Category Archives: Race and Literature

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.


We are responsible for the racist

“…I am aware that no man is a villain in his own eyes.  Something in the man knows– must know– that what he is doing is evil; but in order to accept the knowledge the man would have to change.  What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally to madness.  The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats the crimes and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe.

But if it is true and I believe it is, that all men are brothers, then we have the duty to try to understand this wretched man; and while we probably cannot hope to liberate him, begin working toward the liberation of his children.  For we, the American people, have created him, he is our servant; it is we who put the cattleprodder in his hands, and we are responsible for the crimes that he commits.  It is we who have locked him in the prison of his color.

It is we who have persuaded him that Negroes are worthless human beings and that it is his sacred duty, as a white man, to protect the honor and purity of his tribe.  It is we who have forbidden him, on the pain of exclusion from the tribe, to accept his beginnings when he and black people love each other, and rejoice in them, and use them; it is we who have made it mandatory– honorable– that white father should deny black son.  These are grave crimes indeed and we have committed them and continue to commit them in order to make money.”

These are the words of the incomparable James Baldwin as written in his notes for Blues for Mister Charlie, a play based loosely on the tragic killing of Emmett Till and set in Plaguetown, U.S.A.  Baldwin writes, “The plague is race, the plague is our concept of Christianity: and this raging plague has the power to destroy every human relationship.”

While bound by the social categories of race in his descriptions, James Baldwin looses the reader in ways that I have not seen since.  While persons are not able to see the vision of a post- racial America, he offers, at least for me, a glimpse of things to come.  I believe that there is a cure for this plague and if we do not seek it and find it, race will destroy our ability to belong to ourselves and to each other.

But, as Baldwin points out, we must first take responsibility for what we have created.  We created race.  We spread it.  We were the cause for its outbreak.  We have done this to ourselves.

This is what I want to hear from others: “I take responsibility for my part in the spread of race and its traditions of hatred, bullying, exclusion and social favoritism.”  We cannot begin to talk about what “they” did to us, if we are not first willing to discuss and be held accountable for what we have done to ourselves.  What are you and I doing about race?

I am so tired of the blame game, of race cards, of pointing fingers, of playing the victim.  We made up these rules.  We sell the tickets and make a profit.  We sit in the stands, cheer and jeer.  We pick sides.  We train and coach and referee.  We keep score day after day after day.

And yes, we are responsible for the racist, the racist you and the racist me.  Baldwin concludes his notes writing, “We are walking in terrible darkness here and this is one man’s attempt to bear witness to the reality and power of light.”  Shine on me, Baldwin.  Shine on me.