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