Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Tag: racism

“What is happening in this country? That’s the most important question” – The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

James Baldwin was one of the most captivating speakers, one of the most important voices of the civil rights era.  He died 30 years ago, in December 1987 but he remains one of the most powerful and insightful writers in American history.

The Fire Next Time is an astounding autobiographical account written as a letter from Baldwin to his nephew, James. It goes back to Baldwin’s teenage years as Christian minister and his departure from the church and the church culture. He recounts a dinner/meeting he had with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, an African American political and religious movement which supported the creation of a separate state for African- Americans. He pictures America as seen through the eyes of the black people, the difficulties of black life in a white dominant country.

“What is happening in this country? That’s the most important question”, he says.

“I have always been struck in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable organic connection between his public stance and his private life. This failure of the private life has always the most devastating effect on American public conduct and on black –white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private shelf, they won’t never become so dependent on what they call “The Negro Problem”. This problem which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters and it is destroying them.”

Is James Baldwin still relevant today?

During his speech in the famous 1965 Cambridge debate with William F. Buckley, Baldwin mentioned Robert Kennedy’s statement that “it is conceivable in the next forty years a Negro to achieve the same position that my brother has.”

“It sounded like a very emancipated statement”, said Baldwin, but the real question, he added, is not when there will be the first black president in America. The crucial question is what country he is going to be president of.

In 2008, Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States. How did this change things for African Americans?

In a beautiful and emotional letter to his son, 50 years after Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates, exposes America’s racial dilemma. He shows just how much the country’s racist past is still very much alive today, and how much it affects the way the black Americans think about themselves and their lives.

 “The Story of the Negro in America, is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

Baldwin is lively and bold, passionate and deeply humane. He does not mince words. He condemns the American dream as a nightmare. He points out the contradiction of the United States as the leader of the free world while the battle for racial justice continued at home.

“If we – 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. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”


Take yourself to see Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary  I Am Not Your Negro,  a portrait of James Baldwin. It is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and the words are from Remember This House, Baldwin’s unfinished book about the three freedom-campaign activists, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers.  Very highly recommended.

Another Country. A novel by James Baldwin

Another Country is a novel about love. But it is also about much more. It is a book about racism, sexism, homophobia, religion and intolerance.  It is a book about life. It is set in the late 1950s in Greenwich Village, NY and explores the intersection of race, gender and sexuality in the United States in the mid-1950s.

It also explores what means to be an African – American in the Unites States in the 1950s, not only in physical terms, but also mentally and emotionally in the context of racial domination and white supremacy.

The main character is Rufus Scott, an African-American musician whose world has fallen apart. Although Rufus does not appear throughout the entire book, he remains one of the main characters, an absent protagonist. His life, but most of all his death, connect all the other characters, people that lack direction, who struggle for life and love. But love is not always pretty. Love can be painful. And as the characters re-examine their lives and talk endlessly about their passion and the pain – “a powerful and poignant self-examination – always on the brink of despair,” – in the end they are “holding on to a tragicomic hope…..”, they say Yes to life,  knowing though, that they will have to pay their dues.

The beauty of this book is just unbelievable, the writing itself is brilliant, sensual, painful and provocative. James Baldwin is making a direct address to the reader, the reader then has no option but to get involved in the story. Another Country is a challenging novel, both shocking and inspirational; it does not make it an easy reading.  But I am grateful to have discovered it. It repays more than one careful readings.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage” says 40 year-old journalist at the Atlantic, to his teenager son. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor. Enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. “It must be rape so regular as to be industrial.”

Between the World and Me is an open letter, addressed to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ son, Samori. It is a powerful and emotional journey that starts with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man by a white Ferguson police officer. Learning that Brown’s killers would go free, Samori went to his room and cried.  Ta-Nehisi did not try to comfort him, he told him what his parents tried to teach him when he was growing up in a West Baltimore neighbourhood dominated by violence and drugs: that this “is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”

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He tried to tell Samori how one should live within a black body, with in a country lost in the Dream, where the Dream is associated with the “other world” of suburbia, where people who think they are white live in “perfect houses with nice lawns. …. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.”

Coates recalls Prince Jones‘ death, a friend of his when his was a student at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., at the hands of an undercover police officer. He recalls the fear, the rage he felt, “the old gravity of West Baltimore, that condemned [him] to the schools, the streets, the void.”  It was this gravity and awareness that left him cold and unmoved, when in Prince’s funeral the people asked for forgiveness for the officer.  Forgiveness is irrelevant, Prince “was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.

This premise, that the blacks in America are living in permanent fear, is the underlying idea of Coates’s story. It is a “bodily fear that lies at the heart of the daily lived experience of racism, and the mind-trick” people play by saying that the racism isn’t real.” (1) There are two  great divisions in America, he says, and they are not the rich and poor, but white and blacks. And the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

A blurb from Toni Morrison declares the book, “required reading” and Coates, the heir to James Baldwin. Following James Baldwin’s steps, Coates also went to Paris. Like Baldwin, he does not see Paris as an escape, as one cannot escape from what the “whole society has decided to make you, a nothing”.

With extraordinary, beautiful prose, Coates exposes America’s racial dilemma. He shows us just how much the country’s racist past is still very much alive today, and how much it affects the way the black Americans think about themselves and their lives. That does not mean that one must see them as permanent victims. As James Baldwin said  in an interview in the Paris Review “…it seemed to me that if I took the role of a victim then I was simply reassuring the defenders of the status quo; as long as I was a victim they could pity me and add a few more pennies to my home-relief check….”

Ta-Nehisi Coates warns his son that he has “been cast into a race in which the wind is always at  your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life.” But he wishes for him to feel no need to constrict himself to make other people comfortable.  He would have him to be a conscious citizen in this terrible and beautiful world”.

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