“Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.
But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West
has not been able to make it yet. And at the center of this dreadful
storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation,
who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted
them, to which they were brought in chains.” — James Baldwin, 19621
“[B]ut the truth is that no white American is sure he’s white.” — James Baldwin, 19692
“Still a target
But the badge is the new noose.
We all see it,
But cellphones ain’t enough proof
So we still loose.” — Pusha T, Sunshine, feat. Jill Scott, 2015
The phenomenon of general isolation imposed on world populations as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has come with mixed feelings of despair, anxiety, and hope as we witness the myth of the centrality of human beings to this planet exposed by an undead organism indifferent to its host’s age, sexual orientation, class, and/or race. As we entertain ourselves with one virtual challenge after another, we have also, in the same vein, been compelled by grueling footages of unarmed black people being killed by police officers or fellow (white) countrymen in the United States. The most recent one which has ignited global outrage is the murder of George Floyd which occurred in broad daylight by an indignant group of police officers in Minneapolis, while bystanders who could do nothing but capture the incident on video looked on helplessly. And this comes at a time when the state of Minnesota is hitting its peak in COVID-19 cases as healthcare workers, lacking sufficient personal protective equipment, are getting infected with the virus.
Systemic inequality is in the spotlight once again as minority groups in the U.S endure the double-edge of trauma (from COVID-19-related deaths) and unmitigated terror from police brutality. As infuriating and demoralizing as this is, these moving images of modern-day lynchings have become all too familiar in the age of social media. And laughable as it may seem to any creature of mild intelligence from another planet, we human beings (the ones some swear are the protectors of this planet) discriminate against, disempower, and often genocidally annihilate each other based on such arbitrary categories as the colour of one’s skin.
James Baldwin’s prophetic voice rings timelessly true for our epoch even as he poignantly diagnosed the despotism of racial inequality some decades ago. The latter offers the circular or self-referential logic that there is nothing beyond the stultifying horizons by which our imaginations have been crippled, thereby diminishing the revolutionary potential of love. For Baldwin, love is not merely the convenient reciprocation of what one receives from someone they already agree with or bond with; it is a secular ethic which is joyful, courageous, sensual, tragic, traumatic, and ultimately functions as the cure against seductions of inequality (this is precisely the temperature of freedom, as Baldwin sees it, experienced in some gospel songs, jazz and blues music, for example). Baldwin left the church because he could not find this secular thrust of the Christian ethic in full espousal. “When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. […] But what was the purpose of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me?” Toni Morrison puts it in another way: “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”
This fountain of renewal is what constitutes Baldwinian fidelity and the hope of transformation; that is to say where true freedom exists and runs contrary to uniformity and solidarizes for a common cause. Understanding the stupidity and depravity of racial segregation— which essentially posits the self-contradictory ideology of an impure purist system of privilege and disempowerment supremely hinged on the arbitrary category of the pigmentation of one’s skin— Baldwin’s infinite wisdom and timeless lessons abide. Baldwin deployed the secular thrust of love against indignations of racism. Racism is essentially a form of cultural difference based on which human beings hierarchically distribute power— a cowardly and “criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever”. But since existing in this kind of world necessitates differences— ethnic, personal, and so on— one can say that difference in itself is not the problem but the structure of power which any society uses to regulate it. In this sense there can be egalitarian difference, as there can be its opposite. The proliferation of different differences— sexuality, age, race, gender, religion, etc.— renders love all the more meaningful. It means that progress, if there is such a thing, must be achieved through tensions and not necessarily through homogeneity.
Whiteness, like any other inegalitarian worldview, is the practice of taking refuge in a delusion. It joylessly fantasizes about itself as the fixed, provincial, ubiquitous center; it dreams about consensus and practicalizes conformity. Whiteness cannot address itself to the everybody Baldwin speaks of in any meaningful way since it necessarily targets and concentrates within the minority for whom its power exclusively proliferates. The pathology that sustains the constitution of white subjectivity perversely augments the paradoxical situation of a desire for a total annihilation of all other races outside of its spectrum (blackness in this case) with the secret knowledge that if it achieved this it would also cease to exist, and so it falls on the cruel imperative of subjugation. In other words, it cannot kill them all because in their absence whiteness cannot justify its existence. The relationship is only one of vertical distance, of mutual exclusivity. And this is what corrupts its host(s), for no person nor group of people on this planet can survive on this bigoted principle without going mad. (And is this not the hysteria that drove an unprovoked Amy Cooper, a white American woman, to make a distress call for the police after threatening Christian Cooper, a black American man— her fellow “brother” or countryman— that she is “going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening [her] life”?)
If we undermine the mutual exclusivity in the above scenario with “communion”, which establishes relations based on what Baldwin calls “brotherhood” or what a contemporary thinker has referred to as “filial kinship” to create egalitarian distance— the “vanishing mediator” that restores equality in times of crisis— it gives us a different picture. Because “[w]hat the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil is not a racial war but a civil war.“3 And “[w]hat is really happening [in the US] is that brother has murdered brother knowing it was his brother. White men have lynched Negroes knowing them to be their sons. White women have had Negroes burned knowing them to be their lovers. It is not a racial problem. It’s a problem [of] whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it and then begin to change it”.
Baldwin’s indifference to the stultifying fictions of race is telling. He gives us this entanglement between personal responsibility and the universal call. That in order to fight this cancer of inequality “we have to discover how to reunite ourselves [on] the terms on which we can speak to each other”. But, these “terms” cannot be based on existing identitarian fables, and so he cautions that “lest anyone misunderstand me, I’m not really talking about colour, I’m not talking about race, I don’t really believe in race. I don’t really believe in colour”. What he believes in is the disposition which respects the differences we all bring to the proverbial table but which is willing to transcend them in the practice of emancipatory politics; as in the rallying universal call to action, establishing solidarity, and transcending differences as the way forward. The forcefulness of Baldwin’s secular call to love (addressing the everybody) in the face of brutal oppression which weaponizes fear is amplified in his statement that “[w]hite people in this country [the US] will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed”.
Therefore one has got to decide for oneself, and if we are to listen to Baldwin’s call to subjectivation, that the actual and moral basis on which our world now rests is obsolete and must be changed. “As far as they are obsolete they are wicked, [and] as far as they are obsolete they are oppressive”. And “if this is so, one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate, and at no matter what risk—eviction, imprisonment, torture, death. For the sake of one’s children, in order to minimize the bill that they must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusion— and the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.”
What is at stake in this “dreadful storm” is Equality. Equality must be democratic, hence its secularity; it exists for all, and not merely for some. And the subject at its center, in this case black people, exists as a ‘vanishing mediator’ acting on behalf of themselves on the one hand, and for all of humanity on the other hand (the everybody). And since all oppressive regimes thrive on center-periphery politics (where one achieves inclusion only on condition of conformance to what the minority in power determine), all egalitarian counterpositions must expand to preserve the ‘generic multiplicity’ (where one is already part of the social system and can assert independence based on the axiom that ‘we are all equal’). Equality, then, is not a crutch, it is already there and has always existed prior to human experience. We do not need to look hard to find it, it is universally available for all who seek, for what we have known for millennia untold is its opposite— liberties contrived by imperialism.
COVID-19 has come with the tormented lesson that the sustenance of humankind is not an isolated question from the health of other life forms, living and non-living, on the planet. The worst thing is to return to normalcy (and here we thought consuming and being numbed to lynchings on social media is a thing of the old world). If we are to overcome this ideological virus, we all need the “spine” or courage to stand up against injustice. It is not only a matter of black people in the U.S protesting these senseless and avoidable killings in the streets but also that given the contingency of history and power, it could be any of us in that condition and so rising up for a fellow human in the name of justice is rising up for oneself, plain and simple. It demands the responsibility of arousing our conscience to be sensitive to one another’s plights and never allowing ourselves to be numbed by the inaction of others.
We have already witnessed glimpses of this form of solidarity across economic and cultural lines in our century (the so-called Global Protest Wave of 2019 is a clear example). It has to be insisted on and amplified irrespective of separations in time (histories) and geography. This might seem like an impossibility given the warped and totalistic realities framed for us by empire and capital, but Baldwin reminds us that “in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.” To speak of impossibility in this sense is only to say that something else is possible outside of what pertains in the status quo; to exult in the redemptive force of justice and true democracy while wresting ourselves from the vindictive passion of unforgiveness.
We all carry the artistic duty of creating new possibilities as much for ourselves as for past and future generations to come. Secular love alloys all these potentialities. This is the impossibility that is already present which must be restored.
— IUB (2020)
Author’s note: All quotations, unless otherwise stated, are attributed to James Baldwin and have been montaged from three sources: 1. Baldwin’s 1962 book-length essay first published by the New Yorker as “Letter from a Region in my Mind” and later published as “The Fire Next Time” (1963), 2. Horace Ové’s 1969 black-and-white cinéma vérité documentary film of Baldwin’s lecture at the West Indian Student Centre in London titled “Baldwin’s Nigger”, and 3. Baldwin’s open letter to Angela Davis written in 1970. See endnotes for citations.
1 James Baldwin. Letter from a Region in my Mind. 1962. New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind [accessed on May 28th, 2020].
2 See Baldwin’s Nigger. 1969. A documentary film of James Baldwin and Dick Gregory at the West Indian Student Centre in London. Directed and produced by Horace Ové. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zkWshZRm-M [accessed on 28th May, 2020].
3. See James Baldwin. An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis. 1970. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/01/07/an-open-letter-to-my-sister-miss-angela-davis/ [accessed on 29th May, 2020].