James Baldwin’s Take

A friend of mine, Tom Westerman, an incredibly dedicated, knowledgeable, and articulate history teacher posted these words on Facebook the day before yesterday, the morning after the riots in Minneapolis erupted: 

I have few words for this moment. I can only say I’m sorry, and that I want to console those who are hurting and to work harder with whatever tools I have to make change. 

This moment is 1918 + 1929 + 1968 all rolled into one. 

As James Baldwin said: “People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.

In my last two years of teaching high school, I taught an elective history course called “America in the 60s.”  Our history chair had approached me, an English teacher, and asked if I might be interested in teaching the semester course.  He thought that my having lived through all that trauma, having seen the unleashed dogs, Huey choppers, and assassinations on my family’s black-and-white television might compensate for my lack of formal training, so I thought, well, yes, something new, why not?

I needed, though, to educate myself in a hurry, so I spent the summer after the invitation in a sort of jazz riff crash course in civil rights, Viet Nam, the Great Society, feminism, op and pop art. When it came to music and the counterculture, I felt more confident, but, still, I had gaps to fill — the Grateful Dead’s role in Kesey’s Acid Tests, doo wop’s contributions to the Motown sound, the paucity of Billboard hits from the UK prior to the British invasion.

In preparation for civil rights, I reread James Baldwin’s 1962 New Yorker essay “A Letter from a Region of my Mind,” and in doing so, I came to realize that not all that much has changed, especially when it comes to white police officers and black citizens. As I’m writing this, cities are burning, and the President of the United is stoking the flames, echoing George Wallace’s threat, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”[1] It is somewhat disconcerting that the president, who had not heard of Frederick Douglas before his inauguration, is so handy with a George Wallace quote, disappointing that he’s not trying to bring us together, not suggesting we all calm down and take a deep breath.

Anyway, Baldwin begins his essay reminiscing about his youth in Harlem.  At the age of ten he was frisked by two cops who “amused themselves with [him] by frisking [him], making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning [his] ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving [him] flat on [his] back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.”  He goes on to say, “It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else—housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers—would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities.”

(I, myself, witnessed something like this in the poolhall I hung out at as a teenager. A cop, for fun, handcuffed one of the African American rack boys to one of the poles supporting the ceiling.)

Baldwin continues the essay, describing his coming of age, acquiring an education, and spending some time with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, who had become impatient with peaceful protest. Baldwin refers to Malcolm X’s observation that “the cry of ‘violence’ was not raised, for example, when the Israelis fought to regain Israel, and, indeed, is raised only when black men indicate that they will fight for their rights.”  

After leaving a dinner hosted by Elijah, Baldwin realizes that “the American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling to accept his past. To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought. How can the American Negro’s past be used? The unprecedented price demanded—and at this embattled hour of the world’s history—is the transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.”

The essay’s last paragraph:

When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah’s table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s—or Allah’s—vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then? I could also see that the intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable—a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.” And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, 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. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time! 

It’s been fifty-eight years since the essay’s publication, we’ve had a bi-racial president, but, obviously, deep-seated animus still lingers in many a breast.

As a black man I follow on Twitter put it, “I just wish whites loved black people as much as they love black culture.”    

Amen.


[1] Wallace was quoting Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who coined the unfortunate phrase.

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