What Hasn’t Changed

Last month, in a post on gun violence and the growing understanding of Robert Kennedy, I mentioned the 1963 meeting between Kennedy, James Baldwin, and other civil rights leaders that went disastrously awry. The consequences of that gathering proved varied and contradictory. Then Attorney General Kennedy quickly instructed FBI Director J Edgar Hoover to increase surveillance on Baldwin to uncover information of “a derogatory nature.” On the other hand, it marked a turn in Kennedy’s evolving attitude regarding racial justice. Within a month, President John F Kennedy – at his brother’s urging – delivered his landmark Civil Right Address, from which the 1964 Civil Rights Act took form.

Another product of that evening, at once more immediate and less procedural, was a video recording of an interview Kenneth Clark conducted with Baldwin. In an attempt to ease Baldwin’s palpable post-meeting tension, Clark started by asking the writer about his childhood memories. What followed was an emotionally powerful and stunningly eloquent exploration of the American soul that only someone with Baldwin’s experience and verbal gifts could pull off. Clothing his indictment in his characteristic – if undeserved – compassion toward white Americans, he says, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive,” and ties the future of America to whether or not its people can “face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they’ve maligned so long.” He then challenges White America “to find in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n—-r in the first place, because I’m not a n—-r. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a n—-r, it means you need it…And if you invented him, you have to find out why.”

In watching the twenty five-minute video again this month, I couldn’t help but think how much and how little has changed in the intervening 67 years. If there’s no Bull Connor turning fire hoses and police attack dogs on defenseless men, women, and children, there are still inexcusable deaths of unarmed African Americans at roadside police stops. If Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge now seems ancient history, white supremacists still attack and kill in places like Charleston and Charlottesville. It’s really not hard to understand why. As former skinhead turned anti-extremist activist, Christian Picciolini notes, hate and violence fill the potholes of wounded youth with identity, purpose, and community. “Hatred is born of ignorance,” Picciolini says, “Fear is its father, and isolation is its mother.” In such a world, Baldwin’s challenge still stands, incompletely faced if not completely forgotten.

With Baldwin’s death in 1987, his mantle as eloquent prophet passed to Toni Morrison, who left us last year. A recently published selection of her essays and speeches includes an abridged version of an address she gave at Howard University in 1995, entitled “Racism and Fascism.” In it, she writes:

In 1995 racism may wear a new dress, buy a new pair of boots, but neither it nor its succubus twin fascism is new or can make anything new. It can only reproduce the environment that supports its own health: fear, denial and an atmosphere in which its victims have lost the will to fight.

The forces interested in fascist solutions to national problems are not to be found in one political party or another, or in one or another wing of any single political party. Democrats have no unsullied history of egalitarianism. Nor are liberals free of domination agendas. Republicans may have housed abolitionists and white supremacists. Conservative, moderate, liberal; right, left, hard left, far right; religious, secular, socialist – we must not be blindsided by these Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola labels because the genius of fascism is that any political structure can become a suitable home. Fascism talks ideology, but it is really just marketing – marketing for power.

In reading this, I’m left thinking only how little has changed. There’s been no progress in the intervening quarter century, only regress. We live in an era of politically expedient fear, denial, and resignation where nothing is true and everything is possible. And Baldwin’s challenge remains unanswered.

Unlike Baldwin, I’m by nature and habit a hopeful pessimist. The hope in my pessimism emerges, like Baldwin’s optimism, from being alive. I sincerely hope white people like me can communally name and confront the woundedness in ourselves that caused us to need “a n—-r in the first place,” though I doubt I’ll live to see it. Racism, that moral cancer all too glibly passed off as “America’s original sin,” has sometimes appeared in remission but – as we now see – never cured, its metastases growing in diverse organs of the body politic. This country has not yet dodged what Baldwin, drawing on the words of a Negro spiritual, called “the fire next time.” Even now, Martin Luther King’s dream consists more of sentiment than substance, and Langston Hughes’ question in his poem, “Harlem,” remains distressingly relevant:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Image: James Baldwin in Hyde Park, London, 1969, photo by Allan Warren.

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