Saturday, July 13, 2024

A master class in the brilliance of James Baldwin.

February 18, 2022 by  
Filed under Education, Entertainment, News, Weekly Columns

( I found myself in a James Baldwin rabbit hole the other day.

I’m not sure what caused me to watch a video of Baldwin, but I went there and couldn’t stop. His words are so relevant today.

I was introduced to Baldwin’s work in college. I bought my son a biography of Baldwin when he was young and made it required Black History Month reading for him and my daughter when she came of age. I wanted to introduce them to Baldwin’s genius much earlier than I was.

Genius. That’s the only way I can describe Baldwin. His critiques of America were bold, honest and eloquent. Baldwin was fearless. He didn’t mince words or try to cater to the feelings of white America. He gave it straight no chaser.

As he spoke during a debate with William F. Buckley on the question “Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?” at the University of Cambridge, the audience stared intently, clearly riveted by his speech. As was I.

One of the things I love about this speech is he didn’t argue Black people should be treated with humanity because we are perfect. He argued we should be treated as humans because we are human. We get into this habit of trying to prove how worthy we are of acceptance from white America. We play this game of respectability politics that we will never win. Baldwin knew this and didn’t seek approval from white America. Baldwin indicted the American South, calling it out for its riches that could never have been achieved without the free labor of slaves.

james baldwin

“The harbors and the ports and the railroads of the country, the economy, especially of the Southern states, could not conceivably be what it has become if they had not had and do not still have indeed and for so long, so many generations, cheap labor. I am stating very seriously, and this is not an over statement that I picked the cotton and I carried it to market. And I built the railroads. Under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing.

“The Southern oligarchy, which has until today, so much power in Washington, and therefore, some power in the world was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And no one can challenge that statement. It is a matter of historical record.”

At the end of Baldwin’s speech, the audience stood and applauded. Baldwin looked surprised. Buckley’s arrogance was palpable as he used a lot of big words to demonstrate his “superior scholarly mind.” It didn’t work. He came off pretentious.

The year was 1965, and Baldwin’s words still ring true today.

I jumped a little over a decade and watched an interview on ABC from 1979. Again, I was struck by Baldwin’s honesty, fearlessness and relevancy.

“I was 7 years old 47 years ago and nothing has changed since then,” Baldwin said to the interviewer while surrounded by family at his mother’s apartment. By the way, Baldwin bought the whole apartment building so his family could live there.

“I don’t mean it to you personally, I don’t even know you. I’ve got nothing against you,” Baldwin continued. “I don’t know you personally. I know you historically. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t swear to the freedom of all mankind and put me in chains.”

The interviewer said to Baldwin: “It sounds as if you believe that slavery put a curse on us somehow.”

Baldwin replied matter of factly, “Well, it is a curse. You know, the American sense of reality is dictated by what Americans are trying to avoid. If you’re trying to avoid reality, how can you face it?”

Baldwin was preaching! It makes sense, though, since he was a preacher as a teenager.

I traveled back to 1969 when Baldwin appeared on The Dick Cavette Show. Yale professor and philosopher Paul Weiss came on the show after Baldwin, with the explicit purpose of refuting Baldwin’s comments. Weiss told Baldwin every man must take responsibility for himself (Black people included). Baldwin agreed. Indeed, he never argued otherwise. This tired argument is still heard today from white and Black scholars and common folk. Weiss ignored history, Baldwin pointed out.

As much as I enjoyed listening to Baldwin, I emerged exhausted from the rabbit hole, wondering when will these conversations be irrelevant.

Columnist; Oseye Boyd

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