Deoliver47, Black Kos Editor
The end of this month marks the anniversary of the death of one of our greatest writer's and social commentator's. For those who knew him he was simply "Jimmy". For those who did not, and only know of him by his unparalleled body of work, he was James Baldwin.
He's been on my mind a lot recently, and I've been re-reading his novels and essays. As the right-wing ramps up racist and phobic rhetoric, I wish his voice had not been stilled by death, but we can assure that he lives on, if we would simply read (and heed) his words.
"Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have."
I will never forget the night he took on William F. Buckley, Jr., architect of the right's conservative ideology, in the hallowed halls of the Cambridge Union. The debate between Baldwin and Buckley, which took place on October 26, 1965 was sponsored by the Cambridge Union Society, the oldest student debating society in the western world. The topic of the debate was "Has The American Dream been acheived at the Expense of the American Negro".
Baldwin won that debate. My family sat glued in front of the television cheering Baldwin on. He spoke for us all.
Here is a clip from the opening of the debate:
I strongly suggest that if you have never seen this debate to take the time and go and watch the entire program, which is available here.
What Baldwin had to say back then still resonates today.
He said( this is not a verbatim transcript of what he said but his written text):
The white South African or Mississippi sharecropper or Alabama sheriff has at bottom a system of reality which compels them really to believe when they face the Negro that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity. For such a person, the proposition which we are trying to discuss here does not exist. On the other hand, I have to speak as one of the people who have been most attacked by the Western system of reality. It comes from Europe.(in his speech he speaks of a doctrine of white supremacy which comes from Europe) That is how it got to America. It raises the question of whether or not civilizations can be considered equal, or whether one civilization has a right to subjugate--in fact, to destroy--another.
Now, leaving aside all the physical factors one can quote--leaving aside the rape or murder, leaving aside the bloody catalogue of oppression which we are too familiar with any way--what the system does to the subjugated is to destroy his sense of reality. It destroys his father's authority over him. His father can no longer tell him anything because his past has disappeared. In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.
It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you. The disaffection and the gap between people, only on the basis of their skins, begins there and accelerates throughout your whole lifetime. You realize that you are 30 and you are having a terrible time. You have been through a certain kind of mill and the most serious effect is again not the catalogue of disaster--the policeman, the taxi driver, the waiters, the landlady, the banks, the insurance companies, the millions of details 24 hours of every day which spell out to you that you are a worthless human being. It is not that. By that time you have begun to see it happening in your daughter, your son or your niece or your nephew. You are 30 by now and nothing you have done has helped you escape the trap. But what is worse is that nothing you have done, and as far as you can tell nothing you can do, will save your son or your daughter from having the same disaster and from coming to the same end.
The NY Times pdf is also available online.
Though Baldwin had no children, he spoke frequently to those of us who were younger, and his poignant and powerful letter to his nephew James, published in the Progressive in 1962 as A Letter to My Nephew should be required reading for all our youth.
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 crux 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 to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. 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, where you could live and whom you could marry.
I know your countrymen do not agree with me here 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. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.
Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words "acceptance" and "integration." There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. 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 many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.
He spoke also to those of us who were younger militants. In his letter to Angela Davis, written in 1970 he wrote:
..as long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish (as we once put it in our black church) in their sins —that is, in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us.
...The enormous revolution in black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America. Some of us, white and Black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecendented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.
If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.
Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. I will not include his full biography here, you can read it on many websites. In a nutshell:
The oldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty, developing a troubled relationship with his strict, religious father. As a child, he cast about for a way to escape his circumstances. As he recalls, "I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use." By the time he was fourteen, Baldwin was spending much of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.
During this early part of his life, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a preacher. Of those teen years, Baldwin recalled, "Those three years in the pulpit — I didn’t realize it then — that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty." Many have noted the strong influence of the language of the church on Baldwin’s style, its cadences and tone. Eager to move on, Baldwin knew that if he left the pulpit he must also leave home, so at eighteen he took a job working for the New Jersey railroad.
After working for a short while with the railroad, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he came into contact with the well-known writer Richard Wright. Baldwin worked for a number of years as a freelance writer, working primarily on book reviews. Though Baldwin had not yet finished a novel, Wright helped to secure him a grant with which he could support himself as a writer in Paris. So, in 1948 Baldwin left for Paris, where he would find enough distance from the American society he grew up in to write about it.
Harlem Renaissance author Richard Wright, who also died in the month of November, was Baldwin's former mentor. Wright's classic "Native Son" was the subject of Baldwin's criticism in one of the essays in "Note's of a Native Son".
