of self, building a home, building love. Even with these things achieved we will struggle with forces within and without. Before we know it, time will move quickly, the days will pass, and bend again we will.

Like Virgil accompanying Dante through the gates of hell, we turn to resolute voices to help us find our way because we need them.

We will stand again too. That’s definitely what she’s saying. When I walked with a group of Tea Partiers on Capitol Hill during a massive protest in 2010, just to hear what drove them forward, I heard grievances about lost jobs and economic uncertainty but above all I heard the self-doubt and fear that comes with an identity under duress. A younger man then, I naively tried to tell the protesters that we all can grow in a new economy if we have patience, to offer some hope that things would get better.

But what if, after time passes, you don’t stand in quite the way you want? That is part of Smith’s point too. Our expectations for the future and attachments to the past can so easily become sources of frustration. That frustration easily leads to anger and scapegoating in an uncontrolled mind, especially when prodded. Instead of naming our imperfection and calling the country forward in service, today our civil strife stems in part from leaders that blame segments of society for our collective suffering. Each of us must learn to resist any voice that would seduce the mind through aggression masked as ideology.

How do we tell a whole country you will lose, but keep the faith, you will learn to stand again? It’s easy to propose a values-driven life when things are easy. It is far harder when you recognize that the only one who can save you is you. Barack Obama always knew that, I think; the son of a single mom, he traveled the world as a child and had to find his way over and over again, building meaning and purpose out of a code of values. That’s part of what made his story and voice so powerful. He learned again and again to stand on his own in the face of whatever came. Lincoln seems to have known that; James Baldwin too. The meaning of maturity is to call ourselves to this task and to answer back with as strong a yes as we can muster.

*

In the year before her laureateship, Tracy K. Smith published her third book of poems, Wade in the Water, a collection about the United States and the Civil War. In it she curates letters that enslaved black Americans wrote to President Lincoln and his government, expressing their faith in the cause of the war and in sacrifice for the greater good. These letters elicit awe. As she says on reading them, “There’s this really beautiful sense of belief in the tenets of democracy that are being offered by someone who is locked outside of that promise.” Enslaved people who volunteered to serve in the Union Army believed in the possibility of what the United States could become. They saw that “‘If Abraham Lincoln could make the right choice, the doors to freedom and humanity will open up. We’ll be inside of it.’”

What does that notion mean for our present? She says, “If we believe that this thing we’ve built is built on something that’s real and that’s worth struggling for, if we hold each other to a higher standard, maybe we can open those doors again.” She’s right, and we will.

*

We are in winter now, a time to step outside and reflect in quiet. One year before the inauguration is a good time as any for each of us to ask: How are you calling yourself forward? What patterns of belief do you follow? What do you expect of the United States, and of the people around you? What are you taking, and what are you giving back?

“If we believe that this thing we’ve built is built on something that’s real and that’s worth struggling for, if we hold each other to a higher standard, maybe we can open those doors again.”

If there’s anything we have learned from the last decade of American public life it is that good leaders matter in calling us to this inquiry—but their surety is anything but certain. As the global population increases in real terms and online, political divisions and disruptions will grow in frequency from new technologies, from climate crisis, from wildfires, but also from love lost and found, from aging, from illness, from change. These things will demand something of each of us.

Poets will speak to you if you seek them out; music will too. If you’re lucky your friends and loved ones will be there, but ultimately we are each alone with our agency. No one will be there to hold your hand and guide you every step of the way. Again Smith tells us: that’s nothing to fear. Uncertainty gives you an opportunity to latch onto something greater, to a striving beyond suffering, to a choice to love and treat each other well for the action itself. From there you can tend to the orphan and to the wounded, help bind up the nation. No leader will do this work for you. No guaranteed outcome may follow. But our story will change.

This winter, I wish the whole country could stop and ask what we can give back. But it doesn’t take a whole country, it just takes a portion to ask the right questions and turn back in service and leadership. To help the nation see its way forward, to rewire the American mind. Smith spent 2018 traveling across the United States reading poetry and meeting people in every part of the country, “dipping” as she said in an interview, “below the decibel of politics.” She drove through Kentucky for the first time that year and was inspired by the “beautiful, undeveloped land with a few horses, or houses that were so close to the miraculous beauty.” Her poetry does that too: it reveals who we are outside the noise and stridency.

Sometimes we need to retreat to see our way out. Through the valleys and plateaus of the desert; the sun setting over red sand; water turning back onto itself, rivers cutting canyons out of dry land.  Abraham Lincoln designated Yosemite and Mariposa Grove as the first protected lands in America because he knew we needed places to step away. For those that can travel out, we have protected landscapes in this country for this reason. That same instinct led Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux to build Central Park and Pierre L’Enfant to design the National Mall. From Yosemite to Kentucky to our urban parks we have places that call us to quiet, to voices below the level not only of politics, but of our own minds. It makes sense that Smith named her daily poetry podcast The Slowdown; like the natural world, she calls us to silence and a slower pace. To remember who we are and who we can become.

As a young woman growing up in California, Tracy K. Smith learned from her parents that “we owe something larger than ourselves” to the world. This is true. We all do. We can and will break this cycle of aggression by sacrificing our own needs for the good of the whole, by never giving in to fear. With an open heart; with malice towards none, and charity towards all; the grass bends, then learns to stand again.

Jonathan Reiber
Jonathan Reiber
Jonathan Reiber writes about security, culture, and civil discourse in the United States. His writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The Christian Science Monitor, and The San Jose Mercury News among other outlets. The author of the recent monograph, A Public, Private War, he served in the Obama administration from 2009-2015 as a speechwriter and strategist in the Office of the US Secretary of Defense. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanreiber.





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