James Baldwin: Novelist, Essayist, Poet, Activist, Witness
Reflections on Bridging the Racial Divide in America
“I don’t like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer. –from “Autobiographical Notes” (1952)
My response to this statement, written by the great 20th century Afro-American novelist and essayist James Baldwin, nearly 70 years ago, sparked a lively exchange between a friend, and a friend of a friend, on Facebook. I described Baldwin’s statement thusly:
“A tortured attempt to carve an individual identity while consigned to membership in an oppressed group who are defined by their race in the eyes of the white majority during an age of legal caste discrimination based on an unapologetic commitment to preserving white supremacy. It is a sign of his confusion as a black man to choose a racist macho bully like Ernest Hemingway as his role model. Baldwin’s thinking became a lot clearer during the black movement of the 1960’s, when he took a clear and courageous stand on racial oppression in America.”
To wit my thoughtful and progressive friend John Koroly, who posted the Baldwin quote with the caption “Very well put,“ replied: “I took that as Baldwin saying that EVEN in a bigoted bully like Hemingway, some fugitive wisdom can be found.” To wit I replied:
“That’s a charitable explanation. For there were much better role models, especially for a black writer in the middle of the last century. I knew Baldwin well, and read much of his work, especially his essays. We appointed him to a Professorship in the DuBois Department of Black Studies at U-Mass, the first such department in the world, which I co-founded. I had many conversations with the great writer who regularly enriched the English language with his complex elegant prose. I use to quote him often during speeches about the importance of accurately teaching the history of the Afro-American experience in US civilization.”
“My favorite Baldwin quote was selected from a lecture on race relations titled, “A Talk With Teachers,” it was given to public school teachers in New York, over a decade after the quote posted above was written. Baldwin said in part: “Once you lie about anybody’s history you must lie about it all. Which means if I am not what I have been told I am, you are not what you have been told you are either!” A fact all the hysterical whites promoting the anti-Critical Race Theory hokum understand too well. That’s what all the fuss is REALLY about. That’s why they are trying to make it illegal to teach the actual history of race relations in America! People who want to get an in-depth look into what James Baldwin was all about should see the documentary “I’m Not your Negro,” a film produced by the brilliant and fearless Roul Peck.
My assertions provoked a rapid response from a concerned white parent – who shall henceforth be known as “The Outraged White Parent” – passionately recounting the negative effects that teaching the unvarnished truth about the history of race relations in the US has on her teenage daughter’s self-esteem and growing hostility toward school.
It is a painful story, in which the mother mistakenly attributes these problems to the teaching of “Critical Race Theory.” However, CRT is a sophisticated analytical method developed at Harvard and taught to advanced law school students. Hence her child has about as much chance of ending up in a class discussing CRT as she has of getting struck by lightning, while lying in bed, twice! Ms. Outraged White Parent writes:
“Playthell George Benjamin going to guess you don’t have a child in k12 school and have no idea what is actually happening in these classrooms. It isn’t only white parents who oppose CRT and what’s going on. I see many of the parents don’t articulate well. This allows the mockery which you demonstrate. It’s not about “the history of race relations” being taught. That’s an easy cop out way to shrug them off.
When you start seeing your child, a kind loving giving child, who loves and cares for people and already has developed a very strong sense of the importance of social justice (didn’t hurt having an activist parent) who for years loved being at school, who is in vulnerable development years of their life, suddenly experiencing agonizing self-hatred and guilt over things that they themselves had NOTHING to do with, as if it is their obligation to carry all of the shame and guilt of long dead people- because what is being taught is being taught in such a way that it demoralizes and fucks them up in the head- and you see it’s not just ‘a’ class, but that every single teacher, whether it’s math, science, English or whatever- is suddenly in a short time basing their curriculum on this effort to establish what they call ‘equity’- the children themselves are being harmed. If you love your child and care about their mental health you’d be pissed off too.
My child went from loving school enthusiastically to being miserable and hating it in one year based on what is happening. I couldn’t blame her one bit. She was being systematically emotionally and mentally abused daily in near every class. “Why do I have to hate myself because I’m white mom?” This should tell you that they are failing at what they’re doing, that is UNLESS the goal is for white CHILDREN to hate themselves and to hate school. That summed up what she was learning. You’d be ok with that? Since when did fucking with children’s minds become normalized and acceptable? Because that is exactly what is resulting.
They might have good intentions but what is happening is shit. Parents seeing the emotional and mental harm it’s causing is why they’re pissed. It’s not that they are simply teaching history. It comes with a lot of baggage. Teachers even projecting the guilt they themselves feel upon their child students. Pathology. What and how it’s taught is the problem and it varies from teacher to teacher, many of them fail miserably. What I witnessed myself regarding my own child was akin to constant struggle sessions, where the only right answer was for my child to attack herself over her color. As a 14 year old how was she supposed to process it?! Never mind we are native Americans. But the color of our skin alone is all that matters. Sure looks like racism to me. If equity requires damaging and breaking one group in order to support another- that is not equity that is….shit.”
