Blacked Out: “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out

“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory”

Recently, I have been trying to navigate my own journey toward calling for the next phase in the education reform debate—the primary tension being between my evolving position as it rubs against my sisters and brothers in arms who remain (justifiably) passionate about confronting the misinformed celebrity of the moment or the misguided journalist of the moment.

And then Jose Vilson posted on Twitter:

This moment of concise clarity from Vilson was followed the next morning by a post on R.E.M.’s Facebook page, Troopers release video showing forceful stop of musician Shamarr Allen:

As he continued defending his troopers’ actions, the Louisiana State Police chief released a dashcam video Tuesday of the forceful stop of a musician in the Lower 9th Ward.

Shamarr Allen, a trumpeter known for his band,Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs, has claimed in TV interviews that he felt in danger and that he was treated unfairly because of his race.

“It’s just wrong,” Allen told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune on Tuesday after watching the video. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do none of that. I don’t live wrong at all. It’s just, this is the life of a black man in the Lower 9th Ward.”

Occurring with cruel relevance at the nexus of disaster capitalism and education reform, New Orleans, Allen’s “life of a black man” rests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death as a black young man:

An 18-year-old Missouri man was shot dead by a cop Saturday, triggering outrage among residents who gathered at the scene shouting “kill the police.”

Michael Brown was on his way to his grandmother’s house in the city of Ferguson when he was gunned down at about 2:15 p.m., police and relatives said.

What prompted the Ferguson officer to open fire wasn’t immediately clear.

Multiple witnesses told KMOV that Brown was unarmed and had his hands up in the air when he was cut down.

The officer “shot again and once my friend felt that shot, he turned around and put his hands in the air,” said witness Dorian Johnson. “He started to get down and the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and fired several more shots.”

This feeling has come to me before, a sense that outrage remains mostly token outrage, misguided outrage. Outrage over Whoopi Goldberg, Campbell Brown, and Tony Stewart filled social media, blacking out Brown and Allen as well as dozens and dozens of black men who will never be named.

50 Years Later: “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

August of 2014 marked the month James Baldwin would have turned 90. 18 December 2014 will be 50 years since Baldwin spoke at The Non-Violent Action Committee (N-VAC) (speech archive):

There Baldwin built a passionate message, challenging his audience with “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror.” Baldwin inspired author Walter Dean Myers, who echoed a similar message early in 2014 just before his own death:

But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read….

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me….

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

There is a beauty, a symmetry to the lineage from Baldwin to Myers—and then to the countless young people for whom Myers paid it forward.

But I must pose a counter-point about Baldwin’s speeches and essays: Why must Baldwin remain relevant 50 years later?

Baldwin’s words in 1964—”it is late in the day for this country to pretend I am not a part of it”—fit just as well in Allen’s mouth, pulled over in New Orleans because he committed the crime of approaching his car and then reversing himself while black.

And then Baldwin in 1966, A Report from Occupied Territory:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies.

Or Baldwin in 1963 asking, Who is the nigger?:

It is 2014 and the list of blacked out names grows—Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown—with the unnamed list even longer, although mostly ignored, invisible.

When Baldwin’s 90th birthday approached, many expressed how Baldwin as a writer and powerful public voice has himself become mostly unseen, unheard, unread, but each day suggests that in the U.S. we prove Baldwin’s words to be disturbingly relevant.

At the end of his 1964 speech, Baldwin asserts: “[I]t is not we the American negro who is to be saved here; it is you the American republic, and you ain’t got much time.”

“I came to explore the wreck,” explains Rich’s speaker, the “wreck” a metaphor for the U.S.:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun…

a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

The narrative of the U.S. remains a redacted myth, names and lives blacked out. Yes, as Baldwin noted, “it is late in the day for this country to pretend I am not a part of it.”

Let us hope it isn’t too late.

“Harlem”

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

See Also

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers

War Against Whites? I Think Not, Charles Blow

New Study: White People Support Harsher Criminal Penalties When Told More Black People Are Incarcerated

Michael Brown: Yet another reminder that police see even unarmed black people as thugs, Andre Perry

Richard Sherman’s GPA and “Thug” Label: The Codes that Blind

James Baldwin at 90: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’”

January 1, 2000, exposed a truly baffling phenomenon about most humans: A silly fascination with numbers that end in zero that completely renders those humans irrational. In the land of the arbitrary where people fear that arbitrary dates can spawn the Apocalypse, the irrational can’t even manage those arbitrary dates as January 1, 2001 (not 2000), was the turning point of the millennium.

