What I posted to Facebook on 4/8, on the occasion of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. My follow-up said that, yes, the reference was to Agee (the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on which more below) and added:

 I can’t begin to say how pleasing KBJ’s appointment is to me.

To amplify a bit. This is not the Promised Land, but it is nevertheless a Big Fucking Deal. One of the things about my hero John Lewis that moved me especially was that he truly believed that we could reach the Promised Land in this life (not in an afterlife on Jordan’s other bank) — just not in his life, it would take some time. [More below on Lewis and this astonishing bit of faith on his part.] Meanwhile [Lewis believed], we have to keep moving on the path. KBJ is a highly visible step on the path, and that’s a big thing, a moment of joy.

From the days leading up to 4/8, two photos:

(#1) Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is sworn in during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 21 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A face of assurance and judicious joy.

(#2) (C-SPAN) photo from 3/27) Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at [the] hearing

This bit of modest side-eye and the accompanying small sigh are acts of fierce resistance behind the screen of infinitely tolerant equanimity that black people, especially black women, have to maintain in the face of whatever hostility and bullshit white people choose to heap on them (and the hearings displayed both of those, ladled out in giant appalling servings) — acts of resistance meant to be seen and appreciated by other black people. If KBJ looks at you like that, you’ve been branded as a certifiable grade-A asshole (and you really really don’t want her to come over there and explain things to you).

The look is triggered by experiencing hatred, but it isn’t itself an expression of hatred; instead, it’s a cry of SHAME SHAME SHAME!, of moral repugnance, combined with intimations of a slave revolt.

Remember that that look is being wielded by on extraordinarily distinguished jurist who is also famously collegial. She’s amazingly competent and also genuinely nice. Even in the face of wicked baiting by an especially nasty Miss Ann and Mr. Charlie.

Look, I’m a faggot, and we sometimes have to hold our tongues and compose our faces, lest we be charged as dangerously hysterical pedophiles. But I would never stand for this sort of stuff. But then I’m a white guy.

So: my moment of moral outrage. Mixed with enormous joy at KBJ’s confirmation.

Agee. And that book: a volume of intense moral passion. From Wikipedia:

(#3) (Wikipedia photo caption) Walker Evans photograph of three sharecroppers, Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs, Alabama, summer 1936

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a book with text by American writer James Agee and photographs by American photographer Walker Evans, first published in 1941 in the United States. The work documents the lives of impoverished tenant farmers during the Great Depression. Although it is in keeping with Evans’s work with the Farm Security Administration, the project was initiated not by the FSA, but by Fortune magazine. The title derives from a passage in the Wisdom of Sirach [a Jewish work of ethical teachings] (44:1) that begins, “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us”.

… Agee, who writes modestly and self-consciously about his privileged position in the book’s creation, appears as a character himself at times in the narrative, as when he agonizes over his role as “spy” and intruder into these humble lives. At other times, as when he simply lists the contents of a sharecropper’s shack or the meager articles of clothing they have to wear on Sunday, he is altogether absent. The strange ordering of books and chapters, the titles that range from mundane (“Clothes”) to “radically artistic” (as the New York Times put it), the direct appeals by Agee for the reader to see the humanity and grandeur of these horrible lives, and his suffering at the thought that he cannot accomplish his appointed task, or should not, for the additional suffering it inflicts on his subjects, are all part of the book’s character.

John Lewis. A hero of mine, and of Ann Daingerfield (Zwicky)’s, and of my man Jacques Transue’s, from back in the disastrous days of the 1960s, when we got to regularly view scenes of literally murderous rage by white people directed at black people (every so often those hate-deranged whites actually did murder black folks, or lynch them; John Lewis escaped with his life, but just barely). But I’m getting ahead of my story. Some very bald facts, from Wikipedia:

John Robert Lewis (February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020) was an American politician and civil rights activist who served in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020. He was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. Lewis was one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He fulfilled many key roles in the civil rights movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in the United States. In 1965, Lewis led the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In an incident which became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers and police attacked the marchers, including Lewis.

A member of the Democratic Party, Lewis was first elected to Congress in 1986 and served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district he represented included most of Atlanta. Due to his length of service, he became the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation.

Heroically dedicated to the cause of civil rights, physically heroic in that enterprise, and then an able and effective legislator, representing not just black Atlanta, but essentially all of it equally.

What the fact-filled Wikipedia account fails to capture is he was an irrationally decent man (decent way beyond rational expectation), full of irrational hope (hopeful way beyond rational expectation) — buoyed by his faith, true, but there his decency and hope were, and some of it was quite astonishing, because it was in fact far from conventional Christianity. What I said on Facebook:

he truly believed that we could reach the Promised Land in this life (not in an afterlife on Jordan’s other bank) — just not in his life, it would take some time.

Conventional Christianity tells us that life on this earth is filled with pain, terror, mistreatment, outright slavery, and wickedness, but that the believer will be rewarded with undiluted and enduring joy and delight after death, with Jesus in the life everlasting. I’m sure John Lewis believed that too. But he also thought that with resolution and determination and good will you can change this world, make it truly better. You can remake this world in the spirit of Christ’s love. But the project will take some time and we have to stay the course.

This John Lewis you can read about in political biographer (and Vanderbilt Univ. professor) Jon Meacham’s 2020 book about Lewis:

(#4) Meacham’s moral concerns, and of course Lewis’s, shine from the pages

Let us walk with KBJ on John Lewis’s path.

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