This post follows from my post James Baldwin – Down At The Cross pretty directly, so I would encourage you to take the time to start there. There is still a lot of ground to cover in terms of messages that white people can start to take in and spread around in our various communities. That’s how society changes, everyone. Civil rights and civil equality grow when there is a groundswell of compassion. So, please, as you read this post and others, and as you read from and listen to people of color talking about their unique, diverse, complete human experiences, let’s try to suspend our judgment and simply listen with a mind to listen.
Having written that, it comes to mind that James Baldwin encourages mindfulness in The Fire Next Time, in a passage where is actually addressing how white people experience jazz and, I think, life more generally. In this passage, I hear him imply a dualism to our thinking, which would make sense both because of the youth of the “white race” as well as our complete inexperience at being on the receiving end of racism.
In any case, I will present the quotes from Baldwin’s “Down At The Cross” and allow his work a proper voice in the conversation:
White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy
and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them — sounding, in both cases, so helplessly,
And shortly afterward in the same passage, this is offered as an explanation, and is the portion that touches on the value of presence/mindfulness
White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality, and do not any longer understand it. The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.
So, let’s take that in and mull over the possibility that there is some truth to what he says, certainly for some white people. His definition of sensual comes to me as something completely novel. That, indeed, seems to hearken to his point that we no longer understand sensuality — I literally didn’t even recognize his definition of “sensual” and had to deliberate for a moment to come to understand his definition.
In any case, this has been a somewhat lengthy preamble (though not quite off topic), and I would like to make haste to get into this post. Thank you for hanging in there with me.
I will spend some time in this post addressing the meeting between James Baldwin and Elijah Muhammad, then the leader of the Nation of Islam. After that, I would like to spend the rest of the time buried in the third arc of the essay, which contains some of Baldwin’s vision for a new way, along with some of the hurdles that need to be leapt — both by white people and by people of color. This stands as a bit of a correction to my last post, where I made it out to be that I would speak less about the second arc than I ended up doing. It is so hard to choose just a few things from each section, let me tell you. Everything he wrote deserves such consideration, and is so well set up to be contemplated, and it’s all gorgeous writing, all of it.
The first section ends with Baldwin noting that any conceptualization, any idea of a god must exist to make mankind, and particularly people of color, “larger, freer, and more loving” in order to have “any validity or any use” — any god who cannot do this should be disposed of. Essentially, god is love, and love allows for free and equal existence. Anything that can’t allow for people to be larger, freer, or more loving simply isn’t god, and isn’t worthy of worship.
Of Elijah Muhammad, Baldwin recounts that his initial response, before meeting him, was to be at least somewhat unimpressed. Here is what he writes on the topic:
I paid very little attention to what I heard, because the burden of his message did not strike me as being very original; I had been hearing variations of it all my life.
He couldn’t help but notice the response to this particular variation, though. He notes in great detail the response of both the police — who were silent, and stilled, and afraid in the face of this movement as it preached on the streets and in more and more mosques around the country — and of the crowd — who were silent, and intense, and intelligently hopeful as they listened to and received this message of a black god for black people, and of creating a space in society by helping heal and build up people of color, and by destroying white privilege utterly.
To be frank, fair enough. I would dwell here much longer, but there is not a ton of actionable items for white people that I can really bring forward here, that are proposed or suggested by the text.
To return to white privilege, and the hope that the Nation of Islam was able to offer to people of color, we can look at what Baldwin himself, as he heard about the Holocaust in Europe during World War II, wrote. He couldn’t believe that an event like the Holocaust was impossible in America, though it might be one wherein all people of color were targeted.
I thought, bleakly, that the German Jews had probably believed similar counsellors, and, again, I could not share the white man’s vision of himself for the very good reason that white men in America do not behave toward black men the way they behave toward each other. When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed. I know.
White people treating white people better than they treat people of color, hm? For the white recipient of that increased favor, we can observe that this is the very definition of white privilege. I don’t personally think Baldwin is out of line for using it as a rationale for believing an American Holocaust against African Americans is a possibility. After all, America spent a significant portion of WWII denying that a Holocaust was occurring. If we were willing to tacitly allow it then, and so many times since, outside our borders then it really isn’t a leap to think we would have one here. Vermont and other states had eugenics programs running in the full light of day, not long ago.
Of the circumstances of meeting with Elijah Muhammad, Baldwin writes that he was invited to meet him while in Chicago in the summer of 1963. He was just coming away from a debate with Malcolm X (Side note: if you have sources on the specific context for that debate (the venue, how it came about, etc.), please point me to it. I would love to turn their discussion into a post of its own in the future). They spoke about how African Americans should work to dismantle white power/privilege (obviously, they waste no time debating whether or not it exists. It existed then and exists today). After the debate, as he awaited the elevator, Baldwin had his hand shaken by an person whom Baldwin doesn’t name, but who, if I am inferring correctly, was a member of the Nation of Islam. Soon thereafter, he was invited to meet Elijah Muhammad. He writes of going to meet him that
I was frightened, because I had, in effect, been summoned into a royal presence. I was frightened for another reason, too. I knew the tension in me between love and power, between pain and rage, and the curious, the grinding way I remained extended between these poles–perpetually attempting to choose the better rather than the worse.
