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Hello. Come on in. The daddy writes about current events, literature, music and, once in a while, drops something on you from back in the day to make you pause and ponder, stop and stare, and begin to wonder. Who knows? You may start to pace the floor, shake your head from side to side, then fall down on bended knees in a praying position and cry, "Lawd, have mercy! What is this world coming to?" Check yourself! But this blog is NOT about the daddy. It's about you: your boos, your fam, your hood, your country...our hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow. So let's make a pact: the daddy will put it on the track if you'll chase it down and hit him back. Together, we can definitely take it to another level. Shall we?"

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fifth Avenue, Uptown by James Baldwin

Listen up. After his post on James Baldwin on Sunday, The Daddy received a number of emails from friends admitting that, although they had heard of Baldwin, they never read him. One said that, like many of his friends, he had a couple of books of Baldwin, even carried one of them around to impress his college friends, but he never "got into him." All asked what book they should read. Knowing that at least two of these brothers grew up in ghettoes (one in Milwaukee and the other in New York City), The Daddy suggested that they start with an essay that Baldwin wrote about the Harlem ghetto in which he lived entitled "Fifth Avenue, Upton." It appeared in Esquire magazine in July of 1960.

What's fascinating about the article is that many of the observations and insights he made about the Harlem ghetto in 1960 are remarkably similar to black ghettoes in 2009. Here is the essay:

scan of esquire magazine article about upper fifth avenue in new york city


In July 1960, the literary conscience of the Civil Rights generation turned his eyes toward Harlem. The end result is a gripping portrait of a neighborhood on the brink.

Fifth Avenue, Uptown
By James Baldwin

There is a housing project standing now where the house in which we grew up once stood, and one of those stunted city trees is snarling where our doorway used to be. This is on the rehabilitated side of the avenue. The other side of the avenue -- for progress takes time -- has not been rehabilitated yet and it looks exactly as it looked in the days when we sat with our noses pressed against the windowpane, longing to be allowed to go “across the street.” The grocery store which gave us credit is still there, and there can be no doubt that it is still giving credit. The people in the project certainly need it -- far more, indeed, than they ever needed the project. The last time I passed by, the Jewish proprietor was still standing among his shelves, looking sadder and heavier but scarcely any older. Further down the block stands the shoe-repair store in which our shoes were repaired until reparation became impossible and in which, then, we bought all our “new” ones. The Negro proprietor is still in the window, head down, working at the leather.

These two, I imagine, could tell a long tale if they would (perhaps they would be glad to if they could), having watched so many, for so long, struggling in the fishhooks, the barbed wire, of this avenue.

The avenue is elsewhere the renowned and elegant Fifth. The area I am describing, which, in today’s gang parlance, would be called “the turf,” is bounded by Lenox Avenue on the west, the Harlem River on the east, 135th Street on the north, and 130th Street on the south. We never lived beyond these boundaries; this is where we grew up. Walking along 145th Street -- for example -- familiar as it is, and similar, does not have the same impact because I do not know any of the people on the block. But when I turn east on 131st Street and Lenox Avenue, there is first a soda-pop joint, then a shoeshine “parlor,” then a grocery store, then a dry cleaners’, then the houses. All along the street there are people who watched me grow up, people who grew up with me, people I watched grow up along with my brothers and sisters; and, sometimes in my arms, sometimes underfoot, sometimes at my shoulder -- or on it -- their children, a riot, a forest of children, who include my nieces and nephews.

