79. Baldwin’s wide angle on US race relations still in focus

Business Day (South Africa)
15 July 2019
Professor Adekeye Adebajo

On the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in the United States this year, a debate has erupted on whether reparations should be paid to the descendants of these slaves. Democrats have backed a Congressional investigation into the issue, while prominent Republicans have cited the impracticality of identifying victims. The idea is opposed by 80% of white Americans. This divide symbolises America’s continuing inability to deal with its racist past.

Next month marks what would have been the 95th anniversary of the birth of African-American writer, James Baldwin, who died in December 1987, but whose views on race are still very relevant to contemporary American society. Haitian-American director, Raoul Peck, vividly brought to life Baldwin’s unfinished 1979 book project “Remember This House” in a 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary, I am Not Your Negro. Baldwin planned to narrate his story of America through the lives of three of his close friends: civil rights activists, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, who were all assassinated between 1963 and 1968 before their 40th birthday.

Peck’s documentary is determined to tell the history of black people whom he felt America had rendered invisible. He captures well Baldwin’s uncompromisingly relentless and unforgiving critiques of race relations in America. The writer is moved by images of a 15-year old black girl being transported to a desegregated school in North Carolina, being taunted and spat at by a white mob. Baldwin knew then that his exile in Parisian cafés discussing the brutal French war in Algeria and problems in black America, was over. He returned home in 1957 after nearly a decade of French exile.

Baldwin describes how a young white female teacher in New York had mentored and motivated him as a child. As a result, he notes “I never really managed to hate white people.” A fiercely independent intellectual, the writer insisted on doing his own thinking, and avoided being constrained by any organised group. He resists the urge of black Muslims and Black Panthers to hate whites based on personal humiliations, because he sees the goodness in individuals. Baldwin also discusses how Hollywood shaped his perceptions as he grew up. He felt a sense of humiliation, as he saw only white heroes depicted in these movies. He cringed at black fear of white terrorism. Baldwin notes his shock at discovering that he was cheering for the cowboys killing Indians in spaghetti Western films, only later to discover that “the Indians were you.” He describes his alienation by a country that did not have any place for him, criticising how Hollywood erased the crimes of America’s “original sins” – genocide against the native inhabitants, and exploitative and brutal slavery. He bemoans the fact that the crimes of America’s slave-owning “Founding Fathers” are often whitewashed.

Baldwin is particularly scathing at the hypocrisy of white Christians. He saw his role mainly as one of bearing witness on the side of oppressed blacks at the continuing injustices of an America in denial at its historical crimes. Baldwin contrasts the radical approach of Malcolm X with Martin Luther King’s Gandhian non-violence, describing how their positions increasingly converged, as their martyrdoms drew closer. He also describes how empty he felt at hearing about Medgar Evans’ assassination, remembering how the civil rights leader had once told him about the tattered clothes from a lynched black body hanging on a tree for days.

Baldwin berates widespread white indifference at black suffering. He excoriates America’s failure to acknowledge that the country benefitted from free slave labour, which for nearly four centuries built the country, after which blacks were shut out from sharing in the “American Dream.” He criticises the “apathy and ignorance” of white liberals like John and Robert Kennedy, and is particularly damning of a complacent white middle class  which – as in contemporary America – chooses to ignore the plight of black people, as long as their suburbs and streets remain safe.

Peck worked methodically on this project for a decade. He uses contemporary images of racial strife in Ferguson as well as “Black Lives Matter” struggles to show how the past continues to haunt the present. The future that Baldwin saw for his country was bleak and dystopian. His ghost continues to stalk America.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.