While I certainly feel for Ms. Outraged White Parent, and her innocent daughter, alas I hear a good dose of naivete in her protest, buttressed by the agony of losing white privilege. Her claim of beine “Native American,” probably falls in the same category as Senator Elizabeth Warren’s. When I was fourteen years old the entire world was horrified by the savage crucifixion of Emmitt Till, a black teenager from Chicago, who was visiting his family in Mississippi over the summer vacation. Til and I were the same age and same weight, and I was living in racist apartheid Florida, a state with the same racial etiquette as Mississippi! Imagine the terror and stress that I, and EVERY 14-year-old black male in the South, had to endure.
Hence, the insistence by an increasing number of hysterical white parents that the real pain black Americans suffered, resulting from 250 years of chattel slavery – at which time black children were snatched from their parents and sold at auction like live-stock by white Americans with government approval – followed by a century of legal caste discrimination based on race, backed by the full force of the US government’s police powers, should be covered up because it causes some white children emotional stress, is unreasonable, unjust, and unacceptable.
Real life is not a fairy tale where righteousness always triumphs over evil, the heroes defeat the villains, and everybody lives happily ever after. And children cannot be sheltered from life’s realities. That is the problem in this country now, too many maladjusted emotionally fragile white Americans, people who cannot accept the truth of their history because they have been fed myths and lies since childhood. And when they are forced to confront the truth, they become ashamed of their ancestors, whose greatness they never cease to celebrate. It is a schizoid mindset that requires persistent lies to perpetuate.
Yet it remains true that unarmed innocent black men and boys are routinely murdered by racist white police as I write. This is the burden that black parents must bear. While many white parents think the historical record of these crimes against humanity should be ignored because it might cause their children some discomfort. Yet the racist thinking that has produced a society in which far too many whites, intoxicated by the myth of white supremacy and the privilege it confers, enthusiastically support policies undergirded by the firm belief that Black lives don’t matter.
That’s why we have a mass movement sweeping the globe insisting that Black lives do matter! As a black American male who is seven months from my 80th birthday and grew up under the racist caste system designed to legally promote white supremacy, I know firsthand the injuries institutionalized white racism has wreaked on Afro-Americans, for it is clearly evident in the experience of me and my entire family.
Yet we have been more successful and contributed more to American society than many whites despite their racial privilege. Including Don tha Con Trump, who along with his father and grandfather never served in the US military or have any visible record of performing any public service ever! And despite growing up under the evil apartheid system in Florida, I have yet to meet the man who holds himself in higher regard than me. I am inclined to believe that such a man is yet to be born…and his mother is dead! This attitude has inspired admiration and provoked animosity in my white countrymen, depending upon their views on race. The best and brightest whites I have met, in the US and abroad, who are knowledgeable about the system of institutionalized white supremacy in the US, think me something of a miracle.
The system of laws I grew up under in the American South served as the blueprint for the legal system of NAZI Germany. This is detailed in “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the making of Nazi Race Law, by Professor James Q Whitman. For those who are not familiar with Academia, let me point out that Professor Whitman’s book is published by the Princeton University Press. Hence this is a refereed peer reviewed text, meaning it was critically reviewed by leading scholars in the field before publication. The central questions posed were: “Is this author telling us something new that expands our knowledge on the subject, and does the evidence presented by the author justify his conclusions. Obviously, after rigorous review, the book met both tests.
This cannot be said of the history textbooks in virtually all of our public schools. For textbook publishing is a commercial enterprise and they are composed to garner the most sales in a multi-million-dollar textbook market, which is dominated by school boards that must cater to ignorant and racists white parents. A constituency whose paramount interest is in promoting white supremist mythology, rather than historical scholarship. And since the ethics of corporate America to often testifies to the veracity of Dr. Karl Marx’s observation that “a capitalist will sell the hangman the rope to hang him with if he thinks he can make a profit,” corporations should not be the arbiters of what public school history texts say.