And so we now witness a flurry of articles about James Baldwin, mostly ignored over the past few decades, because August 2, 2014, would have been Baldwin’s 90th birthday—somehow signifying he is more important now than when he would have turned 89.

As someone who has come to cherish Baldwin the essayist and Baldwin the public intellectual, I welcome this sudden burst of sunlight on one of the most daring and perceptive voices ever among writers in the U.S. I cannot stress enough in print that I find Baldwin as valuable today as ever, and often feel deeply inadequate as a writer and would-be public intellectual against the power of Baldwin.

To join in with this celebration, I want to recommend primarily that Baldwin’s voice be read and viewed/heard—that we do not allow all being said and written about him to suffice. And on August 2, 2014, we have so much of Baldwin before us, so much that we have failed to embrace, to consider carefully, to allow these words to complete their unmasking:

My journey with Baldwin has resulted in an edited volume (co-edited with Furman colleague Scott Henderson), James Baldwin: Challenging Authors. So here I want to share the introduction I wrote for that collection of essays.

Introduction

No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents. No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.[i]

Trayvon Martin was killed February 26, 2012, in part because he was reduced to a stereotype, and after his death, Trayvon was again reduced—often by well-meaning people—to an icon, the hoodie. In his death, as well, Trayvon has been spoken about, spoken for—and I am compelled to argue that he has also been rendered voiceless. But, as Arundhati Roy (2004) has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” (n.p.).

In this introduction to a volume on the work of James Baldwin, I, like Roy, am compelled to speak beyond Trayvon about “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”—about those Others: African American males.

At mid-twentieth century, as the U.S. was fighting against its racist heritage, African American males demanded to be heard—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and many others took the stage as artists, public intellectuals, and civic leaders. Wright’s Black Boy and Ellison’s Invisible Man represent in fictional narrative a powerful and disturbing image of the African American male; for Ellison, the guiding metaphor of that narrative is invisibility. The killing of Trayvon and the subsequent trial may suggest that African American males no longer suffer from invisibility but from how they are seen, how they are silenced, and how they are unheard: Trayvon seen (and reduced) as black male, thus necessarily a thug, a threat, and then Trayvon, the hoodie, the icon of the disposable African American male.

The fact of being seen and reduced as African American males too often result in violent deaths and prison. And the intersection of race, class, and gender with education has paralleled the rise of mass incarceration (Thomas, 2013) over the past thirty-plus years. While Wright’s and Ellison’s novels continue to capture the African American male experience—including the entrenched conditions that contributed to Trayvon’s killing—Ellison’s and Baldwin’s concerns about the failure of education to see clearly and holistically—and humanely—the plight of African American males continue to send an ominous and powerful message today  (see Chapter 9 for a fuller discussion).

In 1963, Ellison (2003) spoke to teachers:

At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble. (p. 546)

Ellison recognized the stigma placed on African American students, a deficit view of both an entire race and their potential intelligence (marginalized because of non-standard language skills). But Ellison rejected this deficit perspective: “Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much ‘culturally deprived’ as products of a different cultural complex” (p. 549). Ultimately, Ellison demanded that the human dignity of all children be honored.

Baldwin (1998) addressed teachers in that same year, 1963:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.  We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.  The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. (p. 678)

Then, Baldwin unmasked the cruel tension between the promise of universal public education and the inequity found in the lives of African American children. Education, for Baldwin, must be revolutionary, an act of social justice. In Baldwin’s words, I hear a refrain: No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents. No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

However, if the killing of Trayvon does not haunt us, if the killing of Trayvon slips beneath the next tragedy-of-the-moment—as the Sandy Hook school shooting (December 14, 2012) has beneath the George Zimmerman trial—then society and schools will continue to be mechanisms that shackle “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” And I suppose that is ultimately the cruel paradox, rendering Trayvon a ghost in this American house he was never allowed to enter, invisible again as Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love

When teacher and blogger Jose Vilson[ii] posts a blog, I read carefully and don’t multitask. Why? I am a privileged, white male who has lived his entire life in the South where racism clings to the region like the stench of a house razed by fire.

