James Baldwin – Nobody Knows My Name (and some other essays from the early 60’s)

The greatest takeaway for me from Nobody Knows Your Name is “Fifth Avanue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.”  In this essay Baldwin explores the phenomenology of police violence – again, if you don’t care what I have to say, at least read these words of Baldwin’s for yourself [next I’ll be reading Another Country, Baldwin’s 1962 novel]:

Similarly, the only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive. None of commissioner Kennedy’s policemen, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in two’s and three’s controlling. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children. They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up here, in his place…

The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt. Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality. I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once. The businessman and racketeers also have a story. And so do the prostitutes. (And this is not, perhaps, the place to discuss Harlem’s very complex attitude towards black policemen, nor the reasons, according to Harlem, that they are nearly all downtown.)

It is hard, on the other hand, to blame the policeman, blank, good-natured, thoughtless, and insuperably innocent, for being such a perfect representative of the people he serves. He, too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed. He has never, himself, done anything for which to be hated — which of us has? — and yet he is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it. There is no way for him not to know it: there are few other things under heaven more unnerving than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people. He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is, and is the reason he walks in two’s and three’s. And he is not the only one who knows why he is always in company: the people who are watching him know why, too. Any street meeting, sacred or secular, which he and his colleagues uneasily cover has as its explicit or implicit burden the cruelty and injustice of the white domination. And these days, of course, in terms increasingly vivid and jubilant, it speaks of the end of that domination. The white policeman, standing on a Harlem street corner, finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world. He is not prepared for it — naturally, nobody is — and, what is possibly much more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are, to the anguish of the black people around him. Even if he is gifted with the merest mustard grain of imagination, something must seep in. He cannot avoid observing that some of the children, in spite of their color, remind him of children he has known and loved, perhaps even of his own children. He knows that he certainly does not want his children living this way. He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.

Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the bible find this statement utterly impenetrable. The idea seems to threaten profound, barely conscious assumptions. A kind of panic paralyzes their features, as though they found themselves trapped on the edge of a steep place. I once tried to describe to a very-well-known American intellectual the conditions among Negroes in the South. My recital disturbed him and made him indignant; and he asked me in perfect innocence, “Why don’t all the Negroes in the South move North?” I tried to explain what has happened, unfailingly, whenever a significant body of Negroes move North. They do not escape jim crow: they merely encounter another, not-less-deadly variety. They do not move to Chicago, they move to the South Side; they do note move to New York, they move to Harlem. The pressure within the ghetto causes the ghetto walls to expand, and this expansion is always violent. White people hold the line as long as they can, and in as many ways as they can, from verbal intimidation to physical violence. But inevitably the border which has divided the ghetto from the rest of the world falls into the hands of the ghetto. The white people fall back bitterly before the black horde; the landlords make a tidy profit by raising the rent, chopping up the rooms, and all but dispensing with the upkeep; and what has once been a neighborhood turns into a “turf.” This is precisely what happened when the Puerto Ricans arrived in their thousands — and the bitterness thus caused is, as I write, being fought out all up and down those streets.

If Baldwin is right here about the relationship between the police, and the broader social trends they enforce (and I think he is), then it is hard not to get very, very cynical about the way mainstream politics, or the law, has handled the question of what we somewhat euphemistically call “police brutality.”  It’s just NOT a question of the right number of dash cams, civilian review boards, and so on.  The police are doing white society’s bidding, and why society has a lot of power, and a lot of racist conditioning, and is really not that interested in giving that up.  Chasing “a few bad apples” will just not change that.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t “bad apples,” or that police should be able to kill people with impunity, it just means if we do not couple those specific legislative remedies to a broader, and broadly personal anti-racist agenda, it won’t matter that much.

That’s a theme Baldwin deals with a lot in these essays – the primacy of the personal side of racism, and its relationship to what he calls “freedom.”  In Isaiah Berlin’s positive/negative liberty distinction (problematic though it might be), Baldwin is insistent that something like positive freedom, which can only come with what he calls “reckoning with reality” or “history,” especially in the light of American white people (though he says a similar process must be undertaken by black people, just that its dialectic works in different ways) – that pursuit of what we now call anti-racism is the only real way for Americans to overcome the fantasies they have of themselves, and overcoming those fantasies is, in turn, the only real way to end systemic anti-black violence:

The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here (from “What it Means to be An American”).

