Category: James Baldwin

How We Live, How We Die: On Touch, Intimacy, and Loneliness

“One day in April—” begins John Gardner’s tour-deforce short story, “Redemption,” “a clear, blue day when there were crocuses in bloom—Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother, David.”

A farming accident comes to define Jack, who at 12 decides he is evil and, as a result, removes himself from all of humanity, especially his remaining family—the parents being particularly devastated by the death of the seven-year-old David.

Gardner’s story guides the reader through Jack’s hell, which is not the accidental killing of his brother but ostracizing himself from human contact, human interaction, the intimacy of others.

And as powerfully as he crafts the first sentence, Gardner ends the story symbolically: “Then the crowd opened for him and, with the horn cradled under his right arm, his music under his left, he plunged in, starting home.”

Beautifully and tenderly, but without sentimentality, the story ends with “home,” and marks Jack’s redemption as his return to necessary community of other people, notably his family, in order to be fully human, in order to live.

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As a high school English teacher, I was fortunate to teach advanced students American literature during their sophomore year and then have the same students again in Advanced Placement Literature their senior year. We read and studied Gardner’s “Redemption” in 10th grade, and it laid important groundwork—the power of craft as well as the central themes—for investigating Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood’s speculative fiction, a dystopian novel, focuses on Offred (June) as the titular handmaid of the tale about a not-so-distant future in which a theocracy arises out of the militant overthrow of the U.S.

Offred (June) is forced into isolation as a handmaid: fertile women assigned to Commanders and designated to repopulate the theocracy, the Republic of Gilead.

Without her husband and daughter, and sequestered in the Commander’s home until each Ceremony (intercourse with the Commander while lying back between the legs of the Commander’s wife) intended to impregnate her, Offred (June) confesses:

Or I would help Rita make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of touch. (p. 11)

Her loneliness gnaws at her throughout the novel, which includes a recurring motif of touch:

I wanted to feel Luke [her husband] lying beside me. I have them, these attacks of the past, like faintness, a wave sweeping over my head. Sometimes it can hardly be borne. What is to be done, what is to be done, I thought. There is nothing to be done. They also serve who only stand and wait. Or lie down and wait. I know why the glass in the window is shatterproof, and why they took down the chandelier. I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me, but there wasn’t room. (p. 52)

For Offred (June), to touch is to live, and to be denied touch is to die—drawn as she is to suicide.

Later, she admits while recalling “[l]ying in bed, with Luke, his hand on my round belly”:

If I thought this would never happen again I would die.

But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s a lack of love we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere. Who knows where they are or what their names are now? They might as well be nowhere, as I am for them. I too am a missing person. (p. 103)

Touch, intimacy, love—these are essential for being fully human, to live.

Ultimately, this lack of touch, intimacy, drives Offred (June) past her own humanity to a violent inhumanity as she fantasizes:

I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands. (pp. 139-140)

An inverse of Jack’s killing his brother driving him to believe himself evil and to isolate himself from others, Offred (June) suffers a forced seclusion that breeds at least disturbing urges toward murder.

And as she confronts, becoming a “missing person.”

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“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.” [1]

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.”

Addressing the taboo of touch in schools, Jessica Lahey asks, Should Teachers Be Allowed to Touch Students?:

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.

And then, my colleague, Melinda Menzer, English professor and avid swimmer, blogged about searching the “swim” category in the menu of Sports Illustrated:

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 James Baldwin deplored?

Are there not messages here about the power of radical love (self-love, love of others) that Baldwin dramatizes in 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.

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.

In his All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James BaldwinDouglas Field 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).

In “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Baldwin acknowledges, “This rage for order can result in chaos, and in this country chaos connects with color” (p. 827). And then:

Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most powerful terrors and desires.

Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks—though we are rarely what we appear to be….

We are part of each other. (p. 828)

“[O]ur most powerful terrors and desires,” then, found in all we do not touch, cannot touch, and thus, loneliness.

