Racial Violence in America Today: What Would James Baldwin Do?

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Presented at the University of Franche-Comte’,
Besancon, France, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day January 18, 2016, on the occasion of the U.S. celebration of Dr. King's birthday.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall

As you know, Dr. King was a great American leader, humanitarian, and advocate of nonviolent social change.

And, so much has changed since 1963 when the Reverend Dr. King dreamed of an America in which one is judged by the content of one’s character instead of the color of one’s skin.

Today, an African-American family is in the White House.

A Latina is a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. And, I am standing here, a college professor, writer, lawyer, playwright, and proud American of African descent.

One may find it unbelievable; but, less than 50 years ago most African- Americans, could not vote for President of the United States or for any other elected official or run for office.

Not because they did not want to vote.

Nor was it because they would have made terrible politicians; it was only because they were Black.

In most of the American South, if Blacks registered to vote, they were beaten or killed.

Such violence was due to a fear of Black power – Black political power, Black economic power, and Black creative power.

Black progress so frightened enough White Americans that laws were passed to keep Blacks from voting and this tradition of a Black under-class was maintained by violence.

Defying this custom was met with brutality not just for Black Americans but for any White Americans who believed in justice for all people.

Not even brutality would kill the African-Americans’ quest for freedom. However, the price was very high.

Over 4,000 Black Americans have been murdered by lynch mobs since slavery- some of them burned alive. When a Black person got “out of his place” – meaning they wanted more than American society thought they should have – then mobs, sometimes even including the police, brutality killed Black men, women, and children for attempting to vote, or to live in certain neighborhoods, or work at certain jobs, or attend certain schools. All good things had been designated for White Americans, alone.

Less than 50 years ago, France watched America’s brutality on television.

Along with the rest of the world, France saw the hypocrisy between these brutal actions and the promise of justice within the United States Constitution.

Our Constitution, which begins with “We the People” and says all men are created equal, was written in 1787 and ratified in 1789, one year before France embarked on its journey of Liberte’ Equalite’ and Fraternite’. I teach about our Constitution’s promises of liberty and equality.

I also teach about the struggle to make these promises within this great document a reality for all people, especially people of color.

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King was beaten and jailed for protesting the failure of America to follow the rights guaranteed within its Constitution. Discrimination, brutality, and hypocrisy were a part of everyday life for many Black Americans.

This was not just life in the American South. It was also in the North.

In cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and New York, and places like Harlem, where James Baldwin was born into that hypocrisy of American racism, in 1924.

Baldwin was the oldest of nine children, living in a rat-infested tenement apartment.

Even as a child, he could see the weight of racial hypocrisy crush the spirits of those around him, making his father a bitter and violent man.

James Baldwin defined America’s racial hypocrisy this way, simply: “Blacks are not treated like White people treated each other.”

In “The Fire Next Time,” his book of essays, published in 1963, Baldwin describes how a lack of opportunity drove some boys into selling drugs and girls onto the streets. Others found religion, like Baldwin, and sought refuge in the church. Life was difficult. Jobs were parttime with unsteady hours.

Families struggled to stay together despite the poisonous mixture of life’s responsibilities with limits placed on them by racism. Brilliant, Baldwin had read every book in the library by the time he graduated from high school, yet he had no money for college.

James Baldwin writes about his rage and the smoldering anger of those living on the fringes of American society.

Whatever he did, and where ever he went, there was this incessant harassment by White police officers and the daily limitations of poverty and racism.

With each racist encounter assaulting his dignity, and every denial of his rights under law, Baldwin’s rage would build. In a nation of plenty, there were few options for people like him.

There is always that rage. A simmering rage lay just beneath the surface, waiting to consume him or spill out onto someone else. For Baldwin, it was just a matter of time before his rage would make him kill or be killed. In 1948, he left America for France. Asked later, why he chose France, Baldwin says he didn’t so much choose France but leave America.

At this time, Paris was the home of many Black American ex-patriates who were writers, musicians, artists and activists like painter Beauford Delaney, writer Richard Wright, and of course, Josephine Baker.

France had given Bessie Coleman the flying lessons that allowed her to become the very first Black female airplane pilot, in 1921. An opportunity America refused to give to her.

Black Americans fought alongside French soldiers in World War 1 when the United States military rejected Black soldiers. But, Sergeant Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts received the Croix de Guerre for their bravery. These Black soldiers were the first Americans, Black or White, to receive this high honor.

But, when they returned home, America refused to recognize their acts of courage. Instead, America’s General John J. Pershing scolded France for allowing Blacks to feel equal because that is not how they were treated in America. He criticized France for “spoiling the Negroes.”

Americans treated the German enemy with more respect than their own Black countrymen, who returned home to discrimination and violent racial attacks by jealous or insecure Whites.

In France, Baldwin’s fueled his writing. Over the next ten years, Baldwin traveled around Europe but always returning to France. He wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays. His work was controversial because it dealt with race relations as well as homosexuality.