Baldwin 's fiction was much influenced by Wright's masterwork novel, Native Son (1940), which was heralded as the quintessential treatise on the psyche of the black American. For Baldwin, Wright, who mentored the young writer, represented a kind of literary father figure. Yet in much the same way that Baldwin had undermined his minister stepfather's power over him by outdoing him as a teenage minister, he usurped Wright with devastatingly critical analyses of his novel. The first of these criticisms ("Everybody's Protest Novel") was published by a short-lived French publication, Zéro (Spring 1949), and subsequently republished in Partisan Review (June 1949). Two years later, as a split developed between Baldwin and Wright, Baldwin would insure the schism with a thorough, accurate, but unflattering critique of Native Son in "Many Thousands Gone" ( Partisan Review , November/ December 1951). Native Son, Baldwin says, is unquestionably "the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America ." But, he opined, it is incomplete: ". . . though we follow [the anti-hero Bigger Thomas] step by step from the tenement room to the death cell, we know as little about him when his journey is ended as we did when it began; and what is even more remarkable, we know almost as little about the social dynamic which we are to believe created him." For Baldwin , therefore, Bigger Thomas "does not redeem the pains of a despised people, but reveals, on the contrary, nothing more than his own fierce bitterness at having been born one of them."
John Stevenson had this to say about Baldwin, in the Boston Book Review:
Baldwin's essential message was simple, and very much of its time. America did not have a "Negro problem" (as it was often called then), but a white problem, which consisted in the inability of those who built their identities on being white to face up to the realities either of American history or of their own bodies, feelings and selves: "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....I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be 'accepted' by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don't wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people 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."
The problem, in other words, is one of white identity, which requires the projection of unacceptable facts and desires onto an alien other, and a solution is possible only through acceptance and love. Whites must learn to accept and love themselves and others, but in order for this to happen, blacks must also play a role: "...that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it....We cannot be free until they are free."
Toni Morrison wrote in her eulogy in the NY Times, about his courage:
It was you who gave us the courage to appropriate an alien, hostile, all-white geography because you had discovered that ''this world [ meaning history ] is white no longer and it will never be white again.'' Yours was the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges, to see and say what it was, to recognize and identify evil but never fear or stand in awe of it. It is a courage that came from a ruthless intelligence married to a pity so profound it could convince anyone who cared to know that those who despised us ''need the moral authority of their former slaves, who are the only people in the world who know anything about them and who may be, indeed, the only people in the world who really care anything about them.'' When that unassailable combination of mind and heart, of intellect and passion was on display it guided us through treacherous landscape as it did when you wrote these words - words every rebel, every dissident, revolutionary, every practicing artist from Capetown to Poland from Waycross to Dublin memorized: ''A person does not lightly elect to oppose his society. One would much rather be at home among one's compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. And there is a level on which the mockery of the people, even their hatred, is moving, because it is so blind: It is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction.''
Here are some other quotes from him which I'd like to share:
On poverty: "Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor."
On the American system of education: "Education is indoctrination if you're white - subjugation if you're black."
On homosexuality: "Everybody's journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality."
On hatred: "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."
On bigotry: "People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned."
On himself: "I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all."
For a bibliography of his work, Random House has a full listing.
Thank you for helping to shape my life, through your words and deeds.
News and Events by Amazing Grace, Black Kos Editor
Reed Picks Up 2nd Civil Rights Icon's Endorsement
ATLANTA (AP) — The Rev. Joseph Lowery is expected to endorse state Sen. Kasim Reed for mayor of Atlanta on Wednesday, making him the second civil rights icon to do so after former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.
Black Lawmakers Face Unexpected Challenges After Coming To Power
WASHINGTON — Ten months after Democrats took over the Capitol and the first African-American president moved into the White House, black lawmakers are in control of some of the most powerful positions in Congress — and face new challenges to using their long-sought influence.
There have been some victories — guaranteeing that stimulus money reaches some of the poorest parts of the country, expanding hate crimes legislation and moving to close health care disparities.
US Army Corps blamed for Katrina floods
A US judge has ruled that negligence by the US Army Corps of Engineers led to massive floods in parts of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The court upheld complaints by six residents and a business against the Corps over its maintenance of a navigational channel.
The Cost of Building Austin
Construction has become one of the most unsafe, unfair and dangerous jobs in Texas, according to a recent report released by the Workers Defense Project, which found that a construction worker was killed on the job every two and a half days in the state in 2007.
"Seventy percent of the construction workers in
Austin are immigrants that don’t speak English," said Cristina Tzintzún, project director at the Workers Defense Project, which advocates for Austin’s low-wage workers. She added: "When the population is immigrant, the politicians don’t have the same interest to protect them as if they were U.S. citizens or white people."
The sun is setting on another scorching hot day in the western African nation of Burkina Faso. But here on the farm of Yacouba Sawadogo, the air is noticeably cooler. A hatchet slung over his shoulder, the gray-bearded farmer strides through his woods and fields with the easy grace of a much younger man. "Climate change is a subject I feel I have something to say about," he says in his tribal language, Moré, which he delivers in a deep, unhurried rumble. Though he cannot read or write, Sawadogo is a pioneer of a tree-based approach to farming that has transformed the western Sahel in recent years, while providing one of the most hopeful examples on earth of how even very poor people can adapt to the ravages of climate change.
