Wednesday, July 4, 2018

James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time and Nothing Personal

After seeing the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” I remembered how brilliant and direct James Baldwin was.  I’d read some of his work long ago and, more recently, his poems but I hadn’t read his essays.  So I decided it was time to read some more Baldwin, starting with The Fire Next Time (NY:  Vintage Books, 1962, 1963  ISBN 0-679-74472-X):

(page 22)  White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this - which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never - the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

…But the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibily create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live.

(25)  Negroes in this country - and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other - are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world.

(30)  Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away.

(40-41)  In the same way that we, for white people, were the descendants of Ham, and were cursed forever, white people were, for us, the descendants of Cain.

(43)  To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be _present_ in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.

(71)  “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?”

(88)   There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.  People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior.

……. Furthermore, I have met only a very few people - and most of these were not Americans - who had any real desire to be free.  Freedom is hard to bear.

(91)  Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.

(99)   If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring;  whatever it brings must be borne.  And at this level of experience one’s bitterness begins to be palatable, and hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry. 

(104)  But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand - and that one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.

— 30 —

“The impossible is the least that one can demand” is very close to the quote from Che Guevara, “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” which the Situationists painted on the walls of Paris during the demonstrations of 1968.

In reading about James Baldwin, I learned he and the photographer Richard Avedon attended the same high school, DeWitt Clinton HS in the Bronx, worked together on the school magazine, and did a book together, Nothing Personal (Köln, Germany:  Taschen, 2017  ISBN 978-3-8365-653-8):

(1)  We have all heard the bit about what a pity it was that the Plymouth rock didn’t land on the Pilgrims instead of the other way around.  I have never found this remark very funny.  It seems wistful and vindictive to me, containing, furthermore, a very bitter truth.  The inertness of that rock meant death for the Indians, enslavement for the blacks, and spiritual disaster for those homeless Europeans who now call themselves Americans and who have never been able to resolve their relationship either to the continent they fled or to the continent they conquered.

… but the relevant truth is that the country was settled by a desperate, divided, and rapacious horde of people who were determined to forget their pasts and determined to make money.

(3)  We have, as it seems to me, a very curious sense of reality - or, rather, perhaps, I should say, a striking addiction to irreality.  How is it possible, one cannot but ask, to raise a child without loving the child?  How is it possible to love the child if one does not know who one is?  How is it possible for the child to grow up if the child is not loved?  Children can survive without money or security or safety or things:  but they are lost if they cannot find a loving example, for only this example can give them a touchstone for their lives.   THUS FAR AND NO FURTHER: this is what the father must say to the child.  If the child is not told where the limits are, he will spend the rest of his life trying to discover them.  For the child who is not told where the limits are knows, though he may not know he knows it, that no one cares enough about him to prepare him for his journey.

This, I think, has something to do with the phenomenon, unprecedented in the world, of the ageless American boy;  it has something to do with our desperate adulation of simplicity and youth - how bitterly betrayed one must have been in one’s youth to suppose that it is a virtue to remain simple or to remain young! - and it also helps to explicate, to my mind at least, some of the stunning purposes to which Americans have put the imprecise science of psychiatry….

And they cannot raise them [their children] because they have opted for the one commodity which is absolutely beyond human reach:  safety.  This is one of the reasons, as it seems to me, that we are so badly educated, for to become educated (as all tyrants have known) is to become inaccessibly independent, it is to acquire a dangerous way of assessing danger, and it is to hold in one’s hands a means of changing reality.

….One day, perhaps, unimaginable generations hence, we will evolve into the knowedge that human beings are more important than real estate and will permit this knowledge to become the ruling principle of our lives.  For I do not for an instant doubt, I will go to my grave believing, that we can build Jerusalem, if we will.

(4)  The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us.  The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

“The Way We Live Now” by Hilton Als (2017)
In Nothing Personal, Baldwin wrote a little bit about his New York.  About being hassled on the streets by cops;  as a black man, he lived in a police state.

— 30 — 

What “I Am Not Your Negro” and the writings of James Baldwin have made me realize, more deeply than ever before, is that Hilton Als is correct, black men, black women, black children live in a police state.  Now that police state is coming for all the rest of us.

Celebrate your Independence this Independence Day and every other day.  Be as brilliant, brave, and uncompromising as James Baldwin and remember the revolution is dancing in the street.

PS:  I listen to Charles Ives’ “Fourth of July” on Independence Day.  We still need that barbaric yawp.  Here is Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

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