Baldwin speaks

That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and control my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me…

–James Baldwin

[This is a repost of something from a few years ago that seems more relevant now than ever… the full post on Baldwin is on my War Journal blog.]

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me sent me back to reread James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which I had not read since 1999. And there, on page 27, is the quote above with its unattributed reference to the same line from Richard Wright which gave Coates his title.

Wright’s poem of the same name (Between the World and Me), from White Man Listen! (1957), says:

“And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing,/

Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms/

And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me….”

These lines have drawn me in to the many points of similarity in the two writers, and especially reminded me of how much power and depth there is in James Baldwin.

Coates has drawn much inspiration from Baldwin, and seems poised to fill Baldwin’s role as a leading intellectual and articulate voice for the inchoate rage now welling up among Black Americans and their friends. Coates and Baldwin both reject the church, the street, the schools, and all other forms of escape and denial as beneath us, distractions from the worthy goals of freedom and dignity.

Both maintain that the same forces that have driven black people into slavery have created the degraded forms of life now ruling the ghettos and the suburbs alike, and promise to destroy all that is lovable in human life as well as threaten the very biosphere – at least the parts of it that we depend on. Baldwin sees our only salvation in “transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.” [p. 81]

In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin lays down the philosophical basis that informs much of Coates work, the idea that white people – or people who “think they are white” as he says in the essay “On Being White… And Other Lies” – are harmed as much by racism as are black people, and that it is in order to maintain their very grasp on reality, their sense of themselves, that white people today cling to racism so tenaciously.

“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” [p. 21]

Baldwin is profound in his understanding of the realities of life, and warns against retribution: “I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know – we see it around us every day – the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”

His deep spiritual understanding of life is reflected also in these incredibly beautiful, perceptive and sensitive lines:

“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.” [p. 90-91]

He doesn’t shrink from the horrors of the American system or the cruelty of the situation, but he finds, as does Coates, some light of hope for our future. He says, ”…the white man himself is in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks – the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. … In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.”

For me, the implications, the social and political messages, in the work of both Coates and Baldwin are very clear, even stark.

Baldwin lays it out: “Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure.”

Coates’ characterization of “The Dream” as the deathbed of us all should make it clear enough that the “American Dream” – right down to the white picket fences – must die. Which, in light of all the Confederate flag rallies in the wake of Charleston, may mean that a cultural revolution of sorts is necessary.

What that revolution is and how it proceeds is hard to say. As Coates says, we Dreamers must learn to struggle with the same dignity and “great spiritual resilience” with which those we have oppressed for so long struggle.

And it seems to me that this is beginning. Many are beginning to realize that the oppression of black people, of indigenous, of women, of GLBT – of all America’s “Others” – is of a piece. Identifying ourselves with that oppression is not so hard, really, if one just opens one’s eyes and looks around. As Colin Farrell’s character “Ray” (in the “True Detectives” series) says in response to his partner’s complaint that he doesn’t know how to be out in the world, “Hey, look out that window, look at me, nobody does.”

It’s a world that’s not making a place for most of us, and slowly, slowly, people are beginning to realize this must change. Coates cites the need for a “new story” – an idea advanced also by high-profile writers and speakers like Charles Eisenstein, Russell Brand and others which is gaining traction among a wide variety of groups in our society. People are understanding that nothing less than re-invention of society at its fundamental levels is going to make any difference. To change anything, we must change everything. Of course, the corollary to that is: To change everything, we must change something. Beginning with how we view the world.

I think both Coates and Baldwin would agree with that assessment. And the gift they have for the world is an open-eyed, fearless willingness to see the world as it is. Baldwin says, “That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows… something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakeable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words.”

This perspective is what these black writers bring to us. Maybe, if we can see how their experience is our own experience, we can be as strong, as durable, as brilliant as they and do our part in bringing about the changes that this world must see for whatever time we humans have left on the planet to be a time of love and dignity.

 

The link to the essay on Collective Liberation:

https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Baldwin_On_Being_White.pdf

Prison as intersection

The Florida prison strike, dubbed #operationPUSH by its organizers, is bringing a level of national attention to conditions in our prisons that I haven’t seen in a long time.

People who generally don’t give a thought to the issue are becoming aware that people in jails and prisons live under truly inhumane conditions. The practice of using prison labor to do work both public and private is being recognized for what it is: slavery.

Some people are even beginning to be willing to consider that we as a society should discuss ways to better solve the issues of poverty, crime and violence. As it becomes clear that most of our jails and prisons actually increase all those things, we are beginning to see that incarceration is not a positive element in society or even a “necessary evil” — the position most people tend to retreat to when faced with the facts about how horrible prison really is.

Intersections

The prison strike itself is bringing some clarity to my mind about a lot of these issues — issues I’ve been concerned about for a long time — because it’s helping me see the intersectionality of the issues. The question of using incarcerated people to do public work, from cleaning up roadsides to building facilities, is one thing (though I’d argue even that is a form of slave labor), but when it comes to leasing prisoners out to private interests, the moral ground is clear. We are enslaving them.

So I begin to see that when you step into a prison, you step into a place where many — perhaps most? — of the crucial issues of American society intersect. As with the original feminist idea of intersectionality, which describes how “people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers,” as a discussion on YW Boston  frames it, the incarcerated are often at the crossing of many vectors that keep them pinned down, locked up, and caught in a cycle of poverty and crime that they can’t break out of.

This “convergence of oppression” can be acute for an incarcerated  individual.

Toxic Prisons

Prison, and the system that creates, supports, staffs and fills it with inmates, is likewise a point where we can observe many of the toxic factors in our society coming together to create an environment that is soul-destroying and life-wrecking for its individual victims and ultimately corrupting for the society at large.

In brief form, this is what we do: we take people who the economy — which is itself racist, classist, sexist, ableist, etc. — has forced into criminality in order to survive, run them through a legal system that is biased in every way against them and dooms them with its confrontational model, lock them up for being poor, of color, and under-educated, and them put them to work for either the state that did this to them or private interests that are the reason the state and its enforcement apparatus exist.

So in this system, this process, we can see all the racist, sexist, ableist, classist elements of society come together to make it nearly impossible for an individual with several strikes against them to avoid getting caught up in this web. Those individuals who do avoid it usually have some unusual element, some person, some stroke of luck, some quirk of character, that sets them apart and provides the impetus that propels them beyond entanglement in its sticky strands.

Almost all of the current social and political issues are involved in one way or another in the operation of this system. By looking deeply into how it works in general and how it may impact any particular person, we begin to illuminate all of the issues that our society must deal with in some reasonable time frame, else it will descend into some kind of dark, near-feudal social order that gradually abandons all the ideals of an egalitarian, humane society.

Slavery By Another Name

I’m beginning to read a book I’ve had for some years that is helping me see and understand the origins of this system.

Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name is a detailed historical account of how the system of laws, law enforcement and incarceration we now take as normal arose in the South after the Civil War to deal with two things: the economic chaos that white folk found themselves in after the freeing of the slaves deprived them of cheap labor, and the fear of these freed slaves taking over the government and economy of the South.

As I read this book and think about what’s going on around me, I plan to write further on the subject. It helps me to grasp it all, to make sense of it. I hope it may help others to understand what we have done, what we are doing, and most importantly, what we must now do to rectify the sins of the fathers.

Prison Amerika

The Florida Prison Strike, calling itself #operationPUSH, is apparently still continuing, and our efforts to let the Florida Prison System know that we are watching seems to be having an effect. At least Rashid Johnson is not being tortured now, or so it seems from recent communication, which is always slow and difficult.

This issue is pivotal in the understanding of what is happening — has been happening for some time — in the U.S. We may be at a critical turning point in terms of societal change, and the issues of law enforcement, justice, and incarceration are merging into a larger, intersectional issue that brings everything into sharp focus.

The prison strike is galvanizing a lot of support from unexpected places. I’ve listed a few links here with good information, some from surprising sources such as Teen Vogue and Her Campus.

Her Campus

Shadow Proof

Teen Vogue

This Twitter site has lots of good info as well: #AbolitionNow

Also this IWW group has recent updates on communication from inside the Florida prisons, as well as info on support for prison reform and radical restructuring of the “justice” system: IWOC

I’m beginning a new category — “Prison America” — on this blog to explore this developing movement and the general topic of incarceration and the so-called Justice System in the U.S.

