At the center of the American national narrative is progress. The supposed ongoing propulsion into the future is not only about direction or momentum; it is also suffused with moral meaning. Our progress, as promulgated by its boosters, has been toward a more perfect union. The historic promises of personal liberty, democratic self-rule based in law and not monarchical declaration, and an expansive frontier were the first emblems of said perfect union. Untold growth and endless wealth anchored this notion of forward movement in the twentieth century as the American Dream, with its promises of unimpeded social mobility.
As is almost always the case, the national narrative is told from the perspective of the settler, the slave master, the disciple of the American Century. The dark realities of expansion, buttressed by the backbreaking labor of enslaved people, are the quiet parts of this story. If optimism is the disposition of the victor, then what is the outlook of the victim or survivor of conquest and domination?
For Sara Marcus, an assistant professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, it is disappointment. In a new book, “Political Disappointment,” Marcus describes the titular emotion as “untimely desire” or “a longing for fundamental change that outlasts a historical moment when it might have been fulfilled.” The desire persists even when its fulfillment has been irretrievably delayed. Marcus shows the ways in which Black activists and writers, in particular, have continued to express their political desires. In doing so, she draws our attention to the centrality of disappointment in American political life. The failures of political movements—whether to achieve a multiracial democracy or a social revolution centered on the Black working class or women’s liberation—threw off the timing of progress.
Marcus is also challenging the assumption that disappointment is bad or should be avoided in politics. On the left, she writes, we constantly avert the bad news of failure by finding its silver lining: that “we’d shown how scared the bosses were of our cause, or we’d trained new activists or we’d gotten people talking about our issues.” There is a fear of finality with failure, whereas Marcus is pulling her readers toward the continuity of desire for change.
Her book also contributes to the ongoing debates over the authorship of the country’s identity. Upon whose experience do we base notions of gradual betterment? Whose experience counts? Marcus forgoes the continued argument concerning the nation’s origin story: is its true founding date 1776 or is it 1619? Instead, she looks to the failure of Reconstruction as the beginning of a century of disappointment, because of what was possible, perhaps even expected, but eventually lost. Reconstruction marked the nation’s first attempt at developing a multiracial democracy, by way of ending slavery and the military occupation of the South, allowing newly minted Black citizens to participate in local, state, and national politics. But it was quickly thwarted, as W. E. B. Du Bois writes in “Black Reconstruction”: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
Marcus sees Black Americans as quintessentially disappointed, because of the enduring gap between what has been promised and what has occurred and what has been lived. The Black artists and writers whose work she considers include Huddie Ledbetter, Audre Lorde, and Marlon Riggs. But, for Marcus, Du Bois’s classic “The Souls of Black Folk,” and its articulation of the burden of racism and the color line, defines the existential disappointment of a new century. As Du Bois famously announced at the onset of “Souls,” “The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people—a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.” The profundity of this disappointment is only recognizable because of the exulting possibility that Reconstruction held.
Marcus tracks what she describes as the transcriptive practices of these artists and writers, including “both records and scores, remains of past performances and invitations to future ones.” To this end, Du Bois’s rhapsody on sorrow songs, in the final chapter of “Souls,” captures the essence of her project. The spirituals, which arose from the misery of slavery, were then resurrected, by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, from the postbellum period into the turn of the century. They embodied the sadness of the enslaved, but their survival and then embellishment by choral singers demonstrated new possibilities. Du Bois’s capture of these songs and their choral arrangement on the page and, indeed, as an epigraph for each chapter of the book becomes evidence, Marcus writes, of “audible alliances that erratically coalesce, fade out, and go on reverberating.”
Marcus, who is also a musician and the author of “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution,” writes with reverence and clarity about the sonic qualities of struggle. Disappointment may be reprised as a renewed political effort, or it may find new expression, as Marcus points out, with Ledbetter, more popularly known as Lead Belly, incorporating a breathy exhalation into his performances, perhaps to express disappointment with the Communist Party’s abandonment of class struggle. Here, Marcus presents a critical intervention, questioning the Communist Party’s turn to the Popular Front in the nineteen-thirties, in an attempt to proselytize Communism as, in the words of one slogan, “twentieth-century Americanism.” It has become conventional among some U.S. historians to celebrate the C.P.’s turn toward the Popular Front as evidence of the widespread appeal of radical ideas. It is true that the C.P. grew much more significantly during the thirties, but this growth was made possible by downplaying its earlier radical suppositions. As Marcus points out, “The Popular Front era’s new openness to coalition building led to a watering down of the party’s antiracist priorities. . . . The task of organizing workers to lead the revolution and create authentically working-class revolutionary culture was no longer as important as attracting a wide range of people to the party.”
Disappointment is also the grist found among feminists—both women of color and white women—when it became clear, by the nineteen-eighties, that the political climate had deteriorated in ways that foreclosed the possibility of women’s liberation. The movement did not just collapse upon itself in disappointment of a missed opportunity. Instead, women found new means to advance their struggles—in Marcus’s account, mainly by moving from simple demands for “voice” (inclusion or basic measures of representation) toward an emphasis on visibility (the arresting power of both seeing and being seen). Turning away from voice toward visibility was a powerful shift for women more generally, but especially for Black women, who were simultaneously hypervisible and invisible in caustic debates over social-welfare spending and other discussions controlled by the right. Marcus points to Audre Lorde’s poem “Afterimages” and writes, “this practice of seeing transforms images of pain and degradation into sustenance for the seeing subject.” Marcus goes on to quote Lorde’s observation of the ways in which these small shifts hold meaning: “one of the most basic Black survival skills is the ability to change, to metabolize experience, good or ill, into something that is useful, lasting, effective.”