Monday, January 16, 2017

James Baldwin on race in America, 1965

James Baldwin, debating William F. Buckley, Jr., in 1965:

40 years ago, when I was born, the question of having to deal with what is unspoken by the subjugated, what is never said to the master — of ever having to deal with this reality, was a very remote possibility. It was in no one’s mind. When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history, and neither did I — that I was a savage, about whom the less said the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. Those were the only books there were. Everyone else seemed to agree.
If you walk out of Harlem, ride out of Harlem, downtown, the world agrees: what you see is much bigger, cleaner, whiter, richer, safer than where you are. . . . Their children look happy, safe. You’re not. And you go back home, and it would seem that, of course, that it’s an act of God, that this is true: that you belong where white people have put you. . . .

One of the great things that the white world does not know, but that I think I do know, is that black people are just like everybody else. One has used the myth of Negro and the myth of color to pretend and to assume that you were dealing . . . with something exotic, bizarre, and . . . unknown. Alas, it is not true. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars — we are human too. . . .

What is dangerous here is the turning away from . . . anything any white American says. The reason for the political hesitation, in spite of the Johnson landslide, is that one has been betrayed by American politicians for so long. Of course, I am a grown man, and perhaps I can be reasoned with. I certainly hope I can be. But I don’t know, and neither does Martin Luther King, none of us know how to deal with those other people whom the white world has so long ignored, who don’t believe anything the white world says, and don’t entirely believe anything I or Martin is saying.
And one can’t blame them. You watch what has happened to them in less than 20 years. It seems to me that the City of New York, for example . . . [is] able . . . to reconstruct itself, tear down buildings and raise great new ones downtown . . . and has done nothing whatever except build housing projects in the ghetto for the Negroes. . . .

Until the moment comes when . . . we the American people are able to accept the fact . . . that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country — until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it. And if that happens, it is a very grave moment for the West.

That excerpt starts at 30:14 in this video: