Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

When so many authors reference a work when completing their own, it is necessary to go to the source. Baldwin’s important work was first published in 1962, right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. It must have been enormously affective to those trying to articulate their dispossession at that time. But so many authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jesmyn Ward, and Teju Cole to name a few I have read lately, specifically talk about how Baldwin influenced them and point out how little has changed in the fifty-some odd years since he wrote that short letter to his nephew and discussed his own experience in America.

But something has changed. We hear him now, through these later authors. They keep pointing to Baldwin, and now we can hear what he was saying:
"The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro’s relation to America. To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply, a certain hope died, a certain respect for white America faded. One began to pity them, or to hate them…"
Was Baldwin the first to say in language clear and unmistakable that “the man”—the white man—was the oppressor? “In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited buy this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand.” Why does this sound true and reasoned now when it must have sounded and felt shocking when he wrote it? Same words. Can it be that we have learned something about the nature of oppression after all? That women’s rights, gay rights, transgender rights have finally taught us what oppression and discrimination is? Why has it taken so long for us to see what we have done to the American Negro? Is it because that oppression was economically advantageous or because we simply did not care?

Well, we care now. And it is clear that this will be sorted out, easy or hard, but it will be sorted out.
"Imagine yourself being told to ‘wait.’ And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the twentieth century. The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless."
The Chinese have a phrase “speaking bitterness.” This is what Baldwin does in this book. He tries to soften the blow: “This seems an extremely harsh way of stating the case…” and not all white people are the same (“I have many white friends”). “In the eeriest way possible, I suddenly had a glimpse of what white people must go through at a dinner table when they are trying to prove that Negroes are not subhuman.” This empathy, this ambiguity of feeling, this ability to see himself is what makes Baldwin so compelling.
"White Americans have contented themselves with gestures that are now described as ‘tokenism.’ For hard example, white Americans congratulate themselves on the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the schools; they suppose, in spite of the mountain of evidence that has since accumulated to the contrary, that this is proof of a change of heart—or, as they like to say, progress…Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons, to be wooed by the descendants of the former masters. Had it been a matter of love or justice, the 1954 decision would surely have occurred sooner; were it not for the realities of power in this difficult era, it might very well not have occurred yet…In any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems. These have to be dealt with…in political terms."
Yes. But it will also take a change of heart. Which comes first, we cannot know. At the end of this slim book Baldwin writes of spiritual resilience, despite his telling us he is not a religious man. It sounded like something I’d heard from Thich Nhat Hanh just the other day (Kristin Tippett’s On Being radio podcast). Baldwin tells us
"—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…It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and clarity not to teach your children 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."
That is what I believe. Witness the generosity and genuine goodness of the churchgoers after the Charleston shooting, and just the everyday survival of blacks after centuries of oppression and aggression in this country. Thich Nhat Hanh says something similar:
"You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble. You have to grow them on the mud. Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. That's why my definition of the kingdom of God is not a place where suffering is not, where there is no suffering…I could not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. I could not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering because, in such a place, they have no way to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. And the kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding and compassion, and, therefore, suffering should exist."
Earlier, in the letter to his nephew, Baldwin talks about the realities behind the words acceptance and integration:
"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. You must accept them and accept them with love…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…It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity."
Baldwin speaks to what is happening now on the streets of America:
"The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it…the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose. You do not need ten such men—one will do…as long as we in the West place on color the value that we do, we make it impossible for the great unwashed to consolidate themselves according to any other principle…If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relative conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare…If we do not now dare everything..."
...it will be fire this time.

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