Ruel johnson


An american fall


“through that gray, fading massacre a blue

lighthearted creek flutes of siege

to the amnesia of drumming water.

Their cause is crystalline: the divine union

of these detached, divided states, whose slaughter

darkens each summer now…”


Derek Walcott, ‘The Gulf’


In August, the cicadas of Iowa City provide a shrill chorus to mark the advent of this year’s fall season – they are invisible, and ancient.  I imagine that cicadas have haunted these trees for millennia and will do so for millennia still to come

Like the season itself, they are both embodiment and symbol of life descending into a sort of pseudo-death and stasis before a rejuvenation, a regeneration, and, over time, an implicit evolution and growth.

If nature’s season has its own cacophonous harbingers, so does the American political season, with the television and internet filled with pundits worrying at scandal after scandal, minutiae after minutiae, panels and infographs and trivia and sketches that are often the subject of each other.  A presidential candidate makes a news appearance which is then parodied on Saturday Night Live in a sketch which generates crosstalk debates and commentary which further generates talk show sketches and social media memes and Twitter battles.  And of course, the vast majority of it bears the increasingly ironic brand name of Trump, a word whose synonyms include “eclipse”, “surpass”, “better”, and “outclass”.   Donald Trump, with his signature made-in-China ties and his signature “Make America Great Again” slogan.

The great American political commentator, Richard Hofstadter, in his The American Political Tradition wrote,

”A longing to recapture the past, in fact, has itself been such a basic ingredient of the recent American past that no history of political thinking is complete which does not attempt to explain it…  Now – in an age of concentration, bigness, and corporate monopoly – when competition and opportunity have gone into decline, men look wistfully back toward a golden age.”

For all the resonance Donald Trump’s rallying cry has had with vast swathes of the American people, Republicans in particularly, most of whom represent an ethnic hegemony that has seen itself as, in fact, the American people, one can be forgiven for thinking that Hofstadter’s insight was made in 2016 instead of 1948, when his book was written.

As a disciple--a glorified term that even he would point out as useless and absurd--of Borges, I am constantly in search of what he refers to as history’s “repetitions, variants, symmetries,” and on my way on a residency trip to the Iowa Effigy Mounds, as we ascend a hill bordered by undulating cornfields, it comes to me. The ascent of America has never been a sum slope with tiny variations as much of the mythos would have us presume, but a series or rises and falls. The zenith of the courageous spirit of the pilgrims declined into the nadir of the genocide of the Indians by the pioneers, the War of Independence into the cruelties of slavery and the Civil War, the 15th Amendment into Jim Crow, the heroism of the American infantry at Normandy into the heinous crimes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the victories of the Civil Rights movement into the quagmire of the Vietnam War, global leadership in combatting the onset of the AIDS epidemic into the clumsily and conveniently prosecuted war on drugs.

At the Effigy Mounds visitor center, before the tour proper, we are shown a fifteen-minute video, the calm, neighbourly, mid-Western narrator’s voice explaining to us as euphemistically as possible how those whose ancestors built the mounds and for whom they remained sacred, were systematically wiped out by the “White man’s diseases”, although one supposes that, to save time, his acknowledgement of the guns and steel that came with the germs was unfortunately left on the cutting room floor.  Still it is a curious thing to walk the labyrinthine forest pathways around the barely visible monuments and be cautioned about showing respect for the dead of a people now vanished from this place, even as some of their remaining few descendants, the Standing Rock Sioux in nearby North Dakota are protesting the Dakota Access pipeline, which passes through Iowa, on the grounds that it would disrupt their traditional burial sites.

At the edge of cliff overlooking the mist-covered Mississippi river, a fellow writer points out to me that she does not feel the same impact we felt a few weeks earlier on our mid-residency trip to Louisiana.  I understand completely.

If the mounds offer only silence, and the hidden bones of those buried there do not rattle me, it was not the same with the visit to the Whitney Plantation just outside of New Orleans.  On the hour-long drive there from the Hotel Monteleone on the border of the city’s French District, as the monotonous driver had droned on with his poorly written tour-guide script, it was Walcott I had heard speaking to me…

“Yet the South felt like home.  Wrought balconies,

the sluggish river with its tidal drawl,

the tropic air charged with extremities…”

I had walked into the place with arrogant calm of a worldly writer, a clinical observer of things, and left shaken at the legacy of casual barbarism, and near the edge of a green mound I could hear his growling, carefully cadenced voice… “Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake.”  And yet there the manor had stood, not in ruins, but whole, as was the shed that the guide had informed us used to film the torture scene in Django Unchained.  We learned there as well that not too far away was the formerly notorious Angola plantation, now the currently notorious prison where up until February of this, Albert Woodfox was held in primarily solitary confinement.  Just a few weeks before Louisiana, we had seen Woodfox in Chicago and back in my small hotel room, after a hot shower during which I could not help hearing the Whitney tour guide inform us that one of the primary causes for injuries and fatalities on the estate were burns, I had wiped the condensation from the mirror only to find that that experience with the estate’s strange and familiar soil had “prickled and barbed the texture of my hair.” While I had come to Iowa in August, my arrival in America had begun more than a month later in New Orleans.

