We continue to be inspired, as we should, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s appeal to a “Beloved Community.”
Surrounded by hatred, anger and violence, we long for a fuller measure of this ideal, in which all are included and no one is thrust aside or left behind because of background or appearance. Along with his “I have a dream” declaration, his invocation of the “Beloved Community” is probably quoted more than anything else he said or wrote. We may be surprised to learn that he did not formulate the phrase.
One hundred years ago a young man from New Jersey who was very different in appearance, though white, wrote of the “Beloved Community.” Randolph Bourne was literally stunted and misshapen, an undeniably odd-looking fellow whose very being burned with a vision for a better America. In an essay published in 1916, during World War I, he envisioned a “Trans-National America,” in which “all can participate, the good life of personality lived in the environment of the Beloved Community.”
Born in 1886, Bourne died in the flu epidemic of 1918. His vision was less a call to reconciliation than for conciliation. We never were, truly, a unified people, he insisted, and the war exacerbated national and ethnic tensions. His question was not what will make us great again but “What shall we do with our America?”
He resisted Anglo-Saxon domination, fearing its concentration of money, power and influence, absorbing everyone into its own self-declared superior culture. For him, America’s uniqueness and international promise lay in “this transnationalism of ours,” the promise of a new kind of nation which gathered together all its people and peoples without subordinating any: the Beloved Community.
In the same year just a century ago when Bourne advocated a transnational America, Madison Grant published “The Passing of the Great Race,” a polemic gathering up elements of anthropology, genetics and eugenics. Mostly eugenics. We in North Carolina need not be reminded of the evil an emphasis on eugenics can perpetrate.
Grant appealed to the very Anglo-Saxon superiority against which Bourne contended. He worried not only about “race suicide” as some called it, resulting from superior stock being overrun and out-bred by inferior, but any mixing of the races which could only lead to the diminution of the stronger and eventually the decline and even demise of the culture. That superior strain was, for Grant, severely challenged in its American Northeastern stronghold. The National Origins Act, radically limiting undesirable immigration, became law less than a decade later.
This electoral season reminds us how far short of Dr. King’s dream and Randolph Bourne’s Beloved Community we are. Then it was southern and eastern Europeans, and especially Jews, who were the enemy. Now it is Mexicans and Muslims. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost, about as flinty an old-line New Englander as we can find. And what is that something? It is the Beloved Community, envisioned by Bourne and re-imagined by King.