More than 50 years ago, critical essayist Susan Sontag penned this question to a country wrought with issues in need of attention. Today, her question persists in relevance as we face a new presidential administration, yet continue to face problems centuries old. Sontag pointed to the problems of racism, sexism, and the need to dominate and conquer as hazards to this country’s fragile moral structure.


Sontag was born in New York on January 16, 1933. She graduated high school at 15 and moved to Chicago where she received a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Chicago. She received her Masters in English and Philosophy at Harvard and studied abroad doing postgraduate work. Some labeled her as a feminist.


Yet, she did not object to being called a feminist, if that is how some would view her. It did not take anything away from her mission to strike a chord by causing people to think. She became well known for her essays while working as a college instructor. She was also named a renaissance soul for her nonfiction prose such as “Against Interpretation and Other Essays” (1966), and “On Photography” (1977).


Though written half a century ago, Susan Sontag’s words ring true today.

She was a writer, journalist, novelist, essayist, women’s rights activist, and filmmaker, and she was no stranger to controversy. It did not bother her that people read her views with disdain and dismissal. They may have disagreed, but they would continue to read. She was not a journalist that simply went along with the status quo. She wrote with a critical-thinking mind and penned deep thoughts that both asked and answered her own questions.


In her essay “What’s Happening in America?,” Sontag brought to light some startling facts about the United States to the forefront. She noted this country was “founded on a genocide.” She wrote that this genocide led to the “most brutal system of slavery in modern times.” No one can argue about the atrocities of slavery in this country’s history.


She discussed an energy that plagued the country which she called the “energy of violence.” She stated, “But surely this is energy bad at its source and for which we pay too high a price, a hypernatural and humanly disproportionate dynamism that flays everyone’s nerves raw.”


There is still a perpetuating violence rooted in the nature of this country. It is present in the news each day, as well as in our various forms of entertainment including children’s video games. Is the level of violence tolerated in this country something to discourage? Or is it just the way things are?


“What’s happening in America?” is an important question for Americans to ponder today. Some may say we’ve come so far. This may be true in some respects. We can take a look at what our country was like 50 years ago, and decide we have come a long way. Or even better, we can determine we still have a long way to go.


What do you think of Susan Sontag’s writings? Let’s discuss here or on Twitter: @lcarterwriter.