A Call to Mourn: Democratic Action and the Confrontation of American Racism

January 22, 2017   •   By Jonathon S. Kahn

Mourning in America

David W. McIvor

AS THE AGE OF TRUMP BEGINS, it might be a good idea to reserve a corner of our bookshelves for texts that snap the mind to attention — texts that expose democratic nostrums and envision the work of coalition and community building are surely needed in the days that come. David W. McIvor’s Mourning in America: Race and the Politics of Loss is this sort of book. What makes the text bracing and, in this sense, necessary is the counterintuitive claim at its core.

McIvor insists that the work of mourning — civic mourning — is capable not only of recognizing the systemic ills of democratic life, but also of imagining the constructive work needed to address those very ills.

Mourning, it bears saying, would seem distinctly ill-suited for the democratic work that McIvor demands. As we often understand it, mourning arrests and interrupts. We stop and take time out when we mourn; we grieve; we often say we need a moment to heal. And when our grief has subsided, when the mourning period is over, only then do we move onward. In this way, the work of mourning is commonly opposed to the work of democratic and social action. As McIvor notes, labor activist Joe Hill’s famous formulation — “Don’t mourn, organize!” — captures the typical opposition between mourning and action. On this view, we do not move — at least not forward — by mourning.

McIvor’s work is devoted to contesting this standard version. He interprets mourning as synonymous with narratives of democratic participation and social action. The theoretical framework he uses to produce this conception of social mourning draws heavily on Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytical research of object relations. Despite McIvor’s lucid writing, his account will likely strike many readers as recondite. Thus, we hear that the “work of mourning interrupts the baleful circuit of the paranoid-schizoid position.”

What that means goes something like this: Mourning should not be seen as an outpouring of woundedness with its attendant rage at the evil source of the wound. Instead, mourning represents the ongoing and never-ending process through which the mourner resists seeing wounds as occasions to split up the world into singularly good and bad objects. Mourning names the process by which “consolations of perfection and purity are overturned,” and the world is reengaged in full recognition of its complexities and ambivalences.

Ambivalence is a critical if also “precarious achievement” on this account. Because being able to see the world and oneself as flawed and fallible is absolutely crucial to a type of agency that desires to recognize and reach out to others. On these terms, the ambivalence of mourning does not paralyze. It motivates and militates. This achievement of ambivalence is “protopolitical”: it leads to projects that are both clear-eyed in their criticisms and in their need to engage with others. In a creative turn, McIvor reworks the classical figure of Antigone to embody this stance. Without muting her rage and anger against elites, McIvor poignantly seizes on Antigone’s demand that Thebes hears her appeal: “My City! Rich citizens of my city! […] I would still have you as my witnesses.” Antigone does not offer a warmed-over cry for peace. Rather, she insists on deep changes that the elites will not like — but she persists on reaching out to those from whom she demands change.

The theoretical work that McIvor does here is significant, but most readers are going to be more interested in its specific implications for social change, particularly when it comes to race relations. This is McIvor’s payoff, too.

To these ends, McIvor’s situates the 2004 Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC) as the text’s touchstone and galvanizing example of civic mourning. This part of the chronicle is, at turns, quite stunning. The GTRC was a set of public dialogues convened in response to the Greensboro Massacre of 1979 — when members of the Ku Klux Klan shot and killed five members of the Communist Workers Party (CWP) at their rally in a predominantly black public-housing neighborhood.

McIvor’s recovery of this brazen and rank act of white terrorism represents an enormous service. The election of 2016 made clear that the Klan and other white-supremacist groups persist, but few of us have a grasp on the late 20th-century history of the Klan’s political violence. McIvor provides this context. And when McIvor turns to the TRC that Greensboro activists convened 25 years after the massacre, he again introduces the reader to an aspect of American political life that is all but unknown.

McIvor sees the GTRC as the paragon of democratic mourning. It provided a public space for citizens to openly contest the dominant narrative that Greensboro told itself about its racial history, one that used the 1960 Woolworth sit-ins to spin a tale of progressive racial unity while neglecting mention of the Greensboro massacre. The GTRC included interviews with members of the Klan as well as the CWP. It also drew a set of racially diverse citizens, politicians, and activists who were not directly involved in the massacre, but who clearly lived in its wake. The inclusion of these varied voices presented Greensboro with a different civil rights history, one that made it increasingly difficult for citizens to accept that the Greensboro massacre was an aberration disconnected from broader trends rooted in persistent racialized inequities. The GTRC created a social space where it became impossible to separate the abhorrence of the massacre from the abhorrence of broader systemic racism in Greensboro.