And as a result, I walk freely among racism because I am white. So when Vilson (2013) posted “An Open Letter From The Trenches [To Education Activists, Friends, and Haters],” I listened, and I recognized:

Anger isn’t a title we parade around like doctorates, followers, and co-signers; it’s the feeling before, during, and after we approach things with love and earnest….

However, for anyone to say that racial insults are “no big deal” speaks volumes to the sorts of work people of color and anyone who considers themselves under the umbrella have to do in order to make things right. As colleague Kenzo Shibata once said, “You can’t build a movement by making allies feel unwelcome and telling them to get over it.” I’d take it one step further and say that we can’t build coalition if we continue to think we have to build a movement under one or two people’s terms. I refuse to believe that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.

How can you say you care about children of color, but ostracize adults of color with the same breath?…

Adults, on the other hand, don’t get excuses. The privilege is in the hopes and dreams we have for our students, not in the ways we act towards our fellow man or woman. The privilege, to convert the anger over how our kids are treated in the system into a passion for student learning, remains at the forefront. (n.p.)

I have learned to read and listen to Jose as I do with New York Times columnist Charles Blow and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, as I do with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and now more than ever, James Baldwin, who is the focus of this volume.

I have learned daily—I continue to learn today—that America the Beautiful has failed an entire race of people, specifically African American males. I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most hateful people I have encountered have been white men—yet, daily brown and black faces smile at me (even or especially when we are strangers) and speak with kindness and joy when we approach each other on the street, in restaurants, and where we all work and live. I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most beautiful humans—and the greatest reason to live on this planet—are children of every possible shade. They laugh and sing and dance and run with the beauty of life that has nothing at all to do with race or the supreme and inexcusable failures of the adults in whose care they reside.

America the Beautiful created a minority class out of a race of people who are as rich, vibrant, and beautiful as anybody else. America the Beautiful has also created a criminal class out of African American men, building a new Jim Crow system (Alexander, 2012) with mass incarceration masked as a war on drugs. America the Beautiful created a dropout class and future criminal class out of African American young men, building school-to-prison pipelines and schools-as-prisons as zero-tolerance schools imprisoning urban communities (Nolan, 2011).

These are not angry and hyperbolic claims about the soot-stained American past; these are claims about the roots that continue to thrive and bear bitter fruit. Baldwin (1998), in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (originally published in The Nation, July 11, 1966), confronted an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” (p. 737) and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon: “‘Bad niggers,’ in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed”:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years [emphasis added]. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them…. (pp. 737-738)

These realities of racism from 1966 linger today—the scar of racism cloaked, as Baldwin recognized, with claims of justice:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect. (p. 734)

And thus, Baldwin’s conclusion about the Harlem Six rings true still:

One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!” The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society. (p. 738)

Today, racism is thinly masked, and many refuse to see it.

In 1853, Frederick Douglass recognized what would 100 years later be portrayed as invisibility by Ralph Ellison:

Fellow-citizens, we have had, and still have, great wrongs of which to complain. A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us.

As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white fellow-countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious of our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimate us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. (qtd. in Alexander, 2012, p. 140)

Douglass’s charges are echoed in Baldwin’s (1998) “No Name in the Street,” which points a finger at the entrenched American problem with race:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (pp. 432-433)

America doesn’t know what to do, but it is startlingly clear that we should know what not to do: Don’t suspend and expel young black men without just cause, don’t incarcerate young black men without just cause, don’t lure and then send young black men to war, and without a doubt, don’t allow anyone to demonize anyone else with racial slurs.

Maybe, in the end, racism remains a cancer on America the Beautiful because we will not face it or unmask it—and because we have become so cynical that the solution seems trite: As Jose stated, as King repeated, and as James (“Jimmy”) Baldwin demanded, the solution is love. Love everyone, but be vigilant about loving the least among us—children, the impoverished, the imprisoned, the hungry, the sick, the elderly—and do so color-blind.

