by James Baldwin, 1985
The Evidence of Things Not Seen is, in some respects, a true-crime book, and in other respects, a continuation of Baldwin’s preferred subject of the problem of race in America. While Baldwin was living in France, he was contacted with the suggestion of going to Atlanta to write about children who had gone missing there. The children would eventually turn up murdered, and Wayne Williams would be convicted of killing two adults men, though he would be seemingly tried for 23 of the child murders. This short book isn’t an investigation into the crimes, but an examination of the justice system and the opportunity to cast doubt on the trial that took place. Baldwin doesn’t necessarily advocate for the complete innocence of Williams, but rather questions the city’s eagerness to attribute the murders of all of these black children to one man, who is also black. That doubt is enough to make the reader wonder what really happened within the minds of the jurors and whether any justice was done in this trial.
Baldwin’s main point of contention is that the two people Williams was tried for killing were grown men. Whether the men were developmentally impaired or childlike in nature doesn’t evade the fact that they were men and not children, as all of the other victims were. “A man who murdered children was not likely to perceive a male adult as a male child,” he writes. He describes the air in Atlanta as stinging from the 28 murders, but that this was not the first time such a devastating event occurred. It was, however, the first time the authorities were forced to recognize the devastation of the event. He repeats throughout the book that Williams was not legally accused of 28 murders—only two—but that he was assumed to be guilty of all of them and was, in actuality, tried for them, as the Prosecution believed that there was a pattern to the murders that would link Williams to all of them. What Baldwin further reveals is that this so-called pattern is highly dubious. The manners in which the children were killed varied, raising the question of whether one person was even responsible for all of them. In light of this, it appears that Williams was a convenient patsy for the legal system to appear to have brought the case to a close.
Baldwin uses this opportunity to expound on the injustices afforded to the black community, and especially black men, every day. He writes of a disease called “sorriness” that attacks black men: “It is transmitted by Mama, whose instinct—it is not hard to see why—is to protect the Black male from the devastation that threatens him the moment he declares himself a man.” Part of this is the unbearable weight of masculinity, a weight that seeks to humiliate men when they cannot live up to the standards society sets for them, but it was also hard to read this line and not think of George Floyd calling out for his mother, and the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and all others who have had to see their children buried, statistics in the war on race that continues to this day. In fact, were it not for one of the mothers of the child victims, Camille Bell, the murders may have gone unnoticed. “It was she, apparently, who first perceived not so much a ‘pattern’ as a moral threat and she who raised the hue and cry,” he writes. Prior to that, the missing children were categorized as runaways or “hustlers” and not worthy of investigation. The implication is that the state had little intention of looking into these child disappearances, and when they found an easy target on which to pin the crimes and wash their hands of the matter, they did. Thirty years later, still no one has been tried for these murders.
While the book is full of Baldwin’s signature raging against the inherent hypocrisy of our nation, it doesn’t provide much insight into the crimes themselves. Baldwin does not appear to be concerned with finding out who the responsible party really is so much as he is with exposing the shoddy workings of the Atlanta justice system and, by extension, that of the entire country. That’s a worthy enough goal as it is, but some more attention to the crimes in question would have been appreciated. Whether Baldwin was limited by the technology of the time, as DNA profiling was at a nascent stage, or by his own interests is unknown; I can’t help but wonder what he would uncover if he were to write this book today and employ some of our more developed forensic practices. However, Baldwin is successful at calling into question the legitimacy of the trial’s outcome, for which Williams continues to serve a life sentence. It all boils down to the notion of the American Dream, which is little more than “the doctrine of White Supremacy—which, in America, translated itself into the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, having returned to Europe and, like a plague carried by the wind, infests all the cities of Europe [and] is all that now unites the so-called Old World with the so-called New.”