As a black girl growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1960’s, I was mesmerized whenever I saw James Baldwin on television, a dark skinned “Negro” man with piercing, animated eyes, exuding the confidence and intellect equal to any white person I had ever seen and heard before. Without hatred, he spoke directly into the authoritarian faces of white men challenging America’s persecution of black folk and people of color and questioning America’s humanity when she engaged in racism and brutality.
I learned that James Baldwin refused to hate; however, he was intolerant of hate of any kind toward anyone. Rather, he preached a truth that we all need to run toward just about now.
To Baldwin, writing was more important than anything, so much so he left America in 1948 because he could not write in America. In an interview, he told Henry Louis Gates, Jr. why he left the United States. “It was November 1948, Armistice Day, as a matter of fact. I left because I was a writer. I had discovered writing and I had a family to save. I had only one weapon to save them, my writing. And I couldn’t write in the United States.”
James knew that writing gave him a voice and power. In Milwaukee, people in power wanted black voices shut down. We were greatly outnumbered by the “silent majority” and they were doing their best to keep us segregated in schools and neighborhoods, economically impaired and politically emasculated. There was so much oppression that I was convinced that I would never see a black man—no less a woman—as President of the United states. I didn’t even dream of that possibility. However, when I witnessed James Baldwin speaking out with tenacious power, I knew I had to become a writer.
So, what might James Baldwin say about our country of 2017?
He might say that if we continue to look the other way, this country will become entrapped in a momentum of destruction, racial intolerance and hatred that we won’t be able to stop. That the moment is now to oppose the growing, insidious will to undo civil liberties, suppress freedom of speech and withhold justice for all. That we have no other choice than to embrace our humanity while we still have it and fearlessly fight back.
James Baldwin might say, “I am my brother’s keeper and if I am destroyed, my brother is too.” Read The Fire Next Time and study what Baldwin wrote about race relations in the 1960’s—almost sixty years ago. Some things have changed and much remains the same.
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We, all of us, white, black, brown, yellow, red, the glorious rainbow of mankind, must refuse to go back to hatred and bigotry. Some might argue that we have already gone back beyond redemption. But I do not believe that. We have been misled and are lost, but together we can find our way. We have come too far to turn back now for we surely know that our only other recourse will be the fire next time.
Diane Richards is executive director of the Harlem Writers Guild. And author and playwright, in her own right, she’s the author of Mama’s Boy and Sowa’s Red Gravy Stories: For Broken Hearted Gals, set for stage as Sowa’s Red Gravy in 2012. The Broadway play, directed by Woody King, Jr. and starring Tony Awards nominated, Lonette McKee, received rave reviews from The New York Times.
Drawing Illustrated by Danny Tisdale tisdalestudio.wordpress.com