Racial Slur

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

“Incident,” Countee Cullen

Earlier in the summer of 2017 during the controversy over Bill Maher’s use of a racial slur, I wrote a poem [1] that confronts the slur but also ends with an image that haunts me in the wake of Charlottesville and Barcelona.

The tyranny of the threat of being run over rests now in my bones after having been run over with a group of cyclists just 8 months ago.

But I have no direct personal understanding of what James Baldwin confronts about race in the U.S.: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ” [2]

Along with the pervasive threat of  physical violence and death for any black body even or especially at the hands of the state (the crux of Colin Kaepernick’s protests), there remains the threat of the racial slur.

As Baldwin interrogated:

As witnessed in this video: Watch Out Loud: What Was It Like the 1st Time You Were Called the N-Word?

My first grandchild is starting 3K in a bit more than a week from now. She is a vibrant and affectionate child who happens to be biracial.

She appears at 3 on a path to mostly pass for white—that itself a horrible thing to still be contemplating or acknowledging in 2017. In the dead of winter, people praise her lovely tan.

And she is attending a school in my hometown where my wife teaches; it is a solidly rural small town in the South that is far more white than when I attended those schools.

And when I look at my dear granddaughter, the engine I hear revving is when she will first encounter that racial slur, directed at her—to be defined—or at her father, a tall black man with dreads who, when then dating my daughter, used to leave our house in a hoodie in the time around Trayvon Martin‘s killing.

There is a powerful thing shared between parenting (and grand-parenting) and teaching—spending our time in the care of children and young people.

Parenting involves watching a baby grow into independence and the inevitability of kinds of loss.

But teaching is an ever-refreshed group of children and young people—a sort of permanent fountain of youth.

In that parenting and teaching, then, is a kind of hope. Intoxicating hope.

However, my dearest granddaughter is walking into the world of Trumplandia, and I am nearly bereft of hope, consumed instead by fear.

I am haunted now by a question: What is the critical mass of good people who will act on that goodness in any organization or society for it to matter?

I am haunted now by a realization: The critical mass of truly awful people needed to matter is incredibly few, often needing only one dominant figure head to render the whole organization or society essentially evil.

I am terrified by my midlife understanding of the term “gunning an engine.”

I cannot hold my granddaughter tight enough, long enough.


[1] white folk (switchblade)

But all agon eventually reduces itself to human violence….
But then the world has always made violent use of children.
The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch

to apologists for Bill Maher

white folk carry “nigger” in their throats

like switchblades secreted in designer boots

there are no excuses for such dormant violences

like white men with slick-backed hair and dark suits

who will slit your throat in a white-hot second

like a volcano spewing lava swallowing barefoot children sleeping

beware these smiling white folk clearing their throats

like an engine cold cranking before plowing over you

[2] “The Negro in American Culture,” Cross Currents, XI (1961), p. 205.

Exceptional?: “the right to criticize [America] perpetually”

The U.S. is exceptional.

Exceptionally hypocritical.

Exceptionally delusional.

In a country where patriots are apt to wave fervently the nation’s flag, we are witnessing (mostly passively) in 2017 a professional athlete who took a knee in nonviolent and silent protest become a professional and public pariah.

Yet we in the U.S. routinely express pride for having been birthed out of protest, the Boston Tea Party, and revolution.

It is 2017, and the home of that seminal protest, Boston, remains the most racist fan base in the U.S. and city for a professional football team with owner, coach, and quarterback all supporting Donald Trump—but without any negative consequences for their overt politics.

Free speech in the U.S. is increasingly circumscribed by nationalism as a proxy for race—”Make America Great Again” as code for preserving whiteness.

Adrienne Akins grounds her examination of national and racial identity in the following:

In Notes of a Native Son (1955), James Baldwin poignantly captured the nature of his intense feelings for his nation of birth in stating: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” (9).

Baldwin, like Muhammad Ali, represents the living ghost haunting Kaepernick’s nightmare—a contemporary resurrection of praise that was contradicted while Baldwin (and Ali) was most prominent and confrontational.

Only in his waning years and after his death did the U.S. begin to concede Ali was the greatest. (Associated Press).

The country that pushed Baldwin into exile issued a stamp with his image only well after his death. See Adrienne Rich’s moving essay on Baldwin and the stamp.

Richard Nixon was elected, many seem to ignore, in the wake of 1960s social unrest, anchored in the Civil Rights movement as well as the counter culture often stereotyped as Hippies.

Nixon’s law-and-order race/class baiting spoke to those most afraid of losing their privileges to the “others”—white America.

Trumplandia is the logical extension of that history—where American exceptionalism, our hypocrisy and delusion, has moved beyond empty political rhetoric (“by gorry/
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum”) to crass nationalism fueled by rhetoric-as-truth (regardless of the evidence otherwise).

The tribalism of crass nationalism denies, as Judith Butler explains, “We are worldless without one another”:

What worries me is that many of us form our sense of obligation toward another on the basis of feelings of identification. If someone else is like us, and that likeness is readily recognizable, then we are more inclined to respond in the way that we would have others respond to us. The harder task is to maintain an obligation to those by whom we feel ourselves to have been injured, to those we fear, or to those whose difference from us seems to be quite severe. This is why I do not think that global obligations can rest on identification, even expanded or expanding identifications; they have to claim us quite regardless of whether or not we feel love or sympathy, for the simple reason that the world is given to us in common and that without each other the world is not given. If the self is the basis of sympathy, our sympathy will be restricted to those who are like us. The real challenge occurs when that extrapolation of the self is thwarted by alterity.

Butler’s insistence for cohabitation feels akin to Baldwin’s refrain about love, a powerful element of his work too often glossed over. Butler argues: “I suppose it is first important to honor the obligation to affirm the life of another even if I am overwhelmed with hostility. This is the basic precept of an ethics of nonviolence, in my view.”

And this bring us full circle to Kaepernick, nonviolent and protesting for equity, ostracized as Baldwin and Ali were in their lifetimes—reduced to “unAmerican” in order to cast him among the Others and to render invalid his refusal to separate his personal and professional ethics (or better yet, his recognition that no one can separate them).

Maybe my opening claims are ill-founded, however. Not that the U.S. is hypocritical and delusional, but that these qualities are somehow exceptional.

Maybe beneath the glitz of consumerism, Americans are merely victims of the worse aspects of being human.

Democracy hasn’t failed, but quite possibly humans are incapable of reaching the high ideals of democracy, equity, and justice.

We have created words for ideas that are just too far beyond our reach as living creatures.

When does one move from “This isn’t working” to “This cannot work”?

6 April 2017 Reader: Segregation and James Baldwin

But it’s also a country where if you’re running and you’re black there is a high chance you’ll be shot in the back. Then there will be a brief and cinematic fuss but no justice. Baldwin’s beautiful and screaming incomprehension sixty years ago at such atrocities still makes too much sense [emphasis added].

Please take the rope from my throat so that I may sing, Talia Marshall


Segregation

Within integrated schools, de facto segregation persists, Erica L. Green

Howard County is the most integrated school district in the region, according to the Maryland Equity Project of the University of Maryland. Children of different races — especially those who are black and white — are more likely to sit next to each other in Howard than almost anywhere else in the state.

But within that diversity, school leaders have uncovered a de facto system of segregation.

Enrollment data obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request shows that the district’s advanced classes — honors, gifted and talented, and AP — are disproportionately white, while the regular and remedial classes are disproportionately black.

How School Choice Is Increasing Racial Segregation in Public Education

Erika Frankenberg, an associate professor of education and an associate of the Population Research Institute at Penn State, was the lead author of the study. She notes that “Black and Latino students tended to move into charter schools that were more racially isolated than the public schools they left.” This is a cause for concern, according to the authors. Dr. Frankenberg states that “minority students in more diverse school settings have higher short-term and long-term academic outcomes than those who attend racially isolated minority schools.

White students in Philadelphia area schools tended to go to charter schools that had a greater percentage of White students than the public school they had attended. But in the rest of the state, White students tended to opt for charter schools that were more diverse than the public schools.


James Baldwin

How James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time still lights the way towards equality, Steven W Thrasher

His 1962 classic The Fire Next Time was originally a letter, written by Baldwin to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the so-called emancipation of black America. In the letter’s penultimate paragraph, Baldwin writes: “This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.” It is rhythmically similar to Trump’s red-hatted mantra – but there’s a big difference between trying to make America “great again” and focusing on what it once was, rather than what it “must become”.

More than 50 years on, The Fire Next Time has been reprinted by Taschen in a beautiful new edition that pairs his text with images by the civil rights-era photographer Steve Schapiro. Baldwin was “the scribe of the movement, our illustrious griot, who knew our struggle because he lived it”, as congressman John Lewis writes in the foreword. But before mobile phone videos and Twitter allowed black Americans to directly telegraph their plight to the world, it was up to photojournalism to visualise the message, as Schapiro’s images did in Life magazine.

James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time. Photographs by Steve Schapiro

Against Literary Nationalism, Jan Clausen

In the twenty years since [Adrienne] Rich spoke out, the injustices she pointed to have intensified. Indeed, anyone who thinks that “cynical policies” disappeared under Obama should review his remarks to the nation’s top financial executives in March 2009, when the purveyor of “hope and change” tried to reassure the fat cats: “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks. . . . I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

Those who value “justice for all” cannot look at the actually existing United States — the barbarous inequalities it fosters at home, the imperial violence it passes off as foreign policy — without concluding that “the American proposition” is bunk. This is not, of course, to give up on fighting for justice; it is merely to eschew the veneration of a history of abuses.

So why don’t today’s writers take a stand like Rich? What happened to the radical dissent embodied in figures like James Baldwin, Grace Paley, and June Jordan — or the United Kingdom’s Harold Pinter, who devoted part of his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech to delivering a scathing rebuke of America’s imperial crimes?

Under the Spell of James Baldwin, Darryl Pinckney

Baldwin said that Martin Luther King Jr., symbol of nonviolence, had done what no black leader had before him, which was “to carry the battle into the individual heart.” But he refused to condemn Malcolm X, King’s supposed violent alternative, because, he said, his bitterness articulated the sufferings of black people. These things could also describe Baldwin himself in his essays on race and US society. He may not have dealt with “this sociology and economics jazz,” as Harold Cruse complained of him in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), but the reconstruction of America was for him, even in his bleakest essays, firstly a moral question, a matter of conscience. And at his best he simply didn’t need the backup of statistics and dates. When it came to The Fire Next Time (1963), the evidence of his experience, the truth of American history, he could take perfect flight on his own.

Battling to Save James Baldwin’s Home in the South of France, Rachel Donadio

Baldwin, who had lived in Paris earlier in his life, first came to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1970, at the age of 46, after a breakdown. He had been excoriated by fellow members of the civil rights movement — some called the author, who was gay, Martin Luther Queen — and believed he was under surveillance by the United States government. In France, he found the tranquillity and distance to write.

At the time of his death from cancer, he had been buying the house in installments from his landlady, Jeanne Faure, who grew up in Algeria under French colonial rule. Despite her right-wing politics, she and Baldwin had become the best of friends. (When President François Mitterrand of France made Baldwin a commander of the Legion of Honor in 1986, one of the country’s highest honors, the author brought Ms. Faure to the ceremony.)

Please take the rope from my throat so that I may sing, Talia Marshall

I read Baldwin’s gay novel Giovanni’s Room at the same time, but Another Country is my favourite because it had these women in it: white, privileged Cass with her WASP, horse-riding New England girlhood, and Black, imperious and beautiful Ida who was aloof and suspicious of her dead brother’s white friends. Cass and Ida were proof Baldwin paid some attention to the inner world of women even if he imprisoned them in their sex as equally as men.

All his writing toils with the fact and cage of the body. The black body and the white fear of its darkness, and the cultural incomprehension at the heart of American life. His paradoxical and gospel-fed vision was that the only way to solve the ‘negro problem’ was to set white people free from their prejudice, given the subjugating nature of power even for the powerful.

James Baldwin was the double negative: Black and gay, and blessed with a frog-like lovely/unlovely face and boy-preacher airs; the greedy reader who devoured every single book in the Harlem library as a child; the ear for mixing the street talk of Harlem and Brooklyn, and the Beat chatter of the Village with the heady modernism of James and Joyce. Baldwin is often accused by critics of having superfluous amounts of empathy, and at times this compassion for the human condition slips into purple, gushing sentimentality. Like Disney for the bohemian set, Baldwin’s writing can be the literary equivalent of a relentless zoom lens shot of people’s faces and all their wretched, spilling emotions.

