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106 pages, Paperback
First published January 31, 1963
"... the danger in the minds of most white Americans is the loss of their identity... those innocents who believe that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grip on reality... If integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our [white] brothers to see themselves as they are."
"It is the individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion let alone elucidation , of any conundrum - that is, any reality - so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality... whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves."Trump knows that without this touchstone of the self, he can say and do anything with impunity. Reality has no meaning. Baldwin understood the consequences.
"... the real architect of the Christian church was not the disreputable, sun-baked Hebrew who gave it his name but the mercilessly fanatical and self-righteous St. Paul."For Baldwin, this is not merely an historical fact which is ignored by Christians, it is the establishment of a pattern which culminates in the sanctification of white racism,
"The struggle therefore that now begins in the world is extremely complex, involving the historical role of Christianity in the realm of power - that is, politics - and in the realm of morals."From missionary activities in Africa, to the enforced segregation of American churches (even those like the Pentecostalists which had been founded by black people), Christianity had been a persistent tool of black suppression.
"... the American dream has become something much more closely resembling a nightmare on the private, domestic, and international levels... We are an unmitigated disaster."
"The White man's unadmitted - and apparently to him, unspeakable - private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro's tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become part of the suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller's cheques, visits surreptitiously after dark."
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for so many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame...Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.It was, however, “Down at the Cross,” with its treatment of religion in the black community, that interested me more. Then, as I was absorbed in Baldwin’s account of his childhood growing up in Harlem, I encountered the following passage:
The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction. A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other. He reacts to the fear in his parents’ voices because his parents hold up the world for him and he has no protection without them...That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.Here we see the essence of what Coates learned from Baldwin, to identify the fear which controlled his vision of the world. Although he never sought to evade his fears by seeking refuge in the church—as Baldwin briefly did, even becoming a “boy preacher”—his fears controlled him nevertheless, and blocked out reality, "standing between the world and me."
There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to rock. Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, “the Word”—when the church and I were one. Their pain and their joy were mine, and mine were theirs—they surrendered their pain and joy to me, I surrendered mine to them-and their cries of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” and “Yes, Lord’ ” and “Praise His name!” and “Preach it, brother!” sustained and whipped on my solos until we all became equal, wringing wet, singing and dancing, in anguish and rejoicing, at the foot of the altar. It was, for a long time, in spite of—or, not inconceivably because of—the shabbiness of my motives, my only sustenance, my meat and drink. I rushed home from school, to the church, to the altar, to be alone there, to commune with Jesus, my dearest Friend, who would never fail me, who knew all the secrets of my heart. Perhaps He did, but I didn’t, and the bargain we struck, actually, down there at the foot of the cross, was that He would never let me find out.
He failed his bargain. He was a much better Man than I took Him for.
All policeman have by now, for me, become exactly the same, and my style with them is designed simply to intimidate them before they can intimidate me. No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms.
- James Baldwin in 1964
Fuck the police
coming straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I'm brown
And not the other color, so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
- Ice Cube in 1988
The police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction...Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2015
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, the fire next time!
He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words. If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne.
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.
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!
Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present anymore than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.There are books out there that are word for word more vast, more meaningful, more loving and more true than ten rewritings of War and Peace by ten auspicious straight white male authors could ever be. Indeed, a major reason why I read the Russian behemoth in the first place was so I felt comfortable saying such things. Such amateur readings like mine, of course, will be questioned, and while I have neither a degree in literature (or any, for that matter) nor fluency in the Russian language, these gatekeeping quibbles mean very little indeed when placed alongside the literature of black US Americans. Some of those authors didn't have a college degree, all of them wrote in English, and yet the understanding and reverence and empathetic comprehension has carried into the life of US reality with much less fervor and acceptance than the 19th century text of a Russian aristocrat. In light of that, it is not the brain that should be held accountable in such matters of textual worth, but the heart.
To accept one's past—one's history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.I started reading as a way to get out of my head, my head including the reality that impacts it and the thoughts that stem in response. Over time, I have gone from reading for entertainment, to reading for knowledge, to reading for self-knowledge, to reading for self-knowledge written by the so-called "other". At this most present point in time, I have come to the conclusion that reading will never fix my personal issues, and indeed during certain periods will exacerbate the effort of coping with myself immensely. Instead, I have found that what I deem toxic in myself is part mine, part ingrained into so many others by the special breed of genocidal hypocrisy that is the US American Dream in the hands of European descendants. Today, when I read, I look not for a cure for such toxicity, but the means in which craft an antidote on the solipsistic, private, public, and the levels of strangers I will never encounter but still affect through taxes paid and politics engaged. This work, in that respect, is invaluable.
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.What Baldwin does here is what has been done countless times in philosophy, in religion, in much fancier spreads of prose and much more esteemed levels of government, in cycles of feminist reclamation and revolutions of Marxist drive and every other thought experiment that aspired to a stake in human reality. Unlike the overwhelming majority, he has combined in these 141 pages pertaining to a very specific problem of a very specific region of a very specific time and place and immeasurable exactitude the guarantee of the end and the drive to carry on. Unlike most, Baldwin does not pretend that change does not have consequence, that progress will be universally achieved, that the standards of living exalted in his day and, indeed, in mine, are anything but the evolution of murderers and the aspirations of sadists. And, unlike those few who do accept this history of violence and see no other solution to it than more of the same, he insists on valuing the beauty that such a solution would ultimately break.
In any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems. These have been dealt with, when they have been dealt with at all, out of necessity—and in political terms, anyway, necessity means concessions made in order to stay on top.This work is a warning that neither pulls its punches nor stems its heartbreak. It is one born of love and of fear in a time that had little inkling of the hyperconnection of my own, where the names of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and thousands, millions, billions of others continue to ring in my corner of the Internet and work themselves across highways and Fifth Avenues and the blood-filled veins of the military industrial complex I call home. I knew, when I read Giovanni's Room, that this man had a work with my name on it, a work that would call for a revival and a reckoning. What I didn't know was that I would have already lost all faith in the institutions of my government, in the history of my heritage, and any and all facts beyond the simple truth that white people are no different from children bred for war and the pleasures of homicide on the bodies of the other. What I didn't know was Baldwin, despite overwhelming awareness of this hell on earth and what those who share my skin have wreaked and will continue to wreak on those who share his, placed his bet on love.
No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms. Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color.
I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.Yes. That love.
It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One in responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.I'm gearing up for a return to academia with all its empty learning and valorization of old dead straight white men. It's taken me years filled with works such as this to get me to this point of seeing what I am being taught and how I should learn from it and, most importantly of all, the ways I will use it on the broader scheme of life. I will, in that respect, continue to take each and every work far too seriously as merited by most. However, looking back, such seriousness has served me well. It has led me to works like these that give me the will to continue, and that, at its heart, is what truly matters.