This is – I believe anyway – the last book James Baldwin wrote and published before his death. There are lots of other incomplete manuscripts and unpublished materials, but this is a full essay. It’s about a series of murders of black children in Atlanta in the early 1980’s. Its foremost project is to problematize the idea that all these murders can be pinned on one suspect – a black male that was apparently tried and convicted for some of them.
To do this, Baldwin explores the hypocrisy of the city of Atlanta in its handling of these cases. The core idea here is that this is a city in a state and a country that has never cared about black lives, and so when the city deals with this issue, it’s not with anything like justice in mind, but just to avoid the bad press of having children killed on its watch.
This allows for an opening up onto the whole notion of what white people have done to invent their own identities as “white,” and what that has meant for black folk, and why, seen from that perspective, the idea of this government prosecuting the murders of black children is a cruel joke.
So Baldwin uses the issue at hand to explore his deepest concerns – white supremacy, its effect on white identity, black lives, and – what feels relatively new even after all of the rest of his writing – an actually apocalyptic take on western society in general. So many paragraphs in this essay work like devastating grenades which undulate back and forth from consideration of the specifics of the murders.
I found the overall essay jarring and pessimistic in ways other Baldwin books really hadn’t been – but somehow, after watching the first almost-two years of Donald Trump presidency, punctuated lately by the Kavanaugh confirmation – and this pessimism was oddly reassuring. Like we are living in the times Baldwin knew, in 1985, were destined to arrive, the things he saw underway in the Reagan administration that so much of our mainstream media now alleges were “more civilized” and “bipartisan” back then.
One moment of hope – not really hope – but something like a commandment I took to heart (which is quoted as an epigram in Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness):
White power is to be distinguished from people who happen to have been born, as we put it, White, and I owe my life to some of those people. The world’s definitions are one thing and the life one actually lives is quite another. One cannot allow oneself, nor can one’s family, friends or lovers–to say nothing of one’s children–to live according to the world’s definitions; one must find a way, perpetually, to be stronger and better than that.
I see little evidence that almost all the white members of the United States senate (Democrat or Republican), much less any other white elected officials, have ever come close to considering this injunction. But that does excuse any of the rest of us from trying.