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.
On the eve of the 1980 presidential elections, James Baldwin confessed his inability to account for why “in a nation so boastfully autonomous as the United States we are reduced to the present presidential candidates [who are] as well equipped to run the world as I am to run a post office.”
Growing up in Harlem in the ’20s and ’30s, James Baldwin had no shortage of reasons to fear the police and to hate the wider white population. In the early ’40s, when he was turned away from a New Jersey dinerthe American Diner, no lesshe wanted to kill the waitress who told him “We don’t serve Negroes here.”
Nigger is a word that Baldwin detested. He could say it, but he could not use it as anything other than a pejorative.
In a country where morality is too often collapsed into safetynot the protection from physical harm, not the insurance of a basic standard of life, but the false safety that is stability for markets and profitabilityJames Baldwin summons to us from beyond the grave to boldly practice a dangerous morality.
Watch even a little cable TV or spend time on social media, and you might be tempted to follow the trend of painting this November’s election in stark, simplistic terms: red states vs. blue states, Baby Boomers and Gen X vs. Millennials, men vs. women, black and brown people vs. a resentful white majority.
I consider James Baldwin’s essays to form part of the firmament, as critical as the North Star, guiding how true my words sound the mettle, do more than spin, and take the written journey from idea to fire.
If I’da asked my black, Native-looking Gramma about someone like James Baldwin, had they both lived in this day and age, she would have sized him up as a picture, on screen.