You want to know the kind of white privilege I live with? Back a few weeks ago, listening to the Sunday Edition interview with Tony Award winning dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones talking about James Baldwin, I actually had to Google James Baldwin. I had an inkling. I’d heard of his novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. But it was pretty much blank after that.
It says as much about the shallowness of my literary knowledge as it does my literary racial bias, I hope. Still. Given the shit that’s going on currently, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Toronto’s ongoing race based debate over police carding, it struck me that now might be a very good time to get to know a little more about James Baldwin.
The Fire Next Time is where I started and, man, what a place to begin. It is a book of sheer fucking beauty. Divided into two essays, My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation and Down At The Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind, it’s a quick read even allowing for the time you inevitably take to stop to fully appreciate both the content and style of the book.
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time” the book’s epigraph (h/t Twitter people) states. We were drowned once for our wickedness. Without repentance, eternal fire awaits us now.
That is, if you’re reading it literally in a Biblical sense. Written in 1963, The Fire Next Time now seems prescient about the burning of cities that commenced the following year, from July to August, in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Chicago. And in 1965. And in 1966. And in 1967. 1968. 1969. 1970…
Of course, you probably didn’t need to be clairvoyant to see the blaze coming. A hundred years of alleged freedom is a long time to wait for justice and equality. When your patience finally runs out, shit will burn. “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose,” Baldwin said. And if you’re the easily dispirited type, the last 50+ years since the book’s publication will have done little to convince you much improvement has been made along racial lines.
Ferguson, Missouri, 2014.
The amazing aspect of Baldwin’s writing in The Fire Next Time is how lacking in bitterness it is. Hope runs throughout the book. Angry? You bet. But not self-annihilatingly so.
This to his young nephew:
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine – but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.
In a paragraph with 13 sentences, the first 12 unrelentingly bleak in their analysis of what it’s like to be black in America, Baldwin turns and detonates the entire construct. That’s how it is. Fuck that. “And if the word integration means anything,” Baldwin continues to his nephew, “ this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
Gut punch writing that somehow doesn’t leave you gasping for breath but simply marveling at the optimism, the courage, the empathy and understanding. All wrapped up in a conversational style that makes you wish your life was filled every moment of every day with such talk. That I’m just discovering this now is nothing more than an embarrassment. A happy embarrassment, for sure, an embarrassment nonetheless.
Given the events of the past couple days with the shootings in Paris and the international reaction to it, I was immediately reminded of the bit in the book’s 2nd essay, Down At The Cross where Baldwin is summoned to meet Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. While the two men agreed on the 2nd-class status of blacks in the U.S.A., they clearly differed on approaches to changing that. Baldwin’s account of their meeting and then his dissection of the impracticality and undesirability of self-imposed segregation was firm but generous, decisive without ever stooping to dismissiveness. Not to mention, glorious. Have I said recently how much I liked this book?
I wonder if we, those of us suffering under the burden of white privilege, possessed even a fraction of Baldwin’s ability at self-criticism – and by that I mean, criticizing the group of which we are part of – Baldwin and Elijah Muhammad weren’t both just black, they were, to use the parlance of the day, uppity blacks who didn’t know their place, yet they couldn’t have possessed more divergent ideas about how to battle that – if we were nearly as brave or bold in our willingness to dismantle the beliefs and societal constructs some of us maintain, things might be a whole lot more peaceful and pleasant around the world. But, of course, we don’t have to, do we. We’re the ones who’ve set the table.
I could go on and on (like that last paragraph) but I’ll spare you. Except to say that, if you haven’t already, it’s never too late to discover James Baldwin. Need more proof? I’ll leave you with the passage that left me in tears.
This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and indeed, no church – can teach. 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 worse that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne. And at this level of experience one’s bitterness begins to be palatable, and hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school. It demands great force and great cunning continually to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy, as Negroes in this country have done so long. It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate. The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats – the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced.
— reverently submitted by Cityslikr
You have a typo in the third reference to the title of the book.
I am even more embarrased, I knew about it and did not read it. Time to fix that.
And, for something completely different, is the title of the related post “Drive, He Read”, a reference to Jack Nicholson’s basketball movie (“Drive, He Said”)?
We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke have discovered the more words a post has, the increased likelihood of typos. Thanks for pointing it out.
Drive, She Said. Stan Ridway. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7iARb-JpaY