Like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim (in "Slaughterhouse Five"), I have become unstuck in time. The events in Los Angeles in the last year or so since Rodney King was beaten have mixed together with my own unsettled personal history, flowing backward and now forward, initiating new narratives, dissolving old ones, all perpetually haunted by Faulknerian ghosts of America's own unsettled past. Like any time traveler, I yearn for home, a secure community and family, a sense of kinship and brotherhood amid the frightening dislocation.
In March, 1991, I traveled to Los Angeles on business, and after checking into my hotel room, reflexively turned on the TV. There, obliterating all calm, was the very first broadcast of the beating--still, in memory, so shocking to see and relive. I remember thinking of Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald and my own first memories of national events during the civil-rights crisis of the early 1960s.
I remembered a boy of 8 and then 9 lying awake in bed, hearing a TV from my parents' room, where my mother was slowly dying of cancer, go on and on about dogs and fire hoses and Selma and Montgomery. I began to get stomach aches then, terrible lonely attacks of anxiety, as I lay in bed unable to sleep, fretfully blending the personal horror that was overtaking my family with the national horror that had already overtaken my country, becoming its great shame and sin.
My parents could do little to ease my worries; we were all three helpless in the face of both cancers. But something was forming in me. The me that is familiar to me now was born then in those night sweats and first glimpses of a world beyond my immediate family. I began to read. I developed an interest in history, American history, my family's history, attempting, quite often in vain, to subdue the ghosts that plagued me each night.
I stayed in my hotel room in Los Angeles, riveted to the screen that week, never tiring of seeing that video, never dulled to the pain that I saw in the endless repetitions of the beating. I watched, live, as Rodney King held his first press conference, so gracious and understanding, despite his obvious pain. Did the police hate black people? No, he thought that they were a tight, close-knit family that just didn't like his family. I wept, alone again, as he lifted up his clothes to show his wounds. I screamed out loud. It was 1991, and I was watching a black man show off the scars inflicted by white men, 372 years after the first slaves had been brought to the continent. I had just made a film about a war that was supposed to end all of that 130 years ago, but hadn't. What was going on here?
My mother finally died in 1965, when I was 11, permanently changing me and permanently influencing all that I would become. The Civil War had done just that to the United States of America, too; it was and is the great traumatic event in the childhood of this nation. Disguise it as we may, ignore it as we usually do, distort it as we have so often done, we are continually influenced by the terrible memory of the four years when we came closest to ending our national life. Over race.
There was Rodney King beaten over and over and over again. On Foothill Boulevard, on the news all across Los Angeles, on television throughout the country and the world. Like the exaggerated horror in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, the tape should have been the 20th Century's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (only this time true), helping to tip the balance, to cure and to heal. But it did not. With the agonizing arrogance and studied neglect of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case, in which he said that a black man had no rights a white man was bound to respect, the jury walked away from the acknowledgment of our tortured history that the beating insisted we see, preferring instead a safe, repressed existence behind the white ramparts of Simi Valley and the even more impenetrable prison of continuing to ignore our collective trauma.
History is an interaction between the self and past events, a convergence of all times with this moment. What we focus on, what we are drawn to and how we interpret the faint signals our past sends says as much about who we are as anything in this world. And it speaks to and ensures our vast future as well. Despite our despair with the verdict and the resultant violence and destruction, our self-examination can only cathartically begin to heal. Then, as we struggle to free ourselves from the demons of race hatred that haunt our national life, we begin to sense the great national redemption possible.
Like my mother's death, my working on a history of the Civil War provoked intense emotions in me. And for thousands of people, it provoked responses strong enough that they wrote me letters describing their own intensely emotional self-discoveries.
Out of all these beautiful, touching, attentive expressions, one letter stands out. It was written last summer by a Californian named Gregory Alan Gross, and it speaks with a clarity and a sense of possibility for Los Angeles and our country that I had not seen before:
Again, I am watching "The Civil War"--enthralled, inspired, heartbroken. So much to think about, so much to feel: The eloquence of ordinary people resounds. It humbles me. Such dignity in the archival faces of my people, who were enslaved but who never surrendered their souls to slavery.
I hear the Southerners who not only kept my ancestor in bondage, but fought to the death to do so. And I hate them for that. Then the choir (in the film) sings: 'Do you . . . Do you . . . want your . . . Freedom?' A good question, for we are not yet truly free, none of us.
To achieve that, white America must abandon its racial conceits--and I must abandon my hate. They must change, and I must forgive, for us both to be free. Lincoln was right. 'Malice toward none, charity for all.'
So at the end, I wonder. Does my white counterpart, hearing that choir, realize that that final question is meant for both of us? 'Do you . . . do you . . . want your . . . Freedom?'
I know what my answer is. I will wait for his."