Baldwin writes early in the account of this rendezvous that he felt uneasy about their kindness because he felt it came with an expectation he couldn’t meet. I think he is referring to the expectation that he would join their group and become a member of the Nation of Islam.
Though Baldwin writes that he was quite taken by Elijah Muhammad’s presence, he acknowledges that, as far as the teachings of the Nation of Islam, regarding white people and their role in black oppression, that
There is nothing new in this merciless formulation except the explicitness of its symbols and the candor of its hatred.
To be clear, this hatred is well-earned. We have been, we white people, involved in the birth-to-death oppression and enslavement of African Americans. For many generations, we forced them to either live literally as slaves or, afterward, as unequal citizens (that is, after we finally began to allow them to vote) with heavily-circumscribed freedoms and civil liberties. We have never allowed people of color, and particular African Americans, to live and breathe freely outside the confines of our white comfort zone.
There is a stirring portion of this meeting where Baldwin relates an internal friction he felt because he, himself, had some close white friends whom he felt he could trust with his life, but he didn’t feel he had a right or a purpose in pointing them out and begging for some exceptionalism-laden benediction for the few righteous counted among the ranks of the white devil army. And that’s fair enough, too. To quote Baldwin himself,
One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief.
Really, really stand in the meaning of that last statement. It is so brief, and it is buried in a passage that is intensely uncomfortable for white readers. And I think that’s the perfect place for this quote. For those of us whitekin who are willing to dive into the characterizations of white people that our collective treatment of people of color has earned us, this stands as an oasis in a scorching desert. And a reminder that, even if we rankle and groan under these judgments, we don’t have the right or ability to argue with these beliefs based on their experiences. It’s truly a beautiful way to structure this portion, in my opinion.
In any case, Baldwin does not end up joining the Nation of Islam, and I will leave the rest of this section alone, after noting that as he left the encounter, Mr. Baldwin had this to say before being chauffeured away from the mansion.
It was time to leave, and we stood in the large living room, saying good night, with everything curiously and heavily unresolved. I could not help feeling that I had failed a test, in their eyes and in my own, or that I had failed to heed a warning.
The third arc, which we arrive at after discussing much more in the second arc than I had intended (though I am not displeased–there is so much that Baldwin had to say that I feel is absolutely imperative for white audiences to really listen to and try to understand).
The third arc is quite prescriptive, but there is such descriptiveness in this prescription that I think the bitter medicine is well-prescribed. Baldwin begins it by almost immediately acknowledging that he doesn’t think an eye for an eye is the best path forward. His reasons are as noble as they are completely unrelated to how white people might feel about actually suffering under people of color as we have made them to suffer. And it makes sense that he wouldn’t frame it in terms of our happiness (much to our self-centered chagrin), because as a culture it is very rare and short-lived for white people to make motions at caring about people of color.
I mean care in a different sense than an idle emotion. I mean care in the sense of taking the time to invest of ourselves to make sure that everyone, equally, including people of color, is afforded equality, the freedom to make their own destiny, and a true and equal seat at the table. If you allow your loved ones to suffer harm, or even die, of neglect or of being smothered under you, then you can’t really say you’re caring for them. It is similarly so when talking about strangers.
Anyway, James Baldwin presents this quote early in the final section of his essay:
If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch.
Why would he guard this sentiment, and hold it as true that people of color must never try to do to white people as we do to them?
I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them.
See? It has nothing to do with white people. And why should it? The world doesn’t actually revolve around us, and non-white people do not (or, at least, should not have to) spend their lives thinking about how their freedom and equality will hurt whypipo. His reason for this statement is based in wanting to see African Americans rise to become their best possible selves. As he writes,
It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself.
He doesn’t want people of color to become like white people. He doesn’t want the result of their freedom to be that they become like white people, and make themselves suffer as white people do (more on that when we arrive there, in its own time). Take a moment to soak that truth in, though. The notion that harming others is harmful to ourselves is a powerful one. I encourage you to pause for a moment and give it some extra consideration, even if you think you already know what this idea means. Maybe even especially if you think you already know.
Okay, now I am going to let Baldwin himself raise some good points and then deliver unto us yet another call to action. Some of the following quotes actually run sequentially, but I am going to break them up a little to allow them to settle in as distinct yet connected, heavy, meaningful thoughts.
The Negro situation is dangerous in a different way, both for the Negro qua Negro [i.e. for the African Americans themselves] and for the country of which he forms so troubled and troubling a part.
