At first, I think, most relatively reasonable people believed the 2016 Republican field for president was amusing, a harmless opening act to the very serious politics that would befall us when the time came.
But toward the end of February 2016 with Donald Trump winning primary after primary, and with many very serious pundits now conceding that Trump could be the Republican nominee, this harmless opening act has turned decidedly ugly.
A testament to his genius as well as a damning statement about the recalcitrant nature of the U.S., James Baldwin’s work offers disturbing commentaries on our present, especially in the context of Trump’s blatant fascism and bigotry along with the so-called mainstream Republican candidates’ coded fascism and bigotry.
In this address, Baldwin admits early, “I’m certain that there is something which unites all the Americans in this room, though I can’t say what it is.” Then, he launches into speculating aloud about a hypothetical novel.
“[B]ecause I am an American writer,” he explains, “my subject and my material inevitably has to be a handful of incoherent people in an incoherent country,” setting up his explicating more carefully later “incoherent.”
This novel, he poses, would be grounded in his life, the people and places he knows, starting with his birth into the Negro [Harlem] Renaissance:
This Negro Renaissance is an elegant term which means that white people had then discovered that Negroes could act and write as well as sing and dance and this Renaissance was not destined to last very long. Very shortly there was to be a depression and the artistic Negro, or the noble savage, was to give way to the militant or the new Negro; and I want to point out something in passing which I think is worth our time to look at, which is this: that the country’s image of the Negro, which hasn’t very much to do with the Negro, has never failed to reflect with a kind of frightening accuracy the state of mind of the country.
Baldwin refutes writing a typical coming-of-age novel before delving deeper into race and Harlem itself: “Because, remember that we’re projecting a novel, and Harlem is in the course of changing all the time, very soon there won’t be any white people there, and this is also going to have some effect on the people in my story.”
Next, Baldwin comes to terms with the white world. “Now this white world which I was just encountering was,” he explains, “just the same, one of the forces that had been controlling me from the time I opened my eyes on the world”—building to his larger realization:
Anyway, in the beginning I thought that the white world was very different from the world I was moving out of and I turned out to be entirely wrong. It seemed different. It seemed safer, at least the white people seemed safer. It seemed cleaner, it seemed more polite, and, of course, it seemed much richer from the material point of view. But I didn’t meet anyone in that world who didn’t suffer from the very same affliction that all the people I had fled from suffered from and that was that they didn’t know who they were. They wanted to be something that they were not. And very shortly I didn’t know who I was, either. I could not be certain whether I was really rich or really poor, really black or really white, really male or really female, really talented or a fraud, really strong or merely stubborn. In short, I had become an American.
As relevant today as then, Baldwin answers “What does it mean to be an American?” with race, noting “[t]he fact of color has a relevance objectively and some relevance in some other way, some emotional relevance and not only for the South.”
To be American, it seems, Baldwin confronts the power of race and the paradox of being an American (which he argues joins black and white)—all of which comes to his concern with our genuine selves, the risk of being our genuine selves: “I mean that in order to have a conversation with someone you have to reveal yourself.”
Along with “the fact of race,” Baldwin argues “to try and find out what Americans mean is almost impossible because there are so many things they do not want to face.”
To be American is to live with delusion:
[I]t seems to me that the myth, the illusion, that this is a free country, for example, is disastrous….
There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it— and almost all of us have one way or another— this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.
And as we face in the U.S. during the 2016 presidential campaign the rise of a candidate more outlandish and nastier than a cult-classic film, Baldwin’s concluding comment could not be more apt: “A country is only as good— I don’t care now about the Constitution and the laws, at the moment let us leave these things aside— a country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become.”
And as Americans choose Trump, we must realize: “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”
In the US in 2016—and specifically for educators—the need to confront racism must remain central to all efforts to overcome inequity and injustice. Among the privileged—white-, male-, heterosexual-skewed—there is no room for “yes, but,” although there remains ample room for stepping back, being silent, and then listening as first steps to offering solidarity in the action needed to confront the false narratives of “meritocracy” and “rugged individualism,” and then to overcome the irrefutable inequities linked to race, class, gender, and sexuality.
One commitment is to resist the whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr. as a passive radical. So here, I offer some readings, varied and important, but pathways to honoring the radical MLK and to resisting the lingering dream deferred.
The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.
For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro. Accordingly, for the lat two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people. Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.
You will note that there is not a suggestion of any kind of appeal to justice, and no suggestion of any recompense for the grave and gratuitous damage which this man has endured. His tone is simply the tone of one who has miraculously survived—he might have died; as it is, he is merely half blind. You will also note that the patch over his eye has had the effect of making him, more than ever, the target of the police. It is a dishonorable wound, not earned in a foreign jungle but in the domestic one—not that this would make any difference at all to the nevertheless insuperably patriotic policeman—and it proves that he is a “bad nigger.” (“Bad niggers,” in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed.) The police, who have certainly done their best to kill him, have also provided themselves with a pretext derisoire by filing three criminal charges against him. He is charged with beating up a schoolteacher, upsetting a fruit stand, and assaulting the (armed) police. Furthermore, he did all of these things in the space of a single city block, and simultaneously….
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.
Last week, a group of legal experts ruled the November 2014 police shooting of 12-year old Tamir Rice “objectively reasonable.” Rice was shot as he sat in a local park, near the recreation center where he frequently played, holding a pellet gun. When officers responded to 911 calls that a “guy was sitting in the park pointing a gun at people,” they did not know that 195-pound Tamir Rice was only 12….
It is entirely unreasonable for a young boy, someone’s child, to end up dead at the hands of law enforcement when he did not objectively pose a threat. He was a child playing with a toy. In a park. That is what children do. There was nothing unreasonable about his activities. He was playing with a gun openly in an open-carry state. He was playing with his gun in a gun-driven national culture that does not think the killings of innocent college students or little children warrant more robust gun control laws.
The plot of one of our iconic American movies, “A Christmas Story,” is about a nine-year old boy wanting nothing more for Christmas than a “Red Ryder air rifle.” In the film, the adults in his life repeatedly warn Raphie, the protagonist, that he’ll “shoot his eye out,” with the weapon. Many adults who saw Tamir Rice the day he was killed warned him to be careful with his toy gun, too. The adults in Tamir Rice’s life weren’t worried that he would harm himself, but rather that the police would “reasonably” assess the 12 year old to be a dangerous criminal.
This is where my own questions begin: Is our tolerance for the lethal violence of the police rooted in the fact that lethal violence in our society is relatively common? Put differently, murder in America is much more common than in other developed countries. Is this how we have made our peace with that fact? Our world is, in some real sense, more dangerous. In recognition of this, have we basically said to the police, “Do what you will?” And in the case of Stand Your Ground, has this “Do what you will” ethic even extended to the citizenry? And if that is the case, then is there a line that can be drawn from Tamir Rice to Walter Scott to Sandy Hook to Trayvon Martin?
When policing is delegitimized, when it becomes an occupying force, the community suffers. The neighbor-on-neighbor violence in Chicago, and in black communities around the country, is not an optical illusion. Policing is (one) part of the solution to that violence. But if citizens don’t trust officers, then policing can’t actually work. And in Chicago, it is very hard to muster reasons for trust.
When Bettie Jones’s brother displays zero confidence in an investigation into the killing of his sister, he is not being cynical. He is shrewdly observing a government that executed a young man and sought to hide that fact from citizens. He is intelligently assessing a local government which, for two decades,ran a torture ring. What we have made of our police departments America, what we have ordered them to do, is a direct challenge to any usable definition of democracy. A state that allows its agents to kill, to beat, to tase, without any real sanction, has ceased to govern and has commenced to simply rule.
Who will fight when the cops run in guns blazing without regard or care for the lives they have been called to protect and serve?
The answer is no one. No one will fight for us. And when we fight for ourselves, they kill us for that, too. When we stand up and decry injustice, our rage becomes the pretext for even more state-sanctioned violence, repression, and disenfranchisement.
We’ve said it all before. At this point, White Americans know the racial refuse of this nation is a stinking, rotting sore. But far too many of them continue to walk around acting, as the country folks of my youth would say, as if their shit don’t stink. For those of us who view Black lives as something more than the incidentally odoriferous fertilizer for white supremacy, the stench of rotting Black flesh is almost too much bear.
A former student and current wonderful early-career teacher texted me yesterday because someone had shared with her the inane “I’m not going to apologize for my white privilege” article that is all the rage among white privilege deniers.
Nearly as disturbing as the pervasive and corrosive influence of racism is the reality that the more whites are confronted with evidence of white privilege and racism, the more likely whites are to cling to their denial. Research from 2015 confirms:
What happens when people are faced with evidence that their group benefits from privilege? We suggest such evidence will be threatening and that people will claim hardships to manage this threat. These claims of hardship allow individuals to deny that they personally benefit from privilege, while still accepting that group-level inequity exists. Experiments 1a and 1b show that Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.
Humans are drawn to patterns, both the recognition of patterns and the creation of patterns. Maybe anthropologists and sociologists would argue that in part that attraction is about survival and comfort. I suspect this pattern fetish in humans is also at the root of seeking out others like us (see any school lunch room where students are allowed to sit where they please), and I fear it is also the foundation for the very worst of humans—our racism, sexism, classism, and seething anger at the Other.
This is not some historical low point of human history—U.S. slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese internment—but a seemingly credible point of debate among presidential hopefuls and their supporters who are calling from banning Muslims from U.S. soil.
And as the hashtags have continued to increase (#BlackLivesMatter, #TamirRice, and then too, too many to list) so has the backlash, the denial—just as the research above confirms.
We stand at the cusp of one of our greatest pattern urges, the arbitrary designating of the passing of time. Soon a new year will be upon the West (yes, even the calendar is a force of privilege, a way to mask subjectivity as objective, universal), and at least one voice has suggested there is hope: “I believe – I hope – that a great rewriting is slowly, surely underway,” writes Laurie Penny.
Penny’s examination of the latest Star Wars film offers a much more detailed and powerful investigation than my own look at The Martian, but we do tread similar ground; notably Penny explains:
The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.
I struggle to share Penny’s optimism—because of the horrifying specter of the unfathomable nastiness in both our presidential politics and our pop culture, both of which expose the “white interpretive horizon.”
Yet, I think Penny makes a powerful observation that may be the key to believing change is upon us:
Let’s not get carried away here. These stories and retellings are still exceptions. Women are still paid less, respected less and promoted less at almost every level of every creative industry. For every Jessica Jones there’s a Daredevil, whose female characters exist solely to get rescued, provide the protagonists with some pneumatic exposition, or both. For every Orphan Black there’s Mr Robot and Narcos and you know, sometimes I wonder if perhaps I watch too much television. The point is that what we have right now isn’t equality yet. It’s nothing like equality. But it’s still enough to enrage the old guard because when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice. [emphasis added]
White privilege is an iceberg; very little is visible above the surface, and for those of us with that privilege, it is ours to interrogate what lies beneath in order to understand and dismantle it.
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
As Penny explains when unpacking “[t]he rage that white men have been expressing, loudly, violently”:
Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, it becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.
Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.
Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.
This is our wreck, a story of a people blinded by the myth of meritocracy while steering the ship headlong into the iceberg we pretend isn’t there.
We must write better stories, fictional and real. A new year is arbitrary, yes, but it serves us well to listen to the refrain “the time is always now.”
Two conversations—one in person with an early-career teacher, the other through email with a pre-service teacher—can be highlighted by a sentence from the email:
Pre-service and early career teachers (although not alone) now learn and teach under the weight of “We’re terrified.”
The early-career teacher currently attempts to teach ELA in a high-poverty, majority-minority school, where she has 3 classes with about 50 studentseach in a team-taught experiment and must work under the incessant requirement of giving students and their parents feedback while planning and teaching in an entirely new school focus.
Again, this is not some unusual circumstance. This is the new normal of being a public school teacher—a new normal that began about thirty years ago and continues to accelerate despite no evidence any of the so-called reforms help and ample evidence those reforms harm students (except those so-called “top students” who are white and affluent but insulated from the reforms), de-professionalize teachers, and demonize schools as well as all of public education.
The pre-service teacher who emailed anticipates the exact conditions new and veteran teachers suffer under daily—conditions that mis-serve students (mostly high-poverty and black/brown students), their parents, and their communities.
But I also offered my regret that we veteran educators have stood by and allowed this to happen to our profession—remained passive and apolitical so that pre-service and early career teachers have been reduced to “We’re terrified” like characters on The Walking Dead.
While the early-career teacher struggles with balancing health and happiness with the relentless and misguided expectations of teaching-as-accountability, the pre-service teacher added: “I’m worried about holding true to the principles that brought me to the profession.”
Today marks the passing of James Baldwin in 1987, and as I spend time with pre-service and early-career teachers, I am haunted by “We’re terrified,” inspired by Baldwin’s “the time is always now,” and disheartened how we educators continue not to heed his call.
Field seeks to re-examine, complicate, and enrich many of the mainstream responses to Baldwin’s writing and “lives,” as the title notes. The disproportionately large and now easily accessible FBI files serve as a provocative reason to read this biography that never attempts to be comprehensive. However, I was drawn ultimately to the “Love Is in the Air” section of Chapter 3: James Baldwin’s Religion: Sex, Love, and the Blues, in which Field weaves together passages from Baldwin’s fiction and essays to stress the radical politics of the unappreciated author’s commitment to the power of love.
Politics features prominently in Field’s mostly thematic approach to Baldwin—the politics of sexual identification, the politics of race, and the politics of being an artist/public intellectual. And all of that, of course, is illuminated against the backdrop of the partisan politics of the U.S. and world during Baldwin’s life throughout the mid- and late twentieth century.
Baldwin suffered then and since his death charges he was too focused on race, he wasn’t focused enough on race, he was too focused on sexuality, he wasn’t focused enough on sexuality, he was too political, and he wasn’t political enough.
Running throughout Baldwin’s life were his own demand that he was a witness, an artist as witness (as Field’s quotes Baldwin from 1969, “‘I am not a public speaker. I am an artist'” [p. 67]), and as Field weaves together, a profound message about loneliness and the radical power of love—all of which, I think, has been as under-appreciated and insufficiently examined as Baldwin himself as a major writer and thinker.
