I am in awe of James Baldwin.
The novelist, poet, essayist and activist has been in vogue recently, thanks in part to the 2020 re-release of the documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” and scholarly books such as Eddie S. Glaude’s “Begin Again.”
Baldwin, who died in 1987, was a brilliant writer and champion of civil rights and a lightning rod for criticism. As an outspoken gay Black man, he was attacked from every corner, including by fellow Black civil rights activists.
“I Am Not Your Negro” includes excerpts of a 1965 debate Baldwin had with conservative icon William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in England. The motion, or subject, of the debate was, “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?”
The entire debate is on YouTube, and it is fascinating viewing. Baldwin is absolutely mesmerizing throughout his 20-minute argument.
The most powerful point he made, one that still resonates, was his empathy toward White racists in America, particularly in the Deep South.
He cites infamous Sheriff James Clark of Selma, Alabama, who led violent attacks on Black Americans during 1965’s “Bloody Sunday” on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, and other physical assaults on civil rights demonstrators, particularly Blacks trying to register to vote.
Baldwin tries to understand why Clark was so cruel, and said that no one, including the sheriff, can simply be “dismissed as a total monster.”
Sheriff Clark, Baldwin said, “doesn’t know what drives him to use the club, the menace of the gun, and to use a cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breast, for example.”
Baldwin’s view of Southern Whites in general shows how he tried to find the roots of their racist behavior.
“They have been raised to believe … that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation, which is like a heavenly revelation — at least they are not Black,” Baldwin said.
“Now I suggest that of all the terrible things that can happen to a human being, that is one of the worst. I suggest that what has happened to White southerners is in some ways after all much worse than what has happened to Negroes there.”
It astounds me that Baldwin endured and witnessed such cruelty at the hands of Whites throughout his life, and still tried to find the humanity within.
Racism is not strictly an American epidemic, of course.
In mid-July I watched the championship match of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament featuring England vs. Italy.
The score was 1–1 at the end of regulation and extra time, forcing a penalty-kick “shootout” to determine the winner. In a shootout, five players from each team are selected and each team takes a turn with one player attempting to score on a single kick vs. the other team’s goalkeeper from a designated spot 12 yards away.
The English coach chose three young Black players among his five, and all three failed to score. Italy won the coveted title.
I immediately texted a friend, an avid soccer fan who I knew was also watching the match. I told him I feared a nasty racial backlash from English fans toward the three players.
Within an hour or so, he texted me back with a link to a news item about the trio immediately being racially abused on social media. “As you predicted,” my friend wrote, punctuating it with a frown symbol.
While some ranters faulted England’s coach (who is White) for selecting less experienced players to take “spot-kicks,” there was plenty of racist venom directed at the three players, ages 19, 21 and 23.
Bukayo Saka, the youngest of them, issued a statement a few days later, thanking his supporters and admonishing social media platforms. “I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that me, Marcus (Ashford) and Jadon (Sancho) have received this week,” Saka wrote. “I knew instantly the kind of hate I was about to receive and that is a sad reality …”
He signed off with, “Love always wins.”
Meanwhile, back in America, those who harbor the views of Sheriff Clark don’t need to resort to billy clubs and cattle prods to keep Blacks from voting. Some state legislatures are taking care of that without bloodshed.
In 1962, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin said it would be another 100 years before Blacks in this country could celebrate true freedom. We are more than halfway there.
If he were alive today, what would he say of that timetable?
Essay originally appeared in senseofdecency.com