A little while ago, I decided to make a project out of forgiveness. At the time, I thought this would be a simple task. I would identify those relationships – or perhaps more accurately, those people – who were problematic or with whom I was holding onto anger, and I would let it go. Just like that, I’d be unfettered by rage, despair, disappointment, and bitterness. Much like dusting out a closet at the onset of spring, I’d find myself lighter, freer, and however briefly tidier, all in an afternoon’s work. Lest you be fooled into thinking that I am a particularly excellent person, I will be the first to admit that I entered this project with the misplaced hubris with which I often begin my personal endeavors. Simply put, a not insignificant part of me imagined that forgiveness would be as simple as declaring that I had forgiven and forgetting anything ever happened. Just like that, I would let bygones be bygones.
I’m sure you see where this is going. In practice, letting go is not that simple. First, it was an exercise in patience – with myself, with the other person, with the slow process of rebuilding or recrafting a relationship. Second, I couldn’t seem to forget. Around this time, I reread Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters and was captivated by her metaphor of haunting, of the ghosts that lie just below the surface of the present; in my mind, her writing captures perfectly the problem of forgiving and forgetting. There is no forgetting — that which we are aiming to suppress lies just beyond reach, salient and important nonetheless. But more importantly, it captures the historically-imbued nature of the present: in other words, how the past seeps into the present in unexpected and often unacknowledged ways. Despite my efforts, it was often the case that while trying to interact with or think about Person I Have Forgiven, there was always, frustratingly, a touch of Person Who Has Done Me Wrong in the mix.
Now, seeing as my job as an anthropologist is to extract every last morsel of meaning out of the mundane, everyday ordinariness of fleeting interactions and developing relationships, this fixation with forgiveness and haunting seeped slowly into my intellectual life. And, in the wake of a series of events on my campus honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I found myself reading his work on love and forgiveness: in particular, his writing on loving your enemies. Of loving our enemies, he writes that it is first important that we learn to forgive, for “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us.” And while people can ask us to forgive them, he notes, he suggests that the forgiving act must be “initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression.”
I start with this, and with Martin Luther King, Jr. not only because he has recently been commemorated but also because of the particular hold that his legacy has in the imagination of a better, more just world. But also, as I think through emotions and their link to the political imagination, I’m captivated by King’s use of the emotions to rouse the sentiments of the nation (and I’m not the only one: see, for example, this report describing King as an emotionally intelligent leader, or the many analyses of the potency of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech).
As I start thinking through the “cultural politics of emotion,” with King’s reflections on love, hate, and forgiveness, I’m guided by two central questions that structure my research: 1) How do love and hate, empathy and disgust, fear and paranoia, shape reactions to and interactions with others in America today, particularly refugees and other racialized groups; and 2) How might we imagine the role of the emotional realm in imagining the political? What is the landscape of feelings that we imagine might bring us closer to justice?
In King’s speech, he recommends precisely what I and others often struggle to do: to forget without turning a blind eye, to reconcile and to commit to a new start. This, he suggests, is central to loving our enemies.
Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt… Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again.
But in my personal life, Person Who Has Done Me Wrong is someone who, in the context of our relationship, has hurt me in some way big or small, real or imagined. There is an act for which they are being forgiven. But what if the problem is not so much one specific action so much as the fact of your different racial inheritances, privileges had but not earned, or other facts of asymmetry in a relationship? Perhaps this person is not the one who has harmed you, but looks an awful lot like someone who has, or someone who’s hurt your ancestors. In Citizen: An American Lyric, her stunning book of poetry, prose, and images, Claudia Rankine captures this phenomenon well, writing:
A friend argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’. By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant (14).
These interactions, between historical selves and self selves, past and present, wronged and oppressor, letting go and holding on, are the subject of much of my work. They also form the basis of a series of posts I hope to eventually make about emotions, the political, and identity (with an emphasis on race/ethnicity, in particular). More soon.