Like most people, I have spent the last week trying to figure out how America elected Donald Trump as its 45th president. In the wake of the election results, it has become clear that nostalgia was a driving force in electing Trump. He received 81% of the White Evangelical vote, according to PRRI. White Evangelicals are the most likely of any group (74%) to be nostalgic for the 1950s, a time characterized by more normative, traditional iterations of the family, sexuality, and of course racial segregation. Whereas racial and religious minorities and members of and allies to the LGBTQ see the 50s as a time of discrimination and segregation, White Evangelicals imagine it as American's Golden Age, the Pax Americana.
In light of Trump's win, and his overwhelming support from White Evangelicals I have been thinking about nostalgia and what it means. During the last few weeks my students and I have been discussing Edward Blum's The Color of Christ, which traces the predominant images of Jesus over the course of American history. This has led to discussions of Christ as a White Nationalist figure, perhaps never more disgustingly than in The Birth of a Nation, screened in the White House by President Wilson, in which Jesus blesses Klan members who are the saviors of White America. It has also included discussions of Christ as a suffering slave and crucified lynching victim.
As part of those discussions, we will look briefly to Countee Cullen's poem "Heritage," which Cullen opens with the line: "What is Africa to me." In the third stanza, he concludes: "Africa? A book one thumbs/Listlessly, till slumber comes." I'm not going to claim to understand near anything of the poem's complexity, context, or imagery. It is subtle and patient, and overall, subversive.
But, among many other things, the poem teaches us that nostalgia is a privilege. Nostalgia is not memory, though it parades as such. Nostalgia is not a description of what used to be. Nostalgia is a projection of what should be, and therefore what should have been. It is using the past as a canvas to project oneself onto-a falsified history of how things should have been, and therefore-and this is the most important part-how they should be now. Cullen doesn't have the privilege of nostalgia in "Heritage". It has been taken from him by the white supremacy that renders his past one of holocaust and slavery, but also leaves him with none of the power to prescribe how things should be by projecting illusions of what they were. Nostalgia is the privilege of self-creation, the colonizing of memory, the exclusion of future possibilities based on fictional pasts. Only some of us are granted the power of this type of imagination.
As a bi-racial Asian American, I know the temptation to look backward at my mother's white Protestant family, poor farmers in Tennessee and Missouri, as embodying an American renaissance now past. But as soon as that temptation arises, I remember that not two hours from their farms my Japanese American family was interned in the swamps of Arkansas. The privilege of nostalgia is always disrupted by the reality of subjection, prejudice, and outright racism.
This week we learned that White American Protestants retain the privilege of nostalgia, and they refuse to surrender it. Their willingness to overlook Trump's racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and lies reflects the prioritization of nostalgia-of the ability to imagine an American that was once great, for them, if not for everyone.