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Being Single Is Hard, writes Emma Lindsay.

In her confession about the challenges of being single, Lindsay is eventually drawn to touch:

But anyway, the part I actually find hard about being single is that I never get touched, and this is always overlooked and undervalued. This is where the myth of self sufficiency breaks down.

And here she begins to interrogate both language and the Puritanical roots of the U.S. Like Offred (June), Lindsay challenges the simplistic blurring of sex and intimacy, grounded in touch:

In fact, some of my friends started complaining that I was too independent (I swear, I can’t win) but, at the end of the day, I can’t touch myself. Or, I can touch myself, but it doesn’t have the same impact as when someone else touches me.

Did you chuckle to yourself when you read that because it sounded like I was talking about masturbation? That’s not a coincidence. That is part of the problem.

We don’t even value platonic touch enough for it to exist in our lexicon without a sexual overtone.

“I’m talking about affectionate touch,” Lindsay emphasizes. “And, it is completely reasonable to be afraid of not getting that.” And then she concludes: “Touch matters so much. Why do we keep acting like it doesn’t?”

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Lindsay’s essay brought me to Baldwin and back to my high school students.

As we discussed The Handmaid’s Tales, one of the topics was the connection between words and the act of making ideas or actions taboo.

I would ask students what word(s) we used for men with many sexual partners, and usually “stud” or similar words were mentioned—and that these words connoted something positive, an accomplishment, a “score.”

I followed with what word(s) we use for women with many sexual partners, and we had many—”slut,” whore,” “tramp.” These, of course, are all negative, about the act of sex defiling the woman, ruining her (by implication “for other men”).

“i like my body when it is with your/body,” writes e.e. cummings in one of his many explicit and beautiful poems that celebrate love, sex, and intimacy without the taboos that render us unable to live, to be fully human. This is a celebration of the flesh otherwise demonized and shunned by social norms and religious dogma:

i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which I will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you

To touch, to be touched—gifts offered between and among, whether sexual, platonic, or unidentifiable intimacy.

We mortals in the flesh are only fully human in the flesh, pressed against the one we love so that we both may live.


[1] Adapted from an earlier blog post On Touch, Loneliness, and James Baldwin’s Radical Love 

The Eternal Negligence of the Mainstream Media: “The World Is Not White”

Somewhere among Urban Legend and the sort of fine-detail scholarly bickering that people outside of academia find tedious lies the truth about how many words Eskimo have for “snow.”

What is compelling about Eskimo words for “snow,” I think, is the idea that a people would become increasingly nuanced in proportion to how much something dominated their environment: Eskimo are so daily confronted with snow and the challenges of snow that they have a hundred words for all the ways it pervades their lives and world.

Conversely, in the very human effort to understand our world and human nature, one of our cliches includes a truism (speculative and mostly metaphorical) about fish being completely unaware of water since it is both ever-present and essential for their existence.

So when it comes to so-called mainstream culture in the U.S., we are, regretfully, fish and not Eskimo.

And the daily record of that obliviousness is recorded by the mainstream media.

Exhibit A:

people and black Americans

Exhibit B:

Rapinoe, a World Cup and gold-medal winner with the U.S. women’s national team, becomes the first nonblack professional athlete to join in protesting during the national anthem since Kaepernick gained notoriety for sitting out the anthem in 49ers preseason games.

I could make this a quiz, but it would be one most people would fail for the exact reason I included both examples.

The word that shall not be spoken in the U.S. is “white.”

The New York Times editors apparently believe black people are not people, but they certainly cannot cross the line and confront that it is white people who “fail to understand”—or better yet, refuse to understand—”the lives of black Americans.”

And, really ESPN? Megan Rapinoe is “nonblack”?

And if we dig beneath the “rigid refusal to look at ourselves” (read: white Americans) we are able to unmask that when politicians or the media admit the U.S. continues to have a “race” problem, that is the whitewashed code for a “racism” problem—yet the other word that dare not be uttered.

