Such is the opening stanza of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Debt.” Reading this short cry of the heart, first published in 1903, one does not know what the crime is for which the narrator bears this guilt, nor the nature of the penalty he must endure – an unwanted pregnancy? A jail term? A financial obligation in a more literal sense? All we know is that the guilt is real -- the narrator does not entirely exculpate himself, and the mistake of that one “riotous day” seems to have been a genuine one. But the last small protest of his self-compassion is to insist that this crime, whatever it was, ought not to be entirely inexpiable. The debt ought eventually to be forgiven. That it has accumulated instead past all proportion, past all reasoning, is a violation of justice. “Slight was the thing I bought, / Small was the debt I thought, / Poor was the loan at best — / God! but the interest!”
As in all Dunbar’s poetry, the fact of an ever-present racial injustice shadows every line of this verse, even if it is not explicitly named. And as is the case with all the most honest and bitterly true poetry that has been written about America’s long racial holocaust, this poem exists in a state of suspended animation, outside of historical time. It can be summoned to apply to events of 1903, to those of 1967, or to those of May, 2015. There is a reason, then, why the crime in this poem is not named, nor is the nature of the debt, nor the identities of the debtor and the creditor. The first two could be anything. The last of these is all too plain.
In Dunbar's day as in ours, young black men in America have been endlessly lectured on the subject of “individual responsibility." Our society, which never takes any responsibility on itself, which shows no contrition, which fails to see its own hand in the very things it wantonly blames -- has yet managed one final twist of the blade in this process, by asking its victims to bear Dunbar's "Debt." When met with poverty, with incarceration, with social breakdown-- just take some "individual responsibility," is the advice. How I would like to rip those two words out of every copy of Commentary and The New Republic that has ever hit the stands, and then set the whole pile aflame.
The ultimate travesty of this whole way of thinking – the most complete moral inversion that is pulls off – is that we are informed that this talk of responsibility actually shows a kind of respect -- more respect than is shown, ostensibly, by the attitude of mercy. It is part of how we recognize the “human agency” of the people who are bid to shoulder Dunbar’s “Debt,” we are informed. Here’s Leon Wieseltier writing in 1995, for instance, in a quite stunningly vituperative article about the then-contemporary work of Cornel West:
"West is a dodger on the question of individual responsibility. He resents the ‘new black conservatives’ for making an issue of it. ‘We indeed must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people, but we must do so cognizant of the circumstances into which people are born and under which they live. By overlooking these circumstances, the new black conservatives fall into the trap of blaming black poor people for their predicament[,' writes West.] This is not a fair account of the views of Shelby Steele, Glenn Loury, Stanley Crouch and others. I do not hear them blaming people for being poor. I hear them blaming people for abandoning families. Their assumption is that the latter is not the result of the former; that men are good husbands and good fathers whether or not there is cash in the bank. And this is finally a philosophical assumption. The discussion of individual responsibility is really a discussion of human agency. There is no way to explain the behavior of good husbands and good fathers, except that they have chosen to be good husbands and good fathers. In their blasted universe, they have exercised the freedom of their will. [...] And yet the 'prophetic Christian freedom fighter' [i.e., West] fights those who insist upon the explanation from freedom. [...] West, as I say, is a dodger. 'It is imperative to steer a course between the Scylla of environmental determinism and the Charybdis of a blaming-the-victims-perspective[,' West writes.] Politically, this is plausible. [...] Philosophically, this is implausible. Fortune treats us all differently, but moral behavior is not a hostage to bad fortune, even if bad fortune makes immoral behavior sometimes more attractive. We are not all in the same universe socially and economically, but we are all in the same universe morally. Either we are accountable for our actions, or we are not. Either, or."Surely if that’s what Wieseltier’s respect looks like, he can keep it. He strives so to portray West as a one-dimensional ideologue, yet the passages from the latter he cites are all far more sophisticated and nuanced than anything he offers in rebuttal. West seems actually to carve out some limited breathing room for ambiguity in the field of human decision-making-- some tiny enclave of grey amidst the black and white. Evidently this makes him a "dodger," to Wieseltier, who seemingly cannot imagine that people might act in this world with some mixture of guilt and innocence, that our choices may still be choices, in some meaningful sense of the word, while yet being made within constraints of circumstance.
If we take up Wieseltier's almost self-parodistically one-sided understanding of human agency, what then can we make of the fact that long before Freddie Gray was a victim of police brutality, he was a victim too of childhood lead poisoning? What can we say about a society that poisons the mind of a child and then, when he grows up to be a man, tells him to "take responsibility" for the fact that he is poor and has trouble with the law? I have no words for such a society, nor for starchy high-brow journalists within it, whose homes are all inspected for toxic paints before they ever inhabit them, whose drinking water is all clean, whose air is all breathable, who were never abused as children nor surrounded by drug addiction nor held back in school nor looked at by teachers or policemen as if they were nothing or at best a problem -- yet who nevertheless speak with an easy conscience about the "individual responsibility" of those who lack all these advantages -- and, who, to add the last and greatest excess of gall, their final parody of justice, claim that they do all this out of respect for the poor.
