Mark Krotov is a senior editor at Melville House.
In a 2011 essay called “Christmas in Baltimore 2009,” Lawrence Jackson cites a letter William Dean Howells wrote to Henry James in September 1888, a few months before the publication of A Hazard of New Fortunes:
"I’m not in a very good humor with 'America' myself. It seems to me the most grotesquely illogical thing under the sun . . . I now abhor it, and feel that it is coming out all wrong in the end, unless it bases itself anew on a real equality. Meantime I wear a fur-lined overcoat, and live in all the luxury my money can buy."
In a series of pieces published in n+1 over the past four years (beginning with “Christmas in Baltimore”), Lawrence Jackson has explored, in part, the way things have come out all wrong in the end. His 2013 essay “Slickheads” — a visceral, bloody, poignant account of his and his crew’s teenage years in mid-1980s Baltimore — doubles as a gradual awakening to the persistence and casual brutality of the police state. “I had been in the Five-O palace on Baltimore Street and seen them lounging like they were on the whites-only floors,” Jackson writes. “I had seen an office with a Confederate flag in it and some other of that old-timey, Frederick County shit.”
“On Becoming More Human,” from the Spring 2015 issue of n+1, is a departure from Jackson’s other work for the magazine. Prepared as a speech for a rally at Emory University, where he is a professor, it focuses less on the excavation of an autobiographical past than on a collective definition of the present and future.
It’s written for an audience of students, and it hinges on the primal importance of the humanities. But in tone and content, the speech barely resembles the commencement address, our most inexplicably fetishized literary form. In place of abstractions, there is the tactile tragedy of the killings of Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Rumain Brisbon, and Trayvon Martin. Instead of vague platitudes about the future, there is a call for a kind of sacrifice: “Which is to say that while we might earn enough to eat, put a roof over our heads, and pay off our debt, the jobs that are at our fingertips require us to be servants of the public.”
“On Becoming More Human” is a truly urgent document — not merely a powerful explication of the policies that led us here, but a call to action. “Those of you at this rally,” says Jackson, “must help your fellow classmates, teachers, and administrators make choices that will benefit not the ranking, not the endowment, not the stock market, not the numbers, but the people, but humanity.”
Jackson’s challenge isn’t a modest one, but modesty, he suggests, is inappropriate to this moment. Boldness is the way. With boldness, “we might have helped to create the conditions for justice in the land. We might have truly become human.”