James Baldwin was an incredible author, poet, and social critic. He wrote from the mid-to-late 20th century, and his impassioned, beautiful work stands as an amazing resource for us white people trying to understand some of the race-related problems that we will never have to experience. And we need to understand the problems that he addresses, because white people caused these problems hundreds of years ago, and it is white people who allow them to persist today through our collective, willful ignorance and inaction. That’s not an attack on anyone, and certainly not anyone in particular. It is simply an observation based on many, many observable, documented, quantifiable facts.
For these reasons and some others, I want to start this blog in an exploration about the first of the two essays in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. This essay is called “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to My Nephew on the Anniversary of the Emancipation” and while it is not very long, it is full of insight, observations, and fair, hard judgments.
There is a lot in this essay, and there is no way that I could unpack all of it. What’s more, I wouldn’t want to try. James Baldwin very eloquently and beautifully wrote this essay, and it deserves to be read in its original entirety. Instead, I will really try to focus on what I see in this work that can and should be brought back into white communities.
This is a very moving missive, and one of the big takeaways that I get from it is that the world has been structured by white people, for white people. For black and brown people, particularly for African Americans, the world can be ceaselessly cruel, degrading, and hurtful. It is a dehumanizing world that can crush one’s spirits, and there is very little that people of color themselves can do to reverse this. And that means white people have to join the effort to dismantle the racist institutions our ancestors established.
The justified indictment that Baldwin levels at us pale-skinned Americans is that we have allowed these crushing institutions to continue, and we have allowed ourselves to be as ignorant about them as possible.
..This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.
The reality is that he is right. The world is stacked in favor of white people, and is therefore stacked against people of color. Why? Because we have set it up this way. Bering white comes with tons of privileges. That’s not up for debate. I have experienced that privilege, and in those rare circumstances where that privilege was not present, I was immediately and powerfully aware of its lacking.
White privilege is real, and it protects us wypipo from many horrible forms of discrimination. We might be discriminated against for some other factor(s), but the literal color of our skin will never be held against us by society, and that is a huge privilege on its own. (Sidebar: If you’re coming into this discussion and you’re not yet thoroughly convinced that white privilege is real, please be in touch. We can talk about it.)
To return to Mr. Baldwin’s essay, he goes on to compare the conditions for African Americans to the ones written in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. This paints a colorful, if cheerless, picture. That book, as you may recall, paints the aristocracy as having a callous disregard for the lives and happiness of the lower class and poor.
One parallel that he is drawing here, is that white people are the members of the American aristocracy. By virtue of our birth, we are afforded privileges. That means that by virtue of their birth (that is, their skin color) African Americans and other POC are subjected to penalties. They don’t receive the benefits we do, so our benefit is their burden. This observation is captured in the following passage from the letter:
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.
Let’s stop here for a moment and reflect on the sentiments that James Baldwin is sharing with us here. He is saying that, from his personal experience of life in America, he thinks this country is designed to force people of color to live and die, spending their entire lives being treated as worthless, because of their skin color. Can you imagine feeling this way? Please try for a moment.
Oh, and “innocent” in these excerpts does not mean what you probably think it means. “Innocent” is used to refer to the idea of choosing to remain ignorant to the realities of racism in the United States. Bear that in mind going forward.
His essay continues:
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.”
To feel so utterly policed and politicized sounds horrible. The way Baldwin experienced racism seems to have been pervasive and absolute. At many points during the essay, he mentions that the love and mutual support given within families and communities of people of color are all that allow them to survive in such an environment.
And for those of you who, as Baldwin here mentions, are tempted to dismiss this as exaggeration — take a moment to really examine that temptation. Take a good, long look at slavery. Generations of human beings were treated as property and subjected to life as slaves. And how long did it take for people of color to be afforded the right to vote? Now, really consider how people of color are portrayed in the media. Think about how they have represented in films and media. Everything about people of color is policed by us white people, and that has been the case for such a long time. Hundreds of years, literally.
At its core, this letter was designed to help Baldwin’s nephew James survive in a white-dominated world that is harsh and unforgiving in the face of black suffering. Baldwin offers the focus of his letter here:
Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well-meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not very far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No! This is not true! How bitter you are!”–but I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist.
And that is it. He’s not arguing with white people about whether or not racism is real or whether or not it is ruining so many lives. That’s a fact. It’s observable, and in many ways it is measurable. He is just writing to his nephew to identify with him, sympathise with him, validate his pains and frustrations, and to help him learn to tune out our white noise.
We stand to learn more still from this essay. The last few excerpts from this essay that I would really like to take a look at come near the end of the piece.
There is no reason for you to try to become like white people 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 ope. 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.
There is often a perspective (which I have noticed in myself at times, and in others) that white people are rallying to get white people to embrace people of color. This isn’t the case. We should be working to get all white people to stop oppressing people of color. They don’t need our embraces, they need us to stop oppressing them by allowing centuries-old racist institutions to endure.
But these men are your brothers–your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, 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.
This is a clear call to action. This is a call that we can, should, and must continue to take up. More and more of us. In more and more areas. Racism is pervasive and so must be our efforts to uproot the weed from American soil.
The closing paragraph of the letter ties into both the subtitle of the essay (remember, it was named for the 100th anniversary of American Emancipation), as well as some of the topics and themes Baldwin explores later in The Fire Next Time.
You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.
We need to free ourselves of our in-group fighting between classes and religions and all manner of divisions, white people. We need to heal the divides in our large, fractal community. We need to love ourselves and those around us. We need to learn to rebuild bridges in our own communities, and to stop focusing so much on what people of color are doing. We need to back away from them, and give them all the room they need to live and breathe easy. We need to give them an equal voice in government, and actual equality under the law, and then we need to allow them to conduct their lives how they see fit, because we have imposed ourselves on their right to exist for way longer than long enough.
When we do this learning how to love, and this closing of divisions, Baldwin hypothesizes, “the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” (“Down at the Cross– Letters from a Region in My Mind”, the second essay in The Fire Next Time).
So, this is our starting point. James Baldwin has some serious words for white people, and we should take the time to listen and absorb as much of his perspective (and many, many other perspectives!) as we can, because racism is real and we need to actively work to dismantle it. It’s on us, white people.