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The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message

In the early summer of 1985, I made my way down to southern France to visit Jimmy Baldwin before I made my trip back home. I had lived for four years in Berlin, and I had had decided to return home, and I was terrified.

I thought a final a visit with Jimmy–as I had gotten to know Baldwin— would give me hope and calm my nerves.  I arrived in Nice and took the bus to his villa in St Paul de Vence.

I strolled down the walkway to the main house. I didn’t see anybody around, so I walked to the kitchen. There a white elderly woman emerged. It was the housekeeper, Valerie.

Valerie lead me down the stairs to the patio of Baldwin’s apartment. Jimmy sat out on the patio.

“Sit down,” he said. I sat and Jimmy went into his apartment and reemerged almost immediately with a manuscript.

Today, October 2, 2015, thirty years later, as I sit at my computer writing about this encounter with James Baldwin, I read online and see on the TV screen the story of a white man, 26, who just shot up the community college, in Roseburg, Oregon and has killed 9 people. One of 45 school killings, this one follows a pattern that Baldwin had written about. Here were the results of the murdering of black leaders.

Apparently, Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, a 26-year-old gunman who opened fire on a community college English class, was a boot camp dropout who studied mass shooters before becoming one himself. “The young man who died during a shootout with police, wore a flak jacket and brought at least six guns and five extra ammunition magazines to school for Thursday’s rampage. Investigators said Friday they found another seven guns at the apartment he shared with his mother. The weapons had all been purchased legally over the past three years, some by him, others by relatives, said Salinas Nunes, assistant field agent in charge for the Seattle division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.”

Baldwin had read to me his passage about the masculinity of the American white male was based violence.  To understand this school shooting tragedy I reflected on this, Baldwin’s last published essay.

I watched him as the sun set behind him over the Provencal Hills.

“I want read you something.” He settled down at his table called the Welcoming Table and read to me, “Freak and the American Ideal of Manhood.” It was an honor to listen to him.

The combined effects of the subject matter and his enthusiasm to read it that made the experience even more memorable.

It was the last essay he published before his death at the end of that year. It was also that last time we would meet.

But as I sat down with a glass of wine and listened to him none of this was foreseeable for me. I was very depressed and felt that my life as taking a drastic turn.

Jimmy didn’t react directly to my plea for advice, because he was so excited to read his essay. His subject was “Freaks” and “American masculinity,” which, not only didn’t seem to match up but were somehow irrelevant to Black culture, anyway.

He began by defining his terms: “Androgynous: …To be androgynous is to have both male and female characteristics.”

Everybody, Jimmy read, is androgynous. “However, the existence of the hermaphrodite reveals, in intimating exaggeration, the truth concerning every human being–which is why the hermaphrodite is called a freak.”

Humans don’t like to be called freaks,

“The human being does not, in general, enjoy being intimated by what he/she finds in the mirror. We are all androgynous but some are freaks.

“The American ideal of sexuality is rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. “This idea has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys an softies,butch and faggot, black and white.”

Sean Harper-Mercer had grown up with this idea of manhood.  He had joined the Army, but failed basic training.

“Harper-Mercer’s social media profiles suggested he was fascinated by the Irish Republican Army,” according to the new articles, “frustrated by traditional organized religion and that he tracked other mass shootings. In one post, he appeared to urge readers to watch the online footage of Vester Flanagan shooting two former colleagues live on TV in Virginia, noting “the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

This sense of the American ideal is  “so paralytically infantile,” Baldwin read, “.. that it is virtually forbidden–as an unpatriotic act–that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.”

This young man who killed the students was still living with his mother. He never reached the “complexity of manhood.”

Sean never did reach any such complexity in his life.  On the contrary, he never seems to have grown up.

One of his neighbors, Diana Nicolay, a former employee of Umpqua Community College,  said she occasionally heard him having temper tantrums in his apartment.

“He was kind of like a child so that’s why his tantrums would be like kind of weird. He’s a grown man. He shouldn’t be having a tantrum like a kid. That’s why I thought there was something — something was up,” she said.

As I sat there in southern France, Jimmy went on reading, laying out the big picture of world culture. The Industrial Revolution created the commercialized roles of men and women, and people began to see themselves as in terms of their commercial value. “That pragmatic principle dictated the slaughter of the native Americans, the enslavement of the  black and  the monumental rape of African–to say nothing of creating the wealth of the Western world–”

But this practice creates loneliness. According to reports of people who knew him intimately, Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer was a “deeply troubled loner.”

Bringing the two themes “androgyny” and commercialized social roles together,  Jimmy  read, “I hazard that the physically androgynous state must crate an all-but-intolerable loneliness, since we all exist, after all, and crucially, in the eye of the beholder.”

We are all created in the eye of the Other. “It is virtually impossible to rust one’s human value without the collaboration of that eye–which is to say no one a live without it.”

He went on to say that humiliation plays a big role in one’s life.

“Humiliation is the central danger of one’s life,” he read, “And since one cannot risk love without risking humiliation love becomes impossible.”

Who was his audience? I wondered then. His audience were the white Americans who were enraged at their society. “This rage for order was result in Chaos, and in this country, chaos connects with color.”

As Baldwin read, I became moved now by how race played its part. “For example,” he went on, “during the civil rights movement, I was subject to hate mail of a terrifying precision.” He was on the long list of the KKK.

He concluded the essay  “But we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us helplessly and forever, contains the other–male in female, female in male white in black and black in white. We are part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this act evil inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very  often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.”

What has this to do with Black people? I thought that what Jimmy was reading to me was irrelevant to Black America then.

Now, I think differently.

Jimmy had seen the failure of the Civil Rights Movement. He had been to its funeral. Now he was attending another funeral; this time it was the death of sexual identity. Black were no longer only discriminated against class status ad race now it was sexual identity that was at state.

As the sunset darkened and as I listened to the sage’s voice, now I recall the deeper wisdom. On my journey back home, Baldwin gave me insight that I am just now beginning to understand.  The school killer reveals the failure of love among whites just as it signaled the failure of love between whites and blacks.

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