Tag Archives: James Baldwin

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.

 

James Baldwin talks about race as “a frame of reference”

The most common question I get asked is, “How do you not see race?”  Mystified, irritated, doubtful, persons look at me and wonder how does it happen.  Or they think, “What world are you living in?  Not the real one.  Don’t you see what is happening?”

I am treated like a madwoman.  They shake their heads or wave me off.  “She doesn’t know what she is talking about.”  They confuse racelessness with colorblindness or post- racialism.  No, I’m talking about life before race. I am pre- racial: “For it was you who formed me in my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139.13, NRSV).  I am not choosing one side over the other; I am aracial, neither accepting or desiring the racial nomenclature.

But, I don’t think these people hear me.  Like a cure for cancer or discovering the fountain of youth, solving the race problem is talked about as if a miracle or mythical.  Like parting seas, parting ways with race only seems possible with Divine intervention or some superb detective work.  To be sure, God has stepped in.  But, it also requires a change in the way that we talk about race.   We have to work out our salvation (Philippians 2.12).

And therein lies part of how it happens.  Talking about race as the problem and not our selves is a good place to start.  Because many of us talk about race as if we are afraid of what it will do to us.  We speak well of race though it does not return the favor.  Why?  It is only our tongues that are far- reaching.  We are who we say we are.

This is an agreement, a social contract.  Because race is not an absolute.  We give it meaning and make it meaningful.  We tell generation after generation we have a deal.

Aime Cesaire is right: “It is equally necessary to decolonize our minds, our inner life, at the same time that we decolonize society.”  Because there is a Pharaoh in our heads too.  Race is a mind game.

James Baldwin realized this.  In an interview with Margaret Mead captured in the book A Rap on Race, after Mead talks of an instance when race completely slipped her mind, Baldwin says,

“But, of course.  That’s what I mean when I say… when I hear ‘Ignore race.’  Well, it took me a long time to do that, and perhaps, I would never have been able to do it if I hadn’t left America.  I know I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t left America.  It was a great revelation for me when I found myself finally in France among all kinds of very different people– I mean, at least different from my point of view and different from anybody I had met in America.  And I realized one day that somebody asked about a friend of mine who, in fact, when I thought about it, is probably North African, but I really did not remember whether he was black or white.  It simply had never occurred to me.  The question had never been in my mind.  Never in my mind.

I really had a terrible time.  I suddenly felt as though I were lost.  My whole frame of reference all the years I was growing up had been black and white.  You know, you always knew who was white and who was black.  But suddenly I didn’t have it; suddenly the frame of reference had gone.  And in a funny way– and I don’t know how to make sense of this– as far as I could tell, as far as I can tell till this hour, once that has happened to you, it never comes back.

Mead: I had to make it come back.

Baldwin: Well, I came home.”

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

Image result for the sin of pride

“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.

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* 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.