17 America-Related Things James Baldwin Said Better Than Anybody Else.

 

American Wise Man

Here on the Fourth of July, the day this great nation celebrates its independence with fireworks, hot dogs and collective attack of amnesia over its bloody, violent and racist past, it’s good to read some of the writings of James Baldwin.

1. “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”

2.  “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

3. “I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason… Anyone who is trying to be conscious must begin to dismiss the vocabulary which we’ve used so long to cover it up, to lie about the way things are.”

4. “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”

5.  “It comes as a great shock…to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance…has not pledged allegiance to you.”

6.  “It is dangerous to be an American Negro male. America has never wanted its Negroes to be men, and does not, generally, treat them as men. It treats them as mascots, pets, or things.”

7. “It is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.”

8. “Not a thousand years ago, it was illegal to teach a slave to read. Not a thousand years ago, the Supreme Court decided that separate could not be equal. And today, as we sit here, no one is learning anything in this country. You see a nation which is the leader of the rest of the world, that had to pay the price of that ticket, and the price of that ticket is we’re sitting in the most illiterate nation in the world. THE MOST ILLITERATE NATION IN THE WORLD. A monument to illiteracy. And if you doubt me, all you have to do is spend a day in Washington. I am serious as a heart attack.”

9.  “The American revolution, the terms are these: not that I drive you out or that you drive me out, but that we come together and embrace and learn to live together. That is the only way that we can have achieved the American revolution. “

10. “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

11.  “I have met only a very few people – and most of these were not Americans – who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels.”

12.  “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be”

13. “The American ideal is, after all, that everyone should be as much alike as possible.”

14.  “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

15.  “I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. “

welcome to america

16.  “A big, sandy-haired man held his daughter on his shoulders, showing her the Statue of Liberty. I would never know what this statue meant to others, she had always been an ugly joke for me. And the American flag was flying from the top of the ship, above my head. I had seen the French flag drive the French into the most unspeakable frenzies, I had seen the flag which was nominally mine used to dignify the vilest purposes: now I would never, as long as I lived, know what other saw when they saw a flag.”

17.  “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

“What to the Prisoner Is the Fourth of July?”

Incarcerated, disenfranchised, and condemned by society.

The 4th of July is one of those holidays I never know what to do with.  Go see some fireworks?  Not a big thrill.  Catch a parade and wave the flag?  That’s not my style.  Attend a cook-out and eat some burgers and brats prepared on the grill?   That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t make me feel particularly plugged into celebrating the nation’s independence, especially when I know that precious independence quite purposefully excluded the African slaves forcefully brought to America.

For over a year I tried and failed to find a Black-oriented website interested in running a story about The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander.  Maybe it’s more my fault than the editors I submitted my pitch to.   Maybe I assumed wrong that they would be interested in the shocking and sobering facts Alexander’s excellent book  reveals such as “There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Or maybe I just made a lousy pitch to the wrong publications.  It’s possible.   It’s also possible we as a people prefer to forget about the men and women we lock away even as also forget most of them will be coming out someday.   What does a Black man who has been incarcerated, disenfranchised and deprived of any way to better  his circumstances come out to except the high probability he will end up back in prison?    Even if he spends this national holiday as man freed from a cell, is he truly a free man?

Alexander wrote a book that should stir a movement.

In any case, rather than celebrate America’s day of independence, instead take a moment to remember there are nearly 900,000  Black men behind bars (my nephew is one of them), some that deserve to be there, but many more who are casualties of this country’s racist War on Drugs and ask as Frederick Douglass did in this edited version of “What, To the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?”

It works almost the same way if you change “slave” to “prisoner.”

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. …

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? …

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Douglass would not have wasted this day watching fireworks.

It’s Your 4th of July, Not Mine.

There aren’t many memorable speeches about the 4th of July.   Frederick Douglass made one of the few.

It’s way too long for this space, but this passage is the most essential and timeless part.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Post-racial America ain’t  here yet.   Just because there’s a Black man in the White House doesn’t mean Black people aren’t still catching hell.    One man’s personal triumph isn’t shared by 35 million others.

Freedom isn’t really freedom at all when there are more Black men locked away in prison than graduating from college.   There is no justice when Oscar Grant and Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo are dead and buried and their killers walking around breathing fresh air.    There is no equality when Black unemployment stands at 16 percent (a number that probably errs on the low side).

At some point we become what we have taught to be. Inferior. Ignorant. Childish. Full of hatred both for ourselves and for others that look like us.  We grow to resent how they remind us of how degraded and failed our lives have become. Roll down the streets pass the young brothers hanging out because they have nothing better to do and the young sisters holding babies that will grow up without the love of a father and you sadly realize we have done to ourselves what was once done to us.  We have made ourselves the victims. We no longer need the White Man to oppress us. We can do that to ourselves quite nicely.

Today when you hear the firecrackers going off, are you absolutely sure it is firecrackers?   Could it be gun shots covering up the screams of another young Black life being taken?

It’s hard to wave the flag and celebrate a freedom that doesn’t really apply to you.  Just because there’s no chains around your ankle doesn’t mean you’re still not a slave.  Especially if you think and live like one.

I have no feelings of malice toward anyone that celebrates the 4th of July.   Understand please, that for me it is only the fourth day of the seventh month and there is nothing worth celebrating about it.

I don’t ever want to stop being angry about what’s wrong in the world.   I’ll stop being angry when Independence Day really applies to everyone and not just the ones who can afford to buy freedom and liberty and justice.   Until that day comes, I plan on staying angry five seconds more before I draw my last breath.

You know, it’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.

~ James Baldwin