As stated above, I offer these words because I walk freely among racism and because I, like Vilson (2013), refuse to believe “that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background” (n.p.). Or, as Baldwin (1998) himself said: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’” (p. 738)—and we all must hear what everyone else says—especially the words they choose—never offering excuses for the racism of policy, the racism of action, or the racism of language.

James Baldwin: Challenging Authors

In 2004, poet Adrienne Rich (2009) wrote about a postage stamp bearing the face of American ex-patriot writer James Baldwin: “the stamp commemorates Baldwin’s birthday, August 2: he would have been eighty that year” (p. 49). This volume appears in 2014, the year that Baldwin would have turned ninety.

Rich’s essay reads as the journey of one writer’s experience embracing the other, but Rich also highlights what this volume seeks to address as well—the lack of attention that Baldwin receives in the twenty-first century U.S. Why, Rich asks, does a country still laboring under the same issues of race continue to ignore a powerful voice, as Americans certainly did when Baldwin spoke of racism?

Quoting from “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” Rich (2009) includes the following:

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are. I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberties, social equality, etc., where indeed strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking instead of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness….This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything. (p. 52; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

Baldwin’s challenge here should haunt us because it remains the challenge before us—“[t]his rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

The following chapters—based on both scholarly and experiential perspectives—make significant contributions to the astonishingly slim amount of research and discussion that exists on one of the twentieth century’s most important public intellectuals. They provide key insights into Baldwin’s literary skills, his political views, and the impact his life and work had on historic, as well as ongoing, policy debates. They reveal a complicated, often tormented, and always provocative individual who confronted racism, imperialism, and homophobia as a black, gay pacifist. It should therefore come as little surprise that his work maintains its relevance as American society continues to grapple with racial, social, and political challenges.

Happy birthday, Jimmy, and let me offer this as what feels to me to be a fitting birthday song:

See Also

A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned the movement into music.

References

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (revised ed.). New York, NY: The New Press.

Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Ellison, R. (2003). The collected essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed. J.F. Callahan. New York, NY: The Modern Library.

Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [Kindle edition]

Rich, A. (2009). A human eye: Essays on art in society 1997-2008. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Roy, A. (2004, November 8). The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture. Real Voice.

Thomas, P. L. (2013, May 17). Education reform in the New Jim Crow era. Truthout.

Vilson, J. (2013, April 8). An open letter from the trenches [to education activists, friends, and haters] [Web log]. The Jose Vilson.

Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.

[i] Portions of this chapter are adapted from two blog posts: “The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard,” (2013, July 25), http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-deliberately-silenced-or-the-preferably-unheard/ and To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism (2013, April 9), http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/to-jimmy-and-jose-with-love-i-walk-freely-among-racism/

[ii] Vilson offers about himself at his blog, The Jose Vilson (http://thejosevilson.com/): “José Luis Vilson is a math educator for a middle school in the Inwood / Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in mathematics education from the City College of New York. He’s also a committed writer, activist, web designer, and father. He co-authored the book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Public Schools … Now and In The Future with Dr. Barnett Berry and 11 other accomplished teachers. He currently serves as the president emeritus of the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University, as a board member on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality, and has been a part of the Acentos Foundation, LATinos In Social Media (LATISM), the Capicu Poetry Group, BlogCritics, and the AfroSpear.”

Maya Angelou, RIP

With the death of Maya Angelou, I offer a few intersections between Angelou and James Baldwin.

James Baldwin and Maya Angelou

At 80, Maya Angelou Reflects on a ‘Glorious’ Life:

Angelou says author James Baldwin, whom she considers a brother, had a covert hand in getting her to write “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Acting on Baldwin’s advice, Angelou’s editor tried a little reverse psychology and told her that writing an autobiography as literature was “almost impossible” and she shouldn’t even attempt it.

“I said, ‘Well, hmmm, maybe I’ll try it.'” Angelou recalls. “The truth is that he had talked to James Baldwin, my brother friend, and Jimmy told him that ‘if you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can’t do it.'”

Angelou and Baldwin in The Price of the Ticket.

Dr. Maya Angelou: “I hear Baldwin as a part of the continuity, begun if you will for me anyway, with Frederick Douglass in 1849 in the slave narrative. I hear his voice. I hear Baldwin when I think of Jupiter Hammon, a slave in the 18th century. I hear Baldwin in the music, the lyric really, of George Moses Horton, writing about 1840, ’50. He wrote ‘Alas, and was I born for this, to wear this slavish chain–‘ I hear Baldwin.”