In doing so, the GTRC embodied a model of social mourning that refused good-evil binaries, and instead rendered the history of the trauma both complex and ambivalent. The GTRC eschewed “deaf politics of endless agonism while also avoiding the amnesia of consensualism.” By creating a space where ambivalence could be genuinely inhabited, the GTRC was able to produce a renewed sense of agency in its participants. It engaged in “a process of ‘annihilating certainties’ in order to create space and agency through which individuals and communities can pick up the pieces and begin again.” Pyschoanalytically, this makes sense. When citizens become capable of seeing each other as righteous and flawed, convicted and still open to questioning, the wages of engaging each other shift from demonization to more creative work. Mourning on this account is “aspirational” and “future-oriented.” Talking together leads to acting together. Citizens can begin to ask: What are the opportunities we have to act together in ways that speak enough to our multiple narratives?

At least this is the hope. But if there is something exhilarating about McIvor’s account of the GTRC, it also feels at moments tenuous. One gets the sense that McIvor strains to show the extent to which the GTRC produced the sorts of democratic practices — what he calls “democratic ripple effects” — that are critical to his account of civic mourning. He claims that the GTRC gave rise to “a variety of grassroots movements for social change in Greensboro,” but he provides very few details of these activities. We do not receive the voices or experiences of those who participated in the GTRC and then went on to engage in social action. We do not hear any specifics of how activists actually mobilized the discursive ambivalence of the TRC into action. I was left desperately wanting to hear a more detailed account of just one of these collaborative activities.

The same line of criticism holds true for his account of the inner workings of the GTRC. It is notable that we never truly meet and get to know any of the people involved in the GTRC. Who are these citizens? Are they white, black, poor, members of the Klan or the CWP? I wanted to hear how people tolerated the ambivalence of social trauma in ways that led to constructive engagement. How do their races speak to the ways they engage with the TRC process? Consider that McIvor frames the GTRC as a radical story about refiguring race relations. Yet, without knowing the races of the participants, the reader is left wondering precisely how race relations were refigured. Here I wonder if less work on psychoanalytical theory and more on the GTRC would have better served his ends.

All of this raises a larger question: In what ways is the process of mourning different for white and black Americans? Let’s say we accept the psychoanalytical archetype of mourning that McIvor provides. To mourn in this democratically productive way, all humans must “emphasize[] ambivalence and discord while pursuing a fractious coherence or solidarity.” Yet, the particularities of one’s racial and social standing surely must deeply shape what it means to do this. In essence, what it means to mourn is potentially radically different for white and black folks. Yet his failure to locate a mourner’s social position recreates the dynamics that he sharply criticizes in John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance.” McIvor is right to say that as Americans, we have a great deal of democratic mourning to undertake. But it needs to be asked whether the nature, shape, and sound of mourning is dramatically different based on race and social location. Mourning is marked by the same ambivalence that it must embrace.

Though the bulk of his book neglects to account for the particular race of the mourner, his afterword featuring Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine, and Black Lives Matter functions to make more explicit the particularities of blackness and mourning. McIvor’s attention to their voices is exquisite, though he does not name their forms of mourning as distinctly black. His sensitivity to Rankine’s language yields an astonishing reading in which he limns Rankine’s search for a grounds for “truce” with white America as a metaphorical version of a “deuce” in tennis. Given the importance of tennis and Serena Williams to Rankine’s Citizen, McIvor’s reading serves to honor Rankine’s own conceptual frame.

Still, I fear that McIvor is too quick to see the poetic genius of Coates and Rankine as a version of the social desire that leads to spaces like the GTRC. His brief engagement with BLM at the end of the afterword follows the same rails. He suggests that BLM “activists would have much to gain from a close examination and imitation of the pluralistic and dialogical work of efforts such as the GTRC.” Is McIvor in too much of a rush to assimilate the mourning of these black voices in terms of the more clearly integrative energies of TRCs? McIvor’s call, it would seem, is for a broad-based American project of mobile TRCs. I’m not sure if Rankine, Coates, or BLM would join him enthusiastically in that call. They all seem weary of rituals of solidarity that do not assure some form of real change in material conditions for black America. They suggest a type of agency that is less inclined to join projects of reconciliation where the burden of mourning might be borne most greatly by black bodies.

All of this is to suggest that more work on mourning needs to be done. Because McIvor’s central claim holds: mourning is a neglected and essential practice for “democratic societies marked by dislocative traumas, desecrations, and misrecognitions.” Platitudes about the importance of “facing the past” are not modes of mourning. To mourn, we have to face forward and demand a different future. McIvor’s work is an invitation to us all to examine how this works with ever-greater detail.


Jonathon S. Kahn is Associate Professor of Religion and a member of the Programs in Africana and American Studies at Vassar College. He is the editor of Race and Secularism in America (with Vincent Lloyd) and the author of Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois