Tag Archives: James Baldwin

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.

 

Lynching, nooses and the violence of silence

Image result for national museum of african american history pictureJames Baldwin looked down at the red clay hills of Georgia and thought “that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that dripped down from the trees.”  That lynching is a part of America’s troubled history cannot be overstated and yet it is not often talked about.  Still, Billie Holiday sang of its Black bodies in the Southern breeze fruit: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ blood on the leaves/ blood at the root/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…”

It’s unspeakable history was captured in Philip Dray’s At the hands of persons unknown: The Lynching of Black America where he writes:

“Discerning who and what type of person took part in lynchings is made difficult by the fact that those who carried out the extralegal punishments were pointedly anonymous.  This was both practical— it protected lynchers from arrest and prosecution— and symbolic, in that the lynching was seen as a conservative act, a defense of the status quo.  The coroner’s inevitable verdict, ‘Death at the hands of persons unknown,’ affirmed the public’s tacit complicity; no persons had committed a crime, because the lynching had been an expression of the community’s will” (ix).

The community’s will was to terrorize, oppress and punish African Americans without judicial process.  Persons were often kidnapped from their homes or taken from their prison cells in an effort to get justice for the wronged, offended and in some cases, jealous.  For African Americans who would hold their heads high with dignity or pride, they could often be found with their heads in nooses, bodies mutilated, entrails exposed.  They had to be brought low in order to maintain the status quo of white power and privilege.

The savage murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen- year- old from Chicago who was visiting family in Money, Mississippi, drew national attention and energized the Civil Rights Movement.  Accused of whistling at a socially colored white woman, he would be silenced for good.  He would receive a kind of southern justice while his killers would go free.

Lynching, nooses, the silence and secrecy that surrounds this communal violence is not often talked about, at least not cross- culturally.  And yet it is our silence that keeps the cycle going and it is not for the absence of words.  For African Americans, Dayton shares, “Almost every black American family has a story in its history of an ancestor who ‘come up missing,’ who vanished into that empty place— the rural crossroads or rail siding, the bayou or jail cell— where the South at times sought to resolve its most intractable ‘problem.’”  The historical unjust treatment of African and later African American bodies is more American than apple pie and baseball.  The understanding that life for socially colored black bodies will not be easy and the need to temper your children for fear of retaliation from persons in power dates back to the days of slavery.

Watching our mouths, not thinking to highly of ourselves has been handed down as a survival techniques.  Smiling and laughing despite what is being said about us or to us was said to spare the feelings of those socially colored white and the lives of those socially colored black.  It is a delicate balance but forgetting one’s place in the hierarchy of race is dangerous.

The noose is a reminder that the law is not on the side of African Americans but in the hands of the executioner.  It is no wonder then the great distrust that African Americans have of the legal system.  Also, with police officers sometimes doubling as members of the Ku Klux Klan, it is not hard to understand the historical and racialized criminalization of socially colored black bodies.

African Americans cannot afford the luxury of hoping that persons will assume that they are a good person and too often the benefit of the doubt is lost in the first exchange.  The belief in the social construct of race and the threat of socially colored black bodies continues.  Ironically, it is this body that is threatened, singled out and sorted out as the problem.

But, why all of this talk about nooses and lynching?  It is so dark and depressing.  It was so long ago, right?  Well, I had no plans to discuss it.  However, it seems that there are those who it to be a part of our conversation, at least those who visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  A noose was left there today.

And don’t say it is the action of one.  Don’t give them the benefit of anonymity.  “At the hands of persons unknown” will not do.  No, we must seek them out.  Call them out.

Because this is not just some terrible act, some heinous symbol.  But, it is a sign of unbridled terrorism.  And it is a reminder to all those who claim Africa as their home and the source of their heritage that your body is not safe, that your body must bow to white supremacy or it will hang.

A noose in the National Museum of African American History and Culture reminds us that this form of hatred, this kind of unfounded vengeance upon the African American body is still desired by some, that the crowd is only a few steps away.  It is only waiting for people to go silent.

The noose around one American strangles us all.

 

Suggested Readings

Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States 1889-1919, (New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1919).

Ann Alexander, “Like an Evil Wind: The Roanoke Riot of 1893 and the Lynching of Thomas Smith,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 100 (1992): 173-206.

Shawn Leigh Alexander, “Vengeance without Justice, Injustice without Retribution: The Afro-American Council’s Struggle against Racial Violence,” Great Plains Quarterly 27, no. 2 (2007): 117-33.

Sandy Alexandre, The Properties of Violence: Claims to Ownership in Representations of Lynching (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012).

