Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"Living Proof of Something So Terrible": Pearl Cleage's Bourbon at the Border and the Politics of Civil Rights History and Memory

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"Living Proof of Something So Terrible": Pearl Cleage's Bourbon at the Border and the Politics of Civil Rights History and Memory

Article excerpt

"[C]ollective memory works selectively, imaginatively, and often perversely. "

-Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance

On February 27,2013, US dignitaries, from senators to President Barack Obama, assembled in the rotunda of the US Capitol. The occasion was a historic ceremony to unveil the bronze, nine-foot statue of Rosa Parks that would stand in the nation's highest legislative chambers. House Speaker John Boehner opened the formalities by calling attention to the gravitas of this momentous affair. "Every now and then," he contended, "we have got to step back and say to ourselves: what a country. [Emphasis added.] This is one of those moments. Because yes, all men and women are created equal, but as we'll hear during this ceremony, some grow to be larger than life, and to be honored as such" (, Obama Dedicates). Later in the program, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell echoed these sentiments but layered on even more self-congratulatory rhetoric that placed the US nation-state on a moral high ground:

Rosa Parks may not have led us to victory against the British. She didn't give a single speech in the Senate or the House. Or blast off into space. Or point the way West in the western wilderness. Yet, with quiet courage, and unshakeable resolve, she did something no less important on a cold, Alabama, evening in 1955. She helped unite the spirit of America, which the founders so perfectly and courageously expressed... We have had the humility as a nation to recognize past mistakes, and we've had the strength to confront those mistakes, but it has always required people like Rosa Parks to help us get there. Because of the changes she helped set in motion, entire generations of Americans have been able to grow up in a nation where segregated buses only exist in museums, where children of every race are free to fulfill their God-given potential... and where this simple carpenter's daughter from Tuskegee is honored as a national hero. What a story. What a legacy. What a country [Emphasis added], (, Obama Dedicates)

For McConnell, US democracy, mixed with a little individual grit, successfully hedges against inequalities that have long limited the claims Rosa Parks, and so many others, have been able to make upon the promises of US democracy. Within McConnell's narrative, Parks emerges as a humble carpenter's daughter-cum-national hero, whose symbolic relationship to Christ-a carpenter's son-is most likely not without intent. The lawmaker weaves Parks's brave performances of civil rights activism into a lengthy narrative of national progress-one that spans from US space travel to the "American Revolution." Extoling the US nation-state for confronting the "mistakes" of the past, the Leader paints a portrait of the present in which all Americans can realize their "God-given potential," citing as evidence the ostensibly passé reality of segregated buses.

The society that McConnell imagines is an ideal model of democratic change. But it hardly accords, at least in such a matter-of-fact way, with the realities of racial inequality that continue to animate the present. Infused with what Lamen Berlant calls "cruel optimism,"1 both lawmakers' effusive praise of the nation-state overestimates the nation's historical commitments to racial parity, while underplaying contemporary formations of racial inequality. In this way, the idea of Rosa Parks occasions an opportunity to congratulate the US nation-state and to promote logics of neoliberal progress more so than to commemorate the legacy of an accomplished civil rights activist. Indeed, the lawmakers' speeches are linked by an optimistic and illuminating refrain: "What a country!"

I begin with this particular ceremony, and its specific constellation of remarks, because they index some of the varied and strategic ways in which those currently in power mobilize and appropriate the legacy of the modem civil rights movement. …

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