Let Me Look in the White Mirror: A Letter to James Baldwin after Charlottesville

KAIROS & CRISIS

By CHRISTOPHER MARTIN

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. […] You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. 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.[…] You, don’t be afraid. I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man’s definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. […] You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.

—James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew

on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”

August 17, 2017

Dear Mr. Baldwin,

What separates us now is not any wider a chasm than what separates white people like me from the reality of our situation. There is, at least, an interplay between life and death. The truth is you live on. We have your words if nothing else. And your words are rooted in a Word about which white people around me often speak as though they knew God personally but in fact know little, perhaps nothing. I myself have spoken in such ways and catch myself still. The lie more or less goes that God is greatly concerned with our souls and our prosperity and other such abstractions, and that the physical world doesn’t matter much, which is to say the body doesn’t matter much. It follows, to the white, professing Christian, that other bodies matter even less.

Among all the madness and hate in Charlottesville a few days ago, groups of white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Confederates, and neo-Nazis—labels I use just as objectively as they do—chanted White lives matter!  This, of course, is not nearly the worst of all they did. Some of them attacked and severely beat a black man. One of them drove a car into a group of counter-demonstrators, murdering one person and injuring several others.

For all that—for all the violence, the sowing of discord, the torches, the hurled threats and slurs—I mention the White lives matter! chant because, so far as I know, no white person has corrected the sentiment. There has, at least, been no collective white correction. Let a black person, whether marching peaceably or simply trying to have a conversation, say that black lives matter, and you won’t have to wait long at all for the ensuing “No, all lives matter” chorus and idle talk about so-called reverse racism. Yet torch-bearing neo-Nazis intent on bloodshed say that white lives matter, and white silence follows.

We white people have not corrected this chant, no matter that it was in the mouths of neo-Nazis, because we know it is true. Nothing sounds wrong about it. On a national scale, on a global one, white lives matter. Black lives categorically do not. They should, hence the phrase Black lives matter. The white fear lies in the notion that if black lives begin to matter even a little—let’s say to the point where white police officers wouldn’t be absolved of choking a black man to death over cigarettes—white lives would begin to matter less. 300 years of white supremacy in a supposedly Christian society has imparted to white Christians the most unchristian pathology there is: that if another is dehumanized, I can still maintain my humanity, while if another’s human worth is asserted, I must give up some of mine.

Whitman writes that if you walk even a short way without sympathy, you’re walking to your own funeral, already dressed in a shroud. Rather than sympathy, I believe empathy is more to his point and a more instructive word for our time. But in any case, we white people walk in a funeral procession without knowing it. Our forebears imagined they could live despite the mass terror and murder and lynching that sparked a refugee crisis, despite the deaths of Mary Turner and George Stinney; we imagine we can live despite the deaths of Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice. Our white forebears had postcards and we have cellphone videos. It hasn’t mattered. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerener ended up shot and buried in a Mississippi earthen dam alongside their brother James Chaney. Heather Heyer was murdered in the same spirit, her sisters and brothers lying injured around her.

I do not mean to suggest any of this is an entirely Christian problem. It’s hard for me to imagine nihilists like Christopher Cantwell and the leadership of Unite the Right worshiping anything but their own images and the guns they keep tucked in their socks. But their sickness has emerged in a white, Christian context which, in its preoccupation with moralism and salvation, has failed to acknowledge white supremacy and structural racism as part of a heritage that has poisoned us all.

Many of us, it seems, are more concerned with the overdue toppling of pious Confederate statues and the removal of Confederate flags from public spaces than we are with the mobilization of violent neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates who wish to keep such images in place. Many of us are more concerned with disavowing racism as an abstraction than we are with actively being antiracist. Many of us believe all we ever had to do was say, easily enough, that racism is wrong, that we accept black people, and that by accepting you, we are free to not see you.

But this is not true freedom, and we are not free. There is a broken white mirror, pieces of which littered the floors of slave ships, the fields of plantations, the auction blocks, the ground at Fort Pillow, the dirt beneath lynching trees, the water of the Tallahatchie, a driveway in Jackson, the rubble of 16th Street Baptist Church, a road in Jasper, a couch holding a sleeping child in Detroit, a neighborhood in Sanford, a park pavilion in Cleveland, a jail cell in Waller County, the sanctuary of Mother Emanuel, a gas station parking lot in Baton Rouge, and each school or housing development or traffic stop or gerrymandered district or courtroom or government hall or White House where white supremacy has asserted itself—a mirror which we, in assuming we were not bound to you, shattered ourselves.

Now shards of the white mirror line the streets in Charlottesville, our identities among the brokenness.

You died when I had just turned five. It would be about fifteen years before I’d learn your name, twenty before I’d begin to know your work. In those early years, as I’d been taught at home, school, and church, though I knew racism was a bad thing, I believed Martin Luther King, Jr. had solved it all. There was to my mind nothing structural about it, and I was more or less free to ignore it. This view would be complicated from time to time: When I was a child, I remember seeing a Klan rally in Gwinnett County out the window as we drove by, and from my parents and teachers learned that racism, while maybe not gone altogether, was just a matter of a few bad guys with backward views using racial slurs, and all we had to do was not act like them. But other things began to suggest a deeper problem: the scarcity of black peers in my elementary schools, the different treatment of my black peers in middle and high schools, the near-segregated conditions of those schools. I now know the names of such things—white flight, the school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling—but then there was no connection. And I certainly did not know that my own identity—my own story, my own image—had a thing to do with any of it. I did not know there would be a next time, characterized by fire, and that I was in it.

Thank you for holding up a piece of that broken mirror years ago when I found your work. Thank you for forcing me, with love, to begin to see myself as I am. The reality we face is not only in Charlottesville, illuminated as it was by torchlight. It is at our feet. I will fail in putting that mirror back together, and I can’t do it all myself. But I will not flee this work.

Chris

Kairos & Crisis, a blog on race, religion, identity, and social justice in the South, is coming back. But I want it to be more than it was, which is to say my hope and intention is that it will be filled with voices other than my own, with words of those whose experience has not been mine. Be on the lookout for a call for features.

Contributing editor Christopher Martin is a writer in the northwest Georgia piedmont. His debut book, This Gladdening Light: An Ecology of Fatherhood and Faith (Mercer UP, 2017), received the Will D. Campbell Award in Creative Nonfiction.

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