Recommended: Talking Back to Maya Angelou, Hilton Als

Overview of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from Salem Press.

Revisiting James Baldwin’s “Black English”

The first five or six years of teaching high school English have blurred in my memory, but certain days, certain events, and certain students remain vivid.

One day in those years a young woman in my tenth-grade course blurted out in utter exasperation, “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write!”

No, she was not being sarcastic. This student had been taught in her first nine years of school that English was mostly grammar books and grammar exercises—an environment in which she had excelled, making As.

Reading and writing were much messier, and she feared her status as an A student was in jeopardy.

As an English teacher, I marvel at the power of grammar in the world outside of school. Harry Ritchie, writing about the Bad Grammar Awards in the UK, laments:

It’s a big night on Thursday at the Idler Academy, which hosts its second annual Bad Grammar awards. The founder Tom Hodgkinson promises “a thrilling X-factor for pedants”….

Everywhere, that’s where. Because the Bad Grammar prizegiving is far from a merry little jape. It’s a piece of reactionary nonsense eagerly endorsed by Michael Gove, who has gone out of his way to promote the nonsensically reactionary “grammarian” who inspired all this drivel, Nevile Gwynne, the author of Gwynne’s Grammar. The horribly right-wing and entirely wrong-headed prejudices behind the book and the prize explain why last year’s winners were some academics who’d written in protest about Gove’s education policies and why the smart money this year is on poor old Tristram Hunt and his apparently heinous semicolon.

Grammar, even a garbled understanding of the term, is not just about correctness in English class. Grammar is about values.

Both in school and society, however, grammar is misunderstood, as Jonathon Owen concludes in his call for teaching grammar:

So yes, I think we should teach grammar, not because it will help people write better, but simply because it’s interesting and worth knowing about. But we need to recognize that it doesn’t belong in the same class as writing or literature; though it certainly has connections to both, linguistics is a separate field and should be treated as such. And we need to teach grammar not as something to hate or even as something to learn as a means to an end, but as a fascinating and complex system to be discovered and explored for its own sake. In short, we need to teach grammar as something to love.

And while grammar remains entrenched in our schools and public discourse, it appears that writer James Baldwin is fading. Kathi Wolfe examines Baldwin as an often ignored voice:

Back in the day, being on the cover of Time magazine was huge. Then, everyone from salesclerks to Wall Street traders read the newsweekly, and if your face, well known or not, peered out from it on newsstands or in mailboxes, everyone would know your name.

This was especially true when James Baldwin, the iconic novelist, essayist, playwright and poet, who wrote stirringly and eloquently on the civil rights movement, race and sexuality, made the cover of Time on May 13, 1963. Time made Baldwin a celebrity after the publication earlier that year of “The Fire Next Time,” his searing essays on race and civil rights. One of my most vivid youthful memories is that of my Dad pointing to Baldwin’s visage on Time and saying, “That man is our conscience! You’d have to be made of stone not to listen to him.”

I’m remembering this because Baldwin, who died in the South of France at age 63 in 1987, was born in Harlem 90 years ago this year. Yet, the legacy of Baldwin, black and openly gay years before Stonewall, and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, is fading in many classrooms, the New York Times reported recently. Fortunately, steps are being taken to commemorate and preserve Baldwin’s legacy.

Time Magazine May 17, 1963

James Baldwin—as novelist, public intellectual, and poet—was an important voice (although often marginalized) during his lifetime, but he remains an important voice because his concerns about race and inequity remain powerful in the U.S. today—and those inequities also remain grounded in attitudes about language.

Revisiting James Baldwin’s “Black English”

Ralph Ellison was simultaneously heralded as a Great American Novelist and shunned by the radical Left during the 1950s and 1960s. Baldwin suffered parallel experiences, although the shunning was politically inverse—Ellison, too traditional, and Baldwin, too radical.

As African American men of letters however, they shared a powerful recognition of the corrosive nature of deficit views of so-called Black English. Ellison confronted that view in a talk to teachers in 1963 addressing the high drop-out rates for Black students:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church….

But how can we keep the daring and resourcefulness which we often find among the dropouts? I ask this as one whose work depends upon the freshness of language. How can we keep the discord flowing into the mainstream of the language without destroying it? One of the characteristics of a healthy society is its ability to rationalize and contain social chaos. It is the steady filtering of diverse types and cultural influences that keeps us a healthy and growing nation. The American language is a great instrument for poets and novelists precisely because it could absorb the contributions of those Negroes back there saying “dese” and “dose” and forcing the language to sound and bend under the pressure of their need to express their sense of the real. The damage done to formal grammar is frightful, but it isn’t absolutely bad, for here is one of the streams of verbal richness….

I’m fascinated by this whole question of language because when you get people who come from a Southern background, where language is manipulated with great skill and verve, and who upon coming north become inarticulate, then you know that the proper function of language is being frustrated.

The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

Sara Dalmas Jonsberg, writing in English Journal nearly forty years later, recognized how the social stigma against Black English negatively impacted students’ perceptions of themselves:

When they arrived in my section of freshman comp, the course required of all entering college students, Tarsha, Shera, and Keydrya revealed themselves as bilingual. They knew how to write and speak “good English.” They were articulate and graceful in written and oral “school language.” They also knew how to speak “Black English,” and they knew when each language was appropriate. They referred to the argot they used privately as “slang” or “bad English.” I don’t know how they learned their two languages—which was first and which second, which was spoken at home and which had been acquired among friends—but I did notice this: one crucial lesson had been omitted from the language training of these alert and articulate young women. They did not respect the Black English they could speak so fluently. They did not know its history. They seemed ashamed and were apologetic if they fell to speaking it in class. Enthusiastic and thoughtful contributors to class discussions and projects, linguistically they demonstrated Theresa Perry’s comment that “Black English is the last uncontested arena of Black shame” (4).

Jonsberg’s solution? “I dragged them to the James Baldwin piece that is often included in composition readers: ‘If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?’

Thus, now, I do the same.

Writing from France in 1979, Baldwin opens with:

The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language. Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.

He had confronted the role of any person’s use of racial slurs in revealing that person in Take This Hammer, the same year as Ellison’s talk.

Immediately, Baldwin contextualizes his discussion of Black English in the language stratification he witnessed in France: “But each has paid, and is paying, a different price for this ‘common’ language, in which, as it turns out, they are not saying, and cannot be saying, the same things: They each have very different realities to articulate, or control.”

Possibly Baldwin’s central focus is the nature of language: “language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.”

If we doubt Baldwin’s relevance, let’s pause there and consider the Donald Sterling controversy and the role of his private language exposing his racism and the consequences of those revelations divorcing Sterling from the larger community.

It is not just the language we use, and the prejudices we hold about that language, but what language reveals about us.

Couched in the politics of language is Baldwin’s confrontation of how mainstream English appropriated Black English while simultaneously marginalizing it:

Now, I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way they sound.Jazz, for example, is a very specific sexual term, as in jazz me, baby, but white people purified it into the Jazz Age. Sock it to me, which means, roughly, the same thing, has been adopted by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s descendants with no qualms or hesitations at all, along with let it all hang out and right on! Beat to his socks which was once the black’s most total and despairing image of poverty, was transformed into a thing called the Beat Generation, which phenomenon was, largely, composed of uptight, middle- class white people, imitating poverty, trying to get down, to get with it, doing their thing, doing their despairing best to be funky, which we, the blacks, never dreamed of doing–we were funky, baby, like funk was going out of style.

Now, no one can eat his cake, and have it, too, and it is late in the day to attempt to penalize black people for having created a language that permits the nation its only glimpse of reality, a language without which the nation would be even more whipped than it is.

Black English for Baldwin was forged out of necessity and with that comes its power—”A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey“—and power is both frightening and threatening:

There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself, and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long.

African Americans are not language deficient, Baldwin asserts, adding,

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

Language is political, but so are any people’s decisions about who and how to teach both the privileged and the oppressed. So Baldwin ends:

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.

As a free people, we cannot afford either our lingering deficit view of language or Baldwin to fade from our classrooms and our collective conscience.

Wolfe concludes, and I concur:

Why does Baldwin’s legacy matter? Because we still perpetuate and encounter homophobia and racism; and great writing still nourishes our hearts and minds. Happy Birthday, Mr. Baldwin! Long live your prophetic voice!

REVIEW: Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin

For many, James Baldwin is associated with novels, fiction. But my greatest affinity for Baldwin lies with his nonfiction and his role as a public intellectual.

In the volume I co-edited, James Baldwin: Challenging Authors, chapter authors examine Baldwin as a powerful voice across genre and form. Concurrent with that volume is the publication of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.

Baldwin is rarely examined as a poet so this collection is significant for those new to Baldwin as well as those who have studied and treasure his complete canon.

The slim book of poetry is inviting as a paperback—the cover an electric blue to complement the rich use of “blues” in the title—color, music, mood:

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin

“Playing by Ear, Praying for Rain: The Poetry of James Baldwin,” the introduction by Nikky Finney, opens the collection passionately and parallels Baldwin’s own challenging persona: “Baldwin was dangerous to everybody who had anything to hide,” Finney warns (p. ix).

Finney introduces readers to Baldwin as well as his poetry—his sexuality and frankness central to both:

Uninviting Baldwin was often the excuse for the whitewashing of his urgent and necessary 
brilliance from both the conservative black community and from whites who had never heard such a dark genius display such rich and sensory antagonism for them. Into the microphone of the world Baldwin leaned — never afraid to say it. (p. x)

Finney emphasizes that Baldwin always remained true to himself: “They could listen in or they could ignore him, but he was never their boy, writing something they wanted to hear” (p. xiii). Baldwin always sought Truth, compelled to speak the Truth:

In his work he remained devoted to exposing more and more the ravages of poverty and invisibility on black and poor people….

Baldwin was never afraid to say it in his novels, in his essays, and in his poetry — because Baldwin saw us long before we saw ourselves. (pp. xix, xxi)

For me, as someone drawn to Baldwin’s nonfiction and videos of his speaking, these poems fits into those contexts in ways that give his poetry a vibrancy beyond the grave.

Baldwin’s poetry is Baldwin’s voice.

“Staggerlee wonders”

A 16-page poem in four sections, this opening piece sparks, for me, Baldwin’s “Who Is the Nigger?” from Take This Hammer:

Simultaneously, “Staggerlee wonders” is deeply steeped in the U.S. of Baldwin’s lifetime and disturbingly relevant to 2014. The speaker mentions Russia, China, the Panama Canal, and Vietnam along with “Mad Charlie,” Patty Hearst, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Mohammad Ali. But the historical, political, and pop culture references do not date the poem since Baldwin uses them as vehicles for his truth-telling.

The poem rarely strays too far from colors, or more accurately skin pigmentation. And Baldwin deftly blends slurs and dialects in the voice of the speaker who appears both of the situation as well as above the situation: the racial and social inequities of being Black in the U.S.:

I wonder how they think
the niggers made, make it,
how come the niggers are still here.
But, then, again, I don’t think they dare
to think of that: no:
I’m fairly certain they don’t think of that at all. (3.1-6)

As an opening poem, “Staggerlee wonders” represents Baldwin’s complexity and richness, as well as his tensions—notably his use of Biblical references bracketed with “though theology has absolutely nothing to do/ with what I am trying to say” and “But we are not talking about belief.”

This poem reveals Baldwin’s craft, his ability to be deeply personal and bound by his moments of history while speaking against and to the great questions of being human when humans fail their humanity.

David L. Ulin poses James Baldwin, poet? But of course. in his review of this new collection from Baldwin, concluding,

This new version of “Jimmy’s Blues” features six poems that until now have only been available in a limited edition chapbook published after Baldwin’s death. Not all of this material is equally resonant, but when he’s on, Baldwin has the rare ability to contain contradictions — and not only to contain them, but also to evoke them on the page.

As National Poetry Month 2014 comes to a close and as we move toward Baldwin’s 90th birthday in August, now appears to be right for exploring Baldwin the poet.

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

I have offered two posts confronting a pattern in the U.S. of denying racism (usually arguing class instead) despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary:

As a third post, I invite you to read and view James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates*:

* If you are an educator, I recommend this as a unit for students.