Friday, December 23, 2005

James Baldwin's Dungeon 

As I was waiting to see the chiropractor yesterday I opened the copy of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time I had brought and read his essay My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation. An amazingly gifted man with words, James Baldwin was able to convey both deep meaning and deeper emotion in barely seven pages, leaving me with several clear thoughts.

First, I was struck and humbled by the love that so filled this man. Born into a world of open racism, legalized segregation and discrimination and Jim Crow, a world where, in his words, he "faced the future [he] faced because [he was] black and for no other reason," he was, however, able to look at this world with none of the bitterness one might expect. He sees his country and fellow Americans as equal innocents in that world, advising his nephew of the need to accept with love the very same who may hold him as an inferior, recognizing them as "innocent people hav[ing] no other hope … still trapped in a history which they do not understand." Such grace is a rare trait in such a world as this.

The second most glaring thought was how much I see almost the exact same feelings and ideas still expressed by many even today, more than forty years after. As I touched on above, I look at the America about which James wrote these words and look at the America I know today and wonder that some seem to see no difference. James Baldwin's America, the country he still loved, was America before the Civil Rights Act, America before the Voting Rights Act, America before real integration. How can the America he wrote of, that "told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry," possibly be seen as the same America today? Despite the very real and legal barriers that existed in his day, James still saw that, like his nephew and himself, it was possible to defeat these intentions, how, then, does one today look at an America devoid of the legal limitations visited upon James and his contemporaries and yet perceive the exact same deprivations by living in a "white man's world?"

All is not rosy, the capricious demon of racism has not been completely vanquished, but I say America today, if it is a "white man's world" is one more from a demographic basis than a legal one. Singapore can be said to be a "Chinese man's world" based upon the 70%+ presence of that ethnic component in the population without implying a negative or subservient position to the 14% Malay or 8% Indian population. "Oh," but some will cry, "the history of slavery and racism in America makes it completely different." Granted the dynamic is different, but the historic manifestation of that dynamic is no more deterministic of today's condition than the sins of the father are of the son. Yes, the history of slavery and racism in America are always a specter that speaks to the White/Black status in this country, just as the son of a petty criminal in a bad neighborhood must face the personal demons and temptations to follow the easy path his father's footsteps have made. How many generations removed, however, does it take until that previously well-traveled route becomes overgrown and no longer recognized as the natural path? It may always be visible, but as its use declines it no longer serves as the reason and motive it once did.

I look instead to the final thought I had. James repeatedly emphasizes both the ghetto into which he and his nephew were born and the unspoken intention of the "white man's world" that there they should live and die. That "the limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. … You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity." In this light it is clear to me that many of the same dynamics and motivations that disaffected James Baldwin are still present in much of the Black community today. A sense of hopelessness, a sense of inadequacy, a sense of low achievement. Whereas his America codified this in clear legal and societal terms some today see the same effect created by "institutional racism." Unfortunately, though, it seems they are not looking at the right institutions. When I read his words, though, I immediately thought of the low expectations and hopelessness that has been institutionalized and perpetuated by the welfare state and today’s Democrat driven "Civil Rights" industry. America freed the slaves from the plantations only to force them into segregated shantytowns. With the promise of real freedom in the '60s, though, we once again moved them, this time to government-funded plantations, all in the name of helping those who weren’t capable of helping themselves.

The rub, though, is that just like anybody else, blacks are just as capable of helping themselves as anyone. Just as James Baldwin and his nephew and countless others struggled against insurmountable odds to rise up in their time, so, too, do even more people persevere today against the historic and cultural limitations placed upon them by not only society but also by themselves. That America is a "white man's world" is likely to continue to be a truism for some time to come, but that does not necessarily entail that it is endemically hostile to the black man as it once most decidedly was. With a resolute refusal to be confined by either the patterns of the past or the prison on low expectations, perhaps, as James said, we can continue together to "make America what America must become" and find, one day, that "The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off."

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