There are times when I think myself to be a decent writer, having strung together thoughts in a manner almost artistic, if still far from poetic. And then I make the mistake — a happy one but a mistake nonetheless — of pulling James Baldwin off my bookshelf and re-reading something he wrote many decades before.
It is then that I am reminded I could live five lives and never become the kind of writer Baldwin was, and that anything most of us could say about race in America has already been said, and better, by him.
I know it is trendy to quote Baldwin now. Thanks to the brilliance of Raoul Peck’s documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, millions of people have only recently discovered him. Others are re-discovering him, having once read The Fire Next Time, or perhaps one of his novels, like If Beale Street Could Talk, itself turned into a major motion picture — and a cinematically beautiful one at that. But however fashionable it may be to reference him today, insight is insight and deserves repetition.
And 33 years after his death, one discovers that there is almost always something Baldwin wrote, which critics could not understand at the time, but which has proved prescient. As regards the current moment — perhaps the largest racial justice uprising in our nation’s history — his words strike like lightning, though written nearly five decades before.
In his 1972 volume, No Name in the Street, Baldwin looked at the nation from the vantage point of a man who had lost three close friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. — in the previous decade, and not to old age or natural causes, but assassin’s bullets. All three, attempting in their way to save black people from the ravages of white supremacy, would be stopped by forces who, for their own reasons, had other plans. His voice here is noticeably different from the one in Fire, and it is worlds away from that in his mid-’50s volume Notes of a Native Son.
The differences were too much for some reviewers. No Name was less acclaimed than his prior offerings and received many a harsh critique for its anger and pessimism, which are typical white euphemisms for truth and clarity. Kirkus said it demonstrated his internal conflict between “artistic integrity” and his desire to speak as a black man as if the latter would render the former inoperative. The reviewer suggested the book was “touchy,” “self-regarding,” shot through with “psychological and ideological disingenuousness — and vanity as well.”
Personally, it is my favorite Baldwin work, and precisely for the reasons so many others could not abide it.
In the face of the Black Power movement, Baldwin describes the confusion that grips so much of white America whenever forced to take note of the frustration of black peoples, insisting upon their civil and human rights. Having benefitted from the nation’s prosperity, whites struggle to understand the rage of those whose experience has been the opposite — indeed the opposite, precisely because of the benefits those whites enjoy, purchased as they were on the backs of black folks.
As he explains, white Americans “cannot, or dare not, assess or imagine the price paid by their victims” for the luxuries and advantages those white folks have obtained. As such:
“…they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting. They are forced then, to the conclusion that the victims — the barbarians — are revolting against all civilized values…and in order to preserve these values, however stifling and joyless those values have caused their lives to be, the bulk of the people desperately seek out representatives who are prepared to make up in cruelty what both they and the people lack in conviction…”
This last line is a perfect description of our current moment, in which millions of white Americans, repelling from the nation’s first black president — and unnerved by the Black Lives Matter movement that arose during his tenure — turned to Donald Trump to restore some semblance of order.
Trump lacks conviction about anything other than his love of self, and his cruelty is legendary. To this day, he still believes the exonerated Central Park 5 — for whom he endorsed the death penalty — were guilty. He rapturously speaks of unleashing the military on peaceful protesters, encourages police to rough up suspects, and just this week called it beautiful when non-violent demonstrators were clubbed and tear-gassed in the streets. He is someone who casually demands the re-opening of the economy amid COVID-19 despite the knowledge that doing so too quickly will kill, and again, disproportionately black people.
This cruelty to others and indifference to their suffering are traits for which millions adore him. His vindictiveness is the thing for which his faithful voted, and precisely because their lives are so empty that only by inflicting pain upon others — something Trump promises he can and will do — can they find meaning amid the madness.
But this kind of cruelty comes at an ironic price, because, as Baldwin notes:
“Force does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness…and this revelation invests the victim with patience.”
Then he reminds us, in words especially relevant to the current moment, marked by the bodies of those felled by police, and tens of thousands of black peoples dead from coronavirus:
“…it is ultimately fatal to create too many victims. The victor can do nothing with these victims, for they do not belong to him…They belong to the people he is fighting. The people know this, and as inexorably as the roll call — the honor roll — of victims expands, so does their will become inexorable: they resolve that these dead, their brethren, shall not have died in vain. When this point is reached, however long the battle may go on, the victor can never be the victor: on the contrary, all his energies, his entire life are bound up in a terror he cannot articulate, a mystery he cannot read, a battle he cannot win — he has simply become the prisoner of the people he thought to cow, chain, or murder into submission.”
It is then, Baldwin notes, or perhaps we should say now, that the turning begins in earnest. Because, as he explains:
“…the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.”
We have reached that moment. You can see it in the eyes of the streets, behind virus-blocking masks — indeed better now because of the masks, which have left the eyes as the only thing remaining upon which to focus.
The look there is one of confidence, one of wisdom, one of determination, one of will.
And unlike the look in the eyes of Donald Trump right now, it is not one of fear.