On James Baldwin and How Oppressors Try to Misuse Him to Shame Me

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: James Baldwin seen from the shoulders up, looking toward his right, left hand raised in a “fuck it” fashion.]

I kinda love (and by “kinda love,” I mean, “roll my eyes”) when folks who hate something I’ve said, immediately fall back on:

“James Baldwin would NEVER say/do this! Baldwin was all about love and reconciliation and being a shining black example teaching oppressors how to be more humane by being kind to them!”

This attempt to whitewash Baldwin in the same way they try to whitewash Martin Luther King, Jr. and others is as transparent as it is deceptive.

What these people need to understand is:

1. I ain’t James Baldwin. I consider myself one of many spiritual offspring of the genius we know as Baldwin. His intellect is unmatched.

2. They don’t know Baldwin as well as they think they do and they should read more of his work — ALL OF HIS WORK — CAREFULLY before opening their mouths or fixing their fingers to type.

“People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.”

“Yes, baby; they [black people] gon’ burn your [white people] house DOWN.”

“I don’t trust people who think of themselves as liberals. What I am saying is that I don’t trust missionaries. I don’t want anybody working with me because they think they are doing something for me. What I want them to do is work in their own communities. I want you to tell your brothers and your sisters… Don’t tell me, because I already know.”

“I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, in a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to their sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint. Now that may sound very harsh, but the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society. It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”

“In the realm of morals, the role of Christianity has been, at best, ambivalent. Even leaving out of account the remarkable arrogance that assumed that the ways and morals of others were inferior to those of Christians, and they they therefore had every right, and could use any means, to change them, the collision between cultures–and the [dissonance] in the minds of Christendom–had rendered the domain of morals as chartless as the sea once was, and as treacherous as the sea still is.It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce [themselves] from all prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of ‘God’ has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, more loving. If ‘God’ cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”

“It’s no credit to this enormously rich country that there are more oppressive, less decent governments elsewhere. We claim superiority of our institutions. We ought to live up to our own standards, not use misery elsewhere as an endless source of self-gratification and justification. Of course, people tell me all the time in the West that they are trying, they are trying hard. Some have tears in their eyes and let me know how awful they feel about the way our poor live, our blacks, or those in dozens of other countries. People can cry much easier than they can change, a rule of psychology people like me picked up as kids on the street.”

“Chicagoans talk about Mississippi as though they had no South Side. White people in New York talk about Alabama as though they had no Harlem. To ignore what is happening in their own backyard is a great device on the part of the white people. Whether I was for or against violence is absolutely irrelevant. The question that really obsesses me today is not whether or not I like violence or whether or not you like it.Unless the situation is ameliorated, and very, very quickly, there WILL be violence. There will be violence (and of this I am convinced as I am that I am sitting in this chair) one day in Birmingham. And it won’t be the fault of the Negroes of Birmingham. It is the fault of the administration of Birmingham, and the apathy of Washington. An intolerable situation. It has been intolerable for 100 years.”

“There is no difference between the North and South. The difference is in the way they castrate you. But the castration itself is the American fact.”

“We know what happened, and we know who had the whip. And it was not my grandmother who raped anybody.”

“The world is full of bright people who are entirely irrelevant. And most of them are wicked.”

“White people were, and are, astounded by the Holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded — at least, in the same way. For my part, the fate of the Jews, and the world’s indifference to it, frightened me very much. I could not but feel, in those sorrowful years, that this human indifference, concerning which I knew so much already, would be my portion on the day that the United States decided to murder its Negroes systematically instead of little by little and catch-as-catch-can. I was, of course, authoritatively assured that what had happened to the Jews in Germany could not happen to the Negroes in America, but I thought, bleakly, that the German Jews had probably believed similar counselors, and, again, I could not share [white people’s] vision of [themselves] for the very good reason that white [people] in America do not behave toward black [people] the way they behave toward each other. When a white [person] faces a black [person], especially if the black [person] is helpless, terrible things are revealed. I know. I have been carried into precinct basements often enough, and I have seen and heard and endured the secrets of desperate white [people], which they knew were safe with me, because even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.”

Any platitude Baldwin showed oppressors was on the basis that the oppressor made concrete and fundamental changes to their behavior which would make them harmless to the oppressed, and that, if they did not, then head-rolling was literal and inevitable.

Basically, Baldwin’s premise was that the end of bigotry was up to the bigoted not the targets of bigotry. And if the bigots refused to end bigotry, then they could expect all manner of retaliation, up to and including death.