Category Archives: James Baldwin

Here’s a thought and a prayer

I went to bed thinking about the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.  There was talk of a racist manifesto and the murderer writing about the “invasion of Hispanics.”  El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen told reporters, “(It has) a nexus to potential hate crime.”  #WhiteSupremacistTerrorism was trending on Twitter.  This morning, #TrumpsTerrorists has replaced it.  Not surprisingly, persons are linking the 250th mass shooting in America to Trump’s racist rhetoric and the racists chants that followed from the crowd at a North Carolina rally.

The investigation is only beginning.  We don’t even know the names of his victims.  In fact, we know more about the gun he used.  And of course, there are “thoughts and prayers” being offered to the victims and their families.  This word combination has become problematic for many, representing inaction and more of the same from political leaders regarding gun laws.  All talk and no action.

Before persons were finished formulating their responses, finishing up their interviews on local and national news outlets regarding the shooting in El Paso, I wake up to news of yet another in Dayton, Ohio.  It is mass shooting number 251 in 216 days.  We are killing more than days we are living.  And these murders are not the only thing that is on the rise.  Time magazine wrote that white supremacist attacks are increasing in March of this year after mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand where at least 50 people were murdered.

White supremacy.  George Frederickson wrote in his book White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History, “White supremacy refers to the attitudes, ideologies and policies associated with the rise of blatant forms of white or European dominance over ‘nonwhite’ populations.  In other words, it involves making the invidious distinctions of a socially crucial kind that are based primarily, if not exclusively, on physical characteristics and ancestry. … It suggests systematic and self- conscious efforts to make race or color a qualification for membership in the civil community ” (Frederickson, xi).  Let me stop here and give you a few thoughts.

Ian Haney Lopez writes in White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race in an introduction titled “Notes on Whiteness, “Whiteness is contingent, changeable, partial, inconstant and ultimately social. … Whiteness (is) a complex, falsely homogenizing term” (Haney Lopez, xxi).  He writes later in a chapter titled “White Lines,” “Appearances and origins are not White or non- White in any natural or pre- social way.  Rather, White is a figure of speech, a social convention read from looks.  As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes, ‘Who has seen a black or red person, a white, yellow or brown?  These terms are arbitrary constructs, not reports of reality'” (Haney Lopez, 12).

David Roediger writes in The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, “White labor does not just receive and resist racist ideas but embraces, adopts, and at times, murderously acts upon those ideas.  The problem is not just that the white working class is at critical junctures manipulated into racism, but that it comes to think of itself and its interests as white” (Roediger, 12).

Nell Painter writes in The History of White People, “Were there ‘whites’ in antiquity? … No, for neither the idea of race nor the idea of ‘white’ people had been invented, and people’s skin color did not carry useful meaning” (Painter, 1).

James Baldwin pointedly says, “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.”   He also said this in The Price of a Ticket in 1985, “The reality, the depth, and the persistence of the delusion of white supremacy in this country causes any real concept of education to be as remote and as much to be feared, as change or freedom itself.”

Whatever is true and liberating, whatever is authentic and facilitates our wholeness, whatever makes peace and increases our fellowship, whatever keeps the lies of whiteness and race away, let us think on these things.  And then let us pray like Frederick Douglass who said: “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Keep it moving.  Amen.

Infestation

It is the word that the so-called president of the United States used to describe the city of Baltimore while attacking Congressman Elijah Cummings.  Trump wrote on his official Twitter account: “Cummings’ district is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous and filthy place. No human being would want to live there.”

Victor Blackwell, a CNN journalist, later recounted the disturbing pattern of the use of the word when Trump is talking of persons not socially colored white.  Blackwell is in tears at the end.  Baltimore is his hometown.  There are human being there that he knows and loves.

Infestation.  Such an interesting choice of words.  Of all the words at Trump’s disposal, he chooses this one again and again.  It harkens back to Nazi Germany and its use of propaganda to re-create the Jewish people as the enemy.  Its leaders chose this word too.  This word is on the side of extermination.

We would do well to stamp out its use.

Persons who would employ the term or speak indifferently about its use are not students of history and have not considered the danger of having a full circle moment.  Author and activist, James Baldwin wrote in an essay titled “On Being White… And Other Lies,” “… America has paid the highest and most extraordinary price for becoming white.”  Who one has to reject and how often the distance between us and them must be created in order to be accepted into this exclusive community is incalculable.  But, also, how far removed one is from their true self.

