Shortly after the dark day that marked George Floyd’s murder, a friend of mine posted an article on her Facebook page, written by the Haitian filmmaker, Raoul Peck. While Floyd’s death was hardly a surprising piece of news, given the prevalence of similar incidents, his brutal killing seemed to have finally received the attention it deserved. People around the world took to the streets. Peck’s brilliant editorial was yet another example of a Black activist clearly articulating the unimaginable. With striking acuity, he described how the pervasiveness of white denial in the face of persistent acts of Black oppression wreaked devastation on his sense of self and on his perception of his place in society. His words set me on a journey to better understand the crippling effects of racist attitudes.
A Poignant Filmaker
Peck’s essay didn’t talk about racist America. Instead, he took aim at France. I’m not sure that what he said was all that new to me, but the way he said it left me in tears. I decided to look into the matter further and ended up writing a post about how issues of race in France differ from issues of race in the United States.
In awe of Peck’s writing ability, and eager to learn more about him, I decided to check out his 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the text for the film is lifted almost entirely from the letters, notes, and manuscripts of one of America’s greatest 20th-century writers, James Baldwin. Once again, I was blown away by the eloquence of someone who grew up in a climate where voices like his went unheard. Baldwin’s precise use of language is stunning. Every word lands perfectly. The story that Peck weaves together, using strands of Baldwin’s narrative, reminds me of the famous quote by William Blake, “Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not believed.”
Here was a crystal clear portrayal of the African American experience. Jackson’s impression of Baldwin’s voice is direct and expressive. Baldwin doesn’t present us with an argument. He presents us with his irrefutable observations about Black history, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evans, and other civil rights activists. It was hardly the first time, I’d encountered the story, yet as I watched I Am Not Your Negro my blood began to boil. Clearly, the dark days of which James Baldwin wrote are not entirely behind us.
The Eloquence of James Baldwin
Baldwin died in 1987. Before his death and since, myriad brilliant African American authors, artists, and activists have continued in this same vein. It is stupefying to ponder the number of white Americans that still seem to be completely detached from what should be a ubiquitous understanding of the tenacious racial inequities that persist across the United States.
Frustrations aside, I wanted to explore more of Baldwin’s work. Last fall, I read Giovanni’s Room. For those not familiar with Baldwin, he was born in 1924 and grew up in Harlem. At the age of 24, he moved to Paris. Determined to be an author and not just a “Negro writer”, Baldwin felt far more respected, supported, and unrestrained in France than he had in the United States. Giovanni’s Room recounts the life of an ex-pat living in Paris in the 1950s. David, the book’s central character, struggles with choosing between a conventional relationship that he’s established with a woman and his passionate relationship with an Italian lover, named Giovanni.
The book is wonderfully written. I can’t say I know what it means to be a gay man, struggling with the choice of living within society’s mores or following one’s desires. Baldwin’s words, however, seem unquestionably authentic. I have to believe there is a huge part of Baldwin’s life spread across these fictional pages. Baldwin described himself as bisexual. The fact that David is white is the only significant detail of the book that stands apart from what might have been Baldwin’s personal experience. As with Raoul’s documentary, Baldwin painstakingly describes a kind of societal torture that leaves its victims battered and scarred.
Baldwin’s Dark Days
As chance would have it, my daughters have been reading some of Baldwin’s essays in their high school English class, including one about his youth growing up in Harlem, titled Dark Days. I often try to read what my kids are reading, especially if I can find a French translation. I decided to download Chronicles d’un enfant du pays, the translation of Notes of a Native Son, onto my Kindle. In part, I wanted to see if Baldwin’s writing is as powerful in French as it is in English.
In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin recounts his experience growing up in Harlem, the new life he made for himself in Paris, and his troubled relationship with his father. We learn that Baldwin started reading everything he could get his hands on at a very young age. In elementary school, he captured the attention of one of his teachers who strongly encouraged his writing. Coming to terms with his place in the world occupied far too much of a young person’s time, but his persistent examination of relationships and society undoubtedly shaped him into the great writer he became. This memoir, is a powerful reflection of the 20th-century, African American experience and I’m glad that the kids in my daughters’ English class are reading it.
The French translation is excellent if, like me, you want to try and kill two birds with one stone. However, I must admit, I prefer hearing Baldwin’s voice in English.
A 21st-Century Truthteller
I guess it’s a sign of the times that three of my college girlfriends have all read or listened to Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and they urged me to read it as well. We’ve maintained an informal, long-distance book club for years and I don’t think there’s ever been a time when three of us have read the same book within months of each other—unless the book had been specifically selected by the group in advance. Yesterday, I finished listening to Between the World and Me on Libby, an app that lets you check out audiobooks from your public library.
Again, the writing is heartbreaking and at the same time awe-inspiring. Between the World and Me is a collection of essays that Coates delivers in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori. In it, Coates recounts his own dark days, growing up in a rough area of Baltimore, then later struggling to make it as a young writer and father. Like Baldwin, Coates’ writing vividly renders the unimaginable: the paralyzing effects of living in fear; the hopelessness brought about by a landscape with no visible options; and, the weight of knowing that no one who might be considered someone cares to listen to your voice.
I use the adjective unimaginable because apparently, no matter how many times such stories are told, far too many of us fail to hear or understand them. In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin mentions that his grandmother was born a slave. He regrets the fact that his father died, before he was ever able to have a meaningful conversation with him. Yet, Baldwin has studied history and knows enough about his father’s past to willingly forgive him for his intolerance, cruelty, and eventual psychosis. Baldwin recognizes that his father’s sins are a by-product of a life filled with physical and psychological thrashings.
Similarly, Coates writes about his own father’s life and the racial injustices that he faced down. Fortunately, Coates’ father, a Vietnam vet and former member of the Black Panthers, tried to nurture his son’s intellect, steering Ta-Nehisi away from the violence of the streets as best he could, introducing him to books, and encouraging his curiosity. His efforts appear to have succeeded. Google Ta-Nehisi Coates and you’re likely to see him listed as one of today’s most influential American writers. Among his many achievements and accolades is capturing the 2015 National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Yet despite his success, Coates’ book largely concentrates on the inescapable fear he feels regarding his teenage son’s survival.
Unlike Coates, Samori has grown up in an affluent environment with seemingly every advantage that white suburban kids enjoy. Coates wants to ensure, however, that his boy is not living under the illusion that he is safe from racial hatred. Early in the letter, he writes:
“I write you in your 15th year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes, because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store, and you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a 12-year old child, whom they were oath-bound to protect, and you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road, and you know now, if you did not know before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates, from Between the World and Me
Having a son who is about the same age as Samori, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world where I needed to ponder how to begin such a conversation with him. The book is peppered with many examples of African American slaughter but it also illustrates the far more subtle ways that white America, steeped in a cloud of denial, blocks Black Americans from fully joining in their dream.
I can imagine the naysayers scoffing at such notions back in 2015 and pointing to Barack Obama who was wrapping up his second term as president. Obama certainly was and remains an inspirational and healing figure for our nation. Like most members of affected classes, however, he had to do be a near-flawless human to arrive at such a lauded position. He was intelligent, gracious, genuine, caring, humble, eloquent, and earnest. He also had to face down perhaps the most obstructionist Congress in U.S. history. The heated backlash against him, the questioning of his citizenship, the caricatures portraying him as a chimp or a primitive tribesman, revealed a lot about the prevalence of racial hatred in our country.
Over the last four years, the bigots that had previously felt uncomfortable speaking up grew more and more vocal. Their stoked and nurtured anger and aggression culminated in thousands of white supremacists breaking into our capitol, vandalizing and stealing government property, threatening to kill our elected officials, and wounding and murdering law enforcement officers. That was a dark day for every citizen of our country.
As Coates points out, “we the people” was not intended to include Black America. Without the changes that have been made to our constitution, “the people” would have elected Trump for a second term in office. At the end of his letter, Coates councils his son to not waste a lot of time trying to change white America. The best he can do is pursue his own dreams and hope that some in need of enlightenment take note.
Brighter Days Ahead
Thankfully, enough white people joined the voices of the vast majority of people of color and ended the most dishonest, unqualified, and spite-ridden presidency in our nation’s history. On Wednesday, we swore in the first female Vice President, a woman with both African and Asian roots. In his inaugural address, our new president made a point of repudiating white supremacy and vowed to doggedly pursue measures to address racial injustice.
Of course, these are just words and we have a long way to go. But I and many others feel much lighter than I did a week ago. I deeply hope that I will see the day when United States citizens, who happen to have African ancestry, no longer have to contemplate how to talk to their children about the unspoken evils that will hinder their lives and potentially break them irreparably. That probably is a tall order, but at least we’re back on a road that gets us closer to an America with liberty and justice for all.