James Baldwin could have stayed safely in France. But, he went back to America, a country he hated for its racial hypocrisy and loved because of its promise of liberty. Like Baldwin, I do not wish to be a White American. I wish to be free American.

Even the United States Supreme Court, which is America’s highest Court, ruled against freedom for Black Americans. First the Supreme Court said Blacks “had no rights a White man was bound to respect.”

Then, after a Civil War defeated slavery, the Supreme Court segregated all people of color from their White countrymen.

People of color were forced to live in separate neighborhoods, go to separate schools, churches, hospitals, restaurants and playgrounds; enter through separate doors and even be buried in separate cemeteries.

It was called “separate but equal.” But, it was never equal. That was the world into which James Baldwin and Martin Luther King were born.

In 1957, Baldwin met Martin Luther King, and saw Rosa Parks, and young Black men, women and boys and girls struggling for the rights guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution.

This time Baldwin returned to America as a civil rights activist. His fame as a writer and his skill as a journalist allowed him to chronicle a deadly battle that played out on the international stage in southern towns like Selma and Montgomery, Birmingham and Atlanta, Greensboro and Memphis.

A battle called the Civil Rights Movement that took the lives of countless Black Americans before it resulted in laws, once again, guaranteeing equal treatment, voting rights, and life without legalized discrimination. But, the remnants of slavery and segregation and racial violence continue to haunt America.

Baldwin’s essays capture the ongoing rage of Blacks and the fear of Whites. He wrote of the unlikely need for one group to understand the other.

Despite the mistrust, betrayal, and history of diabolical sin, he understood that we, as Americans, were like lovers – Black and White, trapped, in a dysfunctional relationship that would eventually destroy us through sickliness or, if the fever can be broken, make us better.

There had always been White people of goodwill, committed to justice.

And, when they stepped out of their shadow of silence and indifference, strong alliances were formed. Common values could ease the pain of past rejections.

A relationship based on mutual need, not pity, could then emerge. Not a more perfect union – but, a better one. It was better than this.

It was almost good once, in America, because Americans, at one time, saw their common destiny. James Baldwin wrote of America standing at a crossroad, and his hope was that she would choose humanity over power, even if by the slimmest of margin.

As a child, back in Kansas City, I watched James Baldwin on television. He was on some talk show, perhaps Dick Cavett. I was captivated by this odd-looking little Black man with such power of position, speaking out about racial hypocrisy. In college, the more I studied Baldwin’s life and work, and the burdens under which he lived and worked, I was propelled to speak out myself.

For me, to speak out against racial hypocrisy, channels my rage that comes from living in a democracy crippled by racial violence. Baldwin, like Martin Luther King, and generations of Black civil rights leaders before them, learned how to fight America’s institutionalized terrorism without becoming terrorists.

This fact should be in all of the history books around the world. Despite their justifiable rage, Black Americans fought a super power, America, for a century without lowering themselves to the same base violence and brutality that was used by White Americans against their Black countrymen and women.

James Baldwin wrote about the ingenuity and courage needed to fight that battle. He also writes about the desperation with which some Whites cling to a false sense of superiority.

Baldwin had the ability to see both sides, with clarity. His novels, essays, and plays have given us the foundation upon which to have this dialogue today.

His adopted nation of France recognized these gifts. In 1986, James Baldwin was given La Legion D’Honneur bestowed by President Francois Mitterrand.

The next year James Baldwin died, taking his last breath in France, at St. Paul de Vence. His life was celebrated in France. Then, in New York City, he was given a parade where thousands marched through the streets of Harlem.

Now, thirty years after receipt of that great French honor, I wonder if James Baldwin would have any patience for such a recalcitrant country.

Racial violence has once again placed America at the crossroad of power and humanity. Racial violence, and protests against that racial violence, occur nearly every week. Black people must fear the very police their taxes pay to protect them.

Last year, the police in America killed 1,134 civilians. Police killed 1,134 people in one year, according to The Guardian newspaper. The oldest was 83 years-old and the youngest was 12 yearsold. Some of those killed were armed, most were not. But, most of them are Black.

There have been no convictions for these shootings. The United Nations’ Human Rights Commission has criticized America’s use of force against civilians.

I wonder if James Baldwin would write about Walter Scott, a 50 year-old unarmed Black man who was shot in the back by a White officer, in broad daylight. Without a video from a bystander, no one would have known the officer lied and said Scott had a weapon.

Or could Jam es Baldwin write an essay to help us to understand the mind of a White 21year-old self-proclaimed racist who killed nine Blacks during a church service, starting with an 87 year-old woman, a 74 year-old minister, and a 70 year-old grandmother who was leading Bible-study; the shooter was hoping to start a race war.

Or can Baldwin write a play that shows the desperation of immigrants selling their bodies for passage to America only to face discrimination and hostility once they arrive.

We need Baldwin to capture the futility of within young poverty-stricken Black boys who, like himself, are filled with such rage they will soon kill or be killed.

