Written in 1963 as “the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon”, this is as relevant almost fifty years later. The sheer ugliness of American racism is now embedded in the discourses that hide it, those gentile liberal nicenesses that serve exactly the same bourgeois lackey function in keeping hidden the vicious oppression of the ghettoised and oppressed in every ‘liberal democracy’ with their fine glows of meritocracies and equalities. Such discourses are from the pseudo-innocent who blithely act as cultural bureaucrats to perpetuate oppression, and while Baldwin states that “it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.” he is a man of enormous love to understand their psychological states (based on fear) so that “…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, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act upon what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.”
It takes enormous courage and resilience to resist the definitions of identity forced upon one by oppressive discourses, and it takes enormous compassion and strength to achieve understanding as a prime requisite of positive resistance, to, for Baldwin, love America with all his heart and demand attention to its devestatingly negative impact on his own and a so many of his fellows’ hearts, minds and identities.
The first third or so of the book’s main essay is a useful companion to Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain: here there is more commentary upon the desperate enticement of religion as an alternative to drugs, drink, pimping, despair as counters to utter oppression, yet Baldwin, whose every sentence is charged with ruthless honesty, confesses his intense rupture from the church as conceived in its sectionalised formation: “Being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked. I knew the other ministers and knew the quality of their lives. And I don’t mean to suggest by this the ‘Elmer Gantry’ sort of hypocrisy concerning sensuality; it was a deeper, deadlier and more subtle hypocrisy than that, and a little honest sensuality, or a lot, would have been like water in an extremely bitter desert.”
Again paralleling the novel, he notes with distaste: “I don’t refer merely to the glaring fact that the minister eventually acquires houses and Caillacs while the faithful continue to scrub floors and drop their dimes and quarters and dollars into the plate. I really mean that there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.” As his point within the wider context of the essay is to universalise certain human tendencies regarding power, oppression and the masks of a convenient God, the hatred, self hatred and despair, to my mind, are undeniable aspects of much arid and hateful American Protestantism. This universalising, really an insight through intense experience, of deep human structures of thought is applied equally to his analysis of the Nation of Islam: he understands its appeal, he meets with Elijah Mohammed in a richly courteous setting to hear him talk of the ‘white devils’ put on earth by the Devil, and who will soon be eradicated, before leaving for a meeting with some friends, white devils themselves whom he loves dearly.
For this divided nation (I mean today) either side of a Manichean polarity
could use the following structure as axiomatic starting point for justification or rebellion: “God going north, and rising on the wings of power, had become white, and Allah, out of power, and on the dark side of Heaven, had become – for all practical purposes anyway – black.”
Rather than pretend such polarity does not exist, “One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief”, that the bedrocks of values and beliefs are not a potent part of our reality, Baldwin seems instead to take the tragedy of their existence as a part of the pain one must bear in order to be a Christian. I am inferring that Baldwin’s Christianity is a basic one, in direct contrast with Christendom and the claims on Christ as justifier for all sorts of evil howsoever ‘innocent’ (and hence much of the pain is to be again disidentified – first as a Negro – and to be rejected, again, from the the community of goodness, to be in some ways to be without a church.)
Experience is repeated by word and example, again and again. Although he generalises whiteness in terms of, for instance, not only its cruelty but also its own inner fragmentation (his couple of pages dealing with music are splendid: “White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad….Only people who have been ‘down the line’, as the song has it know what this (jazz,blues, ‘tart and ironic’) is about.”) and is extraordinarily acute in his analysis of the deadly signs evidenced by (much) white culture as to the state of the individual psyche, he, throughout, is for understanding and forgiveness, the courage to face the pain of history and the courage to live, to forgive, to be.
Yet there is no concession whatsoever to liberal culture represented by those “so helplessly, defencelessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices”. He talks of the “incredible, abysmal, and really cowardly obtusenss of white liberals” who can “deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man.” They are the type who read lots of books but never learn anything new. To learn something new, what this essay is really about, is painful, scary, and, most terrifying of all, abandons delusions in the name of exposure. Or, to put the pain in Baldwin’s words: “I was frightened because …. 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 worst.”
It’s not equality or integration or acceptance by whites that Baldwin indicates is at stake, not these empty facades. For who would want to be ‘equal’ to, as the highest point of achievement, a white culture so clearly in turmoil, so unhappy and confused? Baldwin will not accept the American myth that having been “released from the African witch doctor… I am now – in order to support the moral contradictions and spiritual aridity of my life – expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist.” And, bearing in mind the universalism of human thought structures I discussed above, Baldwin talks of the American and Muslim errors equally as they imprison ” in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death”. For ultimately, it is that great taboo around, and denial of death which for Baldwin is at the heart of America’s crisis.
There are existential refractions throughout: the welcoming of death as reality, the importance of face to face humanity, the richness of suffering, the ethical growth to resilience and forgiveness, and a demolition of labels, symbols, and so on. (Baldwin doesn’t himself ever refer to any existential claims explicitly). For him, in a great reversal, to the Negro in history it is the ‘the man’, that is ‘the white man’, who is seen as a child, as only ‘three fifths of a man’ (as the Negro was once labelled in the Constitution). Like children, they actually believe deep in their hearts that “their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.” The Negro has a privileged position cleaned through a history of pain and suffering.
This book is a call for action, not a modest entertainment. It suggests that the Black perspective on American history throws light on denial and reality. It was written in 1964 when “internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.” References to the ideological function of the Cold War with Russia are outdated, an other has taken its place. Baldwin’s views on the American nation are still precisely germane as the atavistic manifestations of hatred in that nation spew forth in ever more cases of virulent racism, and there is hardly a word needs changing to apply to America in the world today. Bravery and pain are called for:
“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”