James Baldwin’s “They Can’t Turn Back” (1960): “On such small signs and symbols does the southern cabala depend”

James Baldwin published “They Can’t Turn Back” in 1960 just as I was about to enter this world.

Baldwin—black, gay and from the North—was witnessing a world from which I—white, straight and from the South—would in many ways be exempt, although it was the same world.

In this essay, Baldwin was charged by Mademoiselle to report on student activism in Florida after the Greensboro (North Carolina) sit-in, which the editors framed, in part, as follows:

More than any other event, the Greensboro sit-in launched the 1960s, a decade of political activism and students were on the cutting edge of social change. In 1960, the writer James Baldwin visited Tallahassee, Florida. to report on student activism there. Baldwin ruminated on the underlying causes of black protests and marveled at the militancy and idealism of the younger generation. To Baldwin, the movement challenged all Americans to rethink whether “We really want to be free” and whether freedom applied to all Americans or only to part of the population. (Italics in original)

Four A&T College students sit in seats designated for white people at the racially segregated Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, on February 2, 1960. From left to right, the students are Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Billy Smith, and Clarence Henderson. This photo was taken on the second day of the now-famous Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins. (Greensboro News & Record photo by Jack Moebes.)

“I am the only Negro passenger at Tallahassee’s shambles of an airport,” Baldwin begins, as he paints an immediate picture of the tensions between blacks and whites that defined his world: “If she were smiling at me that way I would expect to shake her hand. But if I should put out my hand, panic, bafflement, and horror would then overtake that face, the atmosphere would darken, and danger, even the threat of death, would immediately fill the air.”

In Charleston, South Carolina—about 300 miles away from Greensboro and 55 years later—racial tensions have escalated from “threat” to execution. In the wake of the mass shooting of the #Charleston9 (an eerie and disturbing echo of the Little Rock Nine), the political and public response has focused on the Confederate battle flag on the Capitol grounds in SC as well as in both government and private contexts across the South and U.S.

Time and place, then, do not erase the power of Baldwin’s second paragraph:

On such small signs and symbols does the southern cabala depend, and that is why I find the South so eerie and exhausting. This system of signs and naunces covers the mined terrain of the unspoken—the forever unspeakable—and everyone in the region knows his way across this field. This knowledge that a gesture can blow up a town is what the South refers to when it speaks of its “folkways.” The fact that the gesture is not made is what the South calls “excellent race relations.” It is impossible for any northern Negro to become an adept of this mystery, not because the South’s racial attitudes are not found in the North but because it has never been the North’s necessity to construct an entire way of life on the legend of the Negro’s inferiority. That is why the battle of Negro students for freedom here is really an attempt to free the entire region from the irrational terror that has ruled it for so long.

The South Baldwin describes was cracking under the weight of “separate but equal” as that myth crashed into a rising refrain of civil rights. As Baldwin notes, “the viewpoint of the white majority” dictated the narratives about and for blacks—and whites.

Today, as the South and the nation wrestles with symbolism—a flag—we also confront a tarnished and enduring myth-turned-slogan, “Heritage Not Hate,” as Tony Horwitz explains:

Some of those who invoke the “heritage, not hate” mantra are disingenuous. On the day of the shooting, I was in rural east Texas, touring a small town with a businessman who displayed the rebel flag on his truck. After telling me “it’s heritage, not hate,” he proceeded to refer to a black neighborhood as “Niggertown” and rant against the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Most flag defenders, however, are sincere when they say they cherish the banner as a symbol of their ancestors’ valor. About 20 percent of white Southern males of military age died in the Civil War. In South Carolina the toll was even higher, and thousands more were left maimed, their farms and homes in ruins. For many descendants of Southern soldiers, the rebel flag recalls that sacrifice, and taking it down dishonors those who fought under the banner. No one wants to be asked to spit on their ancestors’ graves….

But a deeper problem remains, and not just among those who cherish the Confederacy. Nationwide, Americans still cling to a deeply sanitized and Southern-fried understanding of the Civil War. More often than not, when I talk to people about the conflict, I hear that it was about abstract principles like “state sovereignty” and “the Southern way of life.” Surveys confirm this. In 2011, at the start of the war’s sesquicentennial, the Pew Research Center asked more than 1500 Americans their view as to “the main cause of the Civil War.” Only 38 percent said the main cause was slavery, compared to 48 percent who answered states’ rights.

For Baldwin in the turbulent cusp of the 1950s/1960s at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University:

The South is very beautiful but its beauty makes one sad because the lives that people live, and have lived here, are so ugly that now they cannot even speak to one another. It does not demand much reflection to be appalled at the inevitable state of mind achieved by people who dare not speak freely about those things which most disturb them….