Gray’s story vindicates West over Wieseltier as much as anything could. It tells us what we ought already to have known: that poverty is not the passive suffering of the indolent – it is an active form of violence that invades the body and the mind.
Besides: if a young black man does try taking white Americans who think in this way at their word, and tries therefore to own up to an error on his part, he often finds that he will not be allowed to do so - at least not sufficiently to expunge the nameless guilt that has been attached to him from birth. He finds that white America rather preferred blaming him, was comforted by it, and hates to stop now. He can never be contrite enough, for Dunbar’s “Debt” cannot actually be repaid -- is not meant to be repaid– it is meant to follow him into the earth: “Until the grave / my friend.”
I am thinking of the young man, a teenager really -- 18 years old -- in Baltimore, Allen Bullock, who, earlier this week, was photographed on the roof of a police car, smashing in the windows. On the advice of his parents, he decided to admit his guilt to the police -- to turn himself in, that is. He acknowledged that he had made a mistake, and was prepared to face some limited consequences for it, in proportion to the modest scope of his misdeed. It was an act on his part of great personal courage and maturity.
Did the state of Maryland therefore show some admiration for this display of “individual responsibility”? Was virtue rewarded, as the Wieseltiers are sure it will be at last? Is he now being shown clemency – a slap on the wrist and a “don’t do it again”? (Seems to me like paying a small fine to cover the cost of window repair would be more than sufficient penalty).
But no. He is in jail for the charge of “rioting” and is likely to face four to eight years in prison, with bail set at half a million dollars. All because he smashed the windows of an inanimate vehicle when no one was inside. A lifeless car, which is apparently being valued at the price of four to eight years of a young man’s life (not unimportant years either – the ages from 18 to about 24 -- years when I was finishing college and starting grad school). We could not ask for a more harrowing instance of a society valuing property over human life (or at least, over black human life).
Four to eight “years of regret and grief” is the price he will pay. And all, indeed, “just for one riotous day” – in the most literal sense. Dunbar published those words in 1903. But we are still living in his world.
A society that impoverishes, locks up, chases down, and shoots young black men, and has done so for centuries, has also managed somehow, as a final agony, to make these same men the inward bearers of a grinding and ineradicable guilt. But surely “The Debt” – if there is such a thing—ought to be the curse of anyone other than these men -- it ought, indeed, to be the curse of white Americans like me, who never had to fear the police or the "third degree," who never had to live in the presence of violence, whose homes were all painted lead-free and whose air was clean. Should not the Debt be ours?
Of course not, if we’re Leon Wieseltier. To his mind, you either did it or you didn’t ("Either, or," as he says)—there are no shades of grey or paradox in the nature of human will. Presumably, then, if you knock in the windows of a police car in a second's ill-judged decision, you deserve to lose prime years of a life just begun. And if you don't do this, you're fine, even if the main reason for your "innocence" is that you never found yourself in circumstances that pressed you to engage in such actions. As a character says in Germinal, wiser than Wieseltier: "I don't pride myself either on my good conduct [...] in my marriage[. W]hen one hasn't gone wrong, it's often because one hasn't the chance." (Ellis trans.)
For those like this character who have a bit of psychological honesty, it seems that some feeling of collective guilt -- guilt at the sight of wrongs other people have committed -- is very difficult to avoid, and for just the reason she names. She has reached the same insight that Desmond Tutu points to, in justification of the emphasis he places on forgiveness in his theology. It is the fact that when we look on at cases of wrongdoing, we cannot help but recognize on some level that we could well have been the people doing them, had circumstances been just slightly different— had we found ourselves in their position. Modern Christian ethicists sometimes view this collective guilt as an updating of original sin, but it could just as well be interpreted as the precise opposite—a doctrine of universal innocence. As a 1971 Editorial from the pacifist journal Fellowship piquantly observes (I came across the line in research and it has rattled in my brain ever since-- exploding as it does a distinction I had long cherished): "That none is guilty and that all are guilty is closer together than anyone would have thought."
If we punish and condemn without understanding this truth -- without recognizing, in some sense, that “it could have been us” or, even more, that it probably would have been us then we are guilty of a terrible self-righteousness and hypocrisy. As Baltimore (and the country) proceeds to sort out this week who is guilty of what and who is to be punished for what, we ought always to keep this in mind. The people who set fire to cars and buildings this week (mostly the property of their own community) might have been us. The people who engaged in ethnically-motivated attacks on Korean- or Chinese-owned stores (a familiar and deeply rotten pattern in riots-- similar to the violence on Jewish shopkeepers in previous generations -- victims hurting victims, a prejudice within prejudice) might have been us. And yes, the police officers likely responsible for Freddie Gray’s death (bearing in mind we are in no position yet to be certain of events) -- they too might have been us.
That does not mean there is no such thing as individual guilt, or greater or lesser degrees of wrongdoing, nor that all prosecutions are unjustified or wrong. It means only this: May God save each and every one of us from ever falling into the hands of the Wieseltiers of the world. Please, if ever we do wrong, let us not be judged by people who have never looked within themselves long enough to know that they have inside them the very people and things they condemn.