by James Baldwin, 1964
In 1964, Baldwin collaborated with the photographer Richard Avedon to produce a collection of photographs underscored by Baldwin’s prose. That essay has since been republished as a stand-alone work, allowing the focus to be entirely on Baldwin’s critique of the problems plaguing America. As is often the case, his words seem to reach out from beyond the years to describe us as we are today. Although only about 50 pages, the essay is a grand introduction to Baldwin’s most frequently visited topic: the problem of race in the supposed “land of the free.”
Baldwin starts early by dispelling the myth of heroic pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock to seek out freedom from an oppressive monarchy. He writes that their arrival signified death for the indigenous population, enslavement for black people, and “spiritual disaster for those homeless Europeans who now call themselves Americans and who have never been able to resolve their relationship either to the continent they fled or to the continent they conquered.” The truth is that “the country was settled by a desperate, divided, and rapacious horde of people who were determined to make money.” Perhaps most damning is Baldwin’s immediate assessment that we haven’t changed in that respect, both truth then and now.
Baldwin later describes his interactions with police in Harlem, writing that they loved to both pick him up and beat him up. He tells of a particular incident when he was was stopped by police while he was with a friend from Switzerland. Having been used to this treatment, Baldwin was more concerned about the welfare of his friend, not a native English speaker, who “might fail to understand the warmth of his reception in the land of the free.” Baldwin writes that the police officer seemed disappointed that he had no weapons and didn’t appear to be on drugs; essentially, there was nothing he could arrest Baldwin for. When Baldwin questioned why they were stopped, the officer said the pair matched the description of two suspects, to which Baldwin responded, “White and black, you mean?” Baldwin then reunited with his friend, who had been released and given a “helpful tip: if he wanted to make it in America, it would be better for him not to be seen with niggers.”
As always, Baldwin has some real gems here. At one point, he writes “The America of my experience has worshipped and nourished violence for as long as I have been on earth,” and at another, when writing about the falsehood of the construct of race, borne from the need to create an identity on which to blame society’s ills, he so incisively proclaims, “it has always seemed much easier to murder than to change.” Baldwin reinforces the truth that the very foundation of the country is responsible for the violence that continues to plague our streets and that it is necessary to recognize this truth for any real change to occur. Yet, we continue to remain ignorant to it, “too timid to question what we are told.” As I can never help but compare our current situation to the time in which Baldiwn is writing, I finished this essay thinking that, perhaps, in the last few years, we have begun to ask those questions. Perhaps there is hope for some change. We have progressed so far and, yet, so distressingly little, but we, in no small part, owe a debt of gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy today for the work Baldwin put forth during his life.