Thursday, June 30, 2016

Bag O' Books: James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time"

I came to this book after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me", which a number of reviews suggested followed in Baldwin's footsteps. It's true there are similarities — both relatively short, yet incisive, essays on what it's like to live as a black man in America — but there are differences: Baldwin's book is written when (in 1963) it seems like white supremacy in America might be undone; perhaps as a result, it's a more hopeful book than what Coates delivered. Which is an odd thing to say about a book that remains bracing, angry, and uncompromising after all these years.

A few quotes from the book that seem relevant to our current discussions. These are all taken from the second part of the book, ""Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind":

• On American — and Christian — morality:
From my own point of view, the fact of the Third Reich alone makes obsolete forever any question of Christian superiority, except in technological terms. White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded— at least, in the same way.
One thing about Coates' book is that he does not wish to leave his readers comfortable in the usual assumptions about America. "America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization," Coates writes, and then — seemingly, sneers: "One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error."

 Americans like to think of themselves as the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human beings the world has met. The African Americans of Baldwin's generation didn't agree — and indeed, often saw the difference between America and Nazi Germany as one of degree, not kind. That's tough to deal with.

 • About the nature of reality and perception:
Every American Negro, therefore, risks having the gates of paranoia close on him. In a society that is entirely hostile, and, by its nature, seems determined to cut you down— that has cut down so many in the past and cuts down so many every day— it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish a real from a fancied injury.
This seems relevant in light of how the Black Lives Matter movement came to life after the events in Ferguson, Mo. Conservatives and police supporters repeatedly note that state and federal investigations failed to find wrongdoing by Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, they point out. So a movement meant to protect African Americans from police brutality and overreach, they suggest, is essentially based on a falsehood.

 But that view misses an important point: The Justice Department, examining Ferguson Police, found that the department's civil rights abuses were widespread and systematic. Police supporters would have you believe Ferguson's residents suffered a "fancied injury" — and it's easy enough to portray it as such. But the problem with Ferguson police did not begin and end with Michael Brown. It was not crazy nor illegitimate nor unreasonable for the city's residents to believe they'd been violated again, to have finally hit their breaking point. If it wasn't him, it would've been some other incident.

One other thing: Americans live in a country where within living memory the government let black men go untreated for syphilis — using those men as unwitting lab rats, so little were their lives valued. This, after 300 years of Jim Crow, slavery and the like — why wouldn't you be ready to presume the truth about the worst, craziest things said about white people and what they would do to black people? How would you distinguish a real from a fancied injury?

• On what's next:
We should certainly know by now that it is one thing to overthrow a dictator or repel an invader and quite another thing really to achieve a revolution. Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of yet another Pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go. Perhaps, people being the conundrums that they are, and having so little desire to shoulder the burden of their lives, this is what will always happen. But at the bottom of my heart I do not believe this. I think that people can be better than that, and I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.
I wonder if James Baldwin, in 2016, would still believe that people are better than that.

Buy this book.

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