The Cultural Impact of Eroding Wetlands
For Laura Billiot, Brenda Dardar Robichaux and their peers among the Native American community in southern Louisiana, growing up meant shrimping, trapping and farming with family and friends. These long-standing traditions provided sustenance, camaraderie and a link with their past. Before the May shrimping season, fishermen would line up their freshly painted boats to show off to the community. Robichaux, now principal chief of the Houma Nation based about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, has fond childhood memories of helping her father, Whitney Dardar, on his shrimp boat, though as a teen she would often protest the hard work and long hours.
Race and Beauty Sold Separately: A Deeper Look at Black Barbie
In response to Barbie’s legacy of monoracial beauty standards, Mattel created the Grace™, Kara™, and Trichelle™ dolls whose supposedly fuller lips, curlier hair, wider noses and more pronounced cheek bones signal a less conformist approach to toy design.
African-American veteran Barbie designer Stacey McBride-Irby was inspired to create the dolls, with more "realistic" African features, as a response to her daughters’ inquiries about beauty and race.
Opening Arms and Ears to Cuban Music
The Cuban band Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro can legitimately claim to be inventors of salsa. But it last played in the United States when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and there was no telling when it might be able to return — until the very slightest hint of a thaw in cultural relations between the United States and Cuba quietly brought the band to New York early this month.
Jennifer Hudson to star in 'Winnie'
Jennifer Hudson is set to star in "Winnie," a drama that casts her as the former wife of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela.
Hudson will play Winnie Mandela in a film that begins production May 30 in the South African locations of Johannesburg, Capt Town, Transkei and Robben Island, where the future president spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.
"Winnie" will be directed by Darrell J. Roodt, the veteran South African filmmaker whose 2006 film "Yesterday" was Africa’s Best Foreign Film nominee, and who also directed "Cry, The Beloved Country," and "Sarafina!"
Blackface Filmmaker Sparks a Race Debate in Germany
When Günter Wallraff sprayed his face with dark paint and put on a black curly wig and dark contact lenses, he discovered how it felt to be black in Germany today. Sometimes he was subjected to thinly disguised or casual racism. Other times people were openly hostile to him. On one occasion, he even felt threatened.
2012: A Race Odyssey
Say what you want, but "2012" succeeded in at least one respect; it put forth strong characters of color in less than stereotypical roles. Though the movie is largely a predictable Hollywood blockbuster.
Danny Glover plays the U.S. president, who chooses to stay and await the end of the world with the masses.
Today's Featured Artist
Charles Henry Austin
Mural panel (click link for larger pic) by Austin, depicting the contributions of early black settlers in California, commissioned by Golden State Mutual and unveiled in 1949.
This Week in History
November 23 – 29
1984 - Desmond Tutu was elected as the first Black Bishop of Johannesburg, South Africa.
1868 - Scott Joplin, Texarkana, TX, composer, musician, creator of "Ragtime"
1870 - Robert Sengstacke Abbott, Frederica, St. Simon's Island, GA, founder of the Chicago Defender newspaper.
1955 - The Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation on buses and in waiting rooms used for interstate travel.
1975 - The South American nation of Suriname gained its independence from the Netherlands.
1949 - Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, dancer, in New York City.
1987 - Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago, IL.
1939 - Tina Turner (Anna Mae Bullock) Nutbush, TN, R&B diva.
1883 - Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree), preacher, abolitionist, speaker, women's rights activist, in Battle Creek, MI
1970 - Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr., Chicago, IL, the first Black General in the U.S. Army.
1942- Jimi Hendrix (Johnny Allen Hendrix), Seattle Washington, world famous rock guitarist.
1960 - Mauritania gained its independence from France.
1907 - Charles Henry Alston, Charlotte, NC, painter, muralist
1929 - Berry Gordy, Jr. Detroit, Michigan. Founder of Motown.
1960 - Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Black Boy, in Paris.
1908 - Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., New Haven, CT, the first Black Congressman from the East
1915 - William "Billy" Strayhorn, Dayton, OH, jazz musician, composer, arranger with Duke Ellington.
1919 - Pearl Primus, Trinidad, dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist.
1997 - Coleman Alexander Young, the first Black mayor of Detroit, MI.
The Front porch is now open. Pull up a chair, and grab a plate of food.
Try some collard greens, candied sweet potatoes, and don't forget the cornbread stuffing.
What are you eating/cooking for the holiday?
Don't forget to help feed others.
Heifer International is a great way to give a gift that keeps on giving. Please post links you have to other efforts that help to address hunger and promote sustainability.
Important Note to community members.
Please be sure to come back in and check the threads after our diaries have scrolled off the list. Especially to check the next day, since we have been having problems with some folks who feel they have the right and privilege to come in here and levy attacks. Keep your chocolate donuts handy.