In a poignant post to his Facebook page on 8 July, police officer Montrell Jackson offered a “hug” and “prayer” to those he met as he patrolled the streets of his native Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Jackson was meditating on the bloodshed of the previous day: the death of five law enforcement personnel in Dallas, Texas, at the hands of a sniper, and the subsequent killing of the suspect at the mechanical hands of the police. But in a way he never could have anticipated, Jackson’s comments would come to serve as an interpretive key, not just for this violence, but also that which would claim his own life days later.
For those looking to fit life to the patterns of literature, the events of the past weeks have had the unsettling feel of a revenge tragedy: Philando Castile and Micah Xavier Jackson; Alton Sterling and Gavin Long; St. Paul and Dallas; and Baton Rouge.
It is perhaps for this reason that the vision of reciprocity that Jackson expressed has gained such appeal. If the risk of revenge is that it sets off an endless cycle of destruction, then Jackson offered another, more appealing way. His model of mutuality—democratic in its dispensations—has informed the public comments of Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and inspired the hashtag #IGotYou.
But Jackson’s ethic ought to unsettle us too. In extending his offer of fellowship to “protesters, officers, friends, family,” he invited an exchange with those familiar to him and not—which is to say: with those who knew him and who thought they knew him. This is the sort of exchange that the Harvard political philosopher Danielle Allen has called “talking to strangers,” a crossing of boundaries and borders that necessarily violates the parental wisdom that would keep us in our narrow precincts. And in the context of the United States, past and present, those spaces still remain defined largely by black and white.
In the face of this reality, the calls for empathy and openness coming from President Obama and other political figures make a certain kind of sense. These human resources surely offer one way forward.
But we will stumble if we focus exclusively on going on. For empathy is also about the way back. It is about the personal and public past.
This was the insight that motivated the great American writer Ralph Ellison in the novel he set out to compose after Invisible Man. The book follows Alonzo Hickman, a Southern black preacher who travels to Washington, DC, to save a Senator from an assassination attempt. Visibly a white man, the Senator was reared by Hickman but has fled his past and come to peddle the politics of racism.
In a particularly rich passage, after he and his fellow travelers have returned from a visit to the Lincoln Memorial, Hickman reflects on the ties that hold the group together—and those that bind the rest of us, for better or worse. “It was possible that the virtues of charity and sympathy depend as much upon one’s memory of the past as upon one’s hope for heaven,” he remarks. Enlarging this reflection into an ethical principle, he continues: “For perhaps true charity depends upon our memory as much as upon our willingness to identify with those to whom it’s extended.”
The idea here—inspiring as it is striking—is that it’s not enough to extend ourselves to one another. The hug and the prayer Jackson offered are necessary, to be sure. But living among and with others in democracy requires something more. For Ellison, it was the sense that encountering and identifying with fellow citizens also meant confronting our memories, both those we share and those we do not. To live among others is to tell and listen to stories of personal and public pasts.
Ellison worked on his second novel for nearly five decades, but he never finished it. Perhaps one reason was that the story he told—of fathers and sons, black and white, struggling with their pasts, and a nation wrestling with its own—was itself not finished, and remains so now.
The past weeks have made this truth clear enough. Perhaps one way to go forward, then, is to move back, into the personal and public histories of which these acts of violence are the symptoms. There may be no better way to remember Montrell Jackson and ethic of mutuality to which he gave voice.
Featured Image: “Shadows” by Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0 via flickr.
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