All Over America the Lamps are Going Out

Agee photo finalThese are bad times. I thought of James Agee’s beautiful and heartrending work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when I heard the verdict in the Zimmerman case. There’s an account, very near the beginning of the book, of Agee’s and Walker Evans’s encounter with a young black couple that made me think, when I first read it, how far we had come from those dark days. Agee and Evans had found a church they wanted to photograph. The church was in a relatively deserted wooded area and was locked. As the two men were wondering whether to force their way in, a young black couple came walking by. The couple, Agee writes,

[w]ithout appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for, and without altering their pace, … made thorough observation of us, of the car, and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling as if casually; they spoke and nodded gravely, as they passed, and glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. (p. 36.)

Agee decides to go after the couple to ask them if they know where to find a minister or someone else who could let them into the church. Agee, being Agee trails behind them at first simply observing them “taking pleasure… in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, … and in the beauty in the sunlight on their clothes.” They are obviously courting, both dressed in their Sunday best. He in “dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow soft straw hat,” she in “a flowered pink cotton dress” and “freshly whited pumps.

“I was walking more rapidly than they,” explains Agee, “but quietly.” Still, before he had gone far, the couple, as if they could sense his presence, turned back and looked at him “briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field.” Agee waved at them, but they’d already turned away again. He began to walk faster, but was impatient to catch up to them, so he “broke into a trot. At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel,” writes Agee

the young woman’s whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, … [said] ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.’ They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than for me. …. After a little the man got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without conviction that that was all right and that I hadn’t scared her. She shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; she did not yet trust her voice. Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking. … I …  asked what I had followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and … again, … I said I was awfully sorry if I had bothered them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces, their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward, and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back. (pp. 37-39.)

I remember when I read this passage the horror that came over me to think that anyone would ever have to live with such constant fear. That couple had been frightened, even if only briefly, for their lives.

I knew what it was like to be pursued. I was one of the very few white children at my school for most of my childhood and though the black children who knew me were almost always kind to me, the ones who didn’t know me, the ones I might encounter at recess or walking to or from school, were not. I’d been chased before and been called names and had things thrown at me. I once had a glass bottle thrown at me. It shattered just in front of me so that I could feel the force of the tiny fragments against my shins. I’d learned very early to keep walking, no matter what what was going on behind or in front of me, I’d learned somehow by instinct, I think, not to display fear. Of course I couldn’t ignore people either. I had to acknowledge them, but I couldn’t appear to be afraid. I don’t know why, exactly, that worked, but it did and I knew somehow, even as a child, that it would.

So I identified with that couple. I knew what it was like to affect nonchalance when you are really very afraid. I knew the intricacies of the subtle etiquette of self defense and how it kicks in automatically at such times. I identified with this couple. But still, I had never been afraid for my life.

There are not words to describe what it must be like to live that way, to live with an ever-present fear for one’s very life. I remember when I read that passage I thought to myself, thank God, thank God black people do not have to live like that anymore.

These are bad times.

(This piece was originally published in Counterpunch, 24 July 2013.)

6 responses

  1. Do you think lights are going out all over America ? I don’t mean among the perps … they seem to be burning the midnight oil … I mean among ordinary Americans.

    Barack Obama has made it pretty plain that his message is to get American Blacks to accept institutionalized injustice. As he apparently thinks the Pakistanis and Yemenis have. Just the way it is. His approach to out of control government spying is, similarly, not to stop the spying but to get Americans to accept it. To get used to it.

    Certainly the dimmest of Americans must have noticed by now that ‘their’ government’s attitude is … ‘get used to it’. The audacity not to change in the face of overwhelming popular disgust seems the order of the day among those – impotent beings – in positions of power.

    Are people just shutting down in despair in response ? Like a rape victim who shrinks within a tight integument and concentrates living throught it, on surviving the attack ?

    Do you think that is happening ? That lights are going out all over America ? If so, do you think that’s a viable strategy ?

  2. It’s not a strategy. It’s an emotional reaction. The lights are going out in many senses. First, in the sense you describe, but also in the sense that people (courts, people in power, perhaps people in general) are less enlightened in their thinking. When times are hard, people often turn mean. It’s a very unpleasant thing to witness, but it’s happened over and over again throughout history.

  3. Are less enlightened in their thinking than they ordinarily pretend to be. Times get tough they revert to form. Unpleasant all right.

    But I like people and I find them … us … pretty likeable. Among ‘our own kind’.

    I think it is the pressure ‘from above’ … exerted by those in every society who’ve a lock on power and ‘need’ to keep it … that keeps us people fearful of loss, divided and conquered. Unless and until we institute real democracy, we’re doomed to endless repetition of this degenerate and demeaning existence. Lorded over by a subset of ourselves who just will not/cannot see to the sides of their own blinders. And now we have immortal corporations who have sired a slave class of their own … the ‘rich and powerful’ no longer serve even their own human needs any longer, but labor to ensure the eternal growth of their ersatz masters.

    Unless (until?) we/they wreck our habitat for keeps, of course.

    Ah well, we may be doomed – although there is certainly no reason for that to be so – but out in those billions and billions of stars there are millions and millions of planets and perhaps there’s one on which life has/will work out. I can still root for planet X.

  4. ” … that made me think, when I first read it, how far we had come from those dark days …”

    That reminds me of how I felt when it dawned on me that George XLIII was going to destroy Iraq. In retrospect, I attribute it to Vietnam and my implicit belief that ‘my country’ and I had grown up together … had learned from our horrid mistakes and would not, at least, make that very same mistake again.

    It is the innocence of youth. Now, watching Barack the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate walking down exactly the same path trod by George XLIII ,,, after an interval this time of not four decades but a single decade … I realize that lies and betrayal are the norm. People learn nothing. They know everything already. The ruthless and greedy survive. And thrive, Only the good die young.

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