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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.

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