It is very nearly impossible, after all, to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind. The fact that F.A.M.U. is a Negro university merely serves to demonstrate this American principle more clearly: and the pressure now being placed on the Negro administration and faculty by the white Florida State Board of Control further hampers the university’s effectiveness as a training ground for future citizens. In fact, if the Florida State Board of Control has its way, Florida will no longer produce citizens, only black and white sheep. I do not think or, more accurately, I refuse to think that it will have its way but, at the moment, all that prevents this are the sorely menaced students and a handful of even more sorely menaced teachers and preachers.

Our contemporary world remains too often silent, just as our institutions of education continue to be in the service of the status quo—failing more often than not the very students most in need of public and higher education. Just as Baldwin’s recognition of the power of symbolism in the South speaks to today, his words strike also at the heart of the return of segregated and inequitable schooling across the entire U.S.:

For the segregated school system in the South has always been used by the southern states as a means of controlling Negroes. When one considers the lengths to which the South has gone to prevent the Negro from ever becoming, or even feeling like, an equal, it is clear that the southern states could not have used schools in any other way.

James Baldwin in Los Angeles, 1969 (Credit: Sedat Pakay)

In his role as witness, Baldwin details his own journey among black leaders and students in Florida, and one student leads him to note:

But this [the historical perspective] does not, and cannot exist, either privately or publicly, in a country that has told itself so many lies about its history, that, in sober fact, has yet to excavate its history from the rubble of romance. Nowhere is this clearer than in the South today, for if the tissue of myths that has for so long been propagated as southern history had any actual validity, the white people of the South would be far less tormented people and the present generation of Negro students could never have been produced.

For SC and the U.S., pulling down a flag is not an act of erasing history, but a moment, a momentum for facing a history long masked behind the veneer of whitewashing.

Baldwin’s time spent with student protestors in Florida spurred in him angst—an angst not unlike those who fear now that the flag removal will be but a passing symbolic act with little real change to follow: “And all this, I think to myself, will only be a page in history. I cannot help wondering what kind of page it will be, whether we are hourly, in this country now, recording our salvation or our doom,” Baldwin muses.

However, Baldwin’s closing words suggest hope, a hope embodied in young blacks then who were in a different world than the one into which Baldwin was born. And Baldwin believed in the promise of young black activism grounded in a bold recognition of the real history of race in the U.S.:

They [black student activists] cannot be diverted. It seems to me that they are the only people in this country now who really believe in freedom. Insofar as they can make it real for themselves, they will make it real for all of us. The question with which they present the nation is whether or not we really want to be free. It is because these students remain so closely related to their past that they are able to face with such authority a population ignorant of its history and enslaved by a myth. And by this population I do not mean merely the unhappy people who make up the southern mobs. I have in mind nearly all Americans.

These students prove unmistakably what most people in this country have yet to discover: that time is real.

Hope and angst are with us in the wake of the mass shooting in Charleston, in the wake of political leaders who defended the Confederate flag on one Friday (and for years) only to reverse course after a weekend (and likely some motivation from the very CEOs politicians had invoked as evidence the flag was not a real issue), in the vacuum of the national refusal to confront the violent gun culture that arms the racism we are begrudgingly admitting.

In Baldwin’s refuting of William Faulkner—white calls for patience from blacks—we have more evidence of the relevance of Baldwin in a time of racial unrest:

But the time Faulkner asks for does not exist—and he is not the only Southerner who knows is. There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now. (“Faulkner and Desegregation,” Nobody Knows My Name)

4 comments

  1. Mindy Nathan

    I really enjoy your writing – would like to continue receiving your posts.

    Please change my email address, though – after 6-30-15 I can reached at mindy.nathan@gmail.com

    Unfortunately my school district closed my awesome school. We were a trauma-informed alternative education program for amazing students. Unfortunately our 250 or so did not improve the districts overall achievement ratings, so now we are a different kind of statistic.

    We offered a robust arts program (which was essential) and much more – certainly a whole lot of love🙂. We also had a partnership with University of Michigan to help pre-service teachers and social workers collaborate and study what trauma-informed teaching and learning could look like.

    Crazy times. We will find a way to reinvent our program.

    Thanks for the absolutely brilliant work that you do.

    Mindy Nathan

    >>> the becoming radical 6/25/2015 10:11 AM >>>

    plthomasedd posted: “James Baldwin published “They Can’t Turn Back” in 1960 just as I was about to enter this world. Baldwin—black, gay and from the North—was witnessing a world from which I—white, straight and from the South—would in many ways be exempts, although it was “

  2. howardat58

    Race is only one of the reasons (causes,excuses,…..) for one lot of people to lord it over another lot, treat them as inferior, second or third class, or in extreme cases not people. Look at the history of Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Spain with the Moors, and on and on. Religion bears a lot of the burden for all of this.

  3. Christine Langhoff

    “In fact, if the Florida State Board of Control has its way, Florida will no longer produce citizens, only black and white sheep. I do not think or, more accurately, I refuse to think that it will have its way but, at the moment, all that prevents this are the sorely menaced students and a handful of even more sorely menaced teachers and preachers.”

    Is Baldwin ever not prescient?

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