When we reach the end of this long block, we find ourselves on wide, filthy, hostile Fifth Avenue, facing that project which hangs over the avenue like a monument to the folly, and the cowardice, of good intentions. All along the block, for anyone who knows it, are immense human gaps, like craters. These gaps are not created merely by those who have moved away, inevitably into some other ghetto; or by those who have risen, almost always into a greater capacity for self-loathing and self-delusion; or yet by those who, by whatever means -- War II, the Korean War, a policeman’s gun or billy, a gang war, a brawl, madness, an overdose of heroin, or, simply, unnatural exhaustion -- are dead. I am talking about those who are left, and I am talking principally about the young. What are they doing? Well, some, a minority, are fanatical churchgoers, members of the more extreme of the Holy Roller sects. Many, many more are “moslems,” by affiliation or sympathy, that is to say that they are united by nothing more -- and nothing less -- than a hatred of the white world and all its works. They are present, for example, at every Buy Black street-corner meeting -- meetings in which the speaker urges his hearers to cease trading with white men and establish a separate economy. Neither the speaker nor his hearers can possibly do this, of course, since Negroes do not own General Motors or RCA or the A&P, nor, indeed, do they own more than a wholly insufficient fraction of anything else in Harlem (those who do own anything are more interested in their profits than in their fellows). But these meetings nevertheless keep alive in the participators a certain pride of bitterness without which, however futile this bitterness may be, they could scarcely remain alive at all. Many have given up. They stay home and watch the TV screen, living on the earnings of their parents, cousins, brothers, or uncles, and only leave the house to go to the movies or to the nearest bar. “How’re you making it?” one may ask, running into them along the block, or in the bar. “Oh, I’m TV-ing it” ; with the saddest, sweetest, most shamefaced of smiles, and from a great distance. This distance one is compelled to respect; anyone who has traveled so far will not easily be dragged again into the world. There are further retreats, of course, than the TV screen or the bar. There are those who are simply sitting on their stoops, “stoned,” animated for a moment only, and hideously, by the approach of someone who may lend them the money for a “fix.” Or by the approach of someone from whom they can purchase it, one of the shrewd ones, on the way to prison or just coming out.

And the others, who have avoided all of these deaths, get up in the morning and go downtown to meet “the man.” They work in the white man’s world all day and come home in the evening to this fetid block. They struggle to instill in their children some private sense of honor or dignity which will help the child to survive. This means, of course, that they must struggle, stolidly, incessantly, to keep this sense alive in themselves, in spite of the insults, the indifference, and the cruelty they are certain to encounter in their working day. They patiently browbeat the landlord into fixing the heat, the plaster, the plumbing; this demands prodigious patience; nor is patience usually enough. In trying to make their hovels habitable, they are perpetually throwing good money after bad. Such frustration, so long endured, is driving many strong, admirable men and women whose only crime is color to the very gates of paranoia.

One remembers them from another time -- playing handball in the playground, going to church, wondering if they were going to be promoted at school. One remembers them going off to war -- gladly, to escape this block. One remembers their return. Perhaps one remembers their wedding day. And one sees where the girl is now -- vainly looking for salvation from some other embittered, trussed, and struggling boy -- and sees the all-but-abandoned children in the streets.

Now I am perfectly aware that there are other slums in which white men are fighting for their lives, and mainly losing. I know that blood is also flowing through those streets and that the human damage there is incalculable. People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, in effect, no better than the “niggers” is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by this fact is of the bitterest, most terrifying kind.

The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence -- the public existence -- of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare -- at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare -- and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. A few have always risen -- in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children our doing. They are imitating our immortality, our disrespect for the pain of others.

All other slum dwellers, when the bank account permits it, can move out of the slum and vanish altogether from the eye of persecution. No Negro in this country has ever made that much money and it will be a long time before any Negro does. The Negroes in Harlem, who have no money, spend what they have on such gimcracks as they are sold. These include “wider” TV screens, more “faithful” hi-fi sets more “powerful” cars, all of which, of course, are obsolete long before they are paid for. Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor; and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one’s feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever. One is victimized, economically, in a thousand ways -- rent, for example, or car insurance. Go shopping one day in Harlem -- for anything -- and compare Harlem prices and quality with those downtown.

The people who have managed to get off this block have only got as far as a more respectable ghetto. This respectable ghetto does not even have the advantages of the disreputable one, friends, neighbors, a familiar church, and friendly tradesman; and it is not, more over, in the nature of any ghetto to remain respectable long. Every Sunday, people who have left the block take the lonely ride back, dragging their increasingly discontented children with them. They spend the day talking, not always with words, about the trouble they’ve seen and the trouble -- one must watch their eyes as they watch their children -- they are only too likely to see. For children do not like ghettos. It takes them nearly no time to discover exactly why they are there.

The projects in Harlem are hated. They are hated almost as much as policemen, and this is saying a great deal. And they are hated for the same reason: both reveal, unbearably, the real attitude of the white world, no matter how many liberal speeches are made, no matter how many lofty editorials are written, no matter how many civil rights commissions are set up.

The projects are hideous, of course, there being a law, apparently respected throughout the world, that popular housing shall be as cheerless as a prison. They are lumped all over Harlem, colorless, bleak, high, and revolting. The wide windows look out on Harlem’s invincible and indescribable squalor: the Park Avenue railroad tracks, around which, about forty years ago, the present dark community began; the unrehabilitated houses, bowed down, it would seem, under the great weight of frustration and bitterness they contain; the dark, the ominous schoolhouses, from which the child may emerge maimed, blinded, hooked, or enraged for life; and the churches, churches, block upon block of churches, niched in the walls like cannon in the walls of a fortress. Even if the administration of the projects were not so insanely humiliating (for example: one must report raises in salary to the management, which will then eat up the profit by raising one’s rent; the management has the right to know who is staying in your apartment; the management can ask you to leave, at their discretion), the projects would still be hated because they are an insult to the meanest intelligence.

Harlem got its first private project, Riverton -- which is now, naturally, a slum -- about twelve years ago because at that time Negroes were not allowed to live in Stuyvesant Town. Harlem watched Riverton go up, therefore, in the most violent bitterness of spirit, and hated it long before the builders arrived. They began hating it at about the time people began moving out of their condemned houses to make room for this additional proof of how thoroughly the white world despised them. And they had scarcely moved in, naturally, before they began smashing windows, defacing walls, urinating in the elevators, and fornicating in the playgrounds. Liberals, both white and black, were appalled at the spectacle. I was appalled by the liberal innocence -- or cynicism, which comes out in practice as much the same thing. Other people were delighted to be able to point to proof positive that nothing could be done to better the lot of the colored people. They were, and are, right in one respect: that nothing can be done as long as they are treated like colored people. The people in Harlem know they are living there because white people do not think they are good enough to live anywhere else. No amount of “improvement” can sweeten this fact. Whatever money is now being earmarked to improve this, or any other ghetto, might as well be burnt. A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence.

Similarly, the only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive. None of commissioner Kennedy’s policemen, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in two’s and three’s controlling. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children. They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up here, in his place. The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt. Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality. I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once. The businessman and racketeers also have a story. And so do the prostitutes. (And this is not, perhaps, the place to discuss Harlem’s very complex attitude towards black policemen, nor the reasons, according to Harlem, that they are nearly all downtown.)

It is hard, on the other hand, to blame the policeman, blank, good-natured, thoughtless, and insuperably innocent, for being such a perfect representative of the people he serves. He, too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed. He has never, himself, done anything for which to be hated -- which of us has? -- and yet he is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it. There is no way for him not to know it: there are few other things under heaven more unnerving than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people. He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is, and is the reason he walks in two’s and three’s. And he is not the only one who knows why he is always in company: the people who are watching him know why, too. Any street meeting, sacred or secular, which he and his colleagues uneasily cover has as its explicit or implicit burden the cruelty and injustice of the white domination. And these days, of course, in terms increasingly vivid and jubilant, it speaks of the end of that domination. The white policeman, standing on a Harlem street corner, finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world. He is not prepared for it -- naturally, nobody is -- and, what is possibly much more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are, to the anguish of the black people around him. Even if he is gifted with the merest mustard grain of imagination, something must seep in. He cannot avoid observing that some of the children, in spite of their color, remind him of children he has known and loved, perhaps even of his own children. He knows that he certainly does not want his children living this way. He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.

Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the bible find this statement utterly impenetrable. The idea seems to threaten profound, barely conscious assumptions. A kind of panic paralyzes their features, as though they found themselves trapped on the edge of a steep place. I once tried to describe to a very-well-known American intellectual the conditions among Negroes in the South. My recital disturbed him and made him indignant; and he asked me in perfect innocence, “Why don’t all the Negroes in the South move North?” I tried to explain what has happened, unfailingly, whenever a significant body of Negroes move North. They do not escape jim crow: they merely encounter another, not-less-deadly variety. They do not move to Chicago, they move to the South Side; they do note move to New York, they move to Harlem. The pressure within the ghetto causes the ghetto walls to expand, and this expansion is always violent. White people hold the line as long as they can, and in as many ways as they can, from verbal intimidation to physical violence. But inevitably the border which has divided the ghetto from the rest of the world falls into the hands of the ghetto. The white people fall back bitterly before the black horde; the landlords make a tidy profit by raising the rent, chopping up the rooms, and all but dispensing with the upkeep; and what has once been a neighborhood turns into a “turf.” This is precisely what happened when the Puerto Ricans arrived in their thousands -- and the bitterness thus caused is, as I write, being fought out all up and down those streets.