At present the largest market in the US is Texas, a state that has banned hundreds of books – some by prominent authors – because of the way they discuss racial or gender issues. Hence most history and social studies texts are increasingly shaped by the demands of the Texas market, a state whose government has made teaching the murderous history of the racist Ku Klux Klan illegal in their public schools! Hence, I cannot accept the view that white children are routinely subjected to an anti-white version of history designed to make them feel guilty. Although, I must confess that just telling the simple truth about race relations in America is a painful task for most whites. For as Frederick Douglass, arguably the most brilliant public intellectual in 19th century, said in his famous 4th of July speech, it is a shameful tale that “would disgrace a nation of savages!” Hence my reply to the Outraged White Parent was:
“My, My, how victimized you people feel about the fact that your children are finally learning the truth about the history of race relations in America, which has nothing to do with CRITICAL RACE THEORY! However, compared to the racist bullshit – see “On Bullshit” by Princeton philosopher Dr. Harry G. Franks – I and my children had to endure in America’s schools, what you are describing is a walk in the park. Black parents have had, and still have in most schools, to deal with their children being assaulted with white supremacist propaganda that amounts to PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE for generations! What, with schools teaching that our ancestors were docile sambos that never resisted slavery, loved their white masters and contributed NOTHING to the making of America, Black parents have had a far more difficult task dealing with these Goddammed LIES that ignore the ACTUAL historical record, which tells a radically different story.
Yet we found a way to deal with it and produced generations of outstanding citizens who excelled in every worthwhile endeavor, despite institutionalized white supremacy hobbling our life’s chances in America. But we were fighting against LIES! You must now confront the TRUTH! And it is an ugly shameful story by ANY measure. White parents now must figure out how to raise their children to deal with this TRUTH! And it can be done, if you confront the facts with honesty and imagination. Tell them that they are NOT PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT THEIR ANCESTORS DID, BUT THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT WAS COMPLICIT IN ALL OF THIS AND THEREFORE AMERICAN SOCIETY BEARS RESPONSIBILITY FOR IT. I know smart white parents who are handling this challenge just FINE!!!! But continuing the racist myths – white Supremacist prattle that teach our children that they are inferior to whites because they are black – masquerading as American history, is NOT THE ANSWER!!!!!!!
Furthermore, I know whereof I speak. When I was a professor in the DuBois Department, I taught MANY white students. In my introductory lecture I made it clear that “Nobody in this classroom is responsible for ANY of the historical incidents we will discuss in this course. For we can neither justifiably take blame nor credit for the deeds of our ancestors. The problem with the official version of American history is that whites want to praise the virtues of their ancestors and bury their myriad sins. However, EVERYBODY will be judged by their own actions henceforth.”
My lectures, and the scholarly readings the students studied, pulled no punches, examining the historical evidence with neither prejudice nor favor. We examined the history of African people from Ancient Egypt to the assault on Africa by Slave traders and European colonialist, and then surveyed the history of these African people transplanted in the Black Atlantic Diaspora – North America, the Caribbean isles, and South America – under the Spanish, Portuguese, French and English Settler Colonists in what became the US.
This also necessitated examining the experience of the “FIRST NATIONS” – Native American “Indians” – who were the victims of genocide, slavery, and the theft of their lands and resources! Acts that were central to the birth of the United States. Viewed from this perspective, African Slavery is not “America’s Original Sin”; nor the worst…as horrible as it was.
I taught a few thousand white students this story, and many said in my “Student Evaluations” that it was one of the most beneficial courses they had taken! So, it can be done in such a manner that white students BENEFIT from this knowledge. By liberating them from the pathology of white supremacy, a mental malady that deforms their psychological development. Understanding the true racial history of this country, praising heroes and unmasking charlatans. empowers them to reject this tradition of racism that has inspired so many crimes against humanity and enables them to seek a better way of relating to people of color on the basis of real, rather than rhetorical, equality. Where the teachers come up short, alas it is the parent’s duty to set the matter straight with their children, utilizing the approach I have outlined here.
My parents and millions of other black parents fought institutionalized racism that brazenly promoted a system of white supremacy that were codified in the laws of the land…hence they faced much greater odds. For we were not only taught that we were inferior to whites, but we were also TREATED as such in law and social custom! Hence to me, you are like the woman crying out in hunger with a Virginia ham under both arms. Compared to what black parents have to deal with at this very moment in America…your task is EASY WORK!!!
White parents need to stop whining and lying to their kids, while trying to cast them as victims. Just step up, put on your grown folks’ drawers, and deal with the problems caused by America’s racist legacy, as generations of black parents have done so heroically! Talk to your children frankly about the horrible history of white supremacy in our country, but also tell them, as the Reverend Al Sharpton has recently pointed out, “there were also white freedom fighters!”
Teach them that if it were not for a brave minority of righteous white allies, neither the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, nor the eradication of “segregation” – a legal racial caste system enforced by legal and extra-legal violence that confined black Americans to second class citizenship – would have been possible! Alas, one thing is certain, continuing to lie about our nation’s racist history will not promote “domestic tranquility,” a goal clearly stated in the Preamble of the US Constitution. That’s my take on the matter of teaching the real story of racial oppression in “the land of the free.”
SOUTHLAKE TEXAS: Witnessing the Hysteria of White Parents Who Oppose Teaching the Truth About Race in USA
By: Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
November 20, 2021