That might sound very broad, but I think the idea is, if one could actually get a workable majority of Americans to be willing to confront, even acknnowledge the reality of slavery, Native American genocide, Jim Crow, and all its decendants (which both Michelle Alexander in The NEw Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates in “The Case for Reparations”) has so thoroughly documented – if you could actually do that, you would have a people ready to acquire a sense of history, something that, for Baldwin, Americans steadfastly refuse to acquire, and from there, the idea seems to be, you’d be ready for reconciliation, freedom and justice.

The “Fifth Avenue Uptown” essay gets more specific about this mythology too – its obsessoin with both exceptions and poor white people:

Now I am perfectly aware that there are other slums in which white men are fighting for their lives, and mainly losing. I know that blood is also flowing through those streets and that the human damage there is incalculable. People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, in effect, no better than the “niggers” is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by this fact is of the bitterest, most terrifying kind.

The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence — the public existence — of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare — at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare — and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. A few have always risen — in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children our doing. They are imitating our immortality, our disrespect for the pain of others.

A lot of Baldwin’s others essays from this period are occasional or profile in nature – think New Yorker pieces you mean to read and then don’t.  I did enjoy reading them, because they act as a kind of slow-motion autobiography.  Among other things, Baldwin travels to the American south for the first time and records his impressions (“Nobody Knows My NamE: A Letter from the South”), and there profiles a black mother whose son is attending an almost all-white high school because of a recent court order allowing him to do so (“A Fly in the Buttermilk” – reading that would be great for teachers thinking about how to work in classrooms that are mostly white with just a few students of color in them), also profiles Martin Luther King (“The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”), and also a student civil-rights group at Florida A & M (“They Can’t Turn Back”), and Faulkner (“Faulkner and Desegregation”).

The MLK profile is probably the most approachable of these, and really gets to the heart of Baldwin’s ambivalance towards the civil rights movement, and what Baldwin calls “the black bourgeoisie.”  Also, for the teacher of rhetoric in me, he points out something at once obvious but also quite difficult to appreciate:

King is a great speaker.  The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, to it has something to do with all of these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or relicity, which are not striking… The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, adn in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them.  He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense.  He allows them their self-respect-indeed, he insists on it.

There is also an extended narrative essay about an African Studies conference Baldwin attended in Paris (“Princes and Powers”).  There are also author/artist-profile pieces about Andre Gide (“The Male Prison”), Ingmar Bergman (“The Northern Protestant”), the then-recently deceased Richard Wright (“Alas, Poor Richard”) and Norman Mailer (“The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”).   I’m just not familiar enough with the works of any of these writers or filmmakers to really get that much out of Baldwin’s treatment of them – though he does consistently speak to general, more approachable issues the whole time, including these great paragraphs from the essay about Gide, which compellingly dispatch with the question of “is homoseuxality natural?”:

This is not the place and I am certainly not the man to assess the work of André Gide. Moreover, I confess that a great deal of what I felt concerning his work I still feel. And that argument, for example, as to whether or not homosexuality is natural seems to me completely pointless – pointless because I really do not see what difference the answer makes. It seems clear, in any case, at least in the world we know, that no matter what encyclopedias of physiological and scientific knowledge are brought to bear the answer never can be Yes. And one of the reasons for this is that it would rob the normal – who are simply the many – of their very necessary sense of security and order, of their sense, perhaps, that the race is and should be devoted to outwitting oblivion – and will surely manage to do so.
But there are a great many ways of outwitting oblivion, and to ask whether or not homosexuality is natural is really like asking whether or not it was natural for Socrates to swallow hemlock, whether or not it was natural for St. Paul to suffer for the Gospel, whether or not it was natural for the Germans to send upwards of six million people to an extremely twentieth-century death. It does not seem to me that nature helps us very much when we need illumination in human affairs. I am certainly convinced that it is one of the greatest impulses of mankind to arrive at something higher than a natural state. How to be natural does not seem to me to be a problem – quite the contrary. The great problem is how to be – in the best sense of that kaleidoscopic word – a man.


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