It’s James Baldwin’s birthday. Garrison Keillor has a fine, short sketch of his life posted, which would be worth your while to read.
I’ve always loved this man’s work. He is the most truthful essayist our country has ever produced, and his prose style the clearest and most beautiful. It saddens me that every bit of that style was forged out of so much pain, but Baldwin deserves the highest praise possible for channeling his anger and his pain into a language which can be felt and understood by everyone who reads it.
A passage from the essay, “Stranger In The Village,” within Notes of a Native Son (1955), wherein Baldwin the exile reflects on the reactions of white people to him in Switzerland:
“The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable: the rage, so generally discounted, so little understood even among the people whose daily bread it is, is one of the things that makes history. Rage can only with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence and is therefore not susceptible to any arguments whatever. This is a fact which ordinary representatives of the Herrenvolk, having never felt this rage and being unable to imagine, quite fail to understand. Also, rage cannot be hidden, it can only be dissembled. This dissembling deludes the thoughtless, and strengthens rage and adds, to rage, contempt. There are, no doubt, as many ways of coping with the resulting complex of tensions as there are black men in the world, but no black man can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare-rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of white men. What is crucial here is that since white men represent in the black man’s world so heavy a weight, white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal; and hence all black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the white man of the jewel of his naiveté, or else to make it cost him dear.
The black man insists, by whatever means he finds at his disposal, that the white man cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being. This is a very charged and difficult moment, for there is a great deal of will power involved in the white man’s naiveté. Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors. He is inescapably aware, nevertheless, that he is in a better position in the world than black men are, nor can he quite put to death the suspicion that he is hated by black men therefore. He does not wish to be hated, neither does he wish to change places, and at this point in his uneasiness he can scarcely avoid having recourse to those legends which white men have created about black men, the most usual effect of which is that the white man finds himself enmeshed, so to speak, in his own language which describes hell, as well as the attributes which lead one to hell, as being black as night.”
None of us having been present at the crimes of our forefathers, there is, unfortunately, no accounting for them a white man or woman could give that would offer Baldwin or any other African-American satisfaction–no penance; no atonement. Not in the twenty generations since the introduction of slavery to the Americas; not in the seven and a half generations since the end of our Civil War fought to free those slaves and abolish the practice; not in the nearly three generations since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the final breaking of the Jim Crow laws. Truth to tell, no African-American now living was present at the crimes of our forefathers, either. Baldwin knew this, just as surely as he knew from personal experience the humiliation of life under Jim Crow. In our time, sixty years after Baldwin wrote, the number of men and women who recall first-hand the full impact of segregation shrinks smaller and smaller every day. The shame of those acts may be transmitted in the telling, and the degradation of them, but not the pain. The pain of the root crime, of slavery, belongs only to those who actually suffered it. Every other pain any of us, white or black, think we feel because of it is a phantom pain. Yet that phantom pain tells us something, too: we truly have lost a leg. Is it any wonder that we cannot stand?
What we are accountable for is our daily penchant for dehumanizing other people, for regarding them as suspects in a crime simply because they’ve dared to walk into a room previously occupied only by our friends. This tendency has not changed since Baldwin’s day, and it will change only slowly over the next century or so. It was Baldwin who taught us to recognize the tendency in ourselves. It was he who showed us the subtlety of its insinuation into our character and the difficulty in removing it. And it was he who best expressed the anger of those forced to live under circumstances they did not create, against a past the stain of which cannot be removed.