White is a lie.  There is no being in it and no belonging for any culture of the world.  Baldwin says, “America became white– the people who, as they claim, ‘settled’ the country became white– because of the necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying black subjugation.  No community can be based on such a principle– or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie.”  No human beings can live here.

Infestation.  It’s more than a word.  It is the subtle suggestion of an act so egregious but necessary for the protection of the lie of whiteness.  And it is no little white lie for millions of lives are a stake.

You’re not race-less yet?

UnknownStill signing up and showing up for the role of colored people, black, brown, red, yellow, white and otherwise?  Well, here are a few words of wisdom from two of my favorite writers to get you to choose differently and to say something more about who you are as a human being.  Because race is just a word albeit systematized, politicized, capitalized on.

But there are many other words that can be said about us and our neighbor.  We need only seek them out and speak them out loud.  A new tongue is required along with a taste for full freedom and authentic being. It’s a stretch to get our mouths around words like racelessness and aracial; however, it is well worth it.  For if we are to build another world, it will require new words that equip new structures on which to construct our shared humanity.

Anyone who knows me at all, knows that James Baldwin is a must in this conversion experience.  This master- teacher, healer and word- therapist says,

“If you’re treated a certain way, you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real, they’re real for you– whether they’re real or not.”

“From my point of view, no label, no slogan, no party, no skin color, and indeed no religion is more important than the human being.”

“What you say about anybody else reveals you.”

“It is not a romantic matter. It is the unutterable truth: all men are brothers. That’s the bottom line.”

“The American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible.”

“What one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, without knowing that this is the result of it, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.”

Zora Neale Hurston is another deliverer from this death of individuality.  She says,

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

“Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less.”

“For various reasons, the average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America. His revelation to the public is the thing needed to do away with that feeling of difference which inspires fear, and which ever expresses itself in dislike.”

“At certain times, I have no race.  I am me.  I belong to no race or time.”

Are you race-less yet?  If not, say these words again… and again until they become your own.

 

Marching Orders

Feet to pavement, people are marching all over the country.  Every month, there seems to be a new outcry.  Life in America has become one of continual outrage.  Speaking for one segment of the population and at a time that doesn’t seem too distant now, James Baldwin stated quite emphatically, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

This generation commands us, “Stay woke.”  Or, keep watch.  But, like Jesus’s sleepy- headed disciples, we yawn, stretch and get comfortable again.  Because it is easier to slumber than to resist.  We won’t put up a fight even when we know it is right— not for Jesus or justice.  We go down easy and are asleep before the coverage of the march begins.

Tired of praying hands, we fold them.  Tired of shaking hands, we hold them to our side.  We hold our position and won’t budge an inch.  No compromise.  “No, you come over to our side.”

We become the wall that we don’t want built.  We keep each other out of our lives long before we talk of kicking them out of “our country.”  But, we have been this way before; this feels like a revolving door.  We put exit signs on dirt, on God’s earth.  “Where do we go from here?”

It seems that we are going in circles or perhaps, our issues are cyclical.  They come around again for each generation to face and to speak to.  Marching around the walls of hatred, bigotry, violence, economic exploitation and oppression, we ask ourselves, “When will it end?”  It will come down, just one more round.  Keep it moving.  Don’t give up now.

Blood spilled, the ground cries out and we come to its aid.  It is a natural reaction. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  It speaks to us, which is why we put our foot down.

Marching orders our lives.  One step in front of the other, it is the dutiful procession of discipleship.  “Onward, Christian soldiers,” the hymn writer sang.  Because we are not following Jesus down a yellow brick road but to the cross.

His way is one of suffering and yes, death.  Don’t expect the full support of any one.  The crowds will turn on you.  Just ask Jesus.  Quite literally, they are eating out of his hands one minute and they are nailing them down in the next.  But, he did not back down or back up and neither should we.

You have your orders; now march.

James Baldwin on “America’s ‘race problem'”

Today is the birthday of writer, activist and artist, James Baldwin.  Today, I salute his courageous questioning of the social construct of race, the distance between race and human identity.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the words and witness of Mr. James Baldwin.