Confronting, Finally, Obama as Centrist, Incrementalist—Never The Socialist

It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (1972)

The Right, specifically the Republican Party, has never been too bright, but it has always depended on the ham-fisted logic of the U.S. public.

As political maneuvering, the Right maintained a persistent drumbeat throughout Obama’s presidency, painting him The Socialist.

Yet, over the past few days, that same Right has unwittingly unmasked both Obama and themselves by noting the similarities between past comments by Obama and recent controversial claims by Ben Carson (slaves as immigrants) and Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz (iPhones and healthcare).

First, let’s be clear that calling enslaved people “immigrants” and demonizing people trapped in poverty are categorically wrong—regardless of who makes the claims.

And let’s also clarify that although the ends do not justify the means, Obama’s calloused comments were in the context of quite different goals than similar comments made from Republicans: Obama seeking equity and expanding healthcare by working within the system and long-held but false American Myths versus Republicans denying racial inequity (Carson) and working to cast impoverished and working citizens out of the guarantees of publicly funded healthcare and into the dog-eat-dog world of the free market.

But, second, and possibly more importantly, Obama has been unmasked as a centrist, an incrementalist—what we may admit is Ben Carson-light in rhetoric, but not political goals—by the very Right who falsely portrayed him as The Socialist.

As I have detailed in the Big Lie about the Left in the U.S., there simply is no viable or influential Left in this country, not in our two major political parties and not even on our university campuses; the leftwing professor cartoon is just as false as Obama The Socialist.

The Democratic Party in the U.S. is a centrist, leaning right, party; college professors are moderate progressives, comfortable members of the leisure class who are in no way dedicated to upsetting the status quo.

And everyone in power—even Bill Clinton and including Obama—remains trapped in narratives about race and social class that are both enduring and provably false.

Political leadership in the U.S. on both sides of the aisle speak to and perpetuate “get tough on crimes” rhetoric, despite decades of dropping crime rates; “fearing foreigners,” despite ample evidence that homegrown terrorism is far more dangerous; and “lazy minorities” as well as “lazy poor” characterizations beneath bootstrap language, although the bootstrap myth is a lie and systemic inequity remains powerful (racism, classism, sexism) on the lives of many Americas.

We don’t need the Right to pick through Obama’s legacy to highlight that he was never The Socialist, but it certainly would go a long way toward an equitable nation if we all would confront the moral vacuum that exists in U.S. politics because we have no political Left.

Publicly funded—universal healthcare, public education, roads and highways, judicial system and police force, military—is not about giving things to lazy people for free; publicly funded is about the collective will of a people determined to provide everyone access life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Equity is the political goal of the Left; forced equality is the cartoon version of “communism” that is in fact totalitarianism, fascism. The former is a moral imperative, the latter is heinous and immoral.

The U.S. is an amoral country that claims “democracy” but worships capitalism.

And thus, in typical confrontational and uncomfortable style, James Baldwin wrote in 1967:

It is true that two wrongs don’t make a right, as we love to point out to the people we have wronged. But one wrong doesn’t make a right, either. People who have been wronged will attempt to right the wrong; they would not be people if they didn’t. They can rarely afford to be scrupulous about the means they will use. They will use such means as come to hand. Neither, in the main, will they distinguish one oppressor from another, nor see through to the root principle of their oppression.

There is much to unpack there in 2017.

Obama and Carson, separately and together, are wrong to blur the horror of people enslaved with immigration.

Obama and Chaffetz, separately and together, are wrong to trivialize the basic human right of healthcare by playing to a false stereotype of people trapped in poverty.

But the real problem, the one crystal clear to Baldwin, is the collective work of the Oppressor, the U.S. public that not only allows these wrongs, but creates them.

As Stephen Pimpare notes, the largest block of people living in poverty are children, with no political or economic power.

People in poverty are mostly those children, the elderly, the disabled, students, the working poor, and those proving care for others.

Across the U.S., we’d rather play gotcha partisan politics than give a good damn about fulfilling our promises as a people committed to human dignity and equity for all.

Finger pointing across the aisle keeps everyone from the mirror that would require us to admit who we truly are.

And so …

baldwin012

Artwork by Molly Crabapple

“Every white person in this country…knows one thing,” James Baldwin (1979)

On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,’ but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

What Can a Sincere White Person Do? Malcolm X

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A Portrait of the Artist as Activist: “in the sunlit prison of the American dream”

Standing in Starbucks a few days ago, just a couple weeks after I discovered honey in the sweetener and creamer station, I was peeling open a packet of honey when three lines came to me:

we rape the bees
because they are sweet

because we can

My poet-self writes this way; lines come to me, and I usually type them into Notes on my iPhone and email that to myself to work on when I have time.

Driving to my university office, I rehearsed those lines over and over, priming myself for the rest of the poem to appear—to reveal itself to me.

As a poet, I am often asking myself and the lines that come: What is this about?

I have preferred honey over processed sugar as a sweetener for about three decades, but over the last year, I discovered that among vegans, eating honey is a serious debate; many vegans do not eat honey.

It is a matter of consent.

And while some find veganism an easy target of ridicule, I see such commitments as powerful contexts of living one’s ethical and political beliefs.

Bees and honey, then, were buzzing in my unconsciousness as a political and ethical dilemma—one further complicated by my own sense that I wanted to write about worker bees as a metaphor for workers in the time of Trump.

The tension, however, became how to write a poem that remained a poem while it seemed to call out to be a political statement.

My foundational poetic muse is e.e. cummings, but my single poetic standard is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” a magical diamond of a poem. Concision and precision, undeniable as a paper cut (like William Carlos Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say”).

The final version of we rape the bees (because we can), I hope, fulfilled that goal by focusing on sound (I chose the soft “s” as a whisper to the hard “z” associated with bees), wordplay (“trump,” “unjust desserts”), essential but vivid images (“golden lips and sticky fingers”), and the briefest of allusions ( only “enslaved” as I resisted how to pack the poem with both slavery and the Japanese Internment).

A good poem, I think, even if it demands to be a political poem, becomes good by all that the poet chooses to leave out as the poet strips the billowing ideas down to the least possible words.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel,” wrote James Baldwin in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women.”

Baldwin engages in this essays that tension between art and politics/activism, arguing, “It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.”

Choosing fidelity to art over politics and activism, Baldwin rejects the protest novel:

But unless one’s ideal of society is a race of neatly analyzed, hard-working ciphers, one can hardly claim for the protest novels the lofty purpose they claim for themselves or share the present optimism concerning them. They emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.

The missionary zeal of activism erases both the core values of the artist and the intent of that zeal—and then Baldwin reminds us:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.

Turning at the end to Richard Wright’s Native Son, Baldwin concludes:

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

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“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)

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“In the latter half of the twentieth century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures,” explains Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale has been rejuvenated with the rise of Trump.

While strongly associated with George Orwell, see her essays on “Writing Utopia” and “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections,” Atwood turns from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to another classic dystopian work:

The other was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism – one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality; of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration; of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work; and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.

Then adds, “Which template would win, we wondered?…Would it be possible for both of these futures – the hard and the soft – to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like?”

Unlike the protest novel, could we find in dystopian science fiction a satisfying merging of art and politics/activism?

While Milan Kundera’s novels, notably The Unbearable Lightness of Being, seek to dramatize the philosophical and the political, Atwood’s dystopian works—from The Handmaid’s Tale to her MaddAddam Trilogy—are grounded in, as Atwood explains, history, not what she fabricates but what has already happened.

Atwood’s fiction is fiction in that she reconstructs human behavior while also infusing her dystopias with speculation, the logical extrapolations of actual human behavior.

“It was Huxley’s genius to present us to ourselves in all our ambiguity,” Atwood understands: “Alone among the animals, we suffer from the future perfect tense.”

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The artist is a human driven to create, that urge welling up inside like a fresh batch of honey never aware of any intensions toward sweetness.

This, I think, we must not deny, for if we do, we deny ourselves.


See Also

Ahmed Naji: ‘Prison made me believe in literature more’