On the way back from the mounds, we pass through the historical town of McGregor, a television Western town come alive in the Technicolor of autumn and the restorative committee’s s rich browns, yellows and reds, and strangely enhanced, not marred, by the occasional neon sign.  We enter through the saloon doors of a bar as an old man on a stage is in the middle of belting out “Mr. Bojangles” in a voice somewhere between John Denver and Jim Nabors.  Next to him is an old woman who sits completely still, completely motionless, moving only when he turns to acknowledge us and ask us where we’re from, and later on when he goes into a heartbreaking rendition of ‘Livin in Love’. 

By the time we leave, a familiar pattern is confirmed for me, one that first started at an International Visitors' Center party, and which is to be underscored the next day as we attend the annual Dane Farm harvest party, a celebration of “family, friends and harvest” as the priest who leads us in prayer reminds us.  It is an imperceptible othering even in the midst of what appears to be heartfelt acceptance, a cradling in soft calfskin gloves, a gentle, pleasurable fucking with a flesh-coloured, ultra-thin condom.  It is there during our carefully curated presentations, it is there hanging out in bars at which we’ve become regulars, it is there when we first go for our social security numbers and our university ID cards, and on the library tour and there is a mild, flash of annoyance expressed through the polite cadences and smiling teeth.  It is what Italian-born Francesca Johnson, played by the ethereal Meryl Streep, struggles to explain to Clint Eastwood’s Robert Kincaid about Iowa in The Bridges of Madison County.

Extrapolated to America at this time, it is this congenitally compromised Caucasian calm that is under threat, this being of patriarchal whiteness that is often not malevolent yet whose core premise presumes the perpetuation of certain hierarchies and their implicit biases.  It is facing an unprecedented precarity in American history, culminating in a critical undermining of its core infrastructure and symbolic expressions of its hegemony.  Barack Obama, America’s historical first Black President, is leaving office with a higher approval than Ronald Reagan, and his quintessentially African American wife is seen as the most important buttress for his anointed successor, a soon to be historical first woman President, Hillary Clinton.  Among the most prominent recipients of this year’s MacArthur Foundation grants, and certainly the one who received the most coverage is Claudia Rankine, whose major work Citizen is an exploration of Blackness in America, while the first American to win a Booker Prize for Literature is African American writer Paul Beatty whose novel The Sellout is a satirical tale about a modern day slavery and segregation enthusiast. His historical win comes on the heels, of course, of another act of institutionalized validation of African American life, the launch, at last, of the Museum of African American History in Washington, DC.

While up to last year the Academy Awards and the American entertain industry in general were under fire for lack of diversity, contemporary popular culture could not be more diverse, whether it’s the pointedly multicultural remake of The Magnificent Seven,  or the breakout popularity of Luke Cage on Netflix or both Ta Nehesi Coates and Roxanne Gay working on Black Panther and derivate projects for Marvel. In the same way that a pop culture mythos presaged the movement that would eventually lead to marriage equality, there is a similar tide that is taking place with the representation of American diversity, one that threatens to divide America perhaps not in outright conflict as was the Civil War, but one that will yet have potential lasting effects, like the tribalisation of the country, perhaps even the Balkanization as many on the far-right, virtually indistinguishable now from the centre right, seem to indicate.  And what is autumn if not an infusion, an invasion of colour before a falling away and a gathering and hoarding of things?

From all that I’ve seen, from the ways that I have seen it, this year’s fall has marked the beginning of what will be the most meaningful harvest of America’s undulating history, a bounty borne as much out of great sacrifice as of unspeakable crimes. And it will be a hard harvest, unpredictable as of now with as much chance of a bitter, brittle, blight-ridden yield as of anything truly wholesome enough to sustain this beautiful and tragic country into the inevitably hard season ahead.

A year from now, I hope to be here again during another American fall, to listen to the music of the cicadas and perhaps to partake of the next year’s harvest, among friends.