Commenté en France le 5 novembre 2013
A collection of old essays that were quite typical of 1955, before Rosa Parks and of course Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963. They should have been tempered a little bit in 1984, but they were not as shown in the new introduction:
“Not once have the Civilized been able to honor, recognize, or describe the Savage. . . It is savagely, if one may say so, ironical that the only proof the world – mankind – has ever had of White supremacy is in the Black face and voice: that face never scrutinized, that voice never heard. The eyes in that face prove the unforgivable and unimaginable horror of being a captive in the promised land, but also prove that trouble don’t last always: and the voice, once filled with a rage and pain that corroborated the reality of the jailer, is addressing another reality, in other tongues. The people who think themselves as White have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant.” (Preface to the 1984 edition, xv)
A harsh statement indeed. But in that perspective of a Black escape to another reality in other tongues of a voice that was/is never heard from a Savage that was never described, recognized, honored, the word that is just wrong is “Savage.” In 1984 the word is totally off the point, definitely passé, even in the USA. As we are going to see the “Savage” made a tremendous contribution to American and global culture, and this “Savage” option prevents James Baldwin from seeing that contribution. Fine enough in 1955, wrong in 1984.
The first interest of the book is the autobiographical elements James Baldwin gives us. Born in 1924 in Harlem, working for the war industry in 1943, he lost his father in 1943 too who died of tuberculosis. He left for France in 1948 but this book of essays, some autobiographical, misses two important elements concerning the author First the fact he was gay and the way he mixes gayness and blackness in one double rejection, the way this gayness becomes a way to transcend racial segregation and the trap it works with for both the Blacks and the Whites tied up into some mutual enslavement by their own common categorizations. And yet to be gay was one impossible element in the Harlem of that time, so much so that James Baldwin expatriates himself to Paris. Second the fact that he was fascinated by music and that for him gospel or jazz, black music was a way to evade segregation and the inerasable heritage of slavery and to reach beyond and be creative in a world that officially in James Baldwin’s credo refuses any human dignity, and certainly any human creativity to the Blacks.
In that self-telling line though he speaks of his father who was a preacher and an apocalyptic one who believed in the absolute necessity for the Blacks to totally reject white America. At the same time in his high school years James Baldwin was a Young Minister as well as the editor of his high school magazine and in a personal educational relation with one of his white female teachers, a relationship his father accepted against his will, manipulated by his wife into not being able to object. It is not clear if the father would have objected only because the teacher was white or because she also was a woman. In that apocalyptic vision Babylon is often a frame of reference and white women are seen as two dangers in one package.
But after high school, at the end of it, James Baldwin moves away from his father who had always been a tyrannical man anyway.
“I had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father’s vision. . .“ (85)
And yet just four pages later he writes:
“ When he died. . . II had discovered the weight of white people in the world. [In New Jersey in his official war job] I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.” (88-89)
And he goes on a little bit further in the same text:
“I saw nothing very clearly but I did see 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.” (98-99)
And his conclusion a few pages later is inescapable.
“Between pity and guilt and fear I began to feel that there was another me trapped in my skull like a jack-in-the-box who might escape my control at any moment and fill the air with screaming.” (102)
And we come back to the feeling of absolute negation, of the self of Black people by white America, of his own self by this white America.
“. . . The zeal of those alabaster missionaries to Africa to cover the nakedness of the natives, to hurry them into the pallid arms of Jesus and thence into slavery. The aim has now become to reduce all Americans to the compulsive, bloodless dimensions of a guy named Joe. . . Now, as then, we find ourselves bound, first without, then within, by the nature of our categorization. And escape is not effected through a bitter railing against this trap; it is as though this very striving were the only motion needed to spring the trap upon us. . . 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. . .” (20-21)
That vision of absolute depersonalization, or rather negation of any possible personalization of Blacks in white America is expressed in extremely black humor with the guy named Joe that we’d like to understand as a certain GI Joe. But could we think there might be a Joe Blow and a Joe Black in America? James Baldwin is extremely clear: it is no: the Blacks have to become white in all characteristics and then the color of their skin might be overlooked. The whites can be color blind only if the Blacks have made themselves white, if they have been brain-white-washed as we could think in the line of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, one rare writer James Baldwin apparently supports:
“. . . and most significantly, in the advent of Ralph Ellison, one sees the beginnings – at least – of a more genuinely penetrating search.” (8)
The penetrating search is a very close and deep study at how a Black man has been made invisible to all whites around him who are color blind and these Black men are supposed to behave so that never their Black color can ever come back to the consciousness of these whites, but also to the Blacks themselves who don’t want to know what they are and who they are and the hero of Invisible Man in the midst of a Harlem riot (1943 maybe) sinks into a deep black coal cellar that he has transformed into an entirely closed cubicle of white light in which he becomes visible as a Black man but there is no one to see it, there is no mirror for him to see himself. For James Baldwin that’s exactly the drama of these Blacks. They have been emptied of all their personality, hence humanity.
