Anger has its uses. It can be a spur to confronting injustice or a vent for righteous frustration. Anger is like lust: it’s an honest emotion. There’s no time to overthink the impulse. The best you can do is control it and try to deny how insanely good it feels to let it off the leash. But for the most part anger sucks. In my experience it is a spur to self-indulgence and a vent for self-loathing. I felt a lot of anger reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. What kind of monster doesn’t feel anger at lines like these:
I was thirteen and crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.
My anger isn’t focused on Baldwin’s experiences from the 1930s. It feeds on the knowledge of what hasn’t changed, on how black parents still need to warn their children about the dangers of police officers, and on how my contribution to confronting this injustice consists of voting for people who will try to do something and in scribbling these pathetic words. Reading Baldwin’s more considered words help steer me from anger toward something more useful and long-lasting.
I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know – we see it around us every day – the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff – and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.
I sometimes wonder why every black man who sees me doesn’t walk up and punch me in the face. I wonder why a woman I pass on the sidewalk offers me a sweet smile instead of running in fear from a potential sexual predator. That absence of punching and running gives me one of the only know cures for anger: hope. It also offers a chance to learn and to realize that my knowledge is different from others. Mine keeps me from believing that my position in society was achieved by my own merits. Maybe theirs keeps them from believing I am their enemy.
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyway, mothers – know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred.
A large and fascinating section of The Fire Next Time concerns a dinner party that Baldwin attends at the invitation of Elijah Muhammad, founder of The Nation of Islam. Muhammad witnessed three lynchings before turning 20. That’s the kind of thing that can make you believe white people are devils.
Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginning – and neither can this be overstated – a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not realize what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him – for that is what it is – is utterly gratuitous, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils.
I told Elijah that I did not care if white and black peo
ple married, and that I had many white friends. I would have no choice, if it came to it, but to perish with them, for (I said to myself, but not to Elijah), “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?”
I knew two or three people, white, whom I would trust with my life, and I knew a few others, white, who were struggling as hard as they knew how, and with great effort and sweat and risk, to make the world more human. But how could I say this? One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief. All my evidence would be thrown out of court as irrelevant to the main body of the case, for I could cite only exceptions.
I don’t know if other white Americans share my experience that something changed with the election of Barack Obama. In ordinary interactions with strangers who are black – passing on the sidewalk, holding a door, asking directions – I felt a more relaxed communication, more like what I would experience with strangers who are white. I can only hope that the tragedy of Trump’s election hasn’t caused too much harm to our common humanity until we can again find a president who represents the better angels of our nature.
Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and we know we cannot live within.
In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.
Like all of Baldwin’s writing The Fire Next Time transcends the beauty and genius of his words, to share his unique insight into our common hopes, fears, and mortal lives.
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earnone’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.