James Baldwin on Race Relations
It’s 1943, one of the years Harlem race riots break out. It’s also the day James Baldwin’s father was laid to rest.
In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin talks about his relationship with his father. The chapter ends with his account of what sparked the 1943 Harlem riots, the nature of the rioting (only in the ghetto, chiefly against white businesses, not white people), and the nature of Black America’s long relationship with White America.
His account of this relationship is telling. Here’s how he describes “the Negro’s real relation to the white American.”
This relation prohibits, simply, anything as uncomplicated and satisfactory as pure hatred. In order really to hate white people, one has to blot so much out of the mind—and the heart—that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose. But this does not mean, on the other hand, that love comes easily: the white world is too powerful, too complacent, too ready with gratuitous humiliation, and, above all, too ignorant and too innocent for that. One is absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one’s own reactions are always canceling each other out. It is this, really, which has driven so many people mad, both white and black. One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene….The idea of going through life as a cripple is more than one can bear, and equally unbearable is the risk of swelling up slowly, in agony, with poison. And the trouble, finally, is that the risks are real even if the choices do not exist.
In some ways, this is discouraging. As a white woman, it suggests I’m in bondage to a perpetual dilemma. Even more distressing is the possibility that this was brought on by my need to forget, not see, disremember, dress up in different clothes, and ultimately, dismiss as someone else’s battle or disease to fight.
Nonetheless, I find James Baldwin’s description of the relationship between Black and White Americans/America compelling. I’ve often heard Black women and men say they know us (White people) better than we know ourselves. I believe them, though they may not know me personally.
Put another way, I can’t count on being White-but-not-really due to my years of serving at a multiracial, multiethnic, multinational seminary. Instead, I can only be the White woman I am, a beginner every day of my life.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 30 June 2020
Moon Over Harlem painting by William Henry Johnson found at americanart.si.edu
I am intrigued by your “White-but-not-really” phrase. I suppose, if I understand you correctly, that I could be considered this too in light of my living among, working with and being related to members of the Black community. Yet I reject the concept in all but Baldwin’s comment about White people’s “ignorance and innocence”. My white privilege has far too firm a grip on North American society to ever consider myself not really White. It’s like saying I’m not really a sinner because I’ve been working on moving away from my sin since I became a Christian in 1969. Nor could I say that because I have been moving away from my sin for over 50 years, I am less sinful than someone who has only recently begun that journey. Whether I choose to capitalize on it or not, I feel my white privilege is afforded to me whether i like it or not.
By the way, I love the painting. Johnson is one of my favorite artists.
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My comment was about my work at the seminary. Working there for nearly three decades didn’t give me the privilege of being exempt from being White, or lacking in White privilege. Nor did it necessarily give me special skills for what we’re facing today. Yes, I have black and brown friends, but this, too (according to Baldwin) complicates things.
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Hi, Marilyn. My comment was about my work at the seminary. Working there for nearly three decades didn’t give me the privilege of being exempt from being White, or lacking in White privilege.
I hit the wrong button! Sorry. I went back and rewrote my closing lines….a bit too convoluted? At any rate, thanks for your response.
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