What Would James Baldwin Do (Say, Write)?

My future son-in-law is black. My daughter is white. And we live in the South where, despite their (possibly naive) idealism, interracial relationships still matter, often in negative ways.

I have been deeply concerned about race, class, and literacy for my 30-year career as a teacher, writer, and scholar, but I must confess that their relationship increases the poignancy of those issues for me because on the day the Trayvon Martin murder became the focus of the media, my future son-in-law left my house in a hoodie covering his dreadlocks. It was nighttime, and I wrestled with telling him to be careful in a way that had nothing to do with the perfunctory “be careful” people often use to say good-bye.

Their relationship has also colored my watching the documentary The Loving Story, and purchasing Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage.

Over the past couple of years, as well, I have been exploring the work of James Baldwin, notably his non-fiction, leading to my co-editing a new volume on Baldwin.

As a white child of the redneck South, I am, then, wrestling with the not guilty verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin on many levels—personal, scholarly, existentially. And I find myself at a loss.

One enduring rock I continue to seek—a place to stand or even hold on to—is the work of James Baldwin. In fact, What would James Baldwin do (say, write)? echoes in my mind.

I imagine Baldwin, not on the Dick Cavett Show, but on Oprah, righteous and angry:

I imagine Baldwin responding to the smug inhumanity of Rush Limbaugh:

And I envision his words, 57 years later, still titled “A Report from Occupied Territory“:

On April 17, 1964, in Harlem, New York City, a young salesman, father of two, left a customer’s apartment and went into the streets. There was a great commotion in the streets, which, especially since it was a spring day, involved many people, including running, frightened, little boys. They were running from the police. Other people, in windows, left their windows, in terror of the police because the police had their guns out, and were aiming the guns at the roofs. Then the salesman noticed that two of the policemen were beating up a kid: “So I spoke up and asked them, ‘why are you beating him like that?’ Police jump up and start swinging on me. He put the gun on me and said, ‘get over there.’ I said, ‘what for?’”

An unwise question. Three of the policemen beat up the salesman in the streets. Then they took the young salesman, whose hands had been handcuffed behind his back, along with four others, much younger than the salesman, who were handcuffed in the same way, to the police station.

Nearly two decades before Ronald Reagan initiated the mass incarceration of African American males and almost six decades before Michelle Alexander declared this The New Jim Crow (asking, for example, why drug sweeps target poor and mostly black neighborhoods but not college dorms), Baldwin declared black neighborhoods “occupied territory”:

As a result of the events of April 17, and of the police performance that day, and because Harlem is policed like occupied territory, six young Negro men, the oldest of whom is 20, are now in prison, facing life sentences for murder. Their names are Wallace Baker, Daniel Hamm, Walter Thomas, Willie Craig, Ronald Felder and Robert Rice. Perhaps their names don’t matter. They might be my brothers, they might also be yours.

Haunting this passage from Baldwin is the ugly underbelly of who we identify with, and how we create some groups of people (black males) as “others.” George Zimmerman’s jurors, all white females, appear to have identified with Zimmerman, and seem not to have viewed Trayvon Martin as someone’s son, and thus everyone’s child.

Do race and racial stereotypes over-ride our human dignity? Can we not listen to our possibilities as parents and the fact that all humans are at their core children?

Where is our empathy, the appeal to basic human dignity in Baldwin’s words?

Today, I seek Baldwin’s words, as well, because he spoke from his own life:

This means that I also know, in my own flesh, and know, which is worse, in the scars borne by many of those dearest to me, the thunder and fire of the billy club, the paralyzing shock of spittle in the face, and I know what it is to find oneself blinded, on one’s hands and knees, at the bottom of the flight of steps down which one has just been hurled. I know something else: these young men have been in jail for two years now. Even if the attempts being put forth to free them should succeed, what has happened to them in these two years? People are destroyed very easily. Where is the civilization and where, indeed, is the morality which can afford to destroy so many?

In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, blacks in the US learned lessons we continue to witness today:

Furthermore, the Negro’s education, North and South, remains, almost totally, a segregated education, which is but another way of saying that he is taught the habits of inferiority every hour of every day that he lives. He will find it very difficult to overcome these habits. Furthermore, every attempt he makes to overcome them will be painfully complicated by the fact that the ways of being, the ways of life of the despised and rejected, nevertheless, contain an incontestable vitality and authority. This is far more than can be said of the middle class which, in any case, and whether it be black or white, does not dare to cease despising him….

The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition.

What must children be learning now—Trayvon Martin dead, drug tested, vilified, reduced to an iconic hoodie; Zimmerman freed, exonerated, justified?

Baldwin speaks to those lessons:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect….

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it.

Baldwin’s last comment—”Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it”—likely remains true, but shouldn’t we by now be able to say about the death of Trayvon Martin, “Everyone recognizes the injustice; there is no way not to feel it”?

4 thoughts on “What Would James Baldwin Do (Say, Write)?”

  1. I was both shocked by the verdict and, at the same time, I felt it was inevitable. Given how divided this country is, no one should be surprised I guess. Sometimes I feel like I am living in a dream -not quite a nightmare – but definitely not filled with daisies and buttercups.

    My conservative acquaintances totally believe that the verdict is justified. They have maligned Trayvon as a drug addict and I have some of them telling me that Trayvon purchased the skittles and the watermelon drink to make a drug called “lean”. When I go searching for some corroboration, all I find are the fringe right-wing sites. Go figure.

    He had marijuana in his system. Bad. Very, very bad. It makes you wonder that if having marijuauna in your system is an open invitation to murder that perhaps we should not be more worried about our white college kids.

    I listened to the George Zimmerman 911 tape, and although I wanted him to be this gruff, completely jerky guy so I could feel justified in my belief that he was guilty, I was surprised that he sounded a little bit like Michael Jackson.

    George Zimmerman is responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death. That I am sure of. If he would have just stayed in his car like the dispatcher CLEARLY intended (yes, I listened to that tape, too, and it was an indirect yet forceful request if I’ve ever heard one). Zimmerman should pay. To what extent, I am not sure.

    This tragedy is what happens when people wearing guns behave irresponsibly. I blame George Zimmerman, and I would not have shed a tear for him if he went to prison, but I say that sitting on my couch and never having heard any of the testimony. However, I also blame Florida and its ridiculous laws. I blame the NRA. I blame the gun culture. I blame society. I blame the media. I blame me. I blame us all. And I mean ALL.

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