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James Baldwin On Humanity

Addressing his nephew, James Baldwin On Humanity compares the conditions psychologically separating generations–the life his father lived and the life of his nephew. However, while alot has change in the 50 years separating grandfather and grandson we are still in danger of the world defining our image of ourselves. Baldwin aims at instructing his nephew to have a vision for his life, and trust that vision with the strength of the ancestors. For, we have not suffered all these years to wait for our glory in the afterlife. Baldwin demands we create our own definitions and fight for our life saying:

You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.

James Baldwin On Humanity
James Baldwin On Humanity

To love anyone is to watch them change, and watching someone become different people, but intimately the same, changes our outlook on time. For people are living all around us, and will forever live. Photos are useless in the recollection of memories, street names, donut shops, apartment buildings, and textures of carpet are far more reliable triggers. Baldwin speaks of an intimate recognition of another’s pain, for the people that have watched us become recognize us behind our masks, fronts, and forgetfulness. It’s important to have people that know us through many phases, for when the world has failed us we need to find our center. We need to find our balance and the people that love us can assist us. Baldwin discusses the pain hidden behind the world’s many smiling faces saying:

I have known both of you all your lives, have carried your Daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you’ve known anybody from that far back; if you’ve loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man, you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort. Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face, for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those other faces which were his.

James Baldwin On Humanity
James Baldwin On Humanity

At certain points in our lives we forget the world is forever changing. While one day we may have fought against tiredness to pursue a dream. The next we are living within everything we’ve wished. Our suffering makes us unconcerned with the lives of other people. For we relish in other people’s suffering because our suffering seems eternal. The drug addict, the homeless man, the woman at work with no faith forget life’s spontaneity. We all forget the world is moveable.

Everyone deserves to be love, recognized, and value simply for being alive. We–the artists and lovers of humanity–must touch the central and intimate places within out personal life. Living through this state of being. We become living testimonies to the unpredictability of life. And everyone that continues to feel lonelier as our technological colonization fills the world, finds a light to follow. We are nothing without love, empty with faith, and despairing without believing the world can utterly change before our eyes. Baldwin offers us instruction on finding meaning in a world that condemned us at birth saying:

One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) Well, you were born, here you came, something like fifteen years ago; and though your father and mother and grandmother, looking about the streets through which they were carrying you, staring at the walls into which they brought you, had every reason to be heavyhearted, yet they were not.

Remember that: I know how black it looks today, for you. It looked bad that day, too, yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived. And now you must survive because we love you, and for the sake of your children and your children’s children.

James Baldwin On Humanity
James Baldwin On Humanity

How is a child to prevent despair with so much blood on their countries hands? That child must find a meaning to his existence. We must learn to move from the spirit. And that child must learn to refuse despair. The children must be taught the beauty of the inner life. The wisdom found in creating a quiet attentive inner ear. This child cannot move around the world with a misunderstood and violent anger. For he will harm the people that love him the most. The skill required to teach these children can only come from people walking the devoted path of embracing hope. Baldwin talks to his nephew about the denial of our cultural experience. And the necessity to not be limited by the world around you saying:

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.

You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been 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. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine—but trust your experience.

James Baldwin On Humanity
James Baldwin On Humanity

Echoing the key to self knowledge and spiritual enlightenment Baldwin says:

Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.

We are all interconnected, for we will see that every action we choose affects the world. Which means the world is in a constant push and pull against the choices of every individual. In a world that assumes subjugation, annihilation, and exploitation of other people protects them. The artist reminds them this only brings ourselves closer to destruction. We must make a choice on which is more valuable: human lives or possessions. We must act, spiritually and physically, in alignment with the needs of our unpredictable world. In order to create a space of transformation. Baldwin speaks on the fear of uprooting the assumptions and justifications of oppression and supremacy saying:

To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

James Baldwin On Humanity
James Baldwin On Humanity

What made Baldwin’s essays effective is that they were testimonial. Giving testimonial evidence about how racism in America has operated in real people’s lives is an effective strategy for connecting with an audience that is otherwise clueless. The book met both the needs of the Civil Rights Movement for publicity, but also an unspoken need of white audiences who did not understand the movement or the lives of the people involved. Although many of the ideas that Baldwin writes about in his essays were not new to black intellectualism, the way they were presented to their audience was. Baldwin’s writings profoundly “provoked and challenged the dominant white American frame for understanding race relations” during the time that they were first published. Continue reading Yuval Noah Harari On Meaning.

God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, the fire next time

James Baldwin On Humanity

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