Such an enraged Black 20 year-old killed a 9-year-old Black girl, by accident, in the Midwestern town of Ferguson, Missouri. She was struck by a stray bullet shot through her window while doing her homework. That little girl was killed one year after a White officer in Ferguson, Missouri, gunned down an unarmed Black teenager, and left his body lying in the hot street for hours. When people protested the world watched as police there used military-weapons, filling the streets with tanks and using teargas against peaceful protesters.

Perhaps, James Baldwin could help us understand the massacre of 26 people, 20 of whom were kindergarteners, by a wealthy White 20 year-old, who was given automatic weapons by his mother.

But, no one blamed the entire White race for this or any other mass murder, the vast majority of which are committed by White men.

Certainly, Baldwin could write with such elegance that Congressmen in Washington would be persuaded to see beyond politics and pass gun control laws.

James Baldwin could explain our fear that an assassin’s bullet will take this first Black President who receives death threats, daily.

Yet, this increase in racial violence is due to this Black man in the White House.

While some White Americans voted for Barack Obama, others believe that as long as Obama lives the world they once knew is gone. White superiority means nothing when a Black man is Commander-in-Chief of the world’s largest military.

Like a sinner, who has again fallen from the moral path, back into its previous worldly ways, racial violence is one way for some to feel superior. Might Baldwin expect Black people to love this wayward democracy through yet another era, epoch, or episode of racial hypocrisy?

This nation, which began as an English colony, in 1607, included 20 Africans within its first 12 years. Yes, in 1619, the records show 20 Africans, from Angola, joined the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. That was one year before the Mayflower landed.

Without the presence of those Africans, that colony would not have survived. In 2019, we will be commemorating 400 years of Africans in America, and with it recognizing 400 years of racial hypocrisy.

Baldwin wrote of our mutual humanity. He said, “Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”

But, this is yet another century of Constitutional promises and racial hypocrisy, another era of fear-based violence undermining Black progress.

As Baldwin wrote back then, “God gave Moses the rainbow sign. No more water. The fire next time.” Would Baldwin respond differently to our current racial conflicts?

The choices have not changed much in fifty years. Whites still need Black liberation to be free themselves, he wrote. To hold me back means you must stay down with me.

Black Americans will continue to push for freedom even while young Black men must be convinced that their freedom is still worth the fight. And too many White Americans cling to a false belief in superiority based on color.

They see that in this 21st century no one group can know all, possesses all, and judge all. No one group can oppress another group and expect peace.

But, racism is based on emotion – not logic. Add to this confusion the fact that America has more guns than people. Then, cities may be destined to burn like they did in 1968 when Martin Luther King was murdered.

But, Baldwin is not perfect. He failed to foresee the rise of Black political power and the ascent of Barack Obama to the Presidency.

Baldwin once wrote, “It is extremely unlikely Negroes will ever rise to power in the United States.”

Then, perhaps he is wrong about the failure of this country to come to terms with its reliance on racism as a foundation of its identity of superiority. Perhaps the fire is not inevitable.

As we fight an enemy outside of our borders, we cannot ignore a flame of rage within African- Americans that has been smoldering for 400 years. With each police shooting the embers bum hotter and there is less reason to believe in ‘We the People.’

There is also the rage of immigrants who, having just planted their seeds in American soil, feel rejected by those citizens with deeper roots, who want their immigrant labor and not their citizenship. Then there is the working class who feel cheated out of their American Dream.

They impoverished forefathers were enticed to America from Europe with promises of Free Soil (stolen from Native Americans), Free Labor (the enslaved), and Free Men (stolen from Africa). They are still poor and resent the progress made by people of color.

Our Federal government says that by the year 2045 America’s composition will change. By 2045, the White population will be in the minority. Due to birth rates, by 2045, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans will out-number the Americans from Europe.

Let’s not forget that America once belonged to the Native Americans and the Latinos. Africans arrived soon after the European. If not for unfair laws and racial violence, Americans of color would be in the majority, already.

In this new majority/minority future, White Americans may attempt a kind of White minority ruling party using violence and unfair laws to, once again, maintain a position of superiority.

Or, redefine White to mean anyone who is not Black. Or, if all else fails, use that centuries-old technique – ‘divide and conquer.’

Baldwin spoke of America maturing. Maybe, by 2045, White Americans may have accepted the truth that democracy means all citizens share power.

Either way, people of color have grown weary of waiting for their rights to be recognized.

‘We the People’ must resist the temptation to tum away in silence, ignoring the smoke rising in the distance, relieved it is not your house on fire.

America is a nation of wounded people most of whom can trace some part of their lineage back to fleeing a war or displacement, famine, programs, ethnic cleansing, genocide, religious persecution or status as a refugee.

We all know the smell of fire. Today, it is in the Black community. The fire next time may be set in yours.

‘We the People’ stand at a crossroad of power and humanity.

I ask, in the name of James Baldwin, that you choose humanity over power, if only by a slim margin. Merci.

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