In an interview from 1984, Julius Lester asked James Baldwin about “the task facing black writers,” and Baldwin replied:

This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete….

Well, you ask me a reckless question, I’ll give you a reckless answer—by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is visceral terror. I can’t prove this, but I know it. It’s the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete.

Baldwin’s confrontation of the power of normalizing white as that marginalizes black in the U.S. is portrayed brilliantly in a scene from Ralph Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man where the unnamed main character finds himself in a hellish nightmare after being kicked out of college and sent on a cruel quest for work in New York. He then turns to a paint manufacturing plant for employment:

KEEP AMERICA PURE

WITH

LIBERTY PAINTS. (p. 196)

The exchange between the main character and his supervisor, Kimbro, when the main character is first learning his job at the paint factory informs well the current tensions created by #BlackLivesMatter:

“Now get this straight,” Kimbro said gruffily. “This is a busy department and I don’t have time to repeat things. You have to follow instructions and you’re going to do things you don’t understand, so get your orders the first time and get them right! I won’t have time to stop and explain everything. You have to catch on by doing exactly what I tell you. You got that?” (p. 199)

What is important at Liberty Paints is the best-selling paint and the company slogan—”If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White”—that echoes the racist “white is right.”

The main character learns from Kimbro that Liberty Paints’ prize item, Optic White, requires ten drops of black (a literary harbinger for Baldwin’s argument that whites are defined by blacks in the U.S.). The process makes no sense on many levels to the main character, but he is chastised for questioning instructions: “‘That’s it. That’s all you have to do,’ [Kimbro] said. ‘Never mind how it looks. That’s my worry. You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it’” (p. 200).

So white America finds itself in 2016 anesthetized by whiteness to the point that it does not see “white,” and the institutions designed to maintain white privilege—such as the mainstream press—dare not utter the word.

Fish so accustomed to water that they have no concept of water.

Or as Baldwin confronted, the truth may be that as fish white America has now been forced to confront water/whiteness and fears the consequences of the other side of the end to white privilege so desperately as to render itself “nonblack.”

Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again”

When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.

Bayard Rustin

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

When I met with my first-year writing seminar, Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter, this Monday, I noted that the weekend had provided for us local and national examples of why the course matters: locally, one high school restricted students from having U.S. flags at a football game because of patterns of using that flag to taunt and harass rival students who are Latinx/Hispanic, and nationally, Colin Kaepernick was questioned about his sitting during the National Anthem at the beginning of NFL preseason games.

As entry points into the work of Baldwin as well as the long history of racism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I read aloud and we discussed Langston Hughes‘s “Theme for English B” [1] and “Let America Be America Again.”

I stressed to these first-year college students that Hughes lived and wrote in the early to mid-1900s—nearly a century ago in terms of the college student personae in “Theme for English B.”

As we examined the professor/student and race-based aspects of power in “Theme,” students were quick to address the relevance of Hughes today—emphasizing as well part of my instructional purpose to expose these students to the lingering and historical racism in the U.S.

But the real meat of this class session revealed itself as we explored “Let America Be America Again.”

Hughes: “(America never was America to me.)”

Written and published about 80 years ago, “Let America Be America Again” represents a racialized dismantling of the American Dream myth—a poetic companion to the skepticism and cynicism of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other writers/artists works throughout the early to mid-twentieth century.

Hughes begins with a celebratory stanza that easily lulls readers into an uncritical response to the American Dream, but then offers a brilliant device, the use of parentheses, to interject a minority voice (parenthetical, thus representing the muted voices of the marginalized in the U.S.) after several opening stanzas:

(America never was America to me.)…

(It never was America to me.)…

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

And then the poem turns on two italicized lines followed by:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

My students soon recognized a disturbing paradox: Hughes and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan share a foundational claim but for starkly different reasons.

Trump has built political capital on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim (both as “Others”) sentiment that the media and pundits often mask behind what is being called legitimate white working-class angst.

