James Baldwin

Dark Days

“The irreducible price of learning is realizing that you do not know.”

How do we cross that which divides us? How do I diminish my story to accommodate yours? Especially when yours changes mine so fundamentally? So irrevocably?

James Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) is the brightest place of entry into that long, dark tunnel of consciousness of what it means to be a white American. A “relentless conundrum” we must accept before we can atone.

In the tender and urgent essays of Dark Days,1 Baldwin tries to reconcile the enormity of the division between us. A chasm cleaved by age, race, time, place, economics. Protected – to varying degrees of intent – by institutions and authorities we trust.

I hit the streets when I was seven. It was the middle of the Depression and I learned how to sing out of hard experience. To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy. Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possibly for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all. Or to know what education is.

From “Dark Days”

So what is “education?” Nothing positive to Baldwin. Literally; the systems of education were unopen, unavailable to Blacks, and as Baldwin said “education got us no where…” and figuratively; the things white people experienced (that I would argue are part of my history) were not part of his history.

Photograph of James Baldwin, taken by Sol Stein, 1945.
One of the earliest known photos of James Baldwin. Taken by his friend and editor Sol Stein in 1945. Photo courtesy of Sol Stein’s Native Sons

Baldwin explains: “The stock market crash had very little impact on our house. […] [M]y brother and I shined shoes and sold shopping bags. Mama went downtown or to the Bronx to clean white ladies’ apartments.”2

In his memoir of awareness and education of what it means to be a Black man in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about a similar disconnect.

The greater world was obsessed over Challenger and the S&L scandal. But we were another country, fraying at our seams. All the old rules were crumbling around us. The statistics were dire and oft recited—1 in 21 killed by 1 in 21, more of us in jail than in college.

From Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle

The massive disconnect between experience and the origination of historic consciousness is heartbreaking given the common race-blind starting point of knowledge.

Baldwin continues:

Every human being born begins to be civilized the moment he or she is born. Since we all arrive here absolutely helpless, with no way of getting a decent meal or of moving from one place to another without human help (and human help exacts a human price), there is no way around that. But this is civilization with a small c. Civilization with a large C is something else again. So is education with a small e different from Education with a large E. In the lowercase, education refers to the relations that actually obtain among human beings. In the uppercase, it refers to power. Or, to put it another way, my father, mother, brothers, sisters, lovers, friends, sons, daughters civilize me in quite another way than the state intends.

From “Dark Days”

James Baldwin in 1963. Featured in Baldwin's "Dark Days" in the Examined Life Library.
James Baldwin, 1963. Courtesy: CSU Archives/Everett Collection.

White man, hear me! History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference.

From “The White Man’s Guilt”

If history is in us, it becomes us. If that history changes do we still exist? How do we survive without frames of reference? “The irreducible price of learning,” promises Baldwin, “is realizing that you do not know.”

No wonder so many steer away from this relentless conundrum. How do we – a conscientious, generous and in many ways loving society of whites and others – even begin to acknowledge all that we do not know?

Baldwin, pulling from his preacher dialect, said he wished for us atonement.

Atonement is not pain, suffering, it is not even longing. It is not born of self-hatred or self-denial. It comes from the strongest, possible self-love. It is a generous state of being in which I, stronger than ever, diminish my needs and bolster yours.

Most of us, regardless of race, are rarely called to love like this beyond our kin, our tribe. We lack words, muscle memory.3

And yet…

The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life. This is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says: love thy neighbour as thyself. Brotherly love is love for all human beings; it is characterised by its very lack of exclusiveness. If I have developed the capacity for love, then I cannot help loving my brothers.

From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving

I cannot love you fully until I love myself. I cannot love myself until I dismantle that self. What the world asks of me, what Toni Morrison asked when she wrote of “racialized-rank”, when Anna Deavere Smith wrote for those who want to ‘wake up’, what Baldwin asked when he said “digest the delusion,” is so untenable. So destructive.

And yet, hope. Maya Angelou the other watchman of racial consciousness who pulled a warm pulse from the heart sickened by trauma, wrote once “I keep on dying, because I love to live.”

Here’s to a brighter tomorrow.

Illustration of James Baldwin for Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" in the Examined Life Library.