In 1970, Angela Y Davis was arrested and charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder. Davis’ gun was used in a violent hold-up of a California courtroom. She was subsequently acquitted of all charges.
On November 19,1970, James Baldwin wrote an open letter to Angela Davis. (Read the entire letter here , source: The New York Review of Books). Baldwin begins:
One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on Black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses. And so, Newsweek, civilized defender of the indefensible, attempts to drown you in a sea of crocodile tears (“it remained to be seen what sort of personal liberation she had achieved”) and puts you on its cover, chained.
You look exceedingly alone,…
On race and America, he says:
The will of the people, in America, has always been at the mercy of an ignorance not merely phenomenal, but sacred, and sacredly cultivated: the better to be used by a carnivorous economy which democratically slaughters and victimizes whites and Blacks alike. But most white Americans do not dare admit this (though they suspect it) and this fact contains mortal danger for the Blacks and tragedy for the nation.
Or, to put it another way, as long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish (as we once put it in our black church) in their sins —that is, in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us.
So be it. We cannot awaken this sleeper, and God knows we have tried. We must do what we can do, and fortify and save each other—we are not drowning in an apathetic self-contempt, we do feel ourselves sufficiently worthwhile to contend even with the inexorable forces in order to change our fate and the fate of our children and the condition of the world! We know that a man is not a thing and is not to be placed at the mercy of things. We know that air and water belong to all mankind and not merely to industrialists. We know that a baby does not come into the world merely to be the instrument of someone else’s profit. We know that a democracy does not mean the coercion of all into a deadly—and, finally, wicked— mediocrity but the liberty for all to aspire to the best that is in him, or that has ever been.
We know that we, the Blacks, and not only we, the blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it—if, indeed, it ever could have. And we know that, for the perpetuation of this system, we have all been mercilessly brutalized, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about ourselves and our kinsmen and our past, and about love, life, and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell.
And he ends with:
If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.
Thanks for the extract! I read The Fire Next Time while I was living in America and was blown away by it. It was interesting reading this now that I’ve been out of America for a few years, and realising that what he has to say is so relevant to the rest of the world as well. The part about a baby not being merely the instrument of someone else’s profit, and democracy being not the coercion into deadly mediocrity but the liberty to aspire to the best in each person, is just beautiful and really resonated with me. It saddens me, though, that what James Baldwin could see 40 years ago is still obscure to so many people – and that those of us who do share his vision don’t always act on our beliefs.
You are welcome, Andrew. Today I’ve been thinking that what he says about the silence of white Americans and their willingness to let a race war happen when in fact all races are in peril applies to the commentaries about the London Riots as well. It is a class issue and we all have to see that. Thanks for the comment.
Absolutely, Kinna – in fact, I had the London riots in mind when I was reading this extract and I think that’s why I found it so relevant. The sad thing is that many of the people who are closing their eyes to the problems actually have more in common with the rioters than they realise. Those with power often orchestrate conflict among the rest of us, to keep us from seeing who the real enemy is. James Baldwin is good at reminding us of the bigger picture, and pointing the finger at a system that dehumanises all of us in different ways.
Interesting post Kinna. The little I know about Baldwin, he is one author worth reading. Have you read his ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain?’ I have that in my shelves and have been thinking of picking it up more recently. Do you think it’s a good one to start with?
Definitely, Baldwin is a must read. Either The Fire Next Time or Go Tell it on the Mountain are good places to start. Also, his Paris Review interview is available on their site.
Thanks for sharing this, Kinna. Baldwin is always so searing and powerful, so truthful. I was reading The Fire Next Time recently, and I just realized that the first part of the book is a letter to Baldwin’s nephew. That form-a letter to one person-makes his writing so personal, even as it is universal. I agree with Amie-I need to read more James Baldwin!
I love fiction written as a letter to one person. I agree with you; it can be most gut-wrenching and yet so beautiful. Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis comes immediately to mind. Now my own post and these comments had me yearning o revisit his books.
Kinna, thank you so much for pointing me to the letter and for sharing excerpts with us here. I’ve learned three things in the past few minutes:
1. I need to read more James Baldwin.
2. I need to read more Angela Y Davis.
3. I highly recommend that you read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
Thanks for the recommendation. Baldwin is so perceptive and courageous. He led quite the life. Angela Davis spent some time in prison awaiting her trial and I think it was this stay that turned her into an advocate for prison reform. Both are great, anyway. Baldwin died young at 63. He would have been 87 on August 2.
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