James Baldwin “Afraid” (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987)

In his Message to Grassroots (10 November 1963), Malcolm X ends with:

No, it was a sellout. It was a takeover. When James Baldwin came in from Paris, they wouldn’t let him talk, ’cause they couldn’t make him go by the script. Burt Lancaster read the speech that Baldwin was supposed to make; they wouldn’t let Baldwin get up there, ’cause they know Baldwin’s liable to say anything.

Just three years later, James Baldwin again proved Malxcolm X right, authoring A Report from Occupied Territory (11 July 1966) for The Nation.

The essay resonates powerfully as virtually all of Baldwin’s essays do until this day—but it also leaves the mouth acrid because the bitterly unjust world Baldwin captures lives out before us now as vividly as it did during Baldwin’s life.

In the most perverse of prophesies, Baldwin places words in the mouths of Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin … :

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 [emphasis added]. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

And Baldwin’s witnessing remains confrontational, razor-focused, and nauseatingly accurate for anyone who truly believes in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness:

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. 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. 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. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets.

Four years earlier (17 November 1962), Baldwin’s Letter from a Region in My Mind detailed his own awakening:

I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis….Therefore, to state it in another, more accurate way, I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid—afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without.

James Baldwin Gets Comfortable to Write

1/30/1963, New York, NY. James Baldwin sprawls across the bed in his New York apartment to jot down some notes. PHOTOGRAPH BY BETTMANN / CORBIS

Baldwin afraid was Baldwin coming to recognize racial despair:

School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child’s game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work. My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen. My friends were now “downtown,” busy, as they put it, “fighting the man.” They began to care less about the way they looked, the way they dressed, the things they did; presently, one found them in twos and threes and fours, in a hallway, sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey, talking, cursing, fighting, sometimes weeping: lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was “the man”—the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.

Here is the Baldwin “liable to say anything” mentioned by Malcolm X, the Baldwin who situated racism in whiteness, the source, the reason:

There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

Over five decades later, the racism remains, the tensions have intensified, and the list of names of the sacrificed grows—and Baldwin’s assessment could be written today in nearly the exact same way with the same degree of Truth:

In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.

2 August 2016, Baldwin’s birthday.

White privilege and white fragility remain as powerful and deaf, dumb, and blind as Baldwin witnessed as a teen.

However, “[e]verything now, we must assume,” Baldwin ends his Letter, “is in our hands”:

we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.

And yet, we falter…

5 comments

  1. Jill Reifschneider

    Thank you.
    I have to ask if you have insight into why Bernie Sanders did not appeal to the urban black voters and why Hillary Clinton does. Please help me understand.

  2. Pingback: James Baldwin “Afraid” (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) – nkamaviktor

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