In the classic 1963 essay “A Letter to My Nephew” James Baldwin wrote of white people in the United States that “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
The events unfolding around the country in recent weeks following the brutal murder of George Floyd by police illustrate that Baldwin’s observation is just as resonant today. Baldwin reminds us in the essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown” that policemen are hated in the projects because they “reveal, unbearably, the real attitude of the white world, no matter how many liberal speeches are made, no matter how many lofty editorials are written, no matter how many civil rights commissions are set up.”
Most people in the United States, sadly, have consistently lacked the moral courage to take an honest and forthright look in the mirror and truly see the history of the nation. The stakes of understanding one’s history could not be higher because one cannot understand one’s identity (individually or collectively) without acknowledging and processing one’s history. Rather than doing the painful work of self and community reflection, the United States has built a false identity of exceptionalism and prestige based on untruth. These untruths have proliferated for so many years that many people are highly invested in them. This makes it even more difficult to examine the truth of history from a place of respect that recognizes basic human dignity. Baldwin summarized in the essay “A Talk to Teachers”, “What passes for identity in America is a series of heroic myths about one’s heroic ancestors.”
The crux of the present issue is this: the United States was founded upon a fundamental paradox. The rhetoric of this paradox makes promises about equality and natural rights; however, there was no substantive action to support the rhetoric. The rhetoric was made up. It is myth. The truth is told in the historical record. The historical record shows that the British North American colonies were founded to make profit for investors, Lord Proprietors, the elite. They were successful at doing this through cash crops, shipping, trading, and this went on from the early 1600s to the mid-1700s.
Yes, there were some Puritans as well as Quakers and French Huguenots who sought religious freedom in the colonies. But the colonies existed for one primary motive: accruing wealth. The desire for money was so powerful that it motivated people to reject the fundamental humanity of those who were slaughtered, enslaved, and oppressed. Anytime groups of people attempted to unify and challenge the wealthy ruling class, they were forcibly shut down. (See, for example, the Stono rebellion, Bacon’s rebellion, Shay’s rebellion, the Whiskey rebellion …)
No where is the basic paradox of the United States more clearly portrayed then with the writing of the Declaration of Independence. This document, penned primarily by a slave owner, purports to recognize the natural rights of all humans while simultaneously failing to acknowledge the enslavement of Africans or the mass murder of Native Americans. This is a pivotal moment and one that illuminates much about American identity. Slave holding and murder were ignored, even celebrated at times, in favor of wealth creation. This means that the society created with this document was unashamedly born in an environment dominated by violence and greed. Both the oppressed and the oppressors are inheritors of this bifurcated legacy which plays out in the news every day.
This paradox breeds injustice: racial oppression, class division, gender discrimination, you name it. Two factions are constantly at odds with one another: the the promises of equality and justice that are written down clash with the practiced precedents of enslavement, genocide, white supremacy, gender inequality. When there is little to no acknowledgement of the historical record or it is replaced by a mythology of grandiosity, it is a recipe for confusion, conflict, and lack of understanding. The only solution is acknowledgement and serious introspection. Baldwin explains, “What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I am not a nigger, I am a man, but if you think I am a nigger, it means you need it. Why? … And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”
The belief in racial superiority, and other forms of injustice, has enabled the elite power structure to remain pretty firmly in place. Historian Howard Zinn explains why racism and class division were necessary to the power structure carved out during the colonial era, the basic tenets of which remain today:
“The upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, at the expense of slaves, Indians and poor whites. This bought loyalty. And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful even than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760s and 1770s, a wonderfully useful device. That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending slavery or inequality.”
In short, racism was an invention to help the wealthy consolidate power and make more money. The rhetoric of equality was a myth invented so that those with little or no wealth would help the wealthy stay in power. There is a certain genius in this myth as testified by its fortitude. Unfortunately, it is morally bankrupt. Groups of determined individuals have, for centuries, been trying to push the United States to live up to the ideals expressed in its founding documents. These are the abolitionists, the freedom fighters, the teachers, writers, activists, artists, who have endeavored to spread the light of justice. These are the Black Lives Matter advocates. These are the marchers who protest across the country this week, this very day.
These people believe that the Fourteenth Amendment can more than a “sleeping giant” as activist Paul Robeson once labeled it. These are the people who have looked at the history of the United States and believe that we can do better. These are the people who, like Zinn, understand that when one acknowledges history and sees that injustice has been long standing, also see that it is not ineradicable. Because all of these systems of injustice have been built by humans. “This does not mean that they are easily disentangled, [or] dismantled,” Zinn explains, But “It means only that there is a possibility for something else, under historical conditions not yet realized.” Zinn suggested that “the elimination of that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status” could help create the “unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.”
Does the United States have the moral courage to look truthfully at its history and begin to disentangle it, maybe even create something new? Can we create historical conditions that have not yet been realized? I don’t know. James Baldwin once said, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.” Choosing to stand against racism, and all injustice, is a lifetime commitment that plays out every day. It is that kind of commitment motivated by historical introspection, taken on by individuals, that can pave a new path for this country. Until more people make that commitment, cyclical conflict will continue.
A strong first step is to read:
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Martin Luther King, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam”
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Paul Robeson, Here I Stand
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract
C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass