I am confounded when the elementary assertion that race and its afterlives persist in America as a clinical matter and pathological affair is read as outrageous charge and treasonous indictment. The stunning national ability and perceived necessity to repress, reject, and outright dismiss the brutality and inequity of the “system of reality” that governs the country is mind-numbing, toxic, and sickly: a vulgar quest for an innocence broadly understood in progressive quarters as an affront to the very goals and promise of the American project itself—whatever that might mean now. What is remarkable is the truly astonishing grace and poise of many on the hyphenated margins who have managed to survive (and sometimes thrive) without acquiring a kind of crippling malice. But nothing is pretty, many do not make it or hobble along, and we are all still entangled, as James Baldwin noted echoing “the” English bard, in this terrifying “nettle danger” together.
In the first section of Baldwin’s masterpiece The Fire Next Time, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” the novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and activist attempts to instruct his namesake, then around fifteen years old, how best to navigate the actively hostile terrain of 1960s America. He is transparent and pointed, stating early on that he is writing this letter directly to him to “try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them don’t know that you exist.” The “them” implicated here are the architects of a sustained, centuries-long campaign, “who are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” He reminds the younger James that, “one must strive to become tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death,” since none of this is new, but he is adamant that it not be “permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
A consistent preoccupation throughout out his forty-year career, the question of contending with that willful blindness, the outrageous claims of innocence on the part of his “countrymen” concerning crimes for which “neither time nor history will ever forgive them,” Baldwin makes a number of things clear in this careful, love-filled note: That the social and economic location of his nephew’s birth is no accident; that he is expected to make “peace with mediocrity [. . .] and never aspire to excellence;” be perpetually told how to physically inhabit space and who he might marry; all of which “spelled out in the most brutal clarity [. . .] the limits of your ambition [which] were, thus, to be set forever.” Although he reminds him to “take no one’s word for anything [including mine]” and to be guided by his own experience, Baldwin maintains, “I know the conditions under which you were born, for I was there. Your countrymen were not there, and haven’t made it yet. Your grandmother was also there. [. . .] I suggest the innocents check with her. She isn’t hard to find. Your countrymen don’t know she exists, either, although she has been working for them all their lives.” This protracted invisibility represents Baldwin’s profound moral indictment on the material and psychic destruction this deceptive sightlessness has enabled.
Toward the end of Baldwin’s at once existential and instrumentalist instruction (which has so much and so little in common with Jamaica Kincaid’s similar missive, “Girl”), he beseeches, “Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today [. . .] that there is no basis, whatever, for the impertinent assertion that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them.” Always partial to the declarative and emphatic utility of italics, Baldwin presses them into more regular service in this brief, intense letter as a means by which to amplify the motivations and investments of the actors in this dangerous and founding domestic drama. [Your grandmother has worked for them all her life].
He is counseling his loved-one about the necessary cultivation of a radical interiority—a sign of individualized personification denied him in the dominant culture and imagination: “you must accept them and accept them with love.” It is the only chance they have since they are “trapped in a history they do not understand.” This massive moral burden should be assimilated with the knowledge that it runs parallel (in a kind of way) to the mind-altering reality, as Baldwin noted in Fire and in his first major essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” that any meaningful transformation in our violent social order requires the “loss” of our concrete yet abstract identities, “the end of safety,” which might just save us from the “evil that is in this world.” As the “innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe” lose their grasp on what has passed as “reality,” his nephew must accept them as “lost, younger brothers [. . . and] we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
The two-term election of Barack Obama has unearthed lasting racial animus in the country, despite his bewildering adoration of the status quo, that could result in the election of one of the most illiterate and vile human beings to ever seek national office in the modern U.S. In a 1963 address at the Community Church in New York, published as “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” Baldwin argues that it is a “frightening assignment” for black artists, to be dealing “all the time with the most inarticulate people that I, in any case, have ever encountered [. . .] Inarticulate and illiterate [. . .and] totally unlettered in the language of the heart.” As Baldwin would maintain, this destructive inability to communicate is directly related to an unwillingness to confront our shared past. But, he insisted, as the contributors collected here resonate, “That the time has come [. . .] to recognize that the framework in which we operate weighs on us too heavily to be borne and is about to kill us. It is time to ask very hard questions and to take very rude positions.” For the choices before us this election season recall Baldwin’s refusal of the well-worn canard of the “lesser evil,” as profoundly undemocratic, if we are concerned, wholly, with the comprehensive health of the republic. As he made clear, with characteristic candor, “Gonorrhea is not preferable to syphilis.”
Baldwin ends his letter with a reminder to his nephew that this is his country and not to be driven from it—that he belongs to a sturdy lineage, including “a long line of poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer,” who survived desperate circumstances, but who “achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”