The King & I- What 11/22/63 Teaches Us About Privilege and the Dangers of Nostalgia

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The King & I is a series of blogs about the significant impact of the work of Stephen King. On an energetic and slightly deranged level, I consider him a long distance Mentor.

I won’t say I am his number one fan, because that would just be creepy….

His work does more than entertain, it teaches. It has been a long time since the last King & I Blog, but the timing feels right in light of this past weekends terrorist attack and outpouring of hate and white supremacy in Virginia.

What many of my brothers and sisters in America have overlooked- and what I have overlooked for a shamefully long time, is that white supremacy is not relegated to hidden clusters of maniacs who dress in sheets and seek grandiose self fulfillment by scapegoating others.

White supremacy is an institution pervasive in American culture. The extent of our shock at the outpouring of hatred and scapegoating since the recession can be correlated to the extent of our social privilege and removal from the victimization of these institutions of continued oppression.

But I get ahead of myself….

In his book, 11/22/63, published in 2011, King brings us into a world of intentionally created “alternative facts” and “revisionist history” by posing the question, what would the world look like if the JFK assassination were prevented?

I strongly encourage you to read this book (even if you saw the Hulu miniseries). Therefore it is not my intention to focus on the plot or provide spoilers. Rather, the tone of the book, more specifically, a crucial scene early on, teaches us a great deal about the consciousness of white America.

In the story, Jake Epping, an English teacher from New England (surprise!) is shown a portal in his friend’s diner which allows him to travel back in time to shortly before Kennedy’s assassination. This is significant because to this assassination serves as a palpable moment for most Americans who lived through it. There is a sense that Kennedy’s murder and the upheaval that followed represent a significant before and after picture, a loss of innocence, as King describes it a “watershed moment.”

But the pivotal moment to which this blog points is not the Kennedy assassination at all, but rather a scene far preceding the climax of the book.

When Epping first steps through the portal, he is transported back in time and the scene is described beautifully. King brilliantly paints Epping into his own literary Normal Rockwell scene. He visits the local corner store, encounters a “greaser” and marvels at the banality of the atmosphere. He sees a father and son working at the store together, sees the cheap prices of the food, the quaint attire of those in the small seemingly peaceful town, and gets caught up in the nostalgia of what this era has come to represent.

The thin veneer of peace, tranquility and simplicity.

The fairy tale white America has come to cling to as its baseline.

As the story goes on, Epping comes to see behind this veneer, and realizes that the “good old days” are not what they appeared to be. Some of these encounters are significant to the plot and so I will not go into detail here so as to preserve the elements of surprise, but there is one scene that is worth noting.

As Epping makes his way to Texas where he will need to be to stop Oswald, he stops to use the restroom. For the first time he comes face to face with institutional racism that he is able to recognize. He finds the restroom for white people, and a sign marked “colored” with an arrow.

Following the arrow, he is led to a wooded area with a stream and a little wooden plank where people, men, women, children, are expected to relieve themselves out in the elements. This is his first wake up call that the spell of nostalgia appealed to his yearnings for past conditions that seemed on the surface to be favorable, but were really not.

Especially for people of color.

While King uses scenes like this to ground his story in historical context of segregation and institutional racism, he does not belabor the point. It is made clear, and it is up to the reader to insinuate what they may.

That perhaps the good life that some white Americans long to “return” to is, for people of color, a dream which has never crystallized in this culture.

And here is the opportunity we could have taken to understand the trappings of nostalgia mask a darker reality.

That the good old days benefited some, but not all, Americans.

The story also includes reference to antisemetic discrimination, sexism, and classism. All of the isms that don’t show up in a Normal Rockwell painting but nevertheless, they existed.

And so it is with this scene in mind that I reflect on what it is people are really saying, or not saying, when they desire to “make America great again.”

What is this greatness? For whom is it being cultivated? And who among us are still waiting for America to rise to greatness for the first time?

From this standpoint let me delve a little deeper into something I have missed until recently.

And that I would wager that many other white Americans are missing.

Because it isn’t taught in our history classes.

What we have come to expect as our baseline, whether we perceive that as life before Kennedy’s assassination or life before the recession or life before 9/11 or any other “watershed moments” in America, is and has been, regardless of the nuances between white men and white women, white upper class and white lower class, etc., different from the experiences of people of color in this country. I am not suggesting that is a good thing, in fact I believe it is a travesty that has gone largely unnoticed in the consciousness of white Americans for far too long.

It is the Shadow we must face.

Our baseline guarantees in this country, the right to work without discrimination, the right to own property, the right to vote, the right to file charges against someone who has committed a crime against us, the right to participate in government, these facets of our lives are so entrenched in our “normalcy” we don’t think about them.

It never occurred to me, for example, what segregation as an overt, or covert policy of government really means for people of color.

That even my family, who were immigrants, then poor, then working class, were still afforded some opportunities to advance, to even become working and then middle class, that our non-white brothers and sisters were not afforded.

That housing loan programs that built the middle class were designed, initially, for the benefit of white Americans. Even when discriminatory practices became illegal there was already a head start on the American Dream given to white Americans, that minority Americans were held back from. Not to mention continued discriminatory practices such as predatory lending and redlining which set a different precedent for white folks but not people of color.

When we consider that benefits such as the GI bill, unemployment benefits and other social safety nets were, at the time of their creation, overtly or covertly off limits to people of color, when we consider that for generations people who were brought to this country stripped of their humanity, and then considered free, but not human, and then considered subhuman, and then suddenly considered just like everyone else but without the resources and safety nets to succeed and advance, how can we possibly honestly consider the present to be a level playing field for all Americans?

If you are white person in America thinking to yourself “yeah, but…” as in “yeah ┬ábut my family struggled too, yeah but my family was poor, etc.” let me say that I hear you. My family struggled too. My family was poor too. But what I have come to realize, and hope to impress on you, is that even though my family clung to the bottom rungs of the ladder, we at least were given a place on the ladder, while others in this country carried the ladder on their backs but were not given a chance to even grasp at the bottom rungs.

That is what is meant by privilege.

Jake Epping gets this wake up call as he travels back in time and confronts with some degree of honesty, his own selfish longings for a return to a time in which people who looked like him were able to enjoy an ease of social mobility and economic opportunity that was not extended to and shared by all Americans.

This pivotal moment in the story could have echoed deep into the consciousness of readers, especially white readers who, like me, were relatively oblivious (and remain so in some ways) to the depth of challenges created in America’s institutions that keep people of color struggling to grasp what most white Americans have become used to.

During this time of great change and uncertainty, when you find yourself longing for the illusion of security represented in nostalgia, take a deep breath, ask yourself who is served by believing in that myth of the good old days.

Then look to your community, of all people, of all backgrounds, and listen to the history you haven’t been taught.