Book Club IX

As I was finishing up James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name, an African-American man was found hanging by a white sheet from a tree near his home in southwestern Mississippi. nobodyknowsmynameNot yet ruled a homicide, the very fact that it could be, it might be, in 2015, is nothing short of shocking. “Life matters. I commit to you, as the sheriff of Claiborne County, that I will not allow the shadows of the past to cast a shadow on the future,” said Marvin Lucas Sr.

Much of James Baldwin’s writing dealt with those past shadows in America. While certainly not pollyannish about the chances of putting those shadows finally in the past, Baldwin was remarkably optimistic (if inconsistently so), all things considered, such a possibility existed. But it would require a frank, unsparing discussion of that past, an honest appraisal not only of what happened but the lasting effects of America’s racist history on the present, and going forward into the future. Whether that would happen in Baldwin’s view, fluctuated from essay to essay.

Certainly, Baldwin was willing to have that frank and unsparing discussion about anything and everything including himself. Nobody Knows My Name chronicle’s his “return” of sorts to the U.S. from his self-imposed exile in Europe. He never did repatriate permanently. “In America, the color of my skin had stood between myself and me; in Europe, that barrier was down,” Baldwin writes in the book’s introduction.

What it came to for me was that I no longer needed to fear leaving Europe, no longer needed to his myself from the high and dangerous winds of the world. The world was enormous and I could go anywhere in it I chose – including America: and I decided to return here because I was afraid to.

We read about Baldwin’s first trip to the American south, the ‘Old Country’ as northern African-Americans (like Baldwin was) referred to it. jamesbaldwin2Early into desegregation, he talks to one of the first black students who crossed murderously hostile white lines in order to attend previously white-only schools. His empathy is on full display with the white principal who personally made sure that black student safely crossed those lines.

After the principal tells Baldwin he doesn’t believe it’s ‘right’ that black students attend white schools just because they’re white, he proclaims it’s not because he doesn’t like it or approve of it. “… it was simply contrary to everything he’d ever seen or believed,” Baldwin writes.

He’d never dreamed of a mingling of the races; had never lived that way himself and didn’t suppose that he ever would; in the same way, he added, perhaps a trifle defensively, that he only associated with a certain stratum of white people. But, “I’ve never seen a colored person toward whom I had any hatred or ill-will.”

Rather than simply write this man off as a hopeless racist, Baldwin sees him as ‘gentle and honorable’, and attempts to understand him.

But I could not avoid wondering if he had ever really looked at a Negro and wondered about the life, the aspirations, the universal humanity hidden behind the dark skin.

This is what makes James Baldwin such essential reading, especially to entitled, white, straight guys like I am. jamesbaldwin1For the opportunity to settle into the skin of someone who is none of that, and see the world through their eyes, a perspective almost entirely at odds with ours, and a world in need of fundamental change rather than simply a cosmetic, Benetton make-over. While Baldwin talks about a ‘universal humanity’, it is not one based exclusively on western European/Anglo-American ideals and aspirations.

Not that I’m suggesting Baldwin is some required, dry academic reading. As expressed in a previous book club entry, I remain firm in my belief James Baldwin is truly a magnificent writer, perhaps one of the best I have ever read. He can stop you dead with both his ideas and his style. Rarely do a couple pages go by where you don’t pause to re-read a sentence or a passage, marvelling at the place he brought you to and how he brought you to it.

In Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin not only travels and explores the American south for the first time but he attends the Negro-African Writers and Artists conference (Princes and Powers) where he dissects the notion of some monolithic black identity, exploring the differences between Africans, north and south American blacks, American blacks living abroad. He writes of his encounters with other famous artists, Norman Mailer, Ingmar Bergman. Baldwin eviscerates William Faulkner’s ‘middle of the road’ attitude to southern desegregation and his plea to give southern whites, Faulkner’s people, time to adjust to the new reality.  jamesbaldwin“But the time Faulkner asks for does not exist – and he is not the only Southerner who knows it.”

Perhaps the most moving part of the book comes in the 3 essays Baldwin writes in the wake of the death of another self-exiled black writer, Richard Wright (Alas, Poor Richard, i, ii and iii). A decade and a half younger, Baldwin saw Wright as a mentor, the two having met in New York just as Baldwin set about on his writing career with Wright already well established. Theirs was a fractious relationship, splitting regularly along political lines and that of the role of the artist in society and as part of a ‘cause’. Baldwin is ruthless in his examination of the dynamic between the two men, unafraid to tear to shreds his own inability to overcome the obstacles both threw in the way between them. What becomes crystal clear is the burden a writer (or artist) of colour (or any other differentiation from the established white male heterodoxy) bears to represent their community, their ‘people’. Another privilege, us straight white guys operate freely of.

50+ years after the publication of Nobody Knows My Name, and nearly 30 years after Baldwin’s death, with another black man found, hanging in a tree in Mississippi – the possible appalling cause of death still hanging there with him – it’s difficult to share his belief that such a shameful, repugnant history can somehow be reconciled and overcome. Yet, contemplating an alternative is even less attractive. We should, however, attend to Baldwin’s view of how we must go about hopefully approaching such a reconciliation.

This illusion owes everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us uncomfortable and we handle it very ineptly. The principal effect of our material well-being has been to set the children’s teeth on edge. If we ourselves were not so fond of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be.


bookishly submitted by Cityslikr

Book Club III

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, jamesbaldwinI 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.thefirenexttime

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.”jamesbaldwin1

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 jamesbaldwin5– 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.


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