Totality is everything, say those who chase solar eclipses. When the moon fully obscures the sun and casts its shadow on Earth, the result is like nothing you’ve seen before—not even a partial eclipse. A merely partial eclipse does not flip day to night, because the sun is bright enough to light our fields of vision with only a tiny fraction of its power. But when the sun and moon align just so, a little piece of Earth goes dark in the middle of the day. In this path of totality, night comes suddenly and one can see the shape of the moon as a circle darker than black, marked by the faint backlight of the sun’s corona. Astronomers and eclipse chasers chart carefully to be sure that they can watch from exactly the right place at the right time. They know that you cannot compromise with the sun. For a dark sky, the sun must be banished altogether.
On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will arrive mid-morning on the coast of Oregon. The moon’s shadow will be about 70 miles wide, and it will race across the country faster than the speed of sound, exiting the eastern seaboard shortly before 3 p.m. local time. It has been dubbed the Great American Eclipse, and along most of its path, there live almost no black people.Presumably, this is not explained by the implicit bias of the solar system. It is a matter of population density, and more specifically geographic variations in population density by race, for which the sun and the moon cannot be held responsible. Still, an eclipse chaser is always tempted to believe that the skies are relaying a message. At a moment of deep disagreement about the nation’s best path forward, here comes a giant round shadow, drawing a line either to cut the country in two or to unite it as one. Ancient peoples watched total eclipses with awe and often dread, seeing in the darkness omens of doom. The Great American Eclipse may or may not tell us anything about our future, but its peculiar path could remind us of something about our past—what it was we meant to be doing, and what we actually did along the way. And if it seems we need no reminding, consider this: We tend to backlight our history, and so run the risk of trying to recover a glory that never existed. When the light in August changes, watch carefully.
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As the eclipse approaches, the temperature will fall and birds will roost, and then, suddenly, the lights will go out. For each place within the path of totality, the darkness will last a minute, maybe two, and then daylight will return.
Oregon, where this begins, is almost entirely white. The 10 percent or so of state residents who do not identify as white are predominantly Latino, American Indian, Alaskan, or Asian. There are very few black Oregonians, and this is not an accident. The land that is now Oregon was not, of course, always inhabited by white people, but as a U.S. territory and then a state, Oregon sought to get and stay white. Among several formal efforts at racial exclusion was a provision in the original state constitution of 1857 that prohibited any “free Negro or Mulatto” from entering and residing in the state.
The American West was not the land of chattel slavery—with some brief exceptions, slavery was illegal in Oregon before and after statehood. But among the dreams of the pioneers there was, at least sometimes, a dream of escaping racial strife by escaping black people altogether. As put by Peter Burnett, the architect of one racially exclusionary law in Oregon, the aim was simply to avoid “that most troublesome class of population. We are in a new world, under most favorable circumstances, and we wish to avoid most of those evils that have so afflicted the United States and other countries.”
From Oregon, the Great American Eclipse will travel through Idaho and Wyoming. (It will catch a tiny unpopulated piece of Montana, too.) Percentage-wise, Idaho and Wyoming are even whiter than Oregon. And as in Oregon, but even more so, the few non-white residents of Idaho and Wyoming are not black—they are mostly Latino, American Indian, and Alaskan. The astronomers tell us where lies the path of totality; the census tells us where live the people and what colors they are. The census is detailed, and precise, but its very categories should bring unease. A census is not just a matter of counting; it involves assessing and classifying and evaluating. This is particularly true of the U.S. census, a window into this nation’s dreams of totality and its always dangerous compromises.
The census is required by the U.S. Constitution, which envisions an accounting of the people every 10 years to determine the size of each state’s delegation to the House of Representatives. Infamously, the Founders argued over whether slaves (who, of course, could not themselves vote or serve in office) should nonetheless be counted for purposes of allocating members of Congress, and infamously, the Founders settled the matter with the Three-Fifths Compromise. Each state’s power would be based upon a population tally that included both free persons and “three fifths of all other persons” (with “Indians not taxed” excluded altogether). Thus the country was founded with the idea that the people had to be counted, and that each had to be classified before he was counted so that we could know exactly how much he counted.
“Black” was not an option on the first U.S. census, nor was “colored” or “Negro.” The first census, in 1790, and the next two distinguished along the lines that mattered, along the lines expressly contemplated in the Constitution: free whites, other free persons, and slaves. The 1820 census introduced the term colored. In 1850, black and mulatto became options. In 1890, the census kept the terms black and mulatto but also added quadroon and octoroon. We needed such precision in the post-war era of Jim Crow, when even one drop of African blood rendered a person legally black. With whiteness, there was no compromise. Totality was everything.
To be clear, black and mulatto and octoroon were labels assigned by the census-takers. Not until 1960 did the people being counted get to check their own racial boxes. In 2000, they gained the ability to check more than one. The most recent census, in 2010, gave respondents the chance to identify themselves as white, “Black, African American, or Negro” (a single category), or any of 13 other options, including “some other race.” The next census, in 2020, will abolish the term Negro. Race, like America, is a work in progress.
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After Wyoming, the eclipse will go through Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. This is America’s heartland, and also, literally, the land of compromise. When Missouri sought statehood in 1819, the United States consisted of 22 states, equally divided between those that permitted slavery and those that did not. Missouri’s request to enter as a slave-holding state threatened to upset the balance, but a kind of unity was preserved with the Missouri Compromise. The deal allowed Missouri its slaves but drew a line across the nation, east-west to the Pacific Ocean, and mandated that slavery would be illegal in all other territories north of the line. Nebraska and Kansas, bordering Missouri to the west and lying just north of the compromise line, were thus to remain slavery-free. But the Missouri Compromise was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed the (white) people of those territories to decide for themselves whether to have slavery. A few years later, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court would declare the Missouri Compromise to have been an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to intrude on states’ rights. A few years after that, the Civil War would begin.
Most Americans learn this history as schoolchildren, but then forget it. There are too many damn facts. Even for those who like facts, some may be too painful to face or to remember. Some facts may just get obscured by more bad news. In America’s heartland, a different kind of struggle, primarily economic, is now more easily called to mind than the details of the Missouri Compromise. Bruce Springsteen, after reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, wrote an album of songs too bleak for a studio, much less an arena. Instead, in the stretch of a single January day in 1982, Springsteen recorded these songs using a cassette recorder in his bedroom. Even after releasing the album, he would not tour to promote it. The songs tell of criminals and outsiders in despair, and of the lawmen who chase and kill and love and are these desperate men. The songs tell of ordinary people who toil for little reward, of people whose lives do not seem to count at all. The album sings of the meanness in this world, and of debts that no honest man can pay, and it pleads hey ho, rock n roll, deliver me from nowhere. The album went platinum, and it is called Nebraska.
The total eclipse will be visible from Lincoln, Nebraska, the state’s capital, which reports a black population of 3.8 percent. The city of Omaha has a greater black population, about 14 percent. It is home to many of the refugees from Africa and elsewhere that Nebraska has welcomed in recent years, many of whom now work in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants. But Omaha is about 50 miles northeast of the path of totality.
In Iowa, unpopulated land will get about 30 seconds of darkness. The path will clip the northeast corner of Kansas, passing most notably over Leavenworth. Census.gov tells us that Leavenworth has a much greater population density than the state average, and its black population is almost double the percentage of black residents statewide. Census.gov doesn’t mention it, but Leavenworth is a prison town, hosting a few federal facilities as well as the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility. Until her release earlier this year, Chelsea Manning was held in the U.S. Penitentiary, Leavenworth.
It’s not easy to find out who is left there. The Bureau of Prisons doesn’t publish demographic statistics by individual facility. We do know that the percentage of blacks among all federal prisoners is close to 40 percent, approximately three times the percentage of blacks in the population at large. And remember, the census goes everywhere, and counts people where it finds them, without regard to whether they can vote. In a practice called “prison gerrymandering” by its critics, the census counts incarcerated persons as residents of the county where the prison lies, not of the place where they lived before going inside. Especially since census data are now used for allocating not only federal representatives but also state and local ones, this manner of counting gives localities an incentive to build a prison and fill it. Long after the Three-Fifths Clause was repealed, we are still counting black people who can’t vote and using their numbers to increase the political power of the free people nearby.
