Dec. 1, 2017 was the 13th anniversary of the death of the immortal James Baldwin. He was a writer, essayist, human rights activist and impeccable debater and speaker. He debated his friend Malcolm X, as well as his foe James Buckley at Cambridge in England in 1965. He was a part of the Harlem Renaissance during its later period of the 1950s.
He wrote some of my favorite books: ” Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Giovanni’s Room” and “Notes of a Native Son.” These books were written during the 1950s about the black experience in America, along with other great writers of that time such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. He articulated that “American history was synonymous with black history and that history was not a pretty one.” Like Malcolm X, he wrote and said that blacks were defined as a cipher in America throughout its history and that what we see on television and in cinema every day reinforces that state of “nothingness” as far as the character and the being of black people in this country.
Baldwin said when he watched movies back in the 1940s of Gary Cooper fighting the Indians, he realized that he and black people were the Indians, and that everyone watching including the people being assailed and dehumanized as far as the indigenous people and the people they represent were conditioned and trained to hate the Indians and in essence to hate themselves. He also said that those who engaged in the hate, racism and oppression in many ways were “also debasing themselves.” This is key because America’s ugly and brutal history demonstrated categorically that it was indeed a lie.
Baldwin said America daily destroys the sense of self politically, economically and socially of black people and people of color. He said, “I am not a n—–, regardless if the moral monsters of white society try to define me as such.” He was good friends with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. When Malcolm X was railing against the violence, hypocrisy and criminal history of America, James Baldwin said, “What Malcolm is saying is something that has been denied in this society for far too long as far as our dehumanization, oppression and denial of our humanity. People cheer Malcolm because he corroborates their reality as far as how evil America has treated its black citizens.”
Baldwin also said the “American idea of racial progress is how fast I become white.” This statement sums up for me and many others that white America has been committing a crime since its inception in denying the humanity of African-Americans and only accepting them by their shedding of their racial identity in order to be more like those who have had a tradition of disdain for it. This continues today.
He met with Robert F. Kennedy in May of 1963 along with others to try to discuss the problem of ” race” in this country. Kennedy could not understand what Baldwin and others were saying about how criminal America was and the meeting ended without any resolve. RFK did come away with an understanding from Baldwin that he would come to realize later.
Baldwin was also homosexual and he liberated the thinking of black Americans and those who were gay by affirming the humanity of each with his words that were spoken publicly as well as his writings and everyday actions.
James is as much a hero to the human rights movement as Malcolm X, Dr. King, Medgar Evers and others. He confronted white America and the white Western world and said, “I am not your Negro.”
Clifford Jackson is a resident of Larchmont. The views expressed are his own.