Liminal America

In two days, America will mark a transition from one administration to the next, but more is changing than the man in the Oval Office. Our nation seems to be in a period of change — an awkward, disoriented stumble that seems to take one step forward and two steps back. This historic week, it is appropriate to take a wider view of our cultural history. And I think we can find perspective on our shifting national ethos in, of all places, some ancient African ceremonies. 

In 1967, cultural anthropologist Victor Turner published a sizable body of research into the ritual practices of the Ndembu tribe of northwestern Zambia. The Forest Of Symbols is a collection of essays and research reports from his years of study among that tribe. Turner’s work established him as an expert not only on African tribal customs, but on the power of ritual and transition among all people. 

Turner says that every ritual involves three phases: separation, margin and aggregation. Imagine a young man in a coming-of-age rite. The initiate is first separated from his family and peers. Then he is made to endure some privation — a testing or questioning or searching. He comes to a realization — some deeper understanding of himself or his tribe or his world. And then he is officially accepted as an adult member of the tribe. Separation, margin, aggregation.

This pattern is repeated in almost every form of human initiation. We see it among monks, Marines, and merchants; among sailors, inmates, Shriners and Comanches. Almost any group that formalizes membership does so by means of this pattern. 

And in every case, the critical phase is the one that’s most often forgotten: the liminal space, the margin, the confusing middle. In so many ways, this is where our nation finds itself. Between pilgrim heritage and secular progress. Between the bleeding-together homogeny of the melting pot and the bleeding-in-the-streets disharmony of ghettoisation. Between past and future. Between special and unexceptional. Between a unique and adolescent superpower and a member of the community of nation-peers. 

Turner’s research showed that the middle phase — the liminal space — is characterized by three qualities. 

First, it obscures identity. Young men in initiations lose their uniqueness. No longer their mother’s singular purview, the boy is being prepared to enter a community of equals. His head may be shaved, name changed, face covered, identifying characteristics obscured. In some cases, he is treated as though he were invisible. 

Second, there is an element of death and dying. The initiate is often made to witness death, as on a hunting trip, or imagine death or hear stories of death or wear a mask that represents death. He finds himself separated from the tribe as one is in death. In some cases, he loses the right to own property, as do the dead. 

Third, the liminal state is outside classification. The initiate is neither a chid nor adult. Neither prepubescent nor marriage-aged. Neither one category nor the other. This is a state of ambiguity and paradox. 

When our new president puts his hand on a Bible this Friday, won’t we fit the bill? We are no longer the adolescent apple of our founding father’s eye. Our nation is neither Christian nor non-Christian. And many of us have certainly felt the chill of cultural death in the recent past. Who are we, really? And who is our president? The leader of the free world? That seems a title on the wane. Are we exceptional or just arrogant? Is the glow from our city on a hill that of home fires or search lights? The uncertainty of our answers to these questions is what allows my beloved Will McAvoy to make his defining anti-exceptionalism speech, and what inspired author Paul Beatty, the only American ever to win the Man Booker Prize to write...

...this country, the latent high school homosexual that it is, the mulatto passing for white that it is, the Neanderthal incessantly plucking its unibrow that it is, needs people like him. It needs somebody to throw baseballs at...

We are a nation in transition, and not just between the Obama and Trump administrations. We are dealing with daddy issues and new identity. We are obscured and uncategorized. Betwixt and between. Birthing something new in the valley of the shadow of death. 

What we need to remember is what every Ndembu boy needs to remember. This is only a phase. We will not always lack an identity. And our Father watches over the ceremony. Let’s only hope that the name we are given is one we can live up to.