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Racism is white people’s problem. Unfortunately it is those who are not white-skinned that suffer most directly from this problem. Although the legacy of Western colonialism means that every people and every nation involved in said colonialism has something to answer for, no nation has as much to answer for as the United States. This is true for one very basic reason. That reason is the enslavement of Africans and their descendants; and the subsequent economic and legal structure put in place to ensure the continuation of much of the oppression and repression established during slavery’s existence. Elements of this structure encompass everything from the denial of the vote to laws designed to restrict the Black vote; lynchings and the failure to prosecute the lynchers to police murders of African-Americans and the refusal to prosecute those police; the denial of education to the denial of funds for equal education; the de jure segregation of housing to the redlining of traditionally Black housing areas; ad infinitum.
So much of America (especially white America) does not understand what it’s like to be harassed by the police almost every day just for acting like you believe you are free. They don’t get what it means to have to be always wondering if the police are going to ask you for ID, insult you personally and racially, make you empty your pockets and throw you up against the wall. They don’t really understand what it means to feel like you don’t belong in the neighborhood you live in because the police (who usually come from a different town and often are of a different skin tone) stop you and fuck with you whenever they want. And they really don’t understand what it means to know in your heart that those cops could kill you, get away with it, and become TV stars in the process. The racist legacy of slavery is still too much a part of the American way.
Author James Baldwin, who wrote about life in the United States in the shadow of slavery better than almost anyone, once stated “I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it… But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”(The Fire Next Time)
Nothing proves this statement better than this fact: a Black man is killed about every 28 hours by police in the United States. Further proof of Baldwin’s concern is the never-ending excuses provided by the police, courts and politicians and media spokespeople rationalizing law enforcement’s practices. The fact that police are rarely if ever prosecuted lies in the very fact that the law guarantees their immunity. The fact that we accept those laws guarantees the persistence of these murders.
James Baldwin grew tired of the racism ingrained into life in the United States and moved to Paris. This provided him with a chance to see his native country even clearer. It also meant that his life in Europe would be different than that of his African expatriate cousins. This is one of the themes explored by author Alain Mabanckou in his recently released (in English) letter to jimmy (On the twentieth anniversary of your death). Written in the form of a letter addressed to Baldwin, the text is a personal rumination on Baldwin’s life and works. It is simultaneously compelling and profound in its approach.
Mabanckou begins by discussing James Baldwin’s relationship with his stepfather David. It is this relationship, writes Mabanckou, that informs the stepson’s relationship to the world and to the complicated web that comprises race relations in the United States. His anger and what James perceives as self-loathing taints the relationship between father and son, while also inspiring the son to look at the world in a different way. Mabanckou describes this phenomenon like this: “David Baldwin is black, and does not realize that he is beautiful, you point out.” It was the younger Baldwin’s mission to bring the beauty of every human, especially those cast as ugly by the dominant culture, to the forefront of our consciousness.
James Baldwin was a gay man. For lack of a more descriptive term, this meant his alienation in the gaze of the white and straight culture that dominated his world was doubled. Mabanckou acknowledges this and, like many critics since, asks what this meant to Baldwin’s worldview. I wonder what Baldwin’s perspective might be if he were alive today—in a western world where, for many people, his homosexuality would be more acceptable than his Black skin.
In letter to jimmy, Mabanckou takes the reader on a walk through James Baldwin’s life and writing. Although possibly more meaningful to the reader who knows at least some of Baldwin’s books, the power of this text lies in Mabanckou’s direct and personal style and his ability at making the reader an intimate in his epistle to Baldwin. The fact of the book’s existence seems to indicate Baldwin’s inspiration in Mabanckou’s writing. Mabanckou even describes his tract as a “love letter” to the late author to whom the letter is addressed. Baldwin’s writing always worked on a multitude of levels, emotionally and intellectually. In this wonderfully written tribute, Alain Mabanckou writing does so, too.
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.