When he was urged to write his memoirs by his childhood friend and fellow writer, Sol Stein, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was already a novelist and living as an expat in Paris. Baldwin was uninterested in returning to America and even moreso, uninterested in becoming what society termed a “Negro writer” a generalization that diminished the so-defined writer’s voice and talent. 1
This collection of memory and observation, Notes of a Native Son, urgently and beautifully articulated a) that Black Americans were being, and had been always oppressed by a complacent society; and b) how this dehumanization of one leg of society dehumanized the entire body.
Our dehumanization of the Negro is inseparable from the dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his. Time and our own force act as our allies, creating an impossible, a fruitless tension between the traditional master and slave. Impossible and fruitless because, literal and visible as this tension has become, it has nothing to do with reality.
Heeding Hemingway’s advice to write one true thing, Baldwin stuck to his truth of experience. “Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop.”
Baldwin remembers a soul-piercing moment in a Princeton café with white friends (one incident after a life-time of being forced to leave or to move aside):
She did not ask me what I wanted, but repeated, as though she had learned it somewhere, “We don’t serve Negroes here.” She did not say it with the blunt, derisive hostility to which I had grown so accustomed, but, rather, with a note of apology in her voice, and fear.
This made me colder and more murderous than ever. I felt I had to do something with my hands. I wanted her to come close enough for me to get her neck between my hands. So I pretended not to have understood her, hoping to draw her closer… she repeated the formula “… don’t serve Negroes here.”
Somehow with the repetition of that phrase, which was already ringing in my head like a thousand bells of a nightmare, I realized that she would never come any closer and I would have to strike from a distance. There was nothing on the table but an ordinary water-mug half full of water, and I picked this up and hurled it with all my strength at her… My friend whispered, “Run!” and I ran.
I lived it over and over and over again, the way one lives an automobile accident after it has happened and one finds oneself alone and safe. I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp, and one was that I could have been murdered. I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.
While George Orwell discovered that unrelenting dehumization reduces a man to a body, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel felt similarly after being imprisoned in Auschwitz. Baldwin takes the dehumanization theme further and suggests it does not just reduce a man to a body, it can reduce him to a fearful, angry, vengeful body:
What was the most difficult was the fact that I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary; I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world. And this meant, not only that I thus gave the world an altogether murderous power over me, but also that in such a self-destroying limbo I could never hope to write.
Perhaps it was my read, but I imagined Baldwin implying that the waitress’ guilt and inactivity, ‘en-toxified’ her equally.3
Through those dehumanizing actions, an unlikely relationship formed, one bound by a cage-like structure that contained and condemned all participants equally:
It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality. Within this cage it is romantic, more, meaningless, to speak of a “new” society as the desire of the oppressed, for that shivering dependence on the props of reality which he shares with the Herrenvolk makes a truly “new” society impossible to conceive.
What is meant by a new society is one in which inequalities will disappear, in which vengeance will be exacted; either there will be no oppressed at all, or the oppressed and the oppressor will change places.
In his 1984 edition of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin admits “There is an unadmitted icy panic coiled beneath the scaffolding of these present days, hopes, endeavors…” He might have been writing of today, 2020. He might be writing of tomorrow, 2050… What icy panic coils and lunges and recoils and hides and propels yet?
Change isn’t circular, it is abortive. What we perceive as change is lost appetite, disillusion. It’s the failure of change.4
The failure of change will keep occurring, argues Baldwin, until we fathom our wake and our depths:
This sense of how Negroes live and how they have so long endured is hidden from us in part by the very speed of the Negro’s public progress, a progress so heavy with complexity, so bewildering and kaleidoscopic, that he dare not pause to conjecture on the darkness which lies behind him; and by the nature of the American psychology which, in order to apprehend or be made able to accept it, must undergo a metamorphosis so profound as to be literally unthinkable and which no doubt we will resist until we are compelled to achieve our own identity by the rigors of a time that has yet to come.
Although he wrote from truth, Baldwin’s theme was one of awakening to a truth yet unknown. His later essays on the consciousness required to reduce the enormous disconnect between the races continue to demand this awakening.
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” first published in 1965
Accompany Baldwin’s landmark early work with memoirs from Ta-Nehisi Coates on the “consciousness” imperative for redemption, and Maya Angelou’s generous advice to forgive oneself first, Rupi Kaur’s poetry on pain and forgiveness and Walt Whitman’s example of all-encompassing human love.