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James Baldwin and the Meaning of Whiteness

By       Message Chris Hedges       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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The work of James Baldwin, pictured here in 1969, is as relevant today as in his time. The essayist, novelist, poet and social critic died in 1987.
(Image by (Allan Warren / Wikimedia Commons))
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Raoul Peck's "I Am Not Your Negro" is one of the finest documentaries I have ever seen -- I would have stayed in the theater in New York to see the film again if the next showing had not been sold out. The film powerfully illustrates, through James Baldwin's prophetic work, that the insanity now gripping the United States is an inevitable consequence of white Americans' steadfast failure to confront where they came from, who they are and the lies and myths they use to mask past and present crimes. Baldwin's only equal as a 20th century essayist is George Orwell. If you have not read Baldwin you probably do not fully understand America. Especially now.

History "is not the past," the film quotes Baldwin as saying. "History is the present. We carry our history with us. To think otherwise is criminal."

The script is taken from Baldwin's notes, essays, interviews and letters, with some of the words delivered in Baldwin's voice from audio recordings and televised footage, some of them in readings by actor Samuel L. Jackson. But it is not, finally, the poetry and lyricism of Baldwin that make the film so moving. It is Peck's understanding of the core of Baldwin's message to the white race, a message that is vital to grasp as we struggle with an overt racist as president, mass incarceration, poverty gripping half the country and militarized police murdering unarmed black men and women in the streets of our cities.

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Whiteness is a dangerous concept. It is not about skin color. It is not even about race. It is about the willful blindness used to justify white supremacy. It is about using moral rhetoric to defend exploitation, racism, mass murder, reigns of terror and the crimes of empire.

"The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world's most direct and virile, that American women are pure," Baldwin wrote. "Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents -- or, anyway, mothers -- know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing."

America was founded on the genocidal slaughter of indigenous people and the holocaust of slavery. It was also founded on an imagined moral superiority and purity. The fact that dominance of others came, and still comes, from unrestrained acts of violence is washed out of the national narrative. The steadfast failure to face the truth, Baldwin warned, perpetuates a kind of collective psychosis. Unable to face the truth, white Americans stunt and destroy their capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism. They construct a world of dangerous, self-serving fantasy. Those who imbibe the myth of whiteness externalize evil -- their own evil -- onto their victims. Racism, Baldwin understood, is driven by moral bankruptcy, narcissism, an inner loneliness and latent guilt. Donald Trump and most of those around him exhibit all of these characteristics.

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"If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent on what they still call 'the Negro problem,'" Baldwin wrote. "This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks."

"People pay for what they do, and, still more for what they allowed themselves to become," Baldwin went on. "And they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead. The crucial thing, here, is that the sum of these individual abdications menaces life all over the world. For, in the generality, as social and moral and political and sexual entities, white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today."

Footage in the Peck documentary of past murder cases including the 1955 lynching of the 14-year-old Emmett Till is interspersed with the modern-day lynching of young black men such as Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. Images of white supremacist parades from the 1960s, with young men carrying signs proclaiming "Keep America White," shift directly to footage of Ferguson, Mo. This juxtaposition is almost too much to bear. If it does not shake you to the core you have no heart and no understanding of who we are in America.

The film begins with Baldwin's 1957 return from France, where he had been living for almost a decade. He comes back to join the nascent civil rights movement. He was deeply disturbed by a photograph of Dorothy Counts, 15, surrounded by a mob of whites spitting and screaming racial slurs as she walked into a newly desegregated high school in Charlotte, N.C.

"I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem," he said. "Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine."

In short, he returned to the United States so that black children like Dorothy Counts would not have to walk alone through a sea of racial hatred.

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He spoke and participated in hundreds of events for the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, however, largely held him at arm's length. Baldwin was too independent and outspoken about the truth. His words made King's Northern white liberal supporters uncomfortable. Baldwin was supposed to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, but King and the other leaders of the march replaced him with the actor Burt Lancaster. Baldwin steadfastly refused to be anyone's "negro."

Baldwin was, like Orwell, an astute critic of modern culture and how it justifies the crimes of racism and imperialism. In his book "The Devil Finds Work" he pits Hollywood's vision of race against the reality. The Peck documentary shows clips from films Baldwin critiqued in the book including "The Birth of a Nation" (a 1915 movie Baldwin called "an elaborate justification of mass murder"), "Dance, Fools, Dance" (1931), "The Monster Walks" (1932), "King Kong" (1933), "Imitation of Life" (1934), "They Won't Forget" (1937), "Stagecoach" (1939), "The Defiant Ones" (1958), "Lover Come Back" (1961), "A Raisin in the Sun" (1961) and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967). In film after film Baldwin pointed to the ingrained racial stereotypes of African-Americans in popular culture that sustain the lie of whiteness.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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