James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Sante Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000).

Devery S. Anderson, Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2015).

J. Brown, “Philosophy of Lynching,” The Voice of the Negro 1, no. 11 (1904): 555-59.

John E. Bruce, The Blood Red Record (Albany: Argus Company, 1900).

George W. Chamlee, “Is Lynching Ever Defensible?,” Forum  (1927).

Frederick Douglass, “Lynching Black People Because They Are Black,” Christian Educator 5, no. 3 (1894): 95-108.

Philip Dray, At the hands of persons unknown: The Lynching of Black America, (New York: The Modern Library, 2002).

Jacqueline Denise Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Trudier Harris-Lopez, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984).

Karlos K. Hill, Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Cultural Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America, 1st ed. (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

Michael J. Pfeifer, “The Ritual of Lynching: Extralegal Justice in Missouri, 1890-1942,” Gateway Heritage 13 (1993): 22-33.

Mamie Till-Mobley, and Chris Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America, 1st ed. (New York: Random House, 2003).

 

 

 

 

Full of Ourselves

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“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”

{Philippians 2.5-11, NRSV}

We have begun our annual religious diet, giving up chocolate, carbonated drinks and meat— not to be closer to Jesus but to our high school weight, to fit into clothing that we refuse to return to the store, to take better physical care of ourselves.  We want our bodies to be a number; it is a kind of scorecard, a rating system, a place holder— small, medium, large, extra- large— but Jesus is not a fitness trainer.  Looking at our waistband instead of his hands, we turn over our plate.

We have given up television or social media—not to spend more time with God but to catch up on sleep, to squeeze in more work or to create distance between us and Trump’s tweets, this barrage of policies, finger- pointing, dodging questions, blame-shifting, baiting and switching the subject from Russia to “Ooh.  Look!  What’s that?”, political commandeering, wall- building, healthcare repealing and replacing, Muslim banning, immigrant- deporting, hate crime rising and a marathon run of lies.  We turn over our phones because we cannot stomach it all.

Because the White House is currently the location for a reality television show and he is concerned about the numbers: electoral college votes, crowd sizes and the ratings on Celebrity Apprentice.  But, who else is still counting and what does it all add up to anyway?

Christ is empty.  And he will be laid bare.  The crowd voted to crucify him.  The majority wins.  The big I’s have it though God came as a little you.

I don’t care how we attempt to square it; there are no more little white lies.  No, this current administration has given up truth.  While this practice began long before Lent, their refusal to call “a spade a spade,” to reconsider comments, to retract statements, to offer or accept correction is a lesson in pride.  And I, for one, am sick of the look of it.

So confident that they are right and everyone else is wrong.  So invested in the rule of their reality that they are willing to lose integrity.  So far removed that I am uncertain of who would pull us back from the edge of this daily cliff hanger.  Because pride comes before a fall (Proverb 16.18).

No amount of water will wash our hands of this.

And while the government is an easy target; I would be remised if I did not point out the bull’s eye on our own backs.  For he is not the only one who is full of himself.  I fear that he is a mirror, a reflection which looks uncomfortably familiar.  Because it is too easy to say, “I don’t recognize him or this is not what I voted for” than to say, “I have seen this behavior before—not just in history but in my house.”

Pride is not just for American presidents or overzealous patriots but regular folks like you and me.  It is the American way— to be self- absorbed, self- satisfied, full of ourselves.  And we will need to turn over more than our plates or our phones to be emptied of this arrogance and conceit.  It is a part of the American myth that we are superior, that there are first and third world countries, that there are minority and majority peoples.

Unlike Christ, we are not equal with God but many of us will find it difficult to empty ourselves.  Instead, we will empty our refrigerator, our closet, our phone contacts.  Though Augustine said, “It was pride that changed angels into devils (and) it is humility that makes men angels,” we will struggle to take ourselves down a peg or two, to stop striving to be at the top of the hill, the top of the heap, to top of the crab barrel.  We will keep clawing because this point touches us too closely.

James Baldwin wrote in 1959, “Someone once said to me that the people in general cannot bear very much reality.  He meant by this that they prefer the fantasy to a truthful recreation of their experience.”  Not to worry, my meditation is nearing its end.  But, could it be that we cannot bear too much of Jesus?  Or, that we don’t have much room for Jesus?

We did not expect him to take up so much space.  We move over and Jesus nudges us.  We slide down and Jesus’ leg still bumps ours.  We talk to Jesus on Sunday and he still has more to say to us.

Because we are called to be filled to overflowing with his living water.   But, if we are honest, we would rather be full of ourselves.  Or, worse still, we have confused ourselves with him.  It is a mistaken identity.

