Prague Writers Festival, 2017: American on the Hot Seat

By Mike Schneider

(Photo by: Mike Schneider)

My friend Jan and I were in Prague as tourists in November, during the Prague Writers’ Festival (PWF). While Prague’s ancient culture and stunning beauty dazzle tourists, the theme of the festival, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, was just too good to miss.

The Fire Next Time conveys fierce conviction and courage. Baldwin acknowledges the fraudulence of the Harlem churchifying he practiced as a fill-the-offering-plate, teen-prodigy preacher. His renunciation of Christianity leads to his profound analysis of racism as a projection of fear and the historical burden of “whiteness” associated with this awareness.

Among writers at PWF from many places — Syria, Austria, Russia, Morocco, India — the most direct link to Baldwin was Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery. As a reporter, Lowery covered police shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and elsewhere and the protests that spawned Black Lives Matter. As with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All takes Baldwin as the forerunner to contemporary understanding of American racism.

The on-stage conversation (Monday, the 13th) with Baldwin’s book as topic — gracefully moderated by Maria Golia, an American living in Cairo — veered quickly from The Fire Next Time to international politics. No surprise. It reminded me of other trips — Latin America and Europe — where I’d found myself in political discussion explaining, even defending, the USA, sometimes from a stance nearly opposite what I’d likely be taking if the same discussion were with Americans. I soon felt myself on that familiar ground.

Austrian novelist Robert Menasse almost gleefully took up the cudgel to beat up on the USA. Many EU problems, he said — throwing down the glove — are America’s fault. Mentioning a report of 70 instances of U.S. bombing of other nations since WWII, Menasse said American aggression creates messes, such as millions of refugees, with which European countries are left to grapple. Provocatively extending Baldwin’s insight that American whiteness created “the Negro” as a mental construct, Menasse argued that America, by its aggression, creates its own terrorism.

Not without validity, though overstated and unqualified, Menasse’s statement invited response. There was no lack of irony in the author of They Can’t Kill Us All pushing back against the  anti-American rhetoric, but Lowery embraced the challenge. In an increasingly global world, Lowery explained, people flow, as always, away from want, toward safety and opportunity. The EU, observed Lowery, doesn’t absorb millions of immigrants from Latin America as the United States does. He added that unselfish American foreign policy helped to build EU prosperity from the rubble of World War II, and Europe didn’t complain then at being rescued from its own fascism. Since the colonial era, he said, Europe has been America’s model of how to conduct foreign affairs, including the use of force to achieve ends. “America,” said Lowery, “didn’t invent hubris.”

The line drew applause from one audience member, silence from everyone else. Without evidence, Menasse asserted that Europe has a capacity for self-criticism that America lacks.

One notices that when people not from America talk about American politics, “America” is often a monolith. Such discussions tend to ignore stratifications of discourse — liberal, conservative; coastal, midwest; urban, rural; from many ethnicities — that inflect our politics and make it perhaps more complicated than European nations smaller and less diverse. The discussion remained civil, illuminated contrasting positions, and arrived at no particular conclusion.

Self-criticism and the capacity for it could have been a cue to bring discussion back to Baldwin. The Fire Next Time is, in many respects, a project in self-criticism: from the perspective of an adult looking back at his youth and an American writer in Paris looking at the probably ineradicable stain on his country’s heritage of democracy. No one took the cue. If they had, we may have heard something like these closing words from Baldwin:

“Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!”

Mike Schneider, a member of The Thomas Merton Center, is a widely published poet.

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