From Kansas, the eclipse goes to Missouri, still mostly bypassing black people, though now much more improbably. About a third of Kansas City, Missouri, is black, but most of the city lies just south of the path of totality. To get the full show, eclipse chasers should go north to St. Joseph, almost 90 percent white and about 6 percent black, the place where Jesse James died and where Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem, was born. The real Slim Shady, that is, who left St. Joe and took his angry and wry lyricism—“Y’all act like you never seen a white person before”—to the world of hip-hop, where Rolling Stone would declare him king. He was the top-selling American artist of 2000–2010 and the first rapper to win an Academy Award.
Moving east, the eclipse will pass part of St. Louis, whose overall population is nearly half black. But the black residents are concentrated in the northern half of the metropolitan area, and the total eclipse crosses only the southern half. Eight miles north of the path of totality is Ferguson, where Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown three summers ago. The majority of residents of Ferguson are black, policed by white officers who, like Wilson, live elsewhere. Brown’s death brought pain and protests and efforts to show that Black Lives Matter. It has drawn needed attention to the distribution of state violence by race, but the sad irony is that black lives have always mattered in this country. Since the founding, white people have been arguing about, first, how much a black life matters, three-fifths as much as a white life or something more or less; and second, for whose political benefit those lives will be counted.
The shadow of the moon doesn’t care where it falls or who lives below. And in certain respects, the federal government designed in our Constitution doesn’t care where people live, either. We need the census tallies to determine how many representatives each state sends to the House, but the census is irrelevant to the Senate: Each state gets two senators, whatever its population. This arrangement is the result of another of the many compromises that made the Constitution possible. Of course, we probably don’t need the eclipse to remind us of the Constitution’s different forms of representation. After all, every four years an Electoral College and not the people directly selects the President. Every four years we are reminded that each state gets as many electors as it has members of Congress, a system that magnifies the relative power of voters in less populous states. California has two senators and 53 representatives, giving it 55 electors for 39.25 million people, or one elector for every 713,000 people. Wyoming has two senators and only one representative, three electors for just over half a million people, or one for every 195,000 people.
Sometimes it’s hard to recall why we did it this way. There were reasons to think of equality in terms of states and not just in terms of individual people—surely there must have been. Equal states were to serve a particular vision of inclusive totality. One nation, it was thought, could accommodate and even thrive upon difference—if not racial difference in the beginning, then cultural and political difference. Separate states had and would keep different identities and ideologies, and yet still these states could be united. The states were supposed to look after the interests of individual citizens more effectively than could a national government. The states were supposed to bring everybody in without shutting anybody out.
But the equal power of states was enshrined at a time when states served white people, and never since have states’ rights been a particularly effective mechanism for racial equality. Looking back, the bargains struck to protect the states appear as resolutions to disputes among white people, including disputes about what to do with people who are not white. And looking ahead, we can expect the equal power of the states to exacerbate further the political inequality of individual persons: The farther you live from other people, the more electoral power you wield.
There aren’t many people in the southern coal-mining counties of Illinois, where totality will last the longest, up to two minutes and 40 seconds. Williamson County here is sometimes labeled “Bloody Williamson” thanks to several violent episodes in the region, including attacks by white union miners on black workers brought to Williamson to replace them. Not all of the violence was cross-racial, or union-based. After a 1922 massacre of 20 strikebreakers by union miners, the Ku Klux Klan established itself in the county, promising church leaders frustrated with bootlegging and hostile toward thirsty Italian immigrants that the KKK could help the churches protect “the highest ideals of the native-born white American Gentile citizenship.” Several years of gang warfare followed as local sheriffs battled the Klan to control the region. Williamson is a reminder that white skin alone cannot satisfy some visions of American totality. The Klan’s targets were not always black—there were few blacks in Williamson to target, then or now. At the last census the black population of Williamson County was about 3.8 percent, and that’s with a U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, the county seat.