Northerners indulge in an extremely dangerous luxury. They seem to feel that because they fought on the right side during the Civil War, and won, that they have earned the right merely to deplore what is going on in the South, without taking any responsibility for it; and that they can ignore what is happening in Northern cities because what is happening in Little Rock or Birmingham is worse. Well, in the first place, it is not possible for anyone who has not endured both to know which is “worse.” I know Negroes who prefer the South and white Southerners, because “At least there, you haven’t got to play any guessing games!” The guessing games referred to have driven more than one Negro into the narcotics ward, the madhouse, or the river. I know another Negro, a man very dear to me, who says, with conviction and with truth, “The spirit of the South is the spirit of America.” He was born in the North and did his military training in the South. He did not, as far as I can gather, find the South “worse”; he found it, if anything, all too familiar. In the second place, though, even if Birmingham is worse, no doubt Johannesburg, South Africa, beats it by several miles, and Buchenwald was one of the worst things that ever happened in the entire history of the world. The world has never lacked for horrifying examples; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes. This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling. The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes. Thirdly, the South is not merely an embarrassingly backward region, but a part of this country, and what happens there concerns every one of us.

As far as the color problem is concerned, there is but one great difference between the Southern white and the Northerner: the Southerner remembers, historically, and in his own psyche, a kind of Eden in which he loved black people and they loved him. Historically, the flaming sword laid across this Eden is the Civil War. Personally, it is the Southerner’s sexual coming of age, when, without any warning, unbreakable taboos are set up between himself and his past. Everything, thereafter, is permitted him except the love he remembers and has never ceased to need. The resulting, indescribable torment affects every Southern mind and is the basis of the Southern hysteria.

None of this is true for the Northerner. Negroes represent nothing to him personally, except, perhaps, the dangers of carnality. He never sees Negroes. Southerners see them all the time. Northerners never think about them whereas Southerners are never really thinking of anything else. Negroes are, therefore, ignored in the North and are under surveillance in the South, and suffer hideously in both places. Neither the Southerner nor the Northerner is able to look on the Negro simply as a man. It seems to be indispensable to the national self-esteem that the Negro be considered either as a kind of ward (in which case we are told how many Negroes, comparatively, bought Cadillacs last year and how few, comparatively, were lynched), or as a victim (in which case we are promised that he will never vote in our assemblies or go to school with our kids). They are two sides of the same coin and the South will not change -- cannot change -- until the North changes. The country will not change until it re-examines itself and discovers what it really means by freedom. In the meantime, generations keep being born, bitterness is increased by competence, pride, and folly, and the world shrinks around us.

It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.

Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, have become.

17 comments:

Solomon said...

I don't even have anything I can add to that MacDaddy, Baldwin liad it out exactly the way it was then, and still is today. You'd think after a half century since this article appeared that conditions would have improved so much more than they have in this country, but as you and I both know, they have not.

Thanks for another moving post, maybe someday real soon things will improve for the blacks in this country. It will happen!

msladydeborah said...

Teach on!

Baldwin should be on the list of classic America literature in every school in the nation. He was on point in his observations about race relations, classism and how it impacted the whole society.

I find it to be rather sad that Jimmy's published voice is one that is not being still read. The Fire The Next Time-is the book that really sparked my ideas as an emerging Black woman.

It is time for a second Black Renaissance. We need to be promoting a serious look into our story from different viewpoints. I think that many people would find it useful to look at the foundation of our race from different eras in time. There is still a lot of truth in what they saw and believed to be the corrective measures for our problems.

CareyCarey said...

I have to admit that I had a bias against Baldwin. It was sort of like your orignal feelings regarding reading E. Lynn Harris.

What I like about Baldwin is his writing style. Unlike Walter Moseley or even Hemingway, his sentences are long (really long)but his breaks and punctuations carries the thought. I wonder how much of his work was edited. Someone knew what they were doing - possibly him?

I've had many debates on the "purpose" of reading certain works by Baldwin and E. Lynn Harris. I have to admit, I tried to read Harris but I just couldn't do it - I never aquired a reason.

Baldwin was a great writer but I have to look deep to see way he should be introduced to a new audience. If it's about learning how to write, that's cool but what's to be gained by his depressing stories. Sure, he was spot on with his assessments of black life and "the white man" - and?

Maybe it's just good reading - good entertainmeant?

MacDaddy said...

Solomon: I hear you. Some would say that there have been great changes. That may be true. But in central cities things seem essentially the same: Bad housing. Bad cops. Poverty. Despair. People trying to get out.

msladydeborah: I believe everything you say is true. Then again, I'm biased. He's my favorite writer. Blessings.

Carey: "Baldwin was a great writer but I have to look deep to see way he should be introduced to a new audience." Thanks for the honesty. But I do hope you get the chance to read one of Baldwin's non-fiction books like "Fire Next Time" or "Notes of a Native Son." In these works, you'll find in-depth discussions about what was going on in the turbulent sixties and get a good idea how and why it's still being played out today. Keep in mind: Baldwin came back from Paris to work in the civil rights movement. He was there. Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King were his friends...I believe that, if you read Baldwin within the context of civil rights and black power movements of the sixties, Baldwin would make more sense.

Also, besides politics proper, he wrote about literature and the literary giants of the day. For example, he took on Richard Wright, author of "Native Son," the top black writer at the time. He was very critical of the book, saying the main character, Bigger, was more than a sociological prop than a complex black character-- that he was good for propaganda purpose of various communist parties but hardly a construct that enhanced one's understanding black people or the black condition. His criticism destroyed their friendship. You see, Wright lived in Paris too; and he oftentimes gave Baldwin money when he was broke. This is all in the book "Notes of a Native Son" by Baldwin. I hope I inspired you to give Baldwin another look.

SagaciousHillbilly said...

MacD, You read my mind. In my opinion, this is THE BEST essay of the 20th Century and perhaps JB's best work.

MacDaddy said...

Sagacious: I think this one may be his best. I could be wrong, but I think this essay is contained in the book The Fire Next Time. All the essays in that book are fantastic.

Vigilante said...

I often come to these pages of Mac Daddy's to supplement my education. Some of Daddy's lessons are a welcome complement and reinforcement to my prior understandings; other instruction from him is harder to accept, requiring more effort on my part to process.

So it is with the works of James Baldwin. I am one of those who owned and shelved Baldwin (The Fire Next Time) in my first library (1960-70's). I cracked open those pages several times, but never really read Baldwin until now, after MacDaddy presented this thread. As I write this, I am not sure I am grateful.

In the sixties and the seventies the label "white liberal" became a hated epithet, thanks pretty much to Baldwin, as nearly as I can recall its derivation. Later, during the Nixonian counterrevolution "white liberal" became a favorite epithet of the Republicans to accuse us Democrats of being guilt-ridden apologists for affirmative action, and that continues to this day. (But that's another story.)

As I read this Baldwin's Fifth Avenue-Uptown this jumps out at me:

…. Liberals, both white and black, were appalled at the spectacle. I was appalled by the liberal innocence -- or cynicism, which comes out in practice as much the same thing …. .

…. believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed The white policeman…standing on a Harlem street corner… finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world. He is not prepared for it -- naturally, nobody is -- and, what is possibly much more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are, to the anguish of the black people around him. Even if he is gifted with the merest mustard grain of imagination, something must seep in. He cannot avoid observing that some of the children, in spite of their color, remind him of children he has known and loved, perhaps even of his own children. He knows that he certainly does not want his children living this way. He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature…..

….. Northerners indulge in an extremely dangerous luxury. They seem to feel that because they fought on the right side during the Civil War, and won, that they have earned the right merely to deplore what is going on in the South, without taking any responsibility for it; and that they can ignore what is happening in Northern cities because what is happening in Little Rock or Birmingham is worse …..


Well, speaking up for myself, I'd have to say that I did take some responsibility for what was going on in the South and the North. Voter registration, open housing, etc. But my understanding was flawed. In my callow youth, I naively looked upon all Negroes as fellow revolutionaries, permanent and dependable partners in our common popular front against the military-industrial complex. But I was wrong, of course. Because I never read Baldwin, I never realized how nondependable I was being perceived. The popular front was not between co-equals: I recall with gratitude when Dr. King spoke up against the Vietnam War (Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence); but I also recall my confusion when Dr. King marched on Cicero Ill. And his Poor Peoples' March?

