Sociologist, historian, philosopher, editor, writer, and activist, W.E.B. DuBois was one of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century. The first African-American Ph.D.
James Baldwin, essayist, novelist, playwright, and searing social critic, has been enjoying a resurgence of interest recently due, at least in part, to the Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (USA, 2017). There is no doubt that Baldwin’s thinking is just as relevant today, in the age of Black Lives Matters, as it was in the mid twentieth century. Sadly, there is so much that has not yet changed. And Baldwin has an uncanny ability to diagnose precisely what it is that ails America and the American people.
His prescription to ameliorate “the Negro problem,” however, I find puzzling. Take, for example, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” (1963) where he says:
There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope.
Why must black people accept their oppressors “with love”? And how can he call racist Americans who uphold systems of white supremacy “innocent”?
Of course, Baldwin is not alone in preaching love and tolerance during the Civil Rights era. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that,” and, “I have decided to stick to love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” But King was a deeply Christian man, a theologian, a preacher, so you’d expect this kind of message from him. While Baldwin was raised as a Christian, he rejected religion as an adult, so this overly conciliatory tone is more surprising coming from him.
It’s not just the prescription to his nephew that he ought to "love" and "accept" white people, but the further statement that they are “innocent” that really stands out. Obviously, Baldwin is not blind to the reality of white oppression, so why does he say that white people are innocent? Does he think of them as little children who don’t fully understand the horrors they inflict on black people?
“Innocence,” as Baldwin means it, is an interesting concept. He thinks of it as a kind of prison. He says that whites are “trapped in history,” by which he means that they’ve created this illusion of white supremacy. They think of themselves as superior, as separate from “the negro.” And segregation was instituted to maintain that illusion.
So, why call this “innocence”? Aren’t whites willfully self-deluded? White Americans benefit from white supremacy, so it pays to not be aware, it pays to be ignorant of the long history of oppression, discrimination, and marginalization that blacks have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of whites in this country. That way we whites can fool ourselves into thinking that we are entitled to any benefits that come our way, in virtue of our “hard work” or “personal responsibility.”
It’s difficult to see how white Americans who are not actively trying to dismantle racist systems of oppression deserve any kind of love and acceptance from black Americans. A more appropriate response, it seems to me, would be anger—righteous anger! Granted, Baldwin doesn’t see love as some empty sentiment that simply lets people off the hook. On the contrary, he sees love as a transformative project, which is why he says in the letter to his nephew, “We cannot be free until they are free.” Whites must be freed from the “traps” of history, from their self-delusions of supremacy, from their self-debasing need for “the negro,” before blacks will be truly free. And this tough love is what will free whites.
When Baldwin says, “I am not your negro,” what he means is that he refuses to be the negro that the white supremacist imagines, the negro incapable of love and dignity. And with that act of defiance he throws the burden of transformation back on the white man. It is we who must have a change of heart, it is we who must look inwards to understand the source of our need to dehumanize others, it is we who must become better, who must become honest with ourselves. We must recognize that these racist institutions that uphold white supremacy actually say more about us than they do about black people.
I Am Not Your Negro seems to be aimed more at white Americans than black. Baldwin asks us to consider the fundamental question: why is it that we needed to invent “the nigger”? This is an act of love on Baldwin’s part. He is helping us to understand and come to terms with the history of racism and white supremacy in this country, and what it says about us. For that, we should be grateful. But at the same time, I can’t help from having a niggling feeling that Baldwin is letting whites off the hook a bit too easily. Why does the burden always fall to black Americans to educate white Americans about their own history?