Fifty years and a Trump later: The promise of America 1968 – 2018

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In a recent exhibition in New York City, Rebel Spirits, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr on 4 April 1968 and of Robert F Kennedy on 6 June 1968, New Yorkers were treated to a rare collection of photographs and a nostalgic recollection  of what could have been in light of what actually happened. But what precisely was the promise of those days half a century ago – and what is it the world is delivered today by the very idea, the very promise of “America”?

The photography exhibition Rebel Spirits: Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr is an extension of a book by David Margolick, The Promise and the Dream, which, as the title suggests, is a sentimental longing and a wistful affection for a past that may or may not have been there, but now we have reason to hope it was there. As in Marcel Proust’ masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927), such almost involuntary acts of collective memorials speak of larger and more troubling dreams both past and present, at once evident and illusory.

As the curators of the exhibition summarise their project, it “showcases photographs and artifacts honoring these visionary leaders who irrevocably changed the United States. Sixty images taken by some of the most renowned photojournalists of the era – alongside original correspondence, publications, and ephemera -illustrate the overlapping trajectory of their lives, exploring their deepening tie as well as how their interests expanded beyond civil rights and organised crime to encompass shared concerns for the poor and opposition to the war in Vietnam.” 

As you go through these compelling black and white pictures of those bygone days, those unforgettable faces, and those enduring daydreams, you wonder: In what particular ways were these two now iconic figures of the 1960s related to each other, how did they reflect a common spirit of their age? Was there a spirit to that age – what exactly was it?

“Just because two people live at the same time, and are engaged in two different worlds, and talk to each other 10 times during the course of their lives”, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the late Robert Kennedy’s daughter is reported to have warned David Margolick, “does not make a book”. She was right – nor does it evince a common dream.

The promise and the dream

Representative John Lewis, living legend and a contemporary of King and Kennedy – now a Democratic congressman from Georgia – is quoted to have said about the two figures: “When these two young men were murdered, something died in all of us. We were robbed of part of our future.” This is the future daydreaming about a Past it must imagine, a tradition it must invent, to sustain a “dream and a promise”.   

Every nation and every generation within any nation is of course entitled to their nostalgia, of things that could have been, might have been, or should have been – as if they must have been. But what does such public staging of nostalgia mean?

“Viewing the new photographic exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy,” observed Carol Tannenhauser upon visiting the museum, “is like stepping into an issue of Life magazine in the 1960s, the golden age of photojournalism”.

Fair enough: but Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy? Are they, outside the history of photojournalism and the antiquarianism of Life magazine, not the proverbial “apples and oranges?” What did they have to do with each other, or more importantly, taken together what do they reveal about their age – about “America?”  

“Oddly,” Tannenhauser further adds, “in the entire show, there is only one picture of King and Kennedy together…”

“That’s not an accident,” said David Margolick, author of The Promise and the Dream, upon which the exhibition is partly based. “These were two people who were very careful with one another, who were very wary of each other, who fenced with each other throughout the eight years that they were both on the national stage.” 

“The Kennedy and King” of this exhibition are the figment of a frightened imagination – looking at Trump and wondering: “What went wrong?”

Staging nostalgia

Such photographic memories on stage here at the New York Historical Society are acts of collective therapy. On behalf of a nation in search of the better angles of themselves, the curators are staging a past to which their hopes return to walk back through history more assured that this nation means well. Half a century and a Donald Trump later, there is much room and even more compelling reasons to understand not only such perhaps futile acts of nostalgia but also the desperate search for a solid ground to dream again.

I have always said the worst thing about the US is that there is always hope for it. I am no longer sure there is any hope for this country – and that now appears to me the best thing about the US – the categorical failure of a universal experiment. As a promise, the US has historically failed – and the sooner we realise that the more realistic our assessment of our global condition will be.  

The failure of the US is a global disappointment. It is a dysfunctional empire, the source of much death, destruction, and mayhem around the world. But although its initial white settler colonialists have a racist claim on it, this country is not theirs. It belongs to everybody and anybody who ever – whenever – landed on its shores, both its promises and its categorical failures. That makes the story of America the story of our world at large, or what happens to that world when it turns to the American figment of its imagination.  

Much has happened in science and industry, in art and literature, but the crowning achievement of all of them are now Donald Trump, his tweets, and his fingers on an atomic bomb that can blow humanity to Kingdom Come. All things considered, we can now see the wisdom of the moment when TS Eliot in those immortal lines in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock – thought of our entire humanity:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws     

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Getting the history right

The alternative is at the very least to get our history right: Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy stood on one side of this dream and on the other were Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. There was, and there remains, an insurmountable chasm between the two sides of this disequilibrium. Then occurred a certain Barack Obama who the world thought was the fusion of the two sides of the black and white spectrum – and yet he turned out to be the dawn of a Donald Trump who has come as the return of all that racist history had momentarily repressed.   

Barack Obama was the last nostalgic miscarriage of a historical promise. He turned out to be far more like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton than Bobby Kennedy or MLK. What emerged from the deliverance from Obama’s false dawn was the shining sun of Malcolm X who today brightens the deepest hopes of this nation more convincingly than ever. 

Nostalgia for those bygone years is only compelling if you don’t see what is in front of you today. Today the Black Lives Matter movement is infinitely more rooted in history, more embracing in its historical imagination, and worldlier in its understanding of the geopolitics of the world than the Civil Rights movement ever was. No doubt Black Lives Matter stands on the shoulders of MLK and remembers Robert Kennedy somewhat fondly, but it dreams in decidedly and enduringly Malcolm X’s terms.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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