James Baldwin +Black Lives Matter

#BlackLivesMatter
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The late literary genius and humanist nonpareil James Baldwin spoke for Black Lives Matter decades before the movement gained a name. And as a gay black man, born poor, he understood intersectionality in a profound sense.

Baldwin’s gifts included the ability to study himself and report, however painful or unflattering the truths that emerged. This spawned an empathy as rare as wise. He didn’t excuse cruelty but he acknowledged and, as a writer, rendered in meticulous detail the pain that (often) underlies it.

The following quotes, from interviews and from his fiction, articulate truths that are as urgent and relevant today as when he uttered them.

 

“Look, we live in Harlem, let’s say, or we live in Watts. The mother who comes down there with his cap and his own gun in his holster, he doesn’t know what my day is like. He doesn’t know why I get drunk when I do. He doesn’t know anything about me at all. He’s scared shitless of me. Now, what the fuck is he doing there? All he can do is shoot me. He’s a hired concentration-camp keeper…. All you can do is bring in tanks and tear gas—and call the National Guard when it gets too tight. And think you can fight a civil war and a global war at the same time.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

“The black cat in the streets wants to protect his house, his wife and children. And if he is going to be able to do this he has to be given his autonomy, his own schools, a revision of the police force in a very radical way. It means, in short, that if the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

“The country has got the police force it deserves, and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he’s going to stop him—and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it’s one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that’s how black boys die, because the police are scared.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

 

“I’d learned how to get by. I’d learned never to be belligerent with policemen, for instance. No matter who was right, I was certain to be wrong…. I only had one head and it was too easy to get it broken… I figured out what answers he wanted and I gave them to him. I never let him him think he wasn’t king.”

‘Previous Condition’ in Going to Meet the Man

“Those boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage.”

‘Sonny’s Blues’ in Going to Meet the Man

“For everyone’s life begins on a level where races, armies, and churches stop. And yet everyone’s life is always shaped by races, churches, and armies; races, churches, armies menace, and have taken, many lives.”

‘This Morning, This Evening, So Soon’ in Going to Meet the Man

“To be forced to excavate a history is, also, to repudiate the concept of history, and the vocabulary in which history is written; for the written history is, and must be, merely the vocabulary of power, and power is history’s most seductively attired false witness…. One thing is absolutely certain: one can repudiate, or despise, no one’s history without repudiating or despising one’s own. Perhaps that is what the gospel singer is singing.”

Just Above My Head

“All the years that we spent in and out of the South, I always wanted to say to those poor white people, so busy turning themselves and their children into monsters: Look. It’s not we who can’t forget. You can’t forget. We don’t spend all our waking and sleeping hours tormented by your presence. We have other things to do: don’t you have anything else to do? Maybe you really don’t? Maybe the difference between us is that I never raped your mother, or your sister, or if and when I did, it was out of rage, it was not my way of life… Maybe the difference between us is that I’ve never been afraid of the prick you, like all men, carry between their legs and I never arranged picnics so that I could cut it off of you before large, cheering crowds.”

Just Above My Head

 

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A short quarantine reading list

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Even before a ton of ordure hit the propeller-style cooling device I’d only read three books this year.

Three. 

Since the age of six or seven I’ve been capable of reading three average-length books a day. Once, when I was about 9, I read 1,000 pages in a day, to see if could.

On another occasion (again, pre-teen) I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in three days.

The point I’m sidling towards is that it is a sign of spiritual/ emotional/ logistical malaise when my word-consumption dips to such low levels. (The other obvious conclusion is I was backward as a kid, which is fair, but there were reasons.)

Being almost too far gone in anxiety to even read a book is new and unnerving. Books have always been a reliable portal away from the unappetitliche present, but the present present has got me so tied in knots I’m afraid to miss anything.

Initially, I tried to negotiate this in my usual Protestant, eat-your-beet-greens-they’re-good-for-you fashion. That is, I started a book about Palestine. If there is one thing more depressing than coronavirus, it’s the situation of Palestine. Reading about children getting shot with tear-gas canisters and all the other interminable head-fucking brutality of the Israeli occupation was enough to make me think that maybe enough humans are ugly enough that we all deserve to be wiped out by a virus.

Not reading material for these times.

After that failed effort, I didn’t read anything for a few days. Then my friend Nick emailed and it turned out I bought his book (presciently titled It Gets Worse) last year and forgotten to read it. That’s like discovering the bottle at the back of the cupboard you thought was cheap emergency plonk is a fantastic vintage meant for a special occasion.

This is a special occasion.

So, I’m (finally) on my way to having read four books this year. When I finish Nick’s book I may go back and reread his first, Bitter Experience Has Taught Me, because it’s nice to hear a friend’s voice — especially when it is funny, acid, and laden with anecdote.

After that, I’ll try Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde and Primo Levi.

Disparate, yet equally essential.

All of these writers, including Ms Austen (whose reputation for daintiness is undeserved) exhibit rare levels of integrity, perspicacity and moral clarity. They took the world as it was, but refused to accept the supposed constraints of that relationship.

And they, one and all, write sentences so good I have to pause and let the wave of admiration/envy/admiration pass. Right now, it’s reading for pleasure, or not at all.

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