Parallel racist anger has been sparked when Michelle Obama, for example, confronted that the White House was built in part with slave labor—raising the issue of just who did build this country. Upon whose backs? we must ask.

Eight volatile decades ago, Hughes named “the poor white, fooled and pushed apart” now courted by Trump’s coded and blatant racism and xenophobia.

However, Hughes’s poem celebrates the diverse workers who created the U.S. while reaping very little if any of the benefits. Hughes offers a different coded assault, his on capitalism and the ruling elites, but not the rainbow of U.S. workers “fooled,” it seems, by the hollow promise of the American Dream.

In Whitmanesque style, Hughes raises throughout the poem a collective voice of immigrants and slaves as the foundation of the U.S.:

I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

But as he returns to the poem’s refrain, Hughes unmasks the promise and tempers the hope:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

In the final stanza, there is hope, built on “We, the people, must redeem.”

In a time of Trump’s cartoonish stereotype of the empty politician, his “Built a Wall” and “Make America Great Again” sloganism, we must reach back almost a century to Hughes’s often ignored voice that merges races through our shared workers’ remorse.

Hughes calls out the robber baron tradition of U.S. capitalism—”those who live like leeches on the people’s lives”—as the “fooled and pushed apart” line up to support those very leeches.

“Let America Be America Again” is a warning long ignored, but truths nonetheless facing us. Silence and inaction are endorsements of these truths.

“To be afraid,” Bayard Ruston acknowledged, “is to behave as if the truth were not true.”

It remains to be seen if we are brave enough as a people to “Let America Be America Again.”


[1] See also Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes.

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Ryan Lochte

At our faculty retreat focusing on diversity, a few lessons grew spontaneously from the keynote and related break-out sessions.

One lesson at the individual level exposed blind spots among faculty related to how language offends, the relationship between intent and impact, and a not-so-veiled resistance to listening and then acting on expanding diversity through culturally responsive behavior among faculty with privilege.

Another lesson at the systemic level was a confrontation of the chasm between words and action: what we say matters, but what we fund and how we act ultimately determine if those words are veneer or genuine principles.

My university is a selective liberal arts college that is a microcosm of the larger tensions of culture and diversity facing the U.S.

White heterosexual male privilege dominates (and even fuels) both our wider society as well as any insular community or institution within our society. James Baldwin deconstructed throughout his career how whiteness and blackness inform each other while whiteness seeks always to keep itself central to the American Way.

As Baldwin argued about language:

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….

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.

Today, for example, as #BlackLivesMatter rose out of tragedy after tragedy, the narcissism of whiteness has created a backlash that demands attention to how working-class whites have suffered.

And then, on a smaller scale, during the 2016 Rio Olympics—a time ripe with amazing accomplishments by black athletes from the U.S.—we have been handed Ryan Lochte, a case of arrested development as a consequence of privilege.

Somehow we will not address the white gaze, and we are also committed to keeping the gaze of concern on whiteness because, you know, frat-boy life is funny even when guys are biologically grown:

Cause 32-year-old kids just want to have fun.

But the lesson that perpetually faces us isn’t funny at all. There are dire consequences.

In the U.S., we persist in creating and protecting at all cost these lives:

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And we declare in the most calloused ways possible that these lives do not matter:

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trayvonmartinhooded

Mustn’t there be a time of reckoning for a people who see 32-year-old Lochte as a kid just trying to have fun but turn a blind eye to the execution of Tamir Rice, an actual child?

As Baldwin understood all too well, however, lessons remain wasted on those unwilling to learn:

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy [emphasis added], a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities [emphasis added], 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.

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…

Imagining a Society where All Lives Matter

The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.

James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” The Nation, July 11, 1966.

The U.S. suffers from “myths that deform” [1].

As George Carlin quipped, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

At the core of that deforming American Dream is a cultural clinging to individual responsibility and its negative—a rejection of both community/collaboration and systemic forces.

