Charlottesville: Who Owns This Country? (Part II)

Everyone—and no one—does.

Posted Oct 03, 2018

Part II: Charlottesville

"I didn’t want to use the footage of that car going down the street unless I had the blessing of Susan Bro. That’s Heather’s mother. And she told me OK, but she also said, 'Spike, I feel kind of funny, because some black folks are saying, "Why are you making such a big fuss about this white girl when black people are being killed all the time?"' And I tried to carefully take my time and explain to her that whoever said that, whether black or white, they’re ignorant. Your daughter died for a just cause...She was a martyr."

—Spike Lee, explaining why he used Charlottesville footage in BlacKkKlansman

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

My recent Ancestry DNA test does not give evidence of African or Native American heritage. But the founders of St. Louis, from whom I am descended, surely had mixed-race progeny. Through their participation in the institution of slavery and their displacement and dispossession of indigenous inhabitants, they also had black and native blood on their hands. 

Spike Lee confronts these kinds of issues head-on in BlacKkKlansman, which explores them through the story of Ron Stallworth, the first black man to be hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department in the late 1970s, who acted as an undercover agent to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan—a wildly improbable story that is also wildly true.

The film begins with clips from two iconic films: Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation, interweaving Ron’s suspenseful story with documentary footage—most notably still photos of a black teenager’s torture and lynching following his conviction of having raped a white woman. Photographs of this 1916 event accompany the film’s stark narrative, unfolded by an aging Harry Belafonte to members of the Colorado College Black Student Union. These photos, we learn to our present-day horror, were turned into postcards, which supporters could send to like-minded friends and relatives.    

The Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado Springs is portrayed as bumbling and ineffective but also vicious—an accurate representation of Ron Stallworth’s narrative. In the book, Ron and his white cohorts thwart potential violent confrontations in Colorado Springs around planned cross burnings and the visit of David Duke to rally local Klansmen and induct new members. For dramatic effect, the film compresses these activities into a plot to blow up the Black Student Union at Colorado College to coincide with David Duke’s visit, which fails in the nick of time. 

BlacKkKlansman, whose release was scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the Neo-Nazi twilight march on the campus of the University of Virginia (founded by Thomas Jefferson) ends with sober footage of its violent confrontation with peaceful protesters and the death of Heather Heyer, a white woman who supported the Black Lives Matter movement. 

In a post-script, we view clips of David Duke, still the Grand Wizard of the KKK, praising the march, and President Trump equating the Neo-Nazis who chanted “You will not replace us” and "Jews will not replace us,” with the Black Lives Matter protesters. “Some very fine people,” he asserted, “on both sides.”

Who owns this country? 

Is it the white male immigrants who followed the lead of our founding fathers to a country that promised freedom of speech and religious expression, along with the opportunity to succeed through one’s own hard work and initiative? Or the native inhabitants who long preceded them? Or those whose forced labor was critical to the new country’s expansion and developing economy? How about subsequent migrants from less privileged classes and parts of the world, who (like our Pilgrim forebears) fled and continue to flee poverty, violence, and oppression to realize the American dream of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”

I am inclined to think that everyone—and no one—does. 

By this, I mean that “we” means all of us if it means anything. But it also means none of us—in the sense that the Earth (and the universe at large) not only precedes human intelligence and habitation but will surely also outlast us.  

We may wish to impose our will on the land, taming it, cultivating it, and reaping its seemingly endless bounty, but there is one thing we do not control—weather. We don’t have to believe in climate change or global warming to believe in weather, which is something we experience on a day-to-day basis in the most immediate and powerful ways. 

We may do our best to prepare for tornados, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, extremes of heat and cold, wildfires, and volcanic eruptions, but we do not direct or control them. We live on a planet, within a solar system and a universe (or multiverse), which we had no part in creating and whose mysteries we cannot now, and may not ever, be able to fathom.  

The Book of Job, in which God speaks to Job from the whirlwind, says it best:

"Have you walked through the depths of the ocean or dived to the floor of the sea? Have you stood at the gates of doom or looked through the gates of death? Have you seen to the edge of the universe? Speak up, if you have such knowledge." —The Book of Job, translated by Stephen Mitchell (1987) 

I was in high school when I first read this text, seeking from it an answer to the problem of suffering. I was disappointed in not finding one. Now, however, I read it differently. This is not a story about arbitrary pain or loss, but about the unfathomable nature of the world we live in.  

The idea that any one human being “owns” anything is foolish in the extreme. No matter how much wealth or privilege we may acquire or wish to achieve, we will each die naked and dispossessed. 

Wherever we are born, and whatever we make of our lives, we are equally lucky to share our little time on earth--as surely as we will all (in every rainbow hue of color) suffer the same fate.