[ by Charles Cameron — Dylann Roof’s trial, the New Yorker, and the scorable music of opposing voices ]
On the way to taking us Inside the Trial of Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb makes an observation that interests me, describing the architectural features surrounding the trial asa point-counter-point in ideas:
Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, traces its roots to 1816. It was a center of clandestine anti-slavery activity and, in 1822, when city officials discovered that congregants were planning a slave revolt, they burned the church to the ground. The current building was erected in 1891, on Calhoun Street, named for Vice-President John C. Calhoun, the intellectual progenitor of secession. The Calhoun monument, a column eighty feet high, topped by a statue of the statesman, is half a block away. The monument and the church, which came to play a central role in the Southern civil-rights movement, stand like a statement and its rebuttal.
Counterpooint — the musical technique whereby two or more melodies are juxtaposed, now clashing, now harmonizing, but with their melodic integrity uncompromised — is a technique which I believe has application beyond music, in verbal thought.
Different voices, offering different opinions and perspectives — now clashing, now harmonizing, but with their conceptual integrity uncompromised — are precisely what we find at the heart of all debate, from town hall meetings and parliamentary procedues to maritalspats and the conversations of genius — the letters of Max Born and Albert Einstein come to mind, as does the film My Dinner with Andre.
My gambit, borrowing from the brilliant game that lies at the heart of Hermann Hesse‘s novel The Glass Bead Game, is to suggest that we take Johann Sebastian Bach‘s use of melodic counterpoint and adapt it to its conceptual equivalent — thus opening the way to (a) thinking many contrasting thoughts as a single conceptual music, and (b) developing fresh means to score such a polyphony — or multitude of voices.
Essentially, the ability to think in counterpoint is the ability to hold in mind another voice beside one’s own — the capacity, if you will, to listen as well as to think. Seen thus, it is the basic skill necessary for us to make progress away from the terrible divisiveness of our times, and into a more convivial and ecumenical future.
I watched my son come into this world and I watched my son leave this world.
This sentence, uttered by the other of one of Roof’s victims, gains power from its closely observed parallelism between birth and death, womb and tomb.
Forgiveness as a consequence iof counterpoint:
The Civil War began in Charleston. The Ordinance of Secession was signed in Institute Hall, on Meeting Street, in December, 1860; the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, in the harbor, a few months later. The reaction of many Charlestonians to the extraordinary moment, at a bond hearing the day after Roof’s arrest, when, one by one, family members stood and forgave him, was an outgrowth of the city’s relationship to that past. Forgiveness was not just an example of how to metabolize hatred directed at you, or just a demonstration of Christian faith, though it was both of those things. It stood for a broader redemption, an exoneration from history itself.
A counterpoint in statuary:
Herb Frazier, a black journalist who grew up in the city and has attended Emanuel since childhood, told me that black Charlestonians have always hated the Calhoun monument. “He looks down with this scowl on his face,” he said. Then, in 1999, Charleston’s Holocaust Memorial was erected just fifty feet from the base of Calhoun’s column. That proximity suggests either a wishful denial of Calhoun’s legacy or a level of irony not typically found among municipal planners.
A counterpoint of races and ethical stances:
Those moral calculations, as with everything else associated with the case, were refracted through the lens of race. In a statewide poll, two-thirds of African-Americans favored sentencing Roof to life in prison, while sixty-four per cent of whites believed that the death penalty was warranted. That result mirrored the general division between blacks and whites on the issue of capital punishment, which is driven, at least in part, by the fact that it has disproportionately been used against black defendants.
A counterpoint in colors and sentences:
For David Bruck, Roof’s case represented another chance to address the unjust imposition of the death penalty. At certain moments in the trial, though, his belief that he could diminish a racist practice by saving the life of a white supremacist appeared idealistic to a fault. During his cross-examination of Joseph Hamski, the F.B.I.’s lead investigator in the case, Bruck asked, “What became of Denmark Vesey?” Vesey, a slave who had bought his freedom and become a carpenter, was the lead plotter of the 1822 revolt at the church. “He was hung,” Hamski replied. Bruck was suggesting that the death penalty is irrevocably tainted by racism, but he had seemed to equate Vesey, a man who was prepared to kill for the cause of black freedom, with Roof, a man who had killed because he thought that blacks were too free. The families murmured uneasily at the comparison.
Black and white, crime and punishment, death penalty and life sentence, good and evil, forgiveness and justice, even Union and Confederacy — these binaries rise in counterpoint in the trial and sentencing of Dylann Roof.. offering us a mappable display of cognitions past and present, normative and extreme.