Because emptying is spilling our guts, pouring our hearts out, crying our eyes out, handing over our hubris, exchanging our ego for Imago Dei, hiding behind his cross and not our social ladders.

Lent is a time when we “clean up real nice.”  We get our spiritual act together to put on a good show.  Easter is around the corner and the pews will be filled.  We want to look good in front of company.  Slimmer and well- rested, our forty- day challenge is over.  We will return to our plates and phones, our appetite in that moment will determine what we are full of.

_______________

* I shared this meditation with the Baptist Women in Ministry leadership team this afternoon.  We are meeting in Cullman, Alabama at the Sacred Heart Monastery.

The Lie of Race

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“White people have not always been ‘white,’ nor will they always be ‘white.’  It is a political alliance.  Things will change.”

 {Amoja Three Rivers}

I begin with whiteness because all of the other social colors define themselves by it.  In fact, the other social colors exist for it.  Whiteness depends on blackness, for example, for it is the existence of blackness, synonymous with evil and darkness, that calls for whiteness.  Whiteness is then needed to right the wrong and to stamp out the darkness.

In order for the socially constructed white identity to be the standard of good, there must be one or more identities that are the definition of bad.  Whiteness is then seen as a necessity and then divinized.  But, you can’t have one without the other.  We cannot have whiteness without the “other.”

Or, whiteness is defined as exclusively good, permitting no other social colors to join its group.  “If you’re white, you’re right.  If you’re black, stay back.”

James Baldwin called it “the lie of whiteness.”  And I would agree but I would push us just a little bit further.  I would call blackness and with it, all the other social colors a lie.  Consequently, I declare that the social construct of race is a lie, that there is no truth it, no redeeming characteristics or qualities.

I will never understand why we believed the lie to begin with or how we traded our humanity for hue.  I join with Charles Chestnut who asked in 1889, “What is a white man? ” No, really what is a white man?  Who is a white man?

Because God’s purpose for humanity is not color- coded: “If you’re white…” No, God’s purpose is eternal, not based on physical features tied to social contracts.  “If you’re black…”

Race is a lie; don’t try to make a believer out of God.

Getting away from race

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“Someone once said to me that the people in general cannot bear very much reality.  He meant by this that they prefer fantasy to a truthful recreation of their experience.”

~ James Baldwin, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes,” 1959

In recent days, I have been reading the writings of noted author James Baldwin.  Partly redirected to his perspective after watching “I Am Not Your Negro,” a new film based on his unfinished book, I am trying to make sense of this present reality.  But, I am also at a loss for words while in need of a strong defense so as not to be sucked into this alternate reality.

I need to hear the truth, to be reassured that it exists as I have never witnessed people so devoted to a leader that they are willing to accept egregious errors, to make his enemies their own, to attack anyone who disagrees with him.  To be sure, I have read about it but I have not lived through it and I need coping skills.  My feelings are similar to when I learned of the murders of nine members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina at the hands of Dylan Roof.

I was not prepared for my reaction.  I was angry but not for the reasons that I would have suspected.  I was angry because it had happened again and in my mind, it wasn’t suppose to.  “Don’t we all know that this is wrong now?”

The answer was too much for me to bear.  I didn’t speak for days.  There was no explanation for this.  “Don’t tell me about his belief in white supremacy.  There is no reason to shoot nine bowed heads, nine praying heads, to kill people in church or any other place.”

This was too familiar.  The address had changed but the attack was the same.  I had learned about the deaths of the four little girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama but that was different.  They were in a book that I could finish reading and close.  That was American history– not America at present.  The lie of our progression came crashing down on my head.

This was happening right now and was being recorded in me.  I didn’t want the words.  Sure, I could close the book but I could not close my eyes.  I thought that I had gotten much farther away from race.  However, the daily headlines were pulling me closer still.

Travel bans, the arrest of “illegal immigrants,” the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, a rise in hate crimes and white supremacist groups, I don’t know how long I can last under this administration.  I know that I do not prefer the fantasy, that I need to hear the truth about my reality and to find the words lost in these moments.  This morning, I am wondering about whiteness, what it means to be an American and if we will ever get away from race.

I don’t want to take a vacation from race.  I don’t want to go on a trip to separate myself from it.  Because I am not the one who needs to leave; instead, I want to know how long I will have to live with this… this lie, this abuse, this power struggle?  Is there no secret panel, no back door, no way out of this social contract?

Because this is not working for me.  So, why does it work for so many others?  Why are there not more persons seeking to get away from race?