It is a fact that every American Negro bears a name that originally belonged to the white man whose chattel [i.e. slave] he was. I am called Baldwin because I was either sold by my African tribe or kidnapped out of it into the hands of a white Christian named Baldwin, who forced me to kneel at the foot of the cross.
I am, then, both visibly and legally the descendant of slaves in a white, Protestant country, and this is what it means to be an American Negro, this is who he is–a kidnapped pagan, who was sold like an animal and treated like one,
who was once defined by the American Constitution as “three-fifths” of a man,
and who, according to the Dred Scott decision, had no rights that a white man was bound to respect.
And today, a hundred years after his technical emancipation, he remains–with the possible exception of the American Indian–the most despised creature in this country.
And here comes the call to action!
Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them. It must be added that the Negro himself no longer believes in the good faith of white Americans–if, indeed, he ever could have.
There it is, and it is a proper challenge. In Baldwin’s experience, most of us white people are too lazy to even envision the changes that our society will need. Guess what? I’m one of the white people he describes, in that I don’t have anything like a complete idea about all the changes needed to right the wrongs and even the scales. That’s why I am here, reading and listening to what people of color have to say.
In this light, it seems we have lost touch with some portion of our humanity. Let’s take the time, expend the energy, and dwell in the experiences of others to reclaim this ability and change our racial legacy. We white people need to find a new path, an entirely novel way forward, and the reality is we can’t find a better path forward if we aren’t in communication with the other communities around us. I don’t, and you don’t, have the right or the ability to say to any person of color, “This is what you need. This is how we end your suffering. Here is how we can fix you so that I can accept you.” I think James Baldwin would agree with that sentiment
The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power–and no one holds power forever. White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks–the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.
Liberation. That’s it. We share power by allowing freedom. We stop telling people of color how to dress. How to keep their hair. When to speak. How to speak. When not to speak. What demeanor to have. What kind of music to like. Which god to worship. All of it. We just need to put it in park and turn the siren off. People of color are entitled to their own self-determination, not our own self-determination. We impose our whiteness on people and places and we simply have to stop. We need to make room in the garden. We don’t need to guide; we have no map to lead by. We need to free up our resources from telling others how to live and really examine, both within ourselves and our own communities, how we should be living, as a group and as individuals. How can we live in better accord with everyone around us? How can we live freely in a way that allows others to also live freely? Once we liberate ourselves from our incessant need to impose ourselves on others, we will be truly free to explore what it is inside each of us that brings us joy.
Okay, now let’s bring this to a close with a discussion of what I semi-sweetly refer to as the ickies. Yeah, it sucks to let in the reality that we are the descendants of slave owners (other Irish descendants: stuff it. Really. We chose to come here.) and other brutalizers. We dominate a country built on the backs of slaves stolen from their homeland and communities. All we have, we stole, or else extracted from the spilled blood and cracked bones of other humans. Not you personally, I know. Not me personally, either. But that is our heritage, and we really have to take some ownership. Take peace in your heavy heart. Baldwin himself would be the first to say suffering inside because of your white skin serves a purpose.
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.
He writes this about the intense and long-running suffering we impose on people of color, but in the same way that suffering can afford them the ability to grow, it is only by acknowledging, accepting, and suffering underneath the knowledge of our privileges that we can grow past them and become the communities we, I sincerely hope, want to be. Note the following also, though, again, he is actually referring to people of color
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 for so long. It demands a great spiritual resilience to not hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your children to hate.
So. We don’t have any kind of accurate map forward, and the terrain is going to be rocky, tough, and unforgiving the whole of the long trail ahead. Our boots are already worn from the strides – the falls and failures, really – we have made so far, but they have so many miles left in them. So let’s pull on our hats and continue the trek. We don’t know how we will get where we are going, or what the future holds as we blaze our new trail, but we can hold on, always, to the knowledge that the place we seek is a place of profound peace and prosperity.
Okay, I don’t want to take any of the air out of the last few pages by writing more on them here, and I think this already serves us with a lot to think about. When you are ready, I really do suggest you read the entire work. Some of the stuff I have seen written on it online paint it in a strange light. I really found that, though it was a long essay, that I would have enjoyed it going on for longer. It is complex, and rich, and oh-so well-written. Really, I suggest everyone take the time to read this essay and book. It has so much in it, and I could barely scratch, imperceptibly, at the surface.
There is so much content here, and Baldwin delivers it so well and so powerfully, and so personally. If you want to talk more about this work, or if you have questions, or comments, or disagree with some of what I said (or how I said it) please be in touch. I will read every response I receive and make every effort to reply to each of them, though it may not be publicly.
If you have a second, please rate this article below, or submit feedback through the Contact or Survey pages, or you can get in touch across the social media spectrum, or you can email me at email@example.com.
Stay engaged and stay woke.