At the moment, the focus needs to be on providing support by way of phone calls, maybe letters, to the Florida authorities to keep them under control. Also support of the groups that are working on this issue may be critical.

But there are political and philosophical issues here which need to be explored as we address this larger problem in the country and the world. I’m hoping to post some comments and thoughts on that soon…

Florida Prison Strike

Good info on the Florida Prison Strike, which has been using Operation PUSH as its hashtag on IG. I think Operation PUSH was Jesse Jackson’s organization back in the ’70’s — but this isn’t connected, just using the name. Angela Davis has spoken out in support of the strike, and some other people are getting on board. I’m not sure about Jackson.

Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons.

The Florida Prison Strike AKA:Operation PUSH

Good info on the Florida Prison Strike, which has been using Operation PUSH as its hashtag on IG. I think Operation PUSH was Jesse Jackson’s organization back in the ’70’s — but this isn’t connected, just using the name. Angela Davis has spoken out in support of the strike, and some other people are getting on board. I’m not sure about Jackson.

Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons.

#FightToxicPrisons

Updates on Operation PUSH in the Florida Department of Corrections

(Posted on SPARC 1/19/18. This link will get updated as new information comes in. Please send any news, photos, or videos to FightToxicPrisons@gmail.com)

gainesvillemlkbannerSupporters of Operation PUSH prisoners march among hundreds in local MLK parade, Gainesville, FL, Jan 15, 2018.

It’s been a hard silence for the past 5 days since Operation PUSH launched a statewide prisoner strike in the FL Department of Corrections prison system (FDOC or FDC) coinciding with Martin Luther King Day.

Information from prisoners is coming in at a much slower pace than people on the outside had anticipated, but reports are slowly and steadily making their way through the walls, despite many obstacles.

Thus far, we’ve heard from prisoners that there has been active participation or repression of some sort in the following prisons: Santa Rosa, Jackson, Gulf, Hamilton, Avon Park, Franklin, Holmes, Everglades, Reception…

View original post 1,294 more words

Tulsi Gabbard on N. Korea

Tulsi Gabbard nails the North Korea situation in an interview with George Stephanopoulos…

She accurately blames the US pursuit of Empire for the Korean nuclear threat. Just like most every other country in the world, the Koreans are more militarized and more dangerous to world peace because THEY FEAR THE U.S.

How anyone can seriously doubt that is beyond me.

We continue to de-stablize the world and then blame the victims.

Caitlyn Johnstone lays it all out here.

Tulsi Gabbard is probably the only member of Congress who gets Empire. She is also probably the most radical member of Congress. She’s not perfect on everything, but she’s certainly beginning to understand the realities of power in the world.

 

Too Much.

I think the idiot in the white house has stepped over the line with his latest comments about “shit-hole” countries.

Even though there is no longer a line, or at least we thought there was no longer a line to step over because he had obliterated all expectation of decency or even rationality from the person who supposedly represents our country.

But, for me there is a line. He has stepped over my line.

I can no longer sit and remain silent in the presence of anyone — anyone — who countenances him as worthy of respect or even as worthy of being given the benefit of the doubt. I will say, and repeat, to anyone who may still be in that state of delusion — are there still people that stupid and deluded? — I will say to them, he is an idiot and a crass, ignorant asshole of the highest degree.

I suppose this is particularly offensive to me because I have friends from Haiti, wonderful people who I know are hurt by such ignorant comments.

I think it may be over lots of people’s lines as well, since several mainstream commentators are calling him on it.

For one, Anderson Cooper said, “Not racial. Not racially charged. Racist… The sentiment the President expressed today is a racist sentiment.”

Cooper also called the president “woefully ignorant” about the contributions of Haitians and Africans and other non-white countries of the world.

Esquire’s Jack Holmes also sees the comment as “a crystalizing moment for observers.” He laments the “continued damage this disgrace of a presidency is doing to the image and reputation of the United States…” and points to comments from other world leaders to support this.

Cooper also quotes my recent favorite writer, James Baldwin, as saying that “ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

And Holmes says this quote has never been more prescient.

