Great Antidote Extras: William B. Allen on The State of Black America

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Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

What is the heartbeat of the American Project and what is the place of Black Americans in it? The Great Antidote podcasts explores hard questions and uncomfortable answers with Juliette Sellgren and William B. Allen. 
What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a proud, Black American? 
Great Antidote host Juliette Sellgren interviews William B. Allen about the new books he’s edited and contributed to, “The State of Black America.” Allen is a resident scholar and former chief operating officer of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education. Sellgren and Allen have a thought-provoking conversation about whether it is possible to reconcile America’s past with the promises of the American founding.

You can listen to the podcast here

Allen begins by answering Sellgren's signature open about what young people today should know with a call to being a little more rebellious. 

Key Quote
When I was your age, we didn't believe anything anyone told us. Today young people tend to believe the script. They are less rebellious than we were. They do not by habit challenge, orthodoxy, conventional wisdom. And so the most important thing is for them to understand that it's okay. Not to believe what you're told. It's okay to challenge.

Allen then talks about what it was like growing up in the segregated South. He speaks about the atmosphere of terror but also how important it was that he had “a particularly strong and saintly mother who gave counsel consistently about how to conduct oneself.” He also speaks about how the most common narratives about growing up Black are not necessarily the most representative narratives. 

Allen draws on an impressive array of thinkers from the past to share the ideas and the history related to this topic. He mentions Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Washington, William Lloyd Garrison, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Alexander Hamilton, Martin Luther King Jr., Joe Lewis, and more. He talks about the continuing importance of Tulsa and Charleston and Atlanta and Selma. 

Allen’s claim is that one of the most profound misunderstandings of the promise of America which is at the heart of the race conflict today is the belief that the effective use of Liberty depends on a prior guarantee of material security. He sees Liberty as the thing which assures personal agency and personal agency brings and wins the blessings of material security. Modern narratives have reversed this relationship to the damage of all Americans. 

Allen also returns to a frequent topic of the Great Antidote: The importance of asking questions and protecting the speech of people who might be saying unpopular things. 

Key Quote
The first question that is dangerous to ask is who is an American, because when you ask that question, you're going to enter into a thicket of distinctions and qualifications based on identifying all kinds of sub-identities, subgroups, and affiliations, allegiances, and never get to the core question. Is there such a thing as an American? And if you insist that there might be such a thing as an American, you're going to be accused of racism, you're gonna be accused of excluding others. You're gonna be accused of various forms of cultural appropriation so that the danger is there is a cudgel that is being used as an instrument of division in the culture. That is a threat that hangs over the head of any individual who speaks up candidly about these issues who speaks up for example, about the degree of responsibility in urban communities, for the rampant crime and violent crime rate that terrorizes those communities, anybody who questions, whether that is a result of the legacy of slavery or a result of the failure of government in those communities is going to be accused of racism.

Sellgren also asks Allen whether he’s proud to be an American. He is. And what does Allen think it means to be an American. His answers speaks about the acceptance of the obligations and responsibilities of a high-standard of self-government and integration into a community of people who have done the same. It is not a tribe or bloodline you are born into, it doesn’t require a specific faith or cultural background. It requires accepting the responsibilities of liberty. 

Allen is quite critical of the 1619 Project and offers several narratives that he says better represent the “heartbeat” of the American project. He gives Sellgren and the listeners a different history to consider including the tale of two different men named Steven Hopkins, a man who was both at Jamestown and Plymouth and was punished for speaking out against injustice. And the later Hopkins who changed his mind about slavery and who signed the Declaration of Independence. He’s also expressed skepticism about Kentaji Brown Jackson proclaimed love of the Constitution. He’s waiting to see what the Constitution means to her as she decides cases. 

Allen ends with a story about taking a group of teachers throughout the south to visit civil rights movement memorials in 2018. They visited the Bethel AME church in Selma, Alabama and here’s what he said: 

Key Quote
When we were in Selma, we went to Bethel AME church that was called Big Bethel. That's where the people who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1963 in the struggle for voting rights in Alabama, met to strategize. I'm sitting there with the teachers in the sanctuary, lecturing them about that event, I pause in the middle of the lecture and I fall silent for a second. And I look up and around me, then I look back to the teachers and I say, “Who do you think built this structure?” There was silence. It was a question came out of the blue, had nothing to do with anything we were talking about. But finally, somebody spoke up and says, “well, the people who worship here, I suppose.” and I said, “exactly right.” That was the first decade of the 20th century, at the height of repression. And this magnificent piece of architecture, this had magnificent edifice, which is truly beautiful, was erected by these poor black parishioners, no, not poor, resourceful. People who were intelligent and created who had personal agency, who were able to do things, who were not cowering in weakness waiting to be helped. The state of black America is nothing less. And that state is still there, but veiled from our eyes, if we open our eyes, we will see that the way Frederick Douglas and Ida B. Wells saw in 1893, when they protested exclusion of blacks from the Columbian Exposition. And what did they argue? They argued that in 1619 slaves were brought here and in 1865 we ended that slavery. And since 1865, we have lived the promise of America. And by excluding blacks, you're not failing to tell the story of our accomplishments. You have failed to tell the story of America's accomplishments, because this is a tribute to the strength and the resilience of the American principles. What we have seen slaves do post-slavery, that's the state of Black America, a state of people who rose from abject want to full sufficiency and who can rise still further.

Sellgren asks Allen about something he changed his mind about and he closes by talking about how he made the shift from wanting to be a doctor as a way to do good to realizing he didn’t know how to do good and pursuing his studies around that question. 

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