FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Fire This Time: Letter to James Baldwin

Dear James Baldwin,

“If we,” you wrote in 1962, “—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” And you warned that “if we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Fifty-six years have gone by, and if you are watching from above, you’re probably seeing it all with your big, sorrowful eyes: Ferguson. Baltimore. Charlottesville.

We are engulfed in flames.

So much changed, of course. But so much remains the same. Legal segregation is eliminated, yet state-sanctioned oppression and systematic violence continues regardless. Enslavement, for instance, still exists. It just isn’t called slavery anymore, it’s mass incarceration or “the New Jim Crow,” to borrow from Michelle Alexander. Mob violence, that too prevails, only this time via police brutality or “police terrorism” in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s words.

Plantations have been replaced with prisons, ropes with assault rifles. Racism in America, then; racism in America, now.

In 1955, following the murder of 14-year old Emmett Till, you lamented: “What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness. The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes, and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe.”

Emmett Till’s mother had decided to leave his son’s coffin open so that everyone could see his lynched, lifeless body and recognize how this most brutal murder contradicts America’s self-image of a just, democratic society in pursuit of happiness.

But like you remarked, to avoid madness America averted its eyes.

And today we continue to mourn the loss of black youth: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice…

We burn. We burn.

If you are listening, you must be catching the current conversations about white supremacy. The society at large appears to condemn those who take to the streets with white hoods and don Nazi armbands. They agree that thinking of a human being of another race or ethnicity as inferior is unacceptable. However, regarding white supremacy as the distorted ideology that a few individuals cling onto is not enough. Based on a dangerous delusion that not only denies people their dignity but also humanity, white supremacy is a social pathology in its own right.

But so is colorblindness. Because believing that America lives up to its declaration that all men are created equal is also delusional. Claiming that Civil Rights Movement righted all the wrongs is delusional. Citing the success stories of Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé, and LeBron and concluding that we live in a post-racial era. . . utterly delusional.

The so-called colorblind people keep their eyes shut and sleepwalk through life so they don’t have to see the structural racism and social stratification prevalent all around them in housing, education, healthcare, employment, capital punishment, and more. They choose blindness so they don’t have to feel the weight of the American history on their shoulders, day after day.

To you, such efforts have always seemed futile. In the depths of the white heart, far deeper than any old fear, you saw the roots of white guilt. A guilt against which white people must defend themselves relentlessly to protect their self-claimed purity, their fragile sense of self.

Though colorblindness is an attempt to disown that guilt, it does not imply an innocent stance at all. It is a stubborn form of willful ignorance. The moral apathy resulting from this pretense is as treacherous as the rage and hate of the white supremacists, for it permits and perpetrates both the visible and invisible cycles of racial violence.

In other words, the white mind’s dark imagination manifests itself in many ways—not just through insults and threats, but also its claims to innocence.

This is why in the letter to your nephew, you wrote: “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

Selling loose cigarettes, holding toy guns, walking at night: and these constitute the crimes for which black people get killed nowadays.

While you watch the flames rising, do you also hear the pleas: Black Lives Matter! Hands up, don’t shoot! I can’t breathe!

Is my son next? 

We—the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks—have not been able to end the racial nightmare yet. You had urged us to dare everything. Evidently, we have not.

May you one day rest in peace.

More articles by:

Ipek S. Burnett is a psychologist, novelist, and academic living in San Francisco.

November 14, 2018
Charles Pierson
Unstoppable: The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline and NAFTA
Sam Bahour
Israel’s Mockery of Security: 101 Actions Israel Could Take
Cesar Chelala
How a Bad Environment Impacts Children’s Health
George Ochenski
What Tester’s Win Means
Louisa Willcox
Saving Romania’s Brown Bears, Sharing Lessons About Coxistence, Conservation
George Wuerthner
Alternatives to Wilderness?
Robert Fisk
Izzeldin Abuelaish’s Three Daughters were Killed in Gaza, But He Still Clings to Hope for the Middle East
Dennis Morgan
For What?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Government is Our Teacher
Bill Martin
The Trump Experiment: Liberals and Leftists Unhinged and Around the Bend
Rivera Sun
After the Vote: An Essay of the Man from the North
Jamie McConnell
Allowing Asbestos to Continue Killing
Thomas Knapp
Talkin’ Jim Acosta Hard Pass Blues: Is White House Press Access a Constitutional Right?
Bill Glahn
Snow Day
November 13, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Midterm Results are Challenging Racism in America in Unexpected Ways
Victor Grossman
Germany on a Political Seesaw
Cillian Doyle
Fictitious Assets, Hidden Losses and the Collapse of MDM Bank
Lauren Smith
Amnesia and Impunity Reign: Wall Street Celebrates Halliburton’s 100th Anniversary
Joe Emersberger
Moreno’s Neoliberal Restoration Proceeds in Ecuador
Carol Dansereau
Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity
Dave Lindorff
Hey Right Wingers! Signatures Change over Time
Dan Corjescu
Poetry and Barbarism: Adorno’s Challenge
Patrick Bond
Mining Conflicts Multiply, as Critics of ‘Extractivism’ Gather in Johannesburg
Ed Meek
The Kavanaugh Hearings: Text and Subtext
Binoy Kampmark
Concepts of Nonsense: Australian Soft Power
November 12, 2018
Kerron Ó Luain
Poppy Fascism and the English Education System
Conn Hallinan
Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon
Robert Hunziker
Tropical Trump Declares War on Amazonia
John W. Whitehead
Badge of Shame: the Government’s War on Military Veterans
Will Griffin
Military “Service” Serves the Ruling Class
John Eskow
Harold Pinter’s America: Hard Truths and Easy Targets
Rob Okun
Activists Looking Beyond Midterm Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take
Dean Baker
Short-Term Health Insurance Plans Destroy Insurance Pools
George Wuerthner
Saving the Buffalohorn/Porcupine: the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range
Patrick Howlett-Martin
A Note on the Paris Peace Forum
Joseph G. Ramsey
Does America Have a “Gun Problem”…Or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?
Weekend Edition
November 09, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Louis Proyect
Why Democrats Are So Okay With Losing
Andrew Levine
What Now?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Chuck and Nancy’s House of Cards
Brian Cloughley
The Malevolent Hypocrisy of Selective Sanctions
Marc Levy
Welcome, Class of ‘70
David Archuleta Jr.
Facebook Allows Governments to Decide What to Censor
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Zika Scare: a Political and Commercial Maneuver of the Chemical Poisons Industry
Nick Pemberton
When It Comes To Stone Throwing, Democrats Live In A Glass House
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail