No action exists outside the context of history

Topic Sentence #8

Dear reader,

Get yourself a snack, this is a long one:

In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and of my horror and pity and self-hatred; and so: smiling, and so distressed that I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence: ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.”

This comes from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (photographs by Walker Evans): a depression-era book of long-form reportage about the lives of rural sharecroppers in Alabama. It’s considered a bit of a classic—it’s fascinating that many of the tricks that we’d attribute to postmodernism and to Foster Wallace, are already here: Agee appearing as a character in his own reportage, a discomfort with even the appearance of objectivity, an anger at the inability of words to capture the essence of what he’s trying to say.

But what he does try to say is by turns, gripping, beautiful and heartwrenching. Our topic sentence comes from one of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read in literature: Agee and Evans have come across a small, beautiful church that they want to photograph. By chance, a young African-American couple wander past, exchange brief greetings and then continue on. And then Agee makes a mistake: he decides to chase after them, to ask them if they know who owns the church, if someone might let them in.

To put it plainly: in 1930’s Alabama, there are no good outcomes for a black person when a white person starts chasing them.

Our topic sentence is their reaction.

If you feel a bit paralyzed at that well of sentence, start with the main clause, in this case: “I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood and said …”

Everything that comes before it is modifying what happens “in the same instant” he comes up to them—the young man and lady freeze, albeit with some astonishing turns of phrase, the “emblems of sense” in his face, her back “hung from a hook in the spine of the will”. Everything that comes after is firstly, who he is speaking to, again the girl and the man, although because we’ve had such a span of words between start and sentence and now, we get snapshots of their state before and after Agee’s actions. Secondly, the “because” clause introduces Agee’s own mortified self-reaction, the realisation of his mistake, his ineffectual attempts to compensate.

Something this sentence reminds me of is those moments (many recently) where someone defends racist actions with “It was just …” White people putting on blackface ‘is just kids having fun’. A ‘It’s just a cartoon’. ‘It’s just a joke’.

But of course, this doesn’t exist. No racist action exists outside of a context of history. All Agee was doing was trying to ask a question. But tell that to the young couple for whom each of Agee’s footsteps echoed with the weight of history, of violence and depersonification.



P.S. Next sentence will not be quite so heavy. Probably.