From the Books: NO NAME IN THE STREET, James Baldwin

James Baldwin. Image credit: The New Yorker

I have just finished reading James Baldwin’s powerful essay-book No Name in the Street, in which Baldwin describes his early life and his encounters later with many figures, some seminal and some less-so, and how he relates all of this to his larger experience as a Black man in 20th century America. It does not come as a surprise to observe how many of his observations can be, and are being by others, advanced as true to this very day. For all that we, for certain definitions of “we”, like to pat ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come, it’s very much worth the effort to look at history from the vantage point of those who don’t think we’ve come very far at all. And that view is absolutely justified, which goes a long way toward explaining the vehement degree to which many in power now are working hard to make sure this view is as hard to hear as possible.

I could say more, but…no. Better to listen to the voices we’re shouting down, and to amplify them, if possible. Here are three excerpts from Baldwin. (Page numbers are from the Library of America edition of No Name in the Street, which appears in their volume, James Baldwin: Collected Essays. (A word about usage: Baldwin wrote fifty years ago, well before some aspects of terminology were settled or adopted, such as the recent standard of capitalizing Black. Opening capitalizations of these passages are added to differentiate one passage from the next.)

WHEN THE PAGAN and the slave spit on the cross and pick up the fun, it means that the halls of history are about to be invaded once again, destroying and dispersing the present occupants. These, then, can call only on their history to save them–that same history which, in the eyes, of the subjugated, has already condemned them. Therefore, Faulkner hoped that American blacks would have the generosity to “go slow”–would allow white people, that is, the time to save themselves, as though they had not had more than enough time already, and as thought heir victims still believed in white miracles–and Camus repeated the word “justice” as though it were a magical incantation to which all of Africa would immediately respond. American blacks could not “go slow” because they had made a rendezvous with history for the purpose of taking their children out of history’s hands. And Camus’ “justice” was a concept forged and betrayed in Europe, in exactly the same way the Christian church has betrayed and dishonored and blasphemed that Saviour in whose name they have slaughtered millions and millions and millions of people. And if this mighty objection seems trivial, it can only be because of the total hardening of the heart and the coarsening of the conscience among those people who believed that their power has given them the exclusive right to history. If the Christians do not believe in their Saviour (who has certainly, furthermore, failed to save them) why, then, wonder the unredeemed, should I abandon my gods for yours? For I know my gods are real: they have enabled me to withstand you. (p. 382-383)

THIS IS A FORMULA for a nation’s or a kingdom’s decline, for no kingdom can maintain itself by force alone. Force does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary, and this revelation invests the victim with patience. Furthermore, it is ultimately fatal to create too many victims. The victor can do nothing with these victims, for they do not belong to him, but–to the victims. They belong to the people he is fighting. The people know this, and as inexorably as the roll call–the honor roll–of victims expands, so does their will become inexorable: they resolve that these dead, their brethren, shall not have died in vain. When this point is reached, however long the battle may go on, the victor can never be the victor: on the contrary, all his energies, his entire life, are bound up in a terror he cannot articulate, a mystery he cannot read, a battle he cannot win–he has simply become the prisoner of the people he thought to cow, chain, or murder into submission. (p. 406-407)

THOSE WHO RULE this country now–as distinguished, it must be said, from governing it–are determined to smash the Panthers [the Black Panther Party] in order to hide the truth of the American black situation. They want to hide this truth from black people–by making it impossible for them to respond to it–and they would like to hide it from the world; and not, alas, because they area ashamed of it but because they have no intention of changing it. They cannot afford to change it. They would not know how to go about changing, it, even if their imaginations were capable of encompassing the concept of black freedom. But this concept lives in their imaginations, and in the popular imagination, only as a nightmare. Blacks have never been free in this country, never was it intended that they should be free, and the spectre of so dreadful a freedom–the idea of a license so bloody and abandoned–conjures up another, unimaginable country, a country in which no decent, God-fearing white man or woman can live. A civilized country is, by definition, a country dominated by whites, in which the blacks clearly know their place. This is really the way the generality of white Americans feel, and they consider–quite rightly, as far as any concern for their interest goes–that it is they who, now, at long last, are represented in Washington. (p. 462-463)

TO BE AN AFRO-AMERICAN, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend–which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn–and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life. Whoever is part of whatever civilization helplessly loves some aspects of it, and some of the people in it. A person does not lightly elect to oppose his society. One would much rather be at home among one’s compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. And there is a level on which the mockery of the people, even their hatred, is moving because it is blind: it is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction. I think black people have always felt this about America, and Americans, and have always seen, spinning above the thoughtless American head, the shape of the wrath to come. (p. 474)

That last passage is one that haunts me especially, because I’m not sure that Baldwin’s “wrath to come” has unfolded yet.

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One Response to From the Books: NO NAME IN THE STREET, James Baldwin

  1. Roger says:

    I HIGHLY recommend the movie I Am Not Your Negro from about five years ago, with tons of Baldwin quotes, some so rapid-fire that you’ll want to pause the film. (I saw it in a theater, so not an option.) I think it’s currently on Hulu, which I don’t have.

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