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Former slave-holding states are still the home to most of America’s black population. In Kentucky, Tennessee, and eventually South Carolina, the eclipse will finally pass over black Americans. Even here, though, the path of totality seems to mark the legacy of slavery and the persistence of segregation more than any form of inclusion. Kentucky permitted slavery but never seceded and instead tried to remain neutral during the Civil War. “I hope to have God on my side,” Lincoln reportedly said, “but I must have Kentucky.” Cautious, careful, incrementalist, the Emancipation Proclamation declared freedom only for slaves in rebel states and didn’t apply to border states like Kentucky. Nonetheless, the state grew increasingly disenchanted with Lincoln, and it would not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment (which formally abolishes slavery) until 1976.
About 100 miles away from the path of totality in Kentucky is Berea College, the first interracial college in the South and the alma mater of Carter Woodson, who would become famous for insisting that black people have history, too. In the 1920s, Woodson advocated for the celebration of a Negro History Week. Woodson hoped that, one day, black history would be as important as any other history, recognized and remembered year-round; a century later, we’ve increased the allotted time from one week to one month. “God has made of one blood all the peoples of the Earth” is the slogan of Berea College, which was founded with funds from a wealthy white planter and abolitionist named Cassius M. Clay. In tribute, a fellow Kentuckian who was himself a descendant of slaves would name his son after Clay, but that man’s son and namesake would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, calling Cassius Clay his slave name. Ali was an outspoken advocate of civil rights, and of course, a fighter whose speed and grace became known around the world. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” said Ali. “The hands can’t hit what the eye can’t see.”
It may be speed, and not light, that is the most shocking thing about a total solar eclipse. The United States is about 2,680 miles wide. The total eclipse is not taking the shortest path across, but even so, it will take only about 90 minutes to cross the continent. The moon’s shadow will be traveling over 2,000 miles per hour when it makes landfall in Oregon, and it will slow only slightly here and there on its path. In deference to what the locals call Tennessee time, perhaps, it is in that state the shadow will reach its slowest speed, just over 1,300 mph. Tennessee was practically the epicenter of the Civil War, the last southern state to secede and the site of more battles than any other state but Virginia. Much of Nashville is built on a battlefield where Confederate forces fought (and lost) for almost the last time. About 600,000 people live in the Nashville area, and about 30 percent of this population is black. Nashville is the largest U.S. city in the path of the eclipse, and they have already released an eclipse playlist, starting off with Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
But after Tennessee, the shadow regains some speed and travels over white people only again for a while. It catches the northeast corner of Georgia and the western tip of North Carolina. Though both these states have substantial black populations, both also include overwhelmingly white rural areas, and it is those areas that lie in the path of totality. Rabun County, 1 percent black at the 2010 census, is the best place in Georgia to see the eclipse. Also in the path of totality are Habersham (3.4 percent black), Union (0.5 percent), and White (1.7 percent) counties.
Georgia will catch only a bit of the eclipse, but the state has already known well a different path of totality. Near the end of the Civil War, after Union forces captured the city of Atlanta, General William Tecumseh Sherman banished most of its citizens and burned its government buildings. Sherman (Cump, to his friends) was an advocate of what’s now called total war. His stated aim was “to make Georgia howl”—to destroy not only the Confederacy’s economic and technological capacities to fight, but also the people’s will to resist. Sherman left Atlanta in the winter of 1864 and led 60,000 men on a March to the Sea. Using data from the 1860 census, which had counted livestock and crops in addition to people, Sherman charted a path for his men to forage for themselves even as they destroyed the state’s infrastructure. The Union forces did not burn everything in their path, as is sometimes alleged, but they did burn homes and farms of those who resisted. They reached Savannah on December 21, 1864, and offered the city to the recently reelected Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present. In the new year, Cump took his path of totality through South Carolina (which, incidentally, is where the eclipse ends up, too). In April 1865, the Confederacy surrendered and the war was over.