Yes, Mr. Holmes, Baldwin is our most profound critic and prophet.

Holmes also indicts the president for his idiocy.

Holmes said, “The president is profoundly ignorant in any number of ways. He is almost completely incurious about the world. He has no real knowledge or expertise, and often disdains those who do. He does not read books—or newspapers, or much of anything else—and before he became president, he rarely traveled abroad despite his substantial means. He is wary of the world outside of own properties, and possibly afraid of it.”

Which sums it up nicely. In fact, perhaps too nicely.

There’s ignorant and there’s willfully ignorant.

I think the president falls into the latter group.

As Holmes says, it’s the president’s racism that leads him to these conclusions and allows him to “dismiss the contributions of people who come to America from these countries and their children. Just take Haiti: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roxane Gay, Wyclef Jean, and Mia Love (the first black female Republican elected to Congress) are all Haitian-Americans. Do their stories and accomplishments count for nothing because we have elected a president who simply doesn’t know anything, and cares less?”

In an even more detailed and explicit exposure of the extent of the ignorance of the president and his defenders, Jonathan Katz, who has written a book about Haiti, lays out the history and the complicity of the “white” nations in creating the poverty that plagues Haiti today.

Katz, who tweets as #KatzOnEarth, laid it out in a thread Jan. 11:

“In order to do a victory lap around the GDP difference between, say, Norway and Haiti, you have to know nothing about the history of the world. That includes, especially, knowing nothing real about the history of the United States.

You have to not understand anything about the systematic theft of African bodies and lives. And you have to not understand how that theft built the wealth we have today in Europe and the US.

You’d have to not know that the French colony that became Haiti provided the wealth that fueled the French Empire — and 2/3 of the sugar and 3/4 of the coffee that Europe consumed.

You’d have to not know how rich slave traders got off their system of kidnapping, rape, and murder.

You’d have to not realize that Haiti was founded in a revolution against that system, and that European countries and the United States punished them for their temerity by refusing to recognize or trade with them for decades.

You’d have to not know that Haiti got recognition by agreeing to pay 150 million gold francs to French landowners in compensation for their own freedom.

You’d have to not know that Haiti paid it, and that it took them almost all of the 19th century to do so.

You’d then have to not know that Haiti was forced to borrow some money to pay back that ridiculous debt, some of it from banks in the United States. And you’d have to not know that in 1914 those banks got President Wilson to send the US Marines to empty the Haitian gold reserve.

.@RichLowry would have to not know about the chaos that ensued, and the 19-year US military occupation of Haiti that followed (at a time when the US was invading and occupying much of Central America and the Caribbean).

He and others have to not know about the rest of the 20th century either—the systematic theft and oppression, US support for dictators and coups, the US invasions of Haiti in 1994-95 and 2004 … the use of the IMF and World Bank to impose new loans and destructive trade policies, including the now-famous rice tariff gutting that Bill Clinton apologized for but had been a policy since Reagan, and on and on …

And you’d have to understand nothing about why the US (under George W. Bush) pushed for and paid a quarter of the UN “stabilization mission” that did little but keep Haiti’s presidents from being overthrown and kill 10,000 people by dumping cholera in its rivers. Etc.

In short, you’d have to know nothing about WHY Haiti is poor (or El Salvador in kind), and WHY the United States (and Norway) are wealthy. But far worse than that, you’d have to not even be interested in asking the question.

And that’s where they really tell on themselves …

Because what they are showing is that they ASSUME that Haiti is just naturally poor, that it’s an inherent state borne of the corruption of the people there, in all senses of the word.  And let’s just say out loud why that is: It’s because Haitians are black.”

I think this pretty well indicts as racist anyone who defends the president to any degree.

Katz nails the argument:

“If Haiti is a shithole, then they can say that black freedom and sovereignty are bad. They can hold it up as proof that white countries—and what’s whiter than Norway—are better, because white people are better.

They wanted that in 1804, and in 1915, and they want it now.

So if anyone tonight tries to trap you in a contest of “where would you rather live”—or “what about cholera” or “yeah but isn’t poverty bad?”—ask them what they know about how things got that way.

And then ask them why they’re ok with it.

Which is what I’m committing to do.