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

Gendered language

A really interesting post on Medium today from my online friend Allison Washington.

Languages in Gender Transition

There are so many things we find issue with in the Anglo culture, but as this makes clear, we are far from the worst in terms of the rigidity of binary gender in our language… and as goes language, so goes culture often. So at least there’s hope for this Anglo Western culture growing past our hetero-normative binary assumptions.

For some others, it seems unlikely that progress will come in that direction anytime this century.

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

 

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.

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.

Power moves

Most of the problematic tendencies in our disaster-prone society seem to be aspects of one simple principle: being willing to use your power to gain more power is the way to success and general approbation.

I suppose this is an unsupported generalization, and that I’m painting things with a broad brush. I’d certainly be hard-pressed to come up with a large array of supporting instances of this principle, but it is an idea that’s been growing in my mind for some time now.

The most recent events on the national stage that have brought this up for me are the Republican tax bill, which they’ve finally managed to pass–an act of pure power in itself–and the flurry of defensive rationalizations around the men who’ve been accused of sexual predation. Though these two things seem to be unrelated, they share an etiology: abuse of power.

The tax bill is essentially a bold, crass move by the people who hold the reigns of power in the U.S. (the wealthy owner class, not the pathetic politicians who do their bidding for the crumbs from the table) to consolidate their gains as they become more and more in control of everything. They don’t really need more money, but they have an insatiable need for power, and that’s what control of so much of our national wealth gives them: nearly unlimited power. Including the power to keep us convinced that it’s in our interest.

Why they want this power is a question for deeper psycho-social analysis than I’m equipped to make, but it seems to be a product of some pretty deep-seated emotional hurt and fear that just grows as it is fed. I’ve long been convinced that most anger and hatred and evil-doing is based in fear, which usually has come from some kind of hurt. Like most of our negative psychological states, when we feed it the emotional poison of exerting our will over that of another, the negative state grows and requires bigger and bigger doses of power to assuage the pain.

In the same way, the sexual predators are not really interested in sex, they’re much more into the wielding of power over others, because that’s what seems to satisfy the need for self-reification and aggrandizement that drives them. Since sex is, in some ways, the ultimate thing one can give another person, it’s also the ultimate thing one can forcibly take from another person when one has some kind of power over them.

I can’t imagine how such so-called sex could actually bring the kind of gratification that sex does, because in these kinds of forced sex, one would be aware that the only reason it was happening was because of the power relationship. The truly bonding and gratifying aspects of sex, the source of the happiness it brings, are that it is freely engaged in between people who love and appreciate each other and who give of themselves to each other. Willingly. Elements which are totally lacking in forced sex.

Whether the power is physical, as in the normal idea of rape, or some kind of control over the conditions of the others’ life, as with bosses or directors or such relationships, it’s still power, and it’s the abuse of that power that is wrong.

Putting the other person in the position of having to make a difficult decision… assent or lose a vital job, role, or other aspect of ones life, that is the crux of what makes this behavior wrong. Saying, as some defenders have, that the victim should have ‘just said no’ or some other facile notion of resistance and refusal, ignores the true nature of the power relationship between the perpetrator and the victim in these cases.

Digging into this national pathology is painful, but it seems necessary if we are to grow and develop in constructive ways as a society.