"James Joyce is right about history being a nightmare. But it may be that nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them."
After surfing and lurking around some white blogs, the daddy checked came across a great black blog called Aunt Jemima's Revenge. On it, the blogger, after venting her frustration with white hostility to the thought of a black U.S. president, said bluntly that some white Americans need to "take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror." The blogger is right of course, but isn't it easier for any of us to look at others than ourselves? And how can white racists look at themselves without bringing into their thought patterns the racist images, ideas and white supremacist values which lie so deeply embedded in their psyche? Aren't they, like all of us, in the final analysis (and with no pun intended here) "slaves" to their history?
To understand today, study yesterday
The most profound truth speaker on race in the late 1950's and 1960's-- and perhaps ever-- was novelist, essayist, social critic and political activist James Baldwin. When it comes to race, no one spoke more thoughtfully, or more eloquently, about both black and white America's failure to address race honestly so that it could one day transcend it. In an address at a black university, he said that, In America, the rich exist, the poor subsist, but none really live, because they stubbornly refuse to address their history: who they are and how they became to who they are. But it is in the essay "Unmentionable Names, Unspeakable Crimes" that Baldwin best addresses white racism.
Like the black blogger, Baldwin, too, says white America needs to take a good, hard look at itself. However, he said that what keeps them from doing so is guilt.
"Whatever they bring to one another, it is certainly not freedom from guilt...The guilt remains, more deeply rooted, more securely lodged, than the oldest of old trees; and it can be unutterably exhausting to deal with people who, with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves against charges which one has not made. One does not have to make them. The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky."
According to Baldwin, it is this guilt that keeps white America from looking honestly at itself, from addressing its history, and from seeing in that history the lingering racism of today. He states:
"The fact that Americans, white Americans, have not yet been able to do this- to face their history, to change their lives-hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world. For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On- the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously con- trolled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be other- wise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations...And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror, one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one's point of view. In great pain and terror, because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history."
The daddy should note here that Baldwin does not seem to be trying to make whites feel bad or guilt trip them. In fact, he seems empathetic toward whites who are caught up in a history based on violence and lies and, seemingly, their evident desire to rationalize or justify it, but yet refuse to examine that history more closely, a refusal that makes them appear pathetically "incoherent:"
"This is the place in which, it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence. This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in those stammering, terrified dialogues white Americans sometimes entertain with that black conscience, the black man in America. The nature of this stammering can be reduced to a plea: Do not blame me. I was not there. I did not do it. My history has nothing to do with Europe or the slave trade. Anyway, it was your chiefs who sold you to me. I was not present on the middle passage. I am not responsible for the textile mills of Manchester, or the cotton fields of Mississippi. Besides, consider how the English, too, suffered in those mills and in those awful cities! I, also, despise the governors of Southern states and the sheriffs of Southern counties; and I also want your child to have a decent education and rise as high as his capabilities will permit. I have nothing against you, nothing/ What have you got against me? What do you want? But, on the same day, in another gathering, and in the most private chamber of his heart always, he, the white man, remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much."
Listen, the daddy harbors no illusion that white racists who attend Gov. Sarah Palin are going to rush to Barnes & Nobles, go right to the African American section and pick up either "The Fire Next Time" or "Notes of a Native Son," two books from which they could profit greatly. Though he believes that many white Americans have transcended racism, he recognizes that there will always be a core group of white American racists who, by refusing to look at history, will be left behind by it. But he also believes that those of us who do look at history, who have transcended white racist history, owe it to those who are even vaguely interested to let them know how we feel: to tell them a story, to point them to a source that, along with other events such as an Obama presidency, will, hopefully, help them to see that, ultimately, the greatest victims of racism may be racists themselves. After all, to be so racist as to choose to remain ignorant is surely to be a victim.
The choice to remain a victim is about more than not knowing about another race or ethnic group. That choice is, ultimately, about a decision to remain in a prison devoid of intellectual curiosity or interest in the rest of the world. History, after all, is not just about the history of any one particular group but all of humanity. People's historian John Henrik Clarke perhaps said it best:
"The Events which transpired five thousand years ago; five years ago or five minutes ago, have determined what will happen five minutes from now; five years from now or five thousand years from now. All history is a current event."
For white racists, for all of us, Baldwin's essay "Unmentionable Names, Unspeakable Crimes" may be a good place to start.