James Baldwin on race

What is there to say? I have nothing to add to the conversation (and in fact think there are already too many voices competing for attention), and I’m not sure where I’d begin even if I did. Things are sad; though, as many have pointed out, they are not new. I do believe something is happening, that there is a rising up, a wave of revolution, that has been shaking up the foundations and is getting big enough to really do something, but I don’t know how to show my support without looking like I want the spotlight. So I will use someone else’s words to do the speaking, and who better than those of James Baldwin– one of the sharpest, most perceptive thinkers and artists who have ever existed.

The situation of a very racialized America is too often diminished to statistics and to neighborhoods to stay away from. It is not humanized; it is not understanding. It is seen as a problem to be dealt with that never seems to go away.

This is why his [the Black man’s] history and his progress, his relationship to all other Americans, has been kept in the social arena. He is a social and not a personal or a human problem; to think of him is to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloging of losses, gains, skirmishes; it is to feel virtuous, outraged, helpless, as though his continuing status among us were analogous to disease– cancers, perhaps, or tuberculosis– which must be checked, even though it cannot be cured.

It pains me to think that this next part is true. It shames me to know that in so many ways it is.

Time has made some changes in the Negro face. Nothing has succeeded in making it exactly like our own, though the general desire seems to be to make it blank it one cannot make it white. When it has become blank, the past as thoroughly washed from the blank face as it has been from ours, our guilt will be finished– at least it will have ceased to be visible, which we imagine to be much the same thing.

No matter how far we may go to escape the horrible chasm we’ve caused by placing so much on the difference between races and so little on the efforts to truly see each other, we will still be caught on the edge with no bridge to get us across.

One must travel very far, among saints with nothing to gain or outcasts with nothing to lose, to find a place where it does not matter– and perhaps a word or a gesture or simply a silence will testify that it matters even there.

What are we doing to each other? Why do we try to ignore the past? Are we really that deluded that we think our future can be any better, doing what we’ve been doing?

Negros are Americans and their destiny is the country’s destiny. They have no other experience besides their experience on this continent and it is an experience which cannot be rejected, which yet remains to be embraced.

Our dreams are not strong enough on their own. They need more than good intentions. We need to stop obliterating each other and expecting Black people to obliterate themselves for the sake of superficial harmony.

… we will set our faces against them and join hands and walk together into that dazzling future where there will be no white or black. This is the dream of all liberal men, a dream not at all dishonorable, but, nevertheless, a dream. For, let us join hands on this mountain as we may, the battle is elsewhere. It proceeds far from us in the heat and horror and pain of life itself where all men are betrayed by greed and guilt and blood lust and where no one’s hands are clean. Our good will, from which we yet expect such power to transform us, is thin, passionless, strident: its roots, examined, lead us back to our forebears, whose assumption it was that the black man, to become truly human and acceptable, must first become like us. This assumption once accepted, the Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality, the distortion and debasement of his own experience, surrendering to those forces which reduce the person to anonymity and which make themselves manifest daily all over the darkening world.

We have so much work to do.


2 thoughts on “James Baldwin on race

  1. Alyse! Always so impressed by your contemplation, thoughtfulness, and courage to share. Thank you! Love from Seattle, Diana

    Sent from my iPhone


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