In the U.S., so the story goes, you are successful or a failure because of your own individual traits, regardless of the power of inequities (racism, classism, sexism) to shape your life.

Also necessary for the American Dream and bootstrap narratives to endure, the U.S. has a love affair with outlier antidotes: One black man’s success proves no racism exists.

Idealism in the U.S. sustains offensive slogans such as All Lives Matter, but also feeds whitewashing of the ugliest parts of our history (know-nothing pundit Bill O’Reilly, for example, arguing that slaves building the White House were well fed).

This belief in individual responsibility has created a culture in the U.S. that allows and embraces a militarized police force, one that defaults to an excessive use of force.

Just as our idealism blinds us, we in the U.S. are simplistic thinkers. Instead of questioning why in the U.S. police kill hundreds of citizens each year (2014: 630 killed) while in German police routinely kill fewer than 10 citizens a year (2014: 7 killed), the urge to whitewash shouts that police kill more whites than black—disregarding that black and brown U.S. citizens are killed at much higher rates than whites.

Let’s then imagine what a society would be like where all lives do matter—even though we really don’t have to imagine.

If all lives mattered, we would expect that no citizens be killed by the police each year, and that no police officer would die in the line of duty.

Our default would be zero in each case, and instead of rushing to justify either, we would see both as failures of our free people. “We are better than this,” we would say, “and we shall do better.”

In this imaginary society, most of us would have never known Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice—now perversely immortalized as victims of a people who do not value some people’s lives as much as we rush to justify our violent culture, our militarized police, and our sacred guns.

In this imaginary world where all lives matter, there is “nothing to kill or die for”—but this is a type of idealism we refuse to pursue in the U.S.


[1] Paulo Freire’s Teachers as Cultural Workers.

This Is U.S.: “To be a Negro in this country…”

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.

James Baldwin from “The Negro in American Culture,” Cross Currents, XI (1961), p. 205

Two nights ago, a friend shared with me a disturbing but all-too-common story about his two young adult daughters with their mother.

The three women were approached by a man while filling up the car with gas before all going to the station restroom. The man followed them into the station, and they all felt concerned for their safety.

This is a snapshot of what it means to be female in the U.S. in 2016.

Last night, I sat in my living room with my pregnant daughter, my biracial granddaughter, my wife, and my black son-in-law. My daughter was showing my wife videos from the recent gruesome shootings of two black males by police.

My son-in-law told us he saw two people pulled over by police on his drive home, shaking his head and adding, “I don’t want to be pulled over.”

This is a snapshot of what it means to be black in the U.S. in 2016.

White males are about 30-35% of adults in the U.S., yet white males control nearly all the wealth and all the power in this country.

And despite the disturbing power of the videos documenting the institutional executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, this is the image of the U.S.:

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Brock Turner’s image captures the world created by the white male power structure of the U.S., the inequity designed and maintained by those white males in the service of white males.

Equity and justice—or rightly inequity and injustice—these exist as those in power choose. The powerless—children, women, people of color—did not bring this world about and do not maintain it.

Turner represents that the U.S. is two worlds: one criminal justice system for white males and another criminal justice system for everyone else.

This image of Turner—All-American athlete and all-around good guy—stands in stark contrast to the immediate efforts by the media and whitesplainers to justify the shootings of Sterling and Castile, the immediate framing of these men as inherently criminals who deserved street executions.

The American Dream is a whitesplainer’s myth; as George Carlin quipped: “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

“This is why those pious calls to ‘respect the law,'” argued James Baldwin in “A Report from Occupied Territory,” “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.”

And then, in Baldwin’s “No Name in the Street,” he 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)

Before the U.S. is “the way the country goes these days.”

Let us not ignore that “the way” is exactly what white males who control the wealth and power want. If it were not, then things would be otherwise.

This is U.S.


See Also

“the world” (poem)

Four Poems: For Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin