Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Fire Next Time: a review

Dear Hannah,

I don't trust either the book-knowledge or the judgment of modern activists, so I'd originally intended to make Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. Dubois my introduction to black literature.  But skimming through an informal list of the Greatest Essayists of All Time and seeing James Baldwin pretty high on the chart, and also seeing him frequently and reverently quoted by Black Lives Matter, I decided to pick up The Fire Next Time and give him a go. 

His position on the chart isn't unmerited.  James Baldwin was an honest man with a great soul in a bad place in the wrong skin at the wrong time.  His suffering as a post-war black youth, a portrait of his own personal hurt and mistrust towards whites, is chronicled here vividly and honestly; and for those of us who are cynical toward the arguments and the motives of black activists in general, Baldwin may be the first man to not only make us really consider what it's like to be black in America, but to make a staunch conservative sympathize with even the worst parts of our civil rights legislation.

One thing that's sadly lacking in Mr. Baldwin's commentary on the pre-Civil-Rights black experience is the same thing that's missing in our commentary about the post-Civil-Rights black experience: an inability for many black people to see past the black experience.  It's often been said that writers should write what they know.  But what so many black activists and writers are missing is there's a world beyond what they know, and it's something you get from what's known as a liberal education.  Mr. Baldwin seems to be convinced that at some point in history, race was invented to justify oppression.  The problem is that he's under the impression it's something that was not only invented, but that it was invented relatively recently.  He writes,  

[White Christians] have forgotten that the religion which is now identified with their virtue and power[…] came out of a rocky piece of ground in what is now known as The Middle East before color was invented […].
We agree that the idea of race may be pernicious to modern men; but if it is, the idea of tribe was equally pernicious to the ancients.  Mr. Baldwin, for a man who claimed to have a serious conversion to Christianity, seems to be completely ignorant of the "interactions" between the Jews and the Moabites; between the Jews and the Canaanites; between the Jews and the Samaritans; between the Jews and practically everyone, really -- and he seems to be ignorant in a way that almost completely excuses the Jews from any accusations of racism.  He forgets that (despite Moses' commanding the Israelites to treat foreigners with humanity) the Jews were only allowed to enslave foreigners; that the Jews were only allowed to practice usury on non-Jews; that the Jews (as a race) had been supposedly enslaved by the Egyptians; and that the Apostle Paul, speaking in an age which Mr. Baldwin describes as being before the scourge of racism, says the body of Christ prefers none of the races, almost immediately before going on to describe how all the Cretans were liars.  

He also seems for forget that beyond Biblical history, the ancient Greeks referred to everyone who wasn't Greek as barbarians; that the term slave originated from the term Slav; that the Indian color-based caste system was as rigid as it is ancient; that the Spartans had formally and permanently enslaved the Helots; that the Romans and Persians and Babylonians and Greeks and the Muslims* tried to enslave practically everyone who wasn't them; and that ancient history, if not loaded with tales of outright genocide and oppression, was a time when many people were okay with sexually enslaving a neighboring territory's women only because the territory was neighboring.  The conquering of peoples in the ancient world, if not done in terms of race, isn't very different from it; and if racial slavery is an evil invented by white men after centuries of what Mr. Baldwin misperceives as something-like-equality, those centuries of something-like-equality occurred only after white people and Christians had fought bravely to end centuries of the practice of slavery.

What Mr. Baldwin also seems to forget is that white men have been very comfortable enslaving each other.  The history of Christian Europe, aside from its conflicts with the swarthy god of the Muslim south, is a history of intra-racial warfare and serfdom and conquering; and the history of England itself, which Mr. Baldwin derides because of its racial colonization, was itself once a subjected colony of the Normans, who enforced a racial/class divide not entirely unlike that experienced by blacks in America (and it's difficult to find blame in Baldwin for not knowing the history of Scotland, when so many Americans only learned about William Wallace and prima noctae** from Braveheart). 

What black activists have forgotten is that the answer to our problems isn't an elimination of the idea of race.  And the black and white supremacists, on the other hand, have forgotten how the desire for segregation goes deeper than colors.  Wherever we go, the diversity of clans and cultures, of talents and spirits, of appearances and happenstances will breed some of us who win and others who lose; and the winners will almost always separate themselves as a class while subjecting and despising the losers.  An attempt at eliminating differences between people will never eliminate dominance of people by people.  It will only shift supremacy based on natural causes, which gives some sense of legitimacy to an already horrible situation, to a supremacy based on artificial causes by quotas, which turns losers into leaders -- who will only lead us toward losing.  The question isn't whether some people are supreme in any situation.  It is how they got there and what they do with their supremacy.

Strangely enough, there are some striking resemblances of Mr. Baldwin's theories to those of Edmund Burke's, and especially insofar as both men respect not what we say about ourselves, but what we do with what we are.  Aside from the similarity between Baldwin’s It is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless and Burke’s The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, Baldwin notes in one passage, speaking of the growing popularity of the Nation of Islam, that
 In order to change a situation one has to see it for what it is[…]. The paradox – and a fearful paradox it is – is that the American Negro is unwilling to accept his past.  To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.
Both men despised the fanciful notions of quack-religionists and bad political scientists, that we can magically change who we are by inventing a new history and a new political system to live in; and if Mr. Baldwin appeared to side with the 60's progressives, his philosophy in many respects mirrored that of England's original conservative.  We only wish he'd taken his own advice.  Mr. Baldwin was naive in thinking that by eliminating race and religions and totems and creeds -- in another word, by eliminating our humanity -- we could eliminate the horrors of our history, and the distinguishing of peoples.   Jesus said the poor would always be with us.  He might have just as easily said those unfairly oppressed by their identity.  He might just as easily said the American blacks

Mr. Baldwin is even more surprising in that while he in certain aspects mirrors Burke, in others he very strangely resembles the Whig historian and master essayist Macaulay.  Macaulay's essay on Mirabeau in particular, insisted that the difference between the French and American and Glorious Revolutions was a matter not of how radically different the French and English and Americans were from one another naturally, but how badly they had been enslaved by their oppressors, and thus how little they had been able to exercise their virtues***. The Fire Next Time seems to very closely resemble Macaulay’s argument about the social effects of liberty and tyranny -- that after the Civil Rights Movement, a black neighborhood is most likely to be a bad neighborhood; like Macaulay said the French government after the Revolution was incapable of being a good government****.  Decades of bloodshed and horrors followed the destruction of the Bastille.  Could we expect anything less, or for any shorter period of time, of a people who were never allowed their own country after the destruction of Jim Crow*****?

But the most interesting thing about The Fire Next Time -- and it cannot be stressed enough that the entirety of this work is extremely interesting, if not always helpful -- is Mr. Baldwin's idea of the nature of acceptance.  Foregoing the leftist mantra, that white men must learn to accept blacks, Mr. Baldwin flips the notion on its head, insisting that it's blacks who must learn to accept whites.  A history of oppression can't easily be erased with a few laws and the singing of Kumbaya.  Whites alone don't have a monopoly on hate, and distrust.  Both races must judge individuals honestly.  Both of us have to give one another a chance -- in fact, multiple chances, as there are and will be multiple wrongdoings.  Our charity isn't just white people considering what it means to be black.  It's also black people getting outside of the black experience and considering how it feels to be white.  White men must stand against white racism -- and black men must stand against black.  Black men will have to consider the world not only in terms of the black experience, but by examining oppression and freedom and forgiveness in light of the totality of history.  They'll have to leave the black race, in a sense, and become something much bigger; as though the heritage of liberty and equality is really their history, and their struggles aren't a separate volume in the annals of human progress, but in a universal sense only the most recent chapter.  This will be the foundation for the new society -- and we will never have the new society until both sides are ready to do it.  Baldwin was wise enough to see this, and that is one of the many reasons each of us should read Baldwin.

Your father,

*Christopher Hitchens has a very interesting essay on Thomas Jefferson's encounter with Muslim pirates, explaining not only that around 1.5 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved in Islamic North Africa between 1530 and 1780, but that Thomas Jefferson, when he approached Tripoli's ambassador to London in 1785, was told "it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise."  Baldwin's ignorance concerning our state of affairs is disheartening; and at least partially the fault of white Americans, who (perhaps in their own obsession with themselves) have not only failed to recount the histories of the other races, but whose supremacy was purchased at the cost of an ignorant, and thus significantly less reasonable, black America. 

**What Mel Gibson so conveniently forgot to mention in Braveheart was that prima noctae, or a lord's "right" to deflower another man's bride on the night of her wedding, was first enforced (according to Macaulay) by Scottish nobles against Scottish peasants.   Even without the "racial" divide between English and Scots, the reigning Scots found the most offensive ways to violate their Scottish subjects -- a lesson Baldwin would have been wise to admit, if he'd only been aware of it.

***Macaulay writes in the essay on Mirabeau: It is not true that the French abandoned experience for theories. They took up with theories because they had no experience of good government. It was because they had no charter that they ranted about the original contract. As soon as tolerable institutions were given to them, they began to look to those institutions. In 1830 their rallying cry was "Vive la Charte". In 1789 they had nothing but theories round which to rally. They had seen social distinctions only in a bad form; and it was therefore natural that they should be deluded by sophisms about the equality of men. They had experienced so much evil from the sovereignty of kings that they might be excused for lending a ready ear to those who preached, in an exaggerated form, the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people.  We might just as easily say that black men, so accustomed to hearing about the inequality of whites and blacks, might easily be persuaded that all men are equal -- something easily disproved not even by a comparison between blacks and whites, but by a comparison between the best and the worst blacks. 

****This was written about two weeks before reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, which made clear that since the Civil Rights Era, a new middle-class black community has escaped the confinement of the ghetto to run their own successful neighborhoods, complete with prejudice against the lower-class blacks they left behind; and that the most shining example of such a community may be summed up right outside Washington DC, in a very clean, safe, and respectable area known as Prince George County.

*****It's worth mentioning that for all Macaulay and Baldwin wrote, their words may be summed up in a single Biblical passage: that under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up -- and the first thing it mentions is a slave who becomes king.

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