Vigilante said...

Baldwin has been vindicated by history. But contemporaneously his was eloquence was off-putting:

"The white liberal has no role. He is our affliction."

"White people think of themselves as missionaries…but we don't want you to do it for the Negro, we want you to do it for you."

"How many white liberals will desert our ranks when we assert our right of self-defense?"


Today, as I peer back into the 1970's, I can see that I did not understand the cycle of poverty and violence of the ghetto. Fully.

Was it Baldwin's deliberate literary strategy to overstate his rage in order to exact greater commitment from white liberalism and self-reliance from black radicalism? Maybe. If so, maybe it was well-taken. But his voice was acerbic, alienating and served to delaminate the Left's popular front.

Nevertheless on my part, I could have done better by reading Baldwin's books while I owned them. I see that now.

MacDaddy said...

Vigilante: I'm not sure the concept of "white liberal" came from Baldwin. At any rate, Baldwin was referring to whites who loved sitting around intellectualizing but not getting off their asses to change things where they lived. Oh, some would give money to assuage their guilt, but they wouldn't do anything.

To put this in context, Baldwin did a lot of speaking engagements to raise funds for the movement. In these encounters, these well-to-do whites would deplore the terrible things to blacks who were being beaten up, shot or murdered in the South but would not talk about the terrible conditions of blacks up North in poverty-stricken inner-cities. Baldwin was, in my mind, rightfully critical of them.

There were whites involved in the movement, especially students and people from certain religious groups, including Jews and Catholics. He wasn't talking about them. He was talking about those who wanted to intellectualize but not act. Remember: It was mostly these white liberals sitting around talking and mostly blacks getting beaten or killed.

Dr. King and other leaders said the same thing as Baldwin. I remember Dr. King quoting Emerson saying the end of study is not knowledge but action. He was referring to white liberals and black ministers who wanted to sit around and talk but do nothing.

Maybe some others would like to share their feelings about this as well.

CareyCarey said...

{"The white liberal has no role. He is our affliction."

"White people think of themselves as missionaries…but we don't want you to do it for the Negro, we want you to do it for you."

"How many white liberals will desert our ranks when we assert our right of self-defense?"}

Baldwin was not the author of the term "white liberal". As someone mentioned, those words were used (still are) to separate and intimidate whites. The words have different meanings to different ears. If we can move away from those words and focus on the context of Baldwin's words, those words were being voiced by many in the movement. The central message/question was/is what is the white persons real purpose in including themselves in black issues. This argument surfaced during the formation of the NAACP, as well as other "movement" groups. A bigger question is what would they do when their purpose wasn't fulfilled or the going got tough? Would they just be "white" and not liberal.

Again, as someone implied, what was they willing to invest other than lip service and money?

Lets be real(championing Baldwin), although Malcolm X doesn't get the credit for ushering in real change and thus no national holiday for him, HE brought in the "possiblity" of violence, and then we are back to square one. What was white liberals really good for? We all know nothing really changes in this world without the threat of violence. Baldwin was one of many eloquent voices that spoke the truth.

That's my condensed short and long.

CareyCarey said...

Mac Daddy, I totally understand what you are saying about the difference between Baldwin's fiction and nonfiction writing. But again, the central point of my question is what's to be gained by reading him. I am not asking the question as a counterpoint, I am asking the question because I am looking for answers. I have no debatable issue why we shouldn't read him but I am asking "you" why others should. What usable insight into todays world can we use by reading him. Would we be left with a common opinion of "see, Baldwin was right" and then what?

Maybe I should ask you what you've gained by reading him? Maybe we should start there? Has his words enriched you or entertained you?

Vigilante said...

Carey Carey, I think the point I was trying to make was not that Baldwin's writing cannot be understood in the context provided in this thread. The point rather was at the time after Dr. King's (as well as RFK's) assassination, the Left was decapitated. Severely - if not mortally - wounded, anyway. At this pivotal moment, Baldwin, Malcolm X, H Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, to name a few, provided the right wing a target with a huge bulls-eye. The context of the ghetto's cycle of poverty and violence was drowned out by the prospect of lawless violence. We lost middle America.

Not that simple, of course. Just my long & short! (The older I get the more I discover I can't remember jack!)

CareyCarey said...

"Not that simple, of course"..."The context of the ghetto's cycle of poverty and violence was drowned out by the prospect of lawless violence. We lost middle America"


yeah, my head is also a little fuzzy *lol*. I wish I could bottle my memories and store them like stewed tomatoes. Well, my brain is like a pot of stew - sometimes it gets all mixed up.

I don't know if we lost middle America, because I don't know what that means. But we did lose two effective vehicles that could pierce the entrenced opinions of many.

Yet again, lawless violence is only considered lawless by those self-serving individuals writing the laws. Is that not what the whole movement was about? Wasn't the laws of the constitutions of the US being violated.

Now we are back to Malcolm, whom some considered to be a lawless instigator. Yet, truth be told, not until Malcolm introduced the woes of the black american into the world court, did the lawless conduct of the "law-makers" change.

But I hear what you are saying, "middle america" was more comfortable with JFK and Dr. King.
Yes, to lose them was a severe wound.

Wow, did this conversation drift *lol*. My bad - I think - I can't remember.

Vigilante said...

You were generous in not dinging me more harshly, Carey Carey.

As soon as I got up from the keyboard I thought I should rewrite my entire comment, but I just had to leave for work sometime. I was aware that I was painting way too hastily and with way too broad a brush. Of Course I was not doing justice to Baldwin who was a gifted writer, to group him in with the others. And I had doubts about my inclusion of Malcolm X, too, who was another creative leader & serious thinker. His life, too, was wasted by an assassin.

I read somewhere that Baldwin was presiding in a meeting where the question was asked if he thought there would be a Black elected as POTUS. There followed a chorus of negativity. After a while, Baldwin spoke up and affirmed,

Yes, there will be a Negro President, but this country will be different from the one that exists now.

The country, however it is changed now from the USA of 1970's, did not take so long to change because of the words of Baldwin or Malcolm X. I do not blame them. Two assassins' bullets had already squelched a nascent Progressive movement. Unspeakably tragic ...

SagaciousHillbilly said...

I look back at the 60s from my white liberal perspective with disgust. The 60s radicals were mostly just being stylish. IT was the thing to do back then. There was no commitment. Look how things turned out. If there had been commitment in the 60, we wouldn't have have Reagan in the 80s and bush in the 00s. Most of those 60s radicals became the middle class, Volvo driving corpo-fascist lackeys that infest our country today. They don't care about a damn thing except their own wallet.

Vigilante said...

Hillbilly, You can call me white, but don't call me a white liberal. I have never considered myself liberal! 'Liberal' is how I used to think of my college professors in the 60's. Always thinking liberally and generously, but never acting. (Huxley said the end of thinking is acting.)

I disagree that being Radical in the 60's was not being committed. I committed myself on the streets, in jail, in court.

But, when you say,

Look how things turned out...we wouldn't have had Reagan in the 80s and bush in the 00s...

You are both missing a major point and pointing out to me a major lapse I have made in my life.

The major point is that the Killing of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy decapitated and demoralized the Progressive movement. (Unfortunately, bullets have consequences.) Hubert Horatio Humphrey was an old and thoroughly compromised Liberal, by the time he ran against Nixon in 1968.

My major lapse, for which I feel extreme guilt to this day, is that I lost heart when I witnessed the 1970 Nixonian Thermidor in which the Party of Lincoln sucked up the dregs of the Dixiecrats to build their new majority.

For America to have allowed its gun culture to kill off priceless leadership such as King's and Kennedy's, I said and thought "The USA isn't worth saving", and went off to play tennis for three decades. I went AWOL.

When Bush and Cheney arrived, I realized I had betrayed my country.

MacDaddy said...

Vigilante: Great comment. Based on experience, I've come not to trust liberals, white or non-white. They seem to cave in when the going gets tough. Hey Bruins describes them as people who leave the room when the fight begins. But I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for progressives. What the 60's showed me was the difference between the two. Progressives don't give up and hide out by teaching at some college. They continue the fight wherever they are. I know many, and I'm proud to call them friends and sometimes comrades.