Friday, October 20, 2017

Hodgepodge 356/365 - James Baldwin

Last night we watched the documentary I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck, a sort of filmic version of a book that James Baldwin (1924–1987) might have liked to have written. The movie is narrated (by Samuel L. Jackson, almost unrecognizably) in Baldwin’s own words, much of them from an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, bringing together (or rather colliding) three Baldwin friends and martyrs, Medgar Evers (1925–1963), Malcolm X (1925–1965), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1969), as well as from numerous published essays. And it features clips of Baldwin: at a Cambridge University debate in 1965 with William F. Buckley (whom we don’t see) titled “Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?” (Baldwin won, 540 to 160); on the Dick Cavett Show, where he tangles with Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss, who claims that blacks “racialize” everything. Baldwin's response is withering.

I had read Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) at Antioch and been moved, I confess, perhaps more by the beauty of his words—man, could he write—than by careful attention to what he said, or such is my hazy memory at this remove. So I was glad to have this film, which several critics call a powerful “introduction” to his thinking. And now I am inspired to reread Fire and move on to Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays exploring racial, sexual, and class divisions that, God knows, exist today as much as they did in 1955, though they may have slipped into new permutations.

Baldwin gained much of his early idea of what America was about from the movies (his unrealized ambition was to be a filmmaker), where whites were the stars and blacks were at best loyal subservients. Peck's film uses movies as a lens, or perhaps mirror, through which to hear Baldwin's words, playing choice scene clips—Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Imitation of Life (1933), The Defiant Ones (1958), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), etc.—under the narration.
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.” (“The American Dream and the American Negro”)
This documentary made one thing very clear to me: that while there certainly is racism—whites flailing against blacks for some perceived sense of harm—there really is no such thing as “reverse racism.” The anger, even hatred, that African Americans feel today toward white America is rooted in four hundred years of having been put down, oppressed, and treated as less than human, if not outright killed. Perhaps slavery “ended” in 1865, but it hasn’t disappeared. Not by a long shot.

I won’t bother you with a biography, except to say that Baldwin moved to Paris when he was twenty-four, and came back nine years later to cover, and become a spokesman for, the Civil Rights Movement. Black nationalists criticized him for his conciliatory attitude; although he was clearly angry, he continued to expound messages of understanding and love. He returned to France in 1970, and lived there until his death. You can read all about him at Wikipedia or, more thoroughly, in a highly rated biography by David Leeming.

Here's a good essay about a young black man meeting his hero Baldwin after the release of I Am Not Your Negro. Though really, there's no shortage of words about Baldwin out there. Just google him.

What I will bother you with is some quotes—Baldwin by Baldwin. The first few are from the film, and I don't know the written source:

“There are days, this is one of them, when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How precisely you're going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here. I'm terrified at the moral apathy—the death of the heart—which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don't think I’m human.”

“People finally say to you, in an attempt to dismiss the social reality: ‘But you’re so bitter.’ Well, I may or may not be bitter. But if I were, I would have good reasons for it, chief among them that American blindness or cowardice which allows us to pretend that life presents no reasons for being bitter.”

“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I'm forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”

“Words like freedom, justice, democracy are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.” (“The Crusade of Indignation,” The Nation, July 7, 1956; published in book form in The Price of the Ticket [1985])

“If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected—those, precisely, who need the laws’s protection most!—and listens to their testimony.” (No Name in the Street [1972])

“People who have been wronged will attempt to right the wrong; they would not be people if they didn’t. They can rarely afford to be scrupulous about the means they will use. They will use such means as come to hand. Neither, in the main, will they distinguish one oppressor from another, nor see through to the root principle of their oppression.” (New York Times, April 9, 1967)

“I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright.” (“Autobiographical Notes,” 1952; in Notes of a Native Son [1955])

“I am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt [of a Swiss village's church], down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone and seeming to say that God and the devil can never be divorced. I doubt that the villagers think of the devil when they face a cathedral because they have never been identified with the devil. But I must accept the status which myth, if nothing else, gives me in the West before I can hope to change the myth.” (“Stranger in the Village,” 1953; in Notes of a Native Son)

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.” (“Faulkner and Desegregation,” Partisan Review, Fall 1956; republished in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son [1961])

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