Race-The Dream and the Nightmare
DEEP IN the mind of America, if not actually below, at least at the lowest level of consciousness, there exist side by side a dream and a nightmare of race relations; and the two together constitute a legend of the American frontier, of the West (when the second race is the Indian), or of the South (when the second race is the Negro). In either case, it is the legend of a Lost Eden, or in more secular terms, of a decline from a Golden Age to an Age of Iron-as America moves from the time of the trapper to that of the settler, from the era of the great plantations to the days of Reconstruction. What makes the Golden Age golden is, in the case of the Indian, an imagined state of peace between white man and red man, transplanted European and aboriginal at home; love, innocence, a kind of religious, even other-worldly calm preside over this peace. And what makes the Iron Age iron is a state of war between redskin natives and paleface invaders; a burden of hatred and guilt, a history of scalpings and counter-scalpings, revenges and counter-revenges make this war ultimate hell.
For a long time, indeed, it seemed not only a peculiarly but an exclusively American nightmare; for though the history of every nation may be, as Joyce suggests, a bad dream from which it cannot awake, each has its own night-time fantasies, as each has its own fate. With the rise of the dark-skinned people everywhere, however, a peculiar white American experience (shared, up to now, perhaps, only by white South Africans) may become the common experience of all the whites of the world. I am talking about our sense of acting out our national destiny in the presence of witnesses, involved in that destiny (through fear and hate, we know; through love as well, we hope) by virtue of their color, but by the same token detached from it. It is this special experience which has bred our special nightmare, as well as our special dream.
About the Author