I’ve never had the chance to fully study all Baldwin’s work, and have only read ‘Another Country’ and a few of his essays (Another Country is soooo good, very gripping and it covers a wide range of characters whose stories interweave). But, yesterday I read one of his essays in the Penguin modern series compilation of his works- ‘Dark Days’; by the way, I throughly recommend these books as treats for yourself and/or others! They are only £1 and can help you discover authors like how you can sample food at the supermarket or how they spray perfume on you to test it in shops. They aren’t in depth or full represetations of authors’ work, but really good to carry when travelling or to dip in and out of when you’re busy! ANYWAYS- I haven’t gotten round to reading the whole collection yet, but the essay I read seemed very relavent to now, despite it actually being written in 1965. It’s called: ‘The White Man’s Guilt’.
It is a highly thought through and intelligent work, and it is amazing to me how one man can see and interrogate such small parts of human behaviour into political frameworks. The essay explores how history affects the present way we interact with each other, and in particular how black and white people feel in conversation. How whiteness percieves and reacts to conceptions of blackness when faced with real life people. Baldwin highlights a frantic guilt in the white man/woman; always defending themselves when they haven’t been attacked, either personally in conversation, or physically by the police who they so vehemently defend. Always pointing blame in another direction, feeling deep down there is an imbalance in the world and never wanting to admit it- because once you state the truth (not the glorious history the people in charge want to push) and its repurcussions, who wants to be the one held responsible, to clean up that vicious mess?
It reminded me of another brilliant book I’ve read recently about race relations under some strange cloud of repressed/mutilated guilt, which allows for discimination/murder/ poverty to carry on largely unchallenged. Afua Hirsch’s book, ‘British’ is a memoir/ evidenced portrayal of racism in Britain- and it effects on African ex-colonies- across history. Hirsch’s book is rooted in Uk (And also Ghana), whilst Baldwin was writing about America, but the similarities of what they delineate are strong. Both point to the stupidity of white people denying they see colour, and therefore denying they see history. By denying colour, you deny people their bodies, pride in their ancestry, and pride enough now to untangle the brutality that a one-sided history has created. Or, the cowardice of seeing colour but not the truth of the story that colour tells: when white british people are proud of their country without knowing a thing about Empire and slavery, or red neck Americans fighting for immigrants to ‘get out’, when their whole country was literally built by immigrants coming over and killing Native Americans.
Returning to Baldwin, he doesn’t only talk about how white people are harmed and constrained by a history they do not yet understand how to be accountable for, he also talks about the pain that this warped history has had on black people. He explains how, if your history is dominated by negativity and shame, always condemning the contemporary individual as symptomatic of inherited ‘wrong’; to blame victims for their own suffering, after a while it’s those lies that become how you view yourself and your people. Black people come to believe that what white people won’t say is true- the akward glances denoting a distance, the silences meaning an unwillingness to just let people be people. They fill the empty gaps left from the tatters of pillaged history with their own present suffering to try make the picture whole.
My favorite image that Baldwin uses in this essay to descibe the effects of history on a person in the present is that of a butterfly pinned by a nail. The nail is history: factual, hard, produced by some distant machine, and almost impossible to escape from. The butterfly is us: a creature ruled by change and frail beauty, that is supposed to fly and be free but cannot whilst that pin is stuck there. Baldwin’s prose is already poetical in describing his politics, but this image just really sticks with me. I think it summarises perfectly the predicament white people have stuck themselves in, unable to escape their materially comfortable, yet pscyhologically wrecked history. Emotionally stagnant, condemning themselves for what is unchangeable; with white people dowsing themselves in guilt, defensive anger or complete ignorance. People who refuse to even look at the nail, let alone remove it, are equally as in pain as those who acknowledge its presence every second whilst doing nothing proactive to ease the wound.
The fact is, history can be changed because history is always under construction. I don’t mean change history like Dr Who travelling back and undoing all wrongs; I mean challenging the stories we’ve been told which build the foundation- both material and emotional- of all lives today. Using white priviledge- access to education, money and no discrimination based on race- to destroy the machinery that has gotten us to where we are now, so no black or brown person has to fight to be human again. So, I think Baldwin is trying to say that it’s not enough to know that racism is wrong. If you’re not going to activley change the situation by trying (you do everything you can when you can) to learn and construct an un-whitewashed version of history, where those who need to be are held accountable; to rebuild a society that does not perpetuate these current conditions- then you are part of the problem. To talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk, and at the moment white people aint saying shit to make anyone wanna walk. And if nobody can even walk, when will we ever be able to dance? Because ultimatley, it can’t be black people who have been victimised throughout history who are burdened with the struggle of fixing problems forced upon them. The only one who can change a legacy of history programmed into a person’s brain is the person who that brain belongs to.
I know this post is a bit slapdash, but I hope I have not butchered his work and offended anybody. I hope I’ve understood Baldwin correctly, and if you think I’ve missed some major points or am wrong- please say! The ultimate thing is to not close off conversation; it isn’t bad to be wrong, but it is bad to never admit it. To end this post, I want to include a good quote from Baldwin, and I hope you’ll try to look out for more of his work in the future! BE REVOLUTIONARY AND READ HISTORY!!!!!
“… Moreover, the history of white people has led them to a fearful, baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality- to lose touch, that is, with themselves- and where they certainly are not truly happy, for they know they are not truly safe… White man, hear me! A man is a man, a woman is a woman, a child is a child. To deny these facts is to open the doors on a chaos deeper and deadlier, and, within the space of a man’s lifetime, more timeless, more eternal, than the medieval vision of Hell. White man, you have already arrived at this unspeakable blasphemy in order to make money. You cannot endure the things you aquire- the only reason you continually aquire them, like junkies on hundred dollar a day habits- and your money exists mainly on paper. God help you on that day when the population demands to know what is behind that paper… It is terrifying to consider the precise nature of the things you have brought with the flesh you have sold- of what you continue to buy with the flesh you continue to sell…”