“The Touch of Another”
Field challenges those who label Baldwin not political enough by first noting love for Baldwin is not “sentimentality,” and second, “his definition of love is explicitly active and political” (pp. 95, 96).
Baldwin’s insistence on the power of love is part of his “radical rewriting of Christian,” Field explains; then drawing on Leo Proudhammer in Baldwin’s novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone:
[S]ome moments teach one the price of the human condition: if one can live with one’s pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain.
Field adds: “Baldwin explicitly replaces salvation through prayer with what Leo refers to repeatedly as ‘the touch of another: no matter how transient, at no matter what price'”:
Baldwin’s emphasis on “touch” is both physical and spiritual, suggesting being moved (to be touched) but also the physical act of reaching out to another. By emphasizing the physicality of touch, Baldwin continues his critique of the way in which American Puritanism prohibits and inhibits both bodily and spiritual contact, which he explicitly refers to as the damage caused by “a fear of anybody touching anything.” In order to redress this, Baldwin insists that we must overcome our “terror of the flesh,” what he also calls “a terror of human life, of human touch.” (p. 96)
Later in this section on love, Field adds Baldwin’s view on the “sensual,” drawing on The Fire Next Time:
The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. (qtd. in Field, p. 98)
In the next section of Chapter 3, In the Beginning Was the Word, Field hits what I think is the key to Baldwin’s lifelong emphasis of touch and love: “Baldwin’s first novel is also a remarkable exploration of loneliness” (p. 101).
Baldwin’s art and lives, then, are fueled by and efforts against the very human condition of loneliness made manifest by human institutions such as the church and human organizations such as religion. Baldwin sought the power of love to reinstate humanity, but was in no way trying to erase the day-to-day and often harsh realities of race or sexuality.
On Touch and Loneliness: Baldwin’s Echo
However we are compelled to frame it—coincidence, karma—immediately upon reading the section above in Field’s biography, I noticed three pieces that seem to suggest that Baldwin was not only speaking to an enduring human reality but also quite possibly shouting down a well.
“American men,” writes Mark Greene, “in an attempt to avoid any possible hint of committing unwanted sexual touch, are foregoing gentle platonic touch in their lives. I’ll call it touch isolation.”
Greene offers a historical perspective on the culturally shifting attitudes toward platonic touching between men that has been rendered taboo due to the rise of homophobia in the twentieth century. Greene also notes how touch is common between adults and babies, but for boys, that intimacy is gradually replaced “with the introduction of [a] ‘get tough’ narrative.”
The sensory experience of touch can’t be divorced from the emotional experience, [David J. Linden] explained, because the way humans perceive touch depends on its social context. An arm thrown over your shoulders by a domineering boss is perceived very differently than an arm thrown around your shoulders by a trusted friend, for example. “The sensation is perceived differently because the emotional touch centers in the brain are receiving signals about social nuances, even if the touching is identical,” and these nuances, Linden explained, are one of the reasons it’s so hard for schools to create rules governing touch.
When I see the word “swim” on a sports website, I expect to find coverage of the sport of swimming. I’m crazy like that. But if you know anything about Sports Illustrated or their annual swimsuit edition, you can guess what I found: photos of models in bikinis, sitting on beaches and lounging in meadows and perching in groups on convertibles, but none of them actually swimming.
Further, she muses about her experiences with people talking about being hesitant to swim:
The whole matter wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that I know people — many people — who tell me that they don’t swim or that they feel uncomfortable swimming because they don’t want to be looked at.
It makes me very sad. I love swimming. I would like other people to love swimming. But these people don’t swim. And they are not unusual; Body Positive Athletes reports, “93% of people have identified a fear of judgement about their size, shape, or level of fitness as a barrier to starting physical activity.”…
I don’t know how to make uncomfortable people feel comfortable about putting on a swimsuit, how to combat our obsession about how we look and how other people look.
From touch taboos to paralyzing body image phobias—is this not the tyranny of the Puritanical Baldwin deplored?
Are there not messages here about the power of radical love (self-love, love of others)—”we can release each other from pain”—that Baldwin demanded?
There is a sadness to these questions, ones that remain with Baldwin’s words echoing in the background—words that seem not to touch us.
Field also turns to Baldwin’s “Nothing Personal,” where Baldwin too seems resigned: “I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often” (p. 98).
Professor Eddie Glaude talked about James Baldwin, the underlying meanings of race in America, and the emergence of the phrase “black lives matter” on social media. He discussed the tradition of Black Democratic Perfectionism, the idea of democratic individuality in the service of justice. He argued that the phrase “black lives matter,” which emerged on social media after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, is rooted in Black Democratic Perfectionism and is a tool that reflects African American social, economic, and political struggles, and rejects the idea of white supremacy.