“If we do not falter in our duty now, we may be able … to end the racial nightmare, and change the history of the world.”
James Baldwin wrote these words in one of two essays later published as The Fire Next Time. He wrote them in 1962 — fifty-eight years ago.
You may, like me, have read his books in earlier years. (You weren’t cool if you hadn’t read James Baldwin in the late 60’s to 80’s.) But if you haven’t read James Baldwin, or seen his speeches, I suggest you do.
This novelist and playwright had a rare brilliance, a superb understanding of humanity, a searing eloquence. And though he died in 1987, there’s a great resurgence of interest in his ideas.
Baldwin took big, complex issues and brought them straight back to the humans involved. His words were blunt, yet thoughtfully chosen and often elegant. It was a rare gift.
To explain why the average Black American person is so much poorer than the average White, he used the first person singular to speak for a whole race who had been denied the right to earn money for hundreds of years.
“I picked the cotton, and I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing.”
He used the example of a White sheriff and his Black victim to illustrate how systemic racism dehumanizes not only its target, but also the person who administers it.
It’s no surprise that he didn’t see America’s system of racial injustice as a Black problem to be solved by Blacks.
Or that when he said “We” — which he frequently did — he meant both Blacks and Whites in America.
For all kinds of reasons, I wish I’d met him, but since I can’t, I’ve been reading articles about him, and watching his speeches.
His 1965 debate against William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in Britain is suspenseful, brilliant, and shockingly relevant today:
Despite its tragic flaws, Baldwin loved America. His books and speeches come from the soul of a man who loved his country deeply, in spite of how it treated him and others.
“It is a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers, you are the Indian.”
“It comes as a great shock … to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance… has not pledged allegiance to you.”
What’s shocking is how much James Baldwin’s analysis of America’s racial injustice is still relevant today. In light of the BLM protests, often led by young people, this statement made me sit up:
“Young people, unlike people my age… the truth, I think, is that their elders have betrayed them.”
So here we are: our generation has soul-searching to do, and some of us have been doing exactly that. We fought the good fight, but then we got tired and dropped the ball. Luckily, the young people – their rage, their hope — have shaken us awake.
I return to James Baldwin’s own words:
“I never have been in despair about the world. I’m enraged by it … but I can’t afford despair. I can’t tell my nephew, my niece … I can’t tell the children there’s no hope.”