In the eyes of many residents of Georgia and other former Confederate states, Sherman was deeply evil, a perpetrator of crimes against humanity. His defenders acknowledge that he introduced new levels and forms of violence, but say it was his very humanity that led him to do it. He sought to avoid the huge body counts of the war’s more traditional battles. His strategy seemed to have worked, and it may have made the difference between Union defeat and Union victory. But what, exactly, was won? Certainly not the hearts and minds of southern whites, many of whom still fly the Confederate flag more than a century later.
The basic premise of just war, learned by schoolchildren on playgrounds and remembered far better than anyone remembers American history, is this: Always say, and steadfastly believe, that the other guy started it. So in Georgia and elsewhere in the South, the Civil War is often called the War of Northern Aggression, and it is said that the war was about states’ rights and cultural independence, not a war to defend slavery. Of course, the right to choose slavery was in fact one of the rights claimed by Confederate states, but the narrative of cultural independence is more than a cloak for racism. And indeed, the glib view of the war held by much of the rest of the country—our nation used to treat black people badly, but we fought a war to end slavery and thus all has been fixed—may hamper modern civil-rights efforts more than any southern man’s recitation of the battles fought by his great-great-granddaddy. It is too easy to forget that many Union leaders, including Cump and Lincoln himself, did not seek racial equality, and of course the war did not come close to achieving it.
After Georgia, the eclipse will pass over a small piece of western North Carolina. The black population of these barely populated counties hovers around 1 percent, falling as low as 0.2 percent in Graham. The path of totality will narrowly miss Tryon, the birthplace of Nina Simone. In 1963, after learning of a bombing of a black church that killed four girls, Simone shut herself in a room and wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in less than an hour. (She later reported that she’d tried to assemble a gun, but her husband convinced her to write a song instead.) The song became a civil-rights anthem, notable for its poignant depictions of the failure of compromise, of going slow. Simone made clear that her demand was for political power, not friendship. You don’t have to live next to me, she sang; just give me my equality. Southern states couldn’t ban Simone herself, but several banned the song. Simone resented the music industry’s reaction to “Mississippi Goddam,” but she was not willing to go slow, not satisfied to rely on the hope that things would get better at all deliberate speed. She advocated, at times, for a violent revolution and for a separate black state. Disgusted and exhausted, Simone eventually exiled herself, spending more and more time out of the country, living in France for the last decade of her life.
And it’s true, compromise doesn’t have the best track record in this land. It’s easy to see why persons of very different views would feel similarly the lure of totality, the appeal of going big, going fast, going all the way. This vision is one of exclusionary totality, not inclusiveness or compromise. It’s a vision that demands that you fight for what you believe, making no concessions, admitting no errors. Let politics be the art of dominance, of getting a margin just big enough to seize control and obliterate those with whom we disagree. Even for those without a taste for dominance, we seem drawn more often toward avoidance and self-exile than to the thankless and seemingly cowardly effort to make ourselves understandable to one another. As the greatest fighter of all time taught, the hands can’t hit what the eye can’t see.
The arc of the eclipse is long, and it bends toward Charleston. In South Carolina in the last 12 or 13 minutes of the Great American Eclipse, it will probably pass over more black Americans than it does throughout all of its earlier journey. After Greenville and Columbia, the eclipse goes out where so many slaves once came in: Charleston was the busiest port for the slave trade, receiving about 40 percent of all the African slaves brought into the country. Today, the Old Slave Mart is a museum. Two years ago in Charleston, Dylann Roof chose the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as his shooting ground, quietly joining a Bible study and then opening fire on the black congregants, killing nine.
And then the shadow goes to sea, still indifferent to the Earth below, indifferent to the little creatures here, indifferent to these people indifferent to their own histories. Or perhaps we are not indifferent, but just no more capable than butterflies and bees of seeing the long path and of deciding to change it. The Great American Eclipse illuminates, or darkens, a land still segregated, a land still in search of equality, a land of people still trying to dominate each other. When the lovely glow of a backlight fades, history is relentless, just one damn fact after another, one damning fact after another. America is a nation with debts that no honest man can pay. It is too much to ask that these debts simply be forgiven. But perhaps the strange path of the eclipse suggests a need for reorganization. We have figured out, more or less, how to count every person. We have not yet found a political system in which every person counts equally.