This week – like most weeks – James Baldwin has been on my mind. The man Malcolm X called “the poet” of the civil rights revolution died over three decades ago, but his ideas are as relevant as ever. As I sat today thinking about the recent lynching of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, the state-sponsored terrorism that killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis, and dogwalker Amy Cooper’s racist attempt to weaponize the state against the body of birdwatcher Christian Cooper in Central Park, I kept circling back to Baldwin.
There is something about this last case, I think, that Baldwin would tell us contains the key to understanding the other three. The cases of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd are sadly all too familiar. Nary a day goes by in “the land of the free” when we don’t read stories about a person of color falling prey to white supremacist violence. As more details emerge about the Cooper case, though, many Americans who imagine themselves to be white are expressing surprise. “Did you hear that he went to Harvard?” and “can you believe it? She is a liberal!” seem to be the most shocking tidbits to this crowd.
Baldwin would not have been surprised in the least. As he said to many a white interlocutor, one’s “success” is not armor enough in a world where one is “at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin happens to cause” in other people. There are many things, Baldwin would often say, that he and Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr. could do that were not easily done by most folks they knew growing up, but their fame and celebrity did not mean much if they found themselves in a situation in which a white person held all of the power. Christian Cooper’s Ivy League pedigree and professional accomplishments were meaningless in the face of Amy Cooper’s desire to wield the arm of the state against his blackness.
But what would Baldwin make of Amy Cooper’s purported “liberalism”? She gave money to the “right” candidates and probably said the “right” sorts of things about race on social media and in polite conversation. Her “right thinking” even manifested itself in a perverse way as she repeatedly used the seemingly respectful “African American” to describe her imagined assailant to the emergency operator. None of this would have been a surprise to Baldwin. Indeed, he saved some of his most damning criticism for faux “liberals” like Amy Cooper. “Liberals” like Cooper have all of the right “attitudes,” but these attitudes have little impact on how they perceive and treat people in the real world. These sorts of “liberals,” Baldwin wrote, could deal with a person of color “as a symbol,” but “had no sense of him as a man.” There is not much distance between perceiving another human being as a symbol and perceiving him as a threat. The shallowness of Amy Cooper’s attitudes was revealed in the blink of an eye and it is not difficult to imagine how the price paid for this superficiality might have been Christian Cooper’s life.
I think Baldwin would find the coincidence of Amy and Christian’s last name all the more telling. One of Baldwin’s pleas was for us to come to terms with our history. That history, when it is honestly told, reveals Christian and Amy Cooper have more in common than a last name. The stories of their lives and their ancestor’s lives are inextricably bound together in every sense imaginable. They are, Baldwin would say, “flesh of one flesh, bone of one bone” – and not in some abstract or theological sense. Baldwin insisted that Christian and Amy and you and me and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are brothers and sisters in a very real sense.
In late 1962, Baldwin penned an essay called “My Dungeon Shook” for The Progressive magazine. The piece was for an issue devoted to the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and Baldwin decided to frame his short piece as a letter to his 14-year-old nephew. “The crime of which I accuse my country,” Baldwin declared, is “that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” In the face of this, Baldwin told his nephew that people often make the mistake of assuming the solution has something to do with “white people” coming to “accept” black people. This, Baldwin insisted, was dead wrong.
“The really terrible thing,” Baldwin told his young nephew, “is that you must accept them. You must accept them and accept them with love,” for “these men are your brothers, your lost, younger brothers” and “we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are; to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
What might it mean for us to think about Amy Cooper as Christian Cooper’s lost, younger sister who must be accepted with love? We must not let the ordinary ways we tend to talk about love confuse Baldwin’s message. When Baldwin called on us to love one another, he was not referring to something soft or sentimental or even something that is meant to make us happy. “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does,” he told an audience in 1960. “Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.” The love Baldwin calls on all of us to practice is a love of confrontation, both within ourselves and with those around us. To really love oneself, Baldwin argues, we must engage in ruthless self-examination in order to expose what is false in our identities – those things we tell ourselves about our past in order to feel safe and innocent – and attempt to re-create ourselves “according to a principle more humane and liberating.” And to love another human being, Baldwin reminds us, is to be willing to confront them about the delusions under which they live. And one can demonstrate one’s love for a society by taking to the streets and expressing rage at the structures of power that fail to respect the dignity of so many lives. At his best “the lover,” Baldwin wrote in 1962, attempts “to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation make freedom real.”
Even if one accepts Baldwin’s call to love oneself and others in ways that might allow us to come to terms with our history, what then? People who imagine themselves to be white often think the point of confronting history is to make them feel guilty. “I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt,” Baldwin said in 1964. “Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford.” What Baldwin demanded was responsibility. The stories of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Christian Cooper are our stories. Each one of us is complicit in the creation of this narrative and we have a responsibility to change it. Baldwin grew tired of the “chorus on the innocent” wailing: “we didn’t do it.” “I didn’t do it either,” he said. “But I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it too, for the very same reason.”