Category: James Baldwin

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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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

Recommended Reading Week of April 24

This list of suggested readings is eclectic, reflecting my interests, but I believe they are quite important—even though they range from issues of race and class to James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut.

Recommended reading week of April 24:

Baldwin’s “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel”: “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over”

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.

Baldwin’s “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel” proves to be one such insightful work.

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.”

See Also

The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin