By Beth U.

I am reposting this piece from 2014 as I read about who might be in the US presidential cabinet come January 2017.


In these days following the grand jury’s choice not to indict Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, between protesting and watching live streams of people on the streets of Ferguson, I read James Baldwin. I read and reread James Baldwin. I put down one book only to pick up another. I need the particular combination of solace and fury that Baldwin offers—unequivocal, sardonic, and unapologetic.

In his 1955 Notes of a Native Son Baldwin shares the story of his father’s death. “When he died I had been away from home for a little over a year.  In that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father’s bitter warnings, had discovered the secret of his proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage: I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me” (1984: 88).

Photo by Mottke Weissman.
Photo by Mottke Weissman.

Baldwin left his childhood home to work in defense plants in New Jersey where he learned that “to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people” (1984: 93). Here, Baldwin “contracted some dread, chronic, disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels” (1984: 94). For Baldwin, as a young black man, to discover the weight of white people in the world was also to discover what caused his father’s death.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten
Photo by Carl Van Vechten

For Baldwin’s father died of the same chronic disease that Baldwin contracted after leaving home: racism.  His father had TB and paranoia: “the disease of his mind allowed the disease of his body to destroy him […] in my mind’s eyes I could see him, sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors; hating and fearing every living soul including his children who had betrayed him, too, by reaching towards the world which had despised him” (1984: 90).

These were the early years of WWII, when racial tension gathered on street corners, in factories, in military barracks, in the words and deeds of a seething and segregated America. In rage and grief, Baldwin threw a water glass at a white waitress when she said to him, yet again, “we don’t serve Negroes here.”  He ran into the night away from the cops and the bright lights of the recoiling restaurant. “What it means to be a Negro in this country,” Baldwin later expressed in a 1964 essay entitled The White Problem, “is that you represent, you are the receptacle of and the vehicle of, all the pain, disaster, sorrow which white Americans think they can escape” (2010: 78).

And from which most white people do escape, because people of color bear the brunt of state violence and bear the brunt of white explanations for this violence. For even now, nearly thirty years after Baldwin’s death, to listen to mainstream, white conceptions of state violence against people of color is to be re-victimized by it. Eat it, swallow it, die from it: for violence against the body is not enough; the state, the mainstream culture, must also take integrity and courage and grief and turn them into things that are ugly.  Of course this doesn’t mean that all people believe the ugly things they are told, or ever stop fighting back.

James Baldwin delivers an address during a West coast tour to benefit CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), May 13, 1963. Photo by Jeff Goldwater.

The day of his father’s funeral was also Baldwin’s 19th birthday.  He arrived at the funeral slightly drunk and left afterward to find celebration and solace, but it became the night of the 1943 Harlem riot.  Rioters lay to waste white-owned businesses up and down 125th and surrounding streets. It was a night smashed outward, of madness internal and shared, and of anguish not sated.

Violence can express the rage of relentless injustice.  Violence can also self-destruct at the same time. Baldwin explains: “In order to really hate white people, one has to blot so much out of the mind—and the heart—that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose.  But this does not mean, on the other hand, that love comes easily: the white world is too powerful, too complacent, too ready with gratuitous humiliation, and, above all, too ignorant and too innocent for that. One is absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one’s own reactions are always canceling each other out.  It is this, really, which has driven so many people mad, both black and white” (1984: 112).

James Baldwin and Civil Rights Activist James Meredith © Steve Schapiro 1963
James Baldwin and Civil Rights Activist James Meredith © Steve Schapiro 1963

Madness. To present the state as benign—as equally protecting the lives of its citizenry—is to drive anyone mad who knows, because they have lived it, that there is no such thing as equal protection under the law. To insist that the state treats its citizens equally is to spit in the face of American history, which was and continues to be built on a series of exclusions made law, written and rewritten as theories of personhood and state obligation change over time. To insist that the state treats its citizens equally glosses over the fact that laws depend on individuals and groups of individuals for their enforcement—people brought up with mainstream ideas about other people, often erroneous ideas that prescribe inherent characteristics to people (to be young and male and a person of color means that you are violent but one example) to the extent that people haven’t got a chance of escaping these ideas placed on them no matter what they are or are not doing (walking unarmed in public, say). People kill because of these erroneous ideas. People die because of these erroneous ideas. People who are sadists get elected to office because of these ideas. Finally, to insist that the state treats its citizens equally is to assume that the categories of “citizen” and “non-citizen” are given and right, rather than constructed and arbitrary.  Who the state has considered “deserving” of inclusion in the nation has changed and changed again.  The very definition of whiteness in the US was not born but has evolved into its current iteration and has served as a mechanism to solidify power and privilege in the process.

Baldwin writes about the madness that comes when your reality is denied—when you are told over and over to believe in an explanation of your own experiences that is a lie. The result? The schizophrenic anguish of racism in which to deny your own experiences in the world is to succumb to the insidious yet largely invisible mechanisms of white supremacy, but to accept your own experiences as being the result of racism is to court madness.

James Baldwin at a writer’s congress, 1962. © Marc Riboud/ Magnum Photos

For Baldwin, “it began to seem that one would have to hold on the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice in a commonplace.  But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, on one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength” (1984: 113).

Perhaps Baldwin intimates W.E.B. Du Bois’s double consciousness here, but I think his point is subtler.  He speaks of a power that “pivots on the geometry of destruction and self-destruction” (1976: 42). The question for him: how have we (meaning his fellow black Americans) endured? This endurance is for Baldwin, at least in part, a fight “to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair” (1984: 114). What is left besides love and touch, which can change a person? “I may or may not be bitter, but if I were, I would have good reason for it: chief among them that American blindness, or cowardice, which allows us to pretend that life presents no reasons, to say nothing of opportunities, of being bitter” (2010: 78).

James Baldwin with Bayard Rustin (writing), and A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March, March 24-26, 1965. Photo by Stephen Somerstein.
James Baldwin with Bayard Rustin (writing), and A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March, March 24-26, 1965. Photo by Stephen Somerstein.

In his 1984 preface to a re-issue of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin ruminates what if anything had changed during a lifetime that spanned the Civil Rights Movement. “The only change vividly discernible in this present, unspeakably dangerous chaos is a panic-stricken apprehension on the part of those who have maligned and subjugated others for so long that the tables have turned. Not once have the Civilized been able to honor, recognize, or describe the Savage. He is, practically speaking, the source of their wealth, his continued subjugation the key to their power and glory […] The unadmitted panic of which I spoke above is created by the terror that the Savage can, now, describe the Civilized: the only way to prevent this is to obliterate humanity. This panic proves that neither a person nor a people can do anything without knowing what they are doing. Neither can anyone avoid paying for the choices he or she has made” (1984: xiv).

James Baldwin, France, 1979. Photo by Dmitri Kasterine.
James Baldwin, France, 1979. Photo by Dmitri Kasterine.

This panic-stricken apprehension is all too apparent in contemporary mainstream coverage and conversation about police officers killing—over and over and over—people of color in this country. It is all too apparent in the unforgivable defense of a “justice” system that has been tasked throughout US history with enforcing laws that are inherently discriminatory, biased and racist. Panic-stricken apprehension underpins colorblind racism and masks the true history of this country, built upon stolen land and from forced labor, the products of genocide and slavery.  America, at least the European dream of America is “a dream full of envy, guilt, condescension, and terror, a dream which began as an adventure in real estate” (1976: 43).  Despite any social change, “post-racism” ensures that white people still don’t have to pay the price of the ticket.

Photo by Regis Bossu.
Photo by Regis Bossu.

While white people may be spared the systemic cruelty of racism, Baldwin recognizes the poverty that comes with false consciousness: “There is a sense of the grotesque about a person who has spent his or her life in a kind of cotton batting. There is something monstrous about never having been hurt, never having been made to bleed, never having lost anything, never having gained anything because life is beautiful, and in order to keep it beautiful you’re going to stay just the way you are and you’re not going to test your theory against all the possibilities outside. America is something like that” (201o: 64).

Baldwin wrote against his own fear of self-obliteration, fear of hating himself for hating others because they hated him. But his was never a choice to look away like he knew it could be and still is for white people.  This fear remains etched across our shared world. Fear of culpability, fear of others staged as the fear of the loss of self, props up our post-racial make-believe, a theater of cruelty. But so are there people and moments and love transfixed in our terrible doings. There is James Baldwin who would tell us we are accountable to what we are taught, and what we teach ourselves: “In order to act, you must be conscious and take great chances and be responsible for the consequences” (2010: 62).  We are accountable for listening and for questioning that which is fed to us. We are accountable to take action against injustice, and for privileging the lives and experiences of people of color, women, immigrants and other “marginalized” peoples over state mechanisms meant to obliterate them.

Baldwin in the study of his home in St. Paul de Vence, in southern France, on March 21, 1983. © AP


Photos courtesy of:

Baldwin, James (1964) “The Uses of the Blues,” republished in (2010) The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. New York: Vintage, 57-66.

Baldwin, James (1964) “The White Problem,” republished in (2010) The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. New York: Vintage, 72-79.

Baldwin, James (1976) The Devil Finds Work. New York: The Dial Press.

Baldwin, James (1984) Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press.

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