“. . . make it [the N**** face, I have erased the N-word and replaced it as you can see] blank if one cannot make it white. . .” (26) “We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key – could we but find it – to all that we later become. . .” (27) “Wherever the N**** face appears a tension is created, the tension of a silence filled with things unutterable. It is a sentimental error, therefore, to believe that the past is dead, it means nothing to say that it is all forgotten, that the N**** himself has forgotten. . . The man does not remember the hand that struck him, the darkness that frightened him, as a child; nevertheless, the hand and the darkness remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, part of the passion that drives him wherever he thinks to take flight. . .” (29) “We will set our faces against them and join hands and walk together into the dazzling future when there will be no white or black. This is the dream of all liberal men, a dream not at all dishonorable, but, nevertheless, a dream. . . reduce the person to anonymity.” (44-45)
This is brutal indeed. The liberal dream can only lead to the negation of color, hence the negation of blackness, hence the negation of the Blacks as what they are, Black humans. And the consequence is clear for James Baldwin:
“There is not a N**** alive who does not have this rage in his blood – one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, the fever has recurred to me, and does, and will until the day I die.” (94)
But what is left of this past?
“N****es are Americans and their destiny is the country’s destiny. They have no other experience besides their experience on this continent and it is an experience which cannot be rejected, which yet remains to be embraced.” (42) “This depthless alienation from oneself and one’s people is, in sum, the American experience.” (123)
The Blacks have to “betray the memory of the auction block” in the name of the “happy ending” but this states the only origin of Blacks in America is the auction block. There is nothing before and there James Baldwin is brutally clear.
“The American N**** slave could not suppose, for one thing, as slaves in past epochs had supposed and often done, that he would ever be able to wrest the power from his master’s friends. . . But even had this supposition persisted with undiminished force, the American N**** slave in exile yet remains related to his past, has some means – if only in memory – of revering and sustaining the forms of his former life, is able, in short, to maintain his ,identity. This was not the case of the American N**** slave. . . His past was taken from him, almost literally, at one blow.” (169)
And that’s the mistake. James Baldwin is in absolute line with Willie Lynch as for that total eradication of anything African – and human – in the Black slave, though not at one blow. The Black slave was chattel, under horses and just before oxen. That’s also the same mistake that was made about the missionaries who first made the Black Africans Christians and then moved them into slavery. In fact it was the other way around but only for the Catholic French and the Catholic Spaniards. They were made slaves first and then eventually were permitted to become Christians. With the Anglican and Puritan English it was out of the question: Black slaves were not humans, they did not have a soul, they could not be baptized or Christianized because they had not been made by God, or even worse, they were the descendants of Cain and their color was God’s curse on them.
In the same way under the French or Spanish churches the slaves were able to buy their freedom, to be granted their freedom by their owners in their wills after their death, or their freedom could be bought by some free person. That’s why Louisiana rejoined the Union in 1862 because of the great proportion of “free people of color” due to the French past of the state and of the Code Noir that codified these possibilities for slaves to become free men and women. And Louisiana was instrumental in the ratification of the 13th amendment. What he says here goes against real history, the way we start seeing it: we insists on the resistance of many Black slaves, their running away, joining the Indians in Florida and other states, just establishing some wild communities of maroon Blacks or people of color, not to speak of the underground railroad or the Black Medea, Margaret Garner in Cincinnati in 1856. That has led Denise Oliver Velez to state the hypothesis of the three tiered society in the countries which were set up and into which slavery was imported by the Spaniards or the French, in total opposition with the one-drop theory imposed by the English in their colonies and in their practice of slavery.
But I was surprised a lot more when I read the following sentence:
“It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the N**** in America has been able to tell his story. . . The ways in which the N**** has affected the American psychology are betrayed in our popular culture and in our morality; in our estrangement from him is the depth or our estrangement from ourselves. . .” (24)
Apart from the fact that James Baldwin is covered by his use of “we,” this statement does not correspond to the reality of the musical contribution of Black Slaves to the culture of America and of the world. That is surprising because James Baldwin uses music, gospels or jazz very systematically as a way for the Blacks to escape from the alienation which is theirs in everyday life. The Africans brought with them in all kinds of way the polyrhythmic tradition which was uniquely Black African in the world up to the beginning of the 20th century and this became the music of the whole world as soon as the radio and later television were able to broadcast it along with the first recordings on vynils or on tapes. That is surprising he does not exploit this tremendous proof that all the Black slaves kept something from their original culture and they all therefore must have resisted at that level, and it is probably why they did not lie down and died, or let themselves be beaten to death.
There is another inheritance from Africa, and it is religion. On this point he is precise and actually accurate.
“It is axiomatic that the N**** is religious, which is to say that he stands in fear of the God our ancestors gave us and before whom we all tremble yet. . . These churches range from the august and publicized Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th Street to resolutely unclassifiable lofts, basements, store-fronts, and even private dwellings. . . the way of life imposed on N****es makes them quite actively unhappy – but also, and much more significantly, religion operates here as a complete and exquisite fantasy revenge; white people own the earth and commit all manner of abomination and injustice on it; the bad will be punished and the good rewarded, for God is not sleeping, the judgment is not far off. . . The term “Jew” actually operates . . . to include all infidels of white skin who have failed to accept the Savior. . . Jews . . . having refused the light . . . a catalog of their subsequent sins and the sufferings visited on them by a wrathful God . . . The image of the wandering exiled Jew. . . At this point the N**** identifies himself almost wholly with the Jew. The more devout N**** considers that he is a Jew, in bondage to a hard taskmaster and waiting for a Moses to lead him out of Egypt. . . All Old Testament and therefore Jewish in origin; the flight from Egypt, the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace, the terrible jubilee songs of deliverance; Lord, wasn’t that hard trials, great tribulations, I’m bound to leave this land!” (65-67)
That generative chain of faith explains according to James Baldwin the hostility of the Blacks against the Jews. The white Gentiles have taught the Jews how to commercially exploit the Blacks that they socially and culturally exploit in all possible ways.
“Here the American white Gentile has two legends serving him at once: he has divided these minorities and he rules.” (69)
But James Baldwin does not tackle the problem why this Old Testament religion entirely invested in Jesus took over the Black mind. He does not mention how Jesus is the acme of the Black fate in which the Black has to be sacrificed both to be resurrected and to bring salvation to their people with Jesus’ Second Coming and the judgment on Doomsday. He does not explain how when some African religious beliefs and practices have survived they produced Vodun, hybridized African animism and Christianity that works on the polyrhythmic music from African with a normal superficial rhythm that anyone can follow with chants and slow dancing and a far faster rhythm under and behind that will lead those who can follow it into a trance. It is where African music and African religion meet and merge with Christian beliefs to the point of believing they can relive Jesus Crucifixion and sacrifice to save the people. Death becomes then part of life.
That becomes in an official Christian context a whole style of preaching from apocalyptic to contemplative with necessarily the use of polyrhythmic music and an oration that melts itself into that style as part and parcel of it all. This is supposed to bring elevation and contemplation of the future salvation when time will come.
It is interesting to read those essays again because they describe exactly what will be called later Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome though I must admit the Christian approach of the Syndrome is too contemplative whereas the Muslim approach is a lot more interactive. On one side they expect the whites to make the effort necessary for them to make the similar effort in order to reach some kind of reconciliation. The Muslims first call for each one of them in small groups to try to recapture their genealogical past as far as they can go and make it positive: what have my ancestors, including under slavery and then under Jim Crow laws and then under segregation, have done that is positive for themselves, for their families, for their communities. Valorize the past and at the same time see the shortcomings of that past. I must admit in 1972 the Catholic Church started defining their new policy towards Blacks and Indians and it was contained in three objectives: remember, reconcile, recommit. Remember the past, positive and negative; reconcile with yourself, your community and the other communities beyond all past hostility; recommit yourself to the basic Christian principles of love and faith, both in action with and towards all other people around you.
That comes to the conclusion that James Baldwin was disquieting and stimulating in 1955, but was already passé in 1984 and today is a historical landmark of the possible renaissance and liberation of the minds of the Blacks, and whites, bringing salvation on earth right now among us all and not in some future beyond Judgment Day, beyond the Apocalypse of this world. To go back to the beginning of this review and to emulate what James Baldwin said of the whites we could conclude that the people who are rejected as Black have the choice between becoming human or remaining locked up in their Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome. In both case concerning the whites and the Blacks the choice has to come from the individual people concerned with the help of their communities. It cannot come from outside, even if that outside can help.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU