Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘James Baldwin

Tidbits #50

A “Blob”, a marine heatwave, stretching from Alaska to California has invaded the fjords of British Columbia, which is heating up the glacier-fed waters at a rapid clip.

There is really no skill called reading. Reading is the meta-skill that results when you allow other skills together. You need to know the alphabet, how letter form words, how words have meaning, how words together have meaning, and so on. So often we focus on the meta-skill and not the sub-skills.

Women and “people of color” continue to earn lower wages than white men because employers require job applicants to reveal their previous salary in order to set their new one. This strips workers of bargaining power, and can lock in lower compensation.

I enjoy reading. Thus, I read slowly. I enjoy walking early morning. Thus I walk slowly.

I am in love with my confinement: Everyone is sharing in my confinement

“Allons mon petit. Fait tes prières.. Et l’enfant dit “Maman, je t’aime”. c’était suffisant et de beaucoup.

All the economic/financial pressures of Trump (Evangelical extremists) on Lebanon to trade with our existential enemy Israel No Passaran

“All that can save you now (US institutions) is your confrontation with your own history… which is not your past, but your present,” said author James Baldwin in 1968.

Since time immemorial, empires of occupation and annexation had to create forms of racism and discrimination. Black Color was reserved for the Evil of the darker skin people

L’égalité” dans tous les pays (regardless of political systems) est réservé’ pour la grande masse dans la misère et le malheur

If we fails to construct a system of illusions, how could we resume the living at an advanced age?

Bless the youth who pulled off his decision to commit suicide: His high intelligence instinct proved to him the worthiness of his living.

Les Français hautement qualifiés et éduqués furent fauchés en première lignes pour satisfaire “L’égalité du feu“, chair á canon égalitaire. durant les premières années de WWI. Les ignorants furent charge’ de gouverner le Liban et la Syrie durant le mandat.

Israel was already in the planning 50 years before Balfour declaration in 1917. The extremist “Zionist” evangelical sect in USA demanded that the Jews return to Jerusalem in order for the Second Coming to materialize. This idea suited the colonial powers of France and England intent on dividing the Syrian Nation and disturbing the daily trade and communication among the same people in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Israel is a colonial implant, our existential enemy.

L ‘ heroisme s’entend de diverses facons selon les periods. C’ est le sacrifice même du dévouement qui est une réalité’. L’ objet pour lequel on se devout est généralement une illusion.

Allons les Libanais, allons d’echec en echec jusqu’à la victoire.

Alex Marshall is the author of Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems, a fascinating book about the politics of national anthems. He spoke with the Atlantic about traveling the world to discover the history of these songs, and why he hates “God Save the Queen.”

La joie de vivre est liée a un sentiment d’avoir réussi. Si on pouvait abaisser la barre de ce qu’on considère “Avoir Réussi”. I think Covid-19 gave humanity a chance to lower the level of what they consider “Having been successful” in order to discover happiness in life.

Après avoir accepté la lâcheté, la servitude, la bombe a hydrogen, les genocide… on comprend mal de quel droit on ferait les dégoûtés et les difficiles

Decision by design? Kind there exist a handful of skills that are learned but rarely taught in order to make effective decisions? Decision by design that can accelerate your progress and save you from costly trial and error? Why do you think you can learn without practice? Kind of effectively doing the wrong decision?

Tidbits # 48

It was Not planned during this confinement, but I observed that my day work is split in 3 proportional categories of tasks. 1/3 for physical activities (1 hr for early walk, 1 30 min for gardening and physical exercises). 1/3 for reading, writing, publishing on my blog and following on news. 1/3 for home maintenance (laundering, washing dishes, mopping, cooking…). I take 2 short invigorating siesta of less than an hour to focus on breathing and plan the next set of tasks.

Purify your heart and mind, and pray anywhere you want, and any which way you want

Men authors are at disadvantages in describing their childhood: They failed to observe, to comprehend and quickly forgot whatever feeling and minor events might have affected them

No need for personality cult. If your “hero” figured something out, learn what he learned and don’t emulate him in everything else.

Most of Jesus’ disciples and early Christians were dead serious that they would rise on the third day. Especially the martyrs. No need to wonder how initially Christianity made any headway.

My heroes are Malcolm X and James Baldwin: Religion is Never a basis to define and demand human rights.

Malcolm X transformed many times his political model, as cruelty, violence and injustices could no longer fit within his current understanding and model of resistance.

The Modern States that learned to listen to the demands and request of its people and reacts promptly in reconsidering its laws are the most advanced, regardless of their size in land and population and are the most respectful of the UN resolutions regarding human rights. They have confidence that their educated and cultured citizens are more attuned to the world calamities than their functional institutions.

Mener une vie cachée’ n’est pas une vie décente: sans engagement face a l’injustice, rien n’est decent.

Slavery is very ancient, before even religions took hold on society.  The cruel and brutal behavior of “owners” of slaves reached a high level of discrimination as religious sects guessed correctly that it satisfies the interest of the power-to-be classes and directly their own interests.

They give you life. And they give you death. And they tell you take care of your Destiny in between. But we all know what is destined to the living species.

Age should Not entitle you to play the wise-man: Young people are Not hearing your counsel or advice or wise-cracking humors. Learn to loosen up and say “reflected humor” that are within the humanist values: Your humor should Not match the humors of the younger ones’: that’s the best message you can share with the next generations.

The Ivy League school Harvard College dropped standardized test requirements is changing its admissions requirements as it figures out how to attract the best applicants in a pandemic, and also after years of complaints that SATs penalize low-income students.

Keep digging archaeological sites: It is important to remember, every now and then, that powerful empires and great civilizations were forgotten. That all empires will eventually decline into oblivion.

Demand for private flights from Hong Kong to Australia and North America jumped 214% in January,  just as the pandemic was spreading beyond China. (In all pandemics, the elite class is never hurt, and their comfort Not altered)

Notes and tidbits on FB and Twitter. Part 70

Les coloniaux blancs ont progresses sur le pillage et la violence systematiques
Le martyr ne meurt pas pour qu’on se rappelled de lui un jour de paroisse. Il faisait son devoir, conscient de ces limitations et la grandeur de son âme.
Le dialogue de la culture de la courtoisie et de l’échange:  le racist ne peut créer et ne peut s’exprimer librement
Les travailleurs de l’industrie devient une industrie qui tournera á la bureaucratie. Il adviendra que l’Etat réglera tout
“Je me suis demandé qui remplirait le vide intellectual après la mort de James Baldwin…” Toni Morrison
“Je voudrais mon fils que tu sois un citoyen de ce monde beau et terrible. Un citoyen conscient que la destruction du corps noir (USA) est une tradition- un heritage” Ta-Nehisi Coates
Dans l’esprit de la majorité, reconnaitre l’apport des Noirs et des minorites  á la construction de la nation Francaise serait amoindrire la grandeur d’une nation qui pense se suffire á elle-même.
“Les racines du ciel” by Romain Gary. Tout a été dit et redit, il y a plus de 50 ans . Sur la conservation de la nature et la faune
L’opinion publique est un juge absolu: tous les pouvoirs lui sont subordonnés. Sauf quand l’executive décide d’aller en guerre
La déportation des Amerindiens, le Passage du milieu, la Piste des Larmes…sont pour les American Blancs de simple catastrophes naturelles qu’il falait remédier. Une entreprise criminelle de domination et d’expansion.
Every people need to enjoy the opportunity of acquiring the conscience that life is to be cherished. Most basic right, even to animals.
N’ importe quel gars qui a connu la faim, la peur, le travail force’, commence á comprendre que la protection de la nature le vise directement
La condition humaine en ce moment peut déja observer que tous les peuples sont des salots
 
Lorsequ’on dit que “tous les peuples des nations que nous n’aimons pas se sont pas tous “comme ca”, on ne trouve que des individus d’exception et si rares, des Schweitzer, Bach, Einstein…
Putin confided that the military secrets transmitted to the Soviet Union were done by the experts who believed that peace cannot be obtained but in equilibrium of forces in weapons of mass destruction
Les Européens apportent tous leurs manger (Idées préconsues) quand ils débarquent en Afrique
Les Americains croient en la réalité de la “race”. La race devient l’enfant innocent de mére Nature. Une affaire de hiérarchie
Il n’y aurait pas d’industrie de mass sans immigrants, et ceux des autres états plus pauvre et surtout des provinces pauvres d’une nation. Les gouvernements le savent et ne font pas grand chose avant que la rebellion n’éclate
Essayez d’expliquer au gouvernment á Paris que si les tribus Oulés (au Tchad) bougent en cette saison, c’est pas en quête d’indépendance, mais pour cueillir les couilles des élephants pour l’ initiation des jeunes males
La liberté et l’homme deviennent encombrant á la longue: ce n’est pas la peine de defender des gens et les animaux séparément. S’attaquer au fond du problem, la protection de la nature.
Je résistais: je savais que dés que je sortais son sex, il m’oublierait et cesserait de me toucher
Macron ne vaut rien en politique étrangére, surtout en ce qui concerne Syrie et Liban. Il est contre la capture de l’armée Libanaise des terroristes dans les camps de réfugiés au Liban et supporte les mensonge de Trump en Syrie. Ce Zionist endurcie va faire beaucoup de mal au proche orient.
La défaite morale de ce qu’Israel est devenu est primordial á une paix durable. USA et l’Europe savent qu’ils sont lies á cette morale d’apartheid et de violence qu’ils ont acquis durant des siécle de colonialism
En tout cas, Israel conclut des accords, sachant qu’ils seront rompus le moment venu
 
Ce sont des gens qui n’en ont pas assez bavé, qui ne peuvent pas comprendre
If you practice to replace the ums with total silence, until you form a plausible expression, you are on your way to nail down oratory skills
The Israeli military industrial complex is part of the world conglomerate meant to keep sustained civil wars and pre-emptive wars for lush and brisk business. They are based on fear for divisive tendencies built on blood and frustration.
I often hear that clergies know what they are doing: They are highly educated and intelligent. Sure, and hypocrisy is one of the highest forms of clever intelligence.
Une theorie métaphysique dit: “La guerre est une condition sociale. Sans la guerre, la race humaine retrograde á l’inconscience  et á l’hébetude… Il faut que beaucoup de sang coule pour apaiser les coléres et ramener les gens á leur froideur ordinaire” Ce concept prévalait en Allemagne avant WWI et le Nazism en abusa pleinement.
USA admitted that current Arab Gulf problems are essentially family matters: related to the Saudi branch of Bin Salman?
Il avait une âme d’educateur moraliste: il aimait que la futilité et l’insignifiance des pretentions humaines furent bien comprise et assimilés

Are you a novelist?  Shouldn’t write only what You know?

 If you fail to manifest your identity, is the story no longer of much value?

“But don’t you see? There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me

“Knowledge that takes you Not beyond yourself is far worse than ignorance.”

I’m a storyteller. That’s what I do in life — telling stories, writing novels — and today I would like to tell you a few stories about the art of storytelling and also some supernatural creatures called the djinni.

But before I go there, please allow me to share with you glimpses of my personal story. I will do so with the help of words, of course, but also a geometrical shape, the circle, so throughout my talk, you will come across several circles.

0:45 I was born in Strasbourg, France to Turkish parents. Shortly after, my parents got separated, and I came to Turkey with my mom. From then on, I was raised as a single child by a single mother.

Now in the early 1970s, in Ankara, that was a bit unusual. Our neighborhood was full of large families, where fathers were the heads of households, so I grew up seeing my mother as a divorcee in a patriarchal environment.

In fact, I grew up observing two different kinds of womanhood.

On the one hand was my mother, a well-educated, secular, modern, westernized, Turkish woman.

On the other hand was my grandmother, who also took care of me and was more spiritual, less educated and definitely less rational. This was a woman who read coffee grounds to see the future and melted lead into mysterious shapes to fend off the evil eye.

Many people visited my grandmother, people with severe acne on their faces or warts on their hands. Each time, my grandmother would utter some words in Arabic, take a red apple and stab it with as many rose thorns as the number of warts she wanted to remove.

Then one by one, she would encircle these thorns with dark ink. A week later, the patient would come back for a follow-up examination. Now, I’m aware that I should not be saying such things in front of an audience of scholars and scientists, but the truth is, of all the people who visited my grandmother for their skin conditions, I did not see anyone go back unhappy or unhealed.

I asked her how she did this. Was it the power of praying? In response she said, “Yes, praying is effective, but also beware of the power of circles.”

From her, I learned, amongst many other things, one very precious lesson — that if you want to destroy something in this life, be it an acne, a blemish or the human soul, all you need to do is to surround it with thick walls. It will dry up inside.

Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do.

We’re born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside.

Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family — if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded with our mirror image.

one other thing women like my grandma do in Turkey is to cover mirrors with velvet or to hang them on the walls with their backs facing out. It’s an old Eastern tradition based on the knowledge that it’s not healthy for a human being to spend too much time staring at his own reflection.

Ironically, [living in] communities of the like-minded is one of the greatest dangers of today’s globalized world. And it’s happening everywhere, among liberals and conservatives, agnostics and believers, the rich and the poor, East and West alike.

We tend to form clusters based on similarity, and then we produce stereotypes about other clusters of people.

In my opinion, one way of transcending these cultural ghettos is through the art of storytelling. Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls. And through those holes, we can get a glimpse of the other, and sometimes even like what we see.

I started writing fiction at the age of 8.

My mother came home one day with a turquoise notebook and asked me if I’d be interested in keeping a personal journal. In retrospect, I think she was slightly worried about my sanity. I was constantly telling stories at home, which was good, except I told this to imaginary friends around me, which was not so good.

I was an introverted child, to the point of communicating with colored crayons and apologizing to objects when I bumped into them, so my mother thought it might do me good to write down my day-to-day experiences and emotions.

What she didn’t know was that I thought my life was terribly boring, and the last thing I wanted to do was to write about myself. Instead, I began to write about people other than me and things that never really happened. And thus began my life-long passion for writing fiction. So from the very beginning, fiction for me was less of an autobiographical manifestation than a transcendental journey into other lives, other possibilities.

And please bear with me: I’ll draw a circle and come back to this point.

one other thing happened around this same time. My mother became a diplomat. So from this small, superstitious, middle-class neighborhood of my grandmother, I was zoomed into this posh, international school [in Madrid], where I was the only Turk.

It was here that I had my first encounter with what I call the “representative foreigner.” In our classroom, there were children from all nationalities, yet this diversity did not necessarily lead to a cosmopolitan, egalitarian classroom democracy.

Instead, it generated an atmosphere in which each child was seen — not as an individual on his own, but as the representative of something larger. We were like a miniature United Nations, which was fun, except whenever something negative, with regards to a nation or a religion, took place.

The child who represented it was mocked, ridiculed and bullied endlessly. And I should know, because during the time I attended that school, a military takeover happened in my country, a gunman of my nationality nearly killed the Pope, and Turkey got zero points in [the] Eurovision Song Contest. (Laughter)

I skipped school often and dreamed of becoming a sailor during those days. I also had my first taste of cultural stereotypes there. The other children asked me about the movie “Midnight Express,” which I had not seen; they inquired how many cigarettes a day I smoked, because they thought all Turks were heavy smokers, and they wondered at what age I would start covering my hair.

I came to learn that these were the three main stereotypes about my country: politics, cigarettes and the veil. After Spain, we went to Jordan, Germany and Ankara again. Everywhere I went, I felt like my imagination was the only suitcase I could take with me. Stories gave me a sense of center, continuity and coherence, the three big Cs that I otherwise lacked.

In my mid-twenties, I moved to Istanbul, the city I adore. I lived in a very vibrant, diverse neighborhood where I wrote several of my novels. I was in Istanbul when the earthquake hit in 1999.

When I ran out of the building at three in the morning, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. There was the local grocer there — a grumpy, old man who didn’t sell alcohol and didn’t speak to marginals. He was sitting next to a transvestite with a long black wig and mascara running down her cheeks. I watched the man open a pack of cigarettes with trembling hands and offer one to her, and that is the image of the night of the earthquake in my mind today — a conservative grocer and a crying transvestite smoking together on the sidewalk.

In the face of death and destruction, our mundane differences evaporated, and we all became one even if for a few hours. But I’ve always believed that stories, too, have a similar effect on us.

I’m not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake, but when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.

Shortly after, I went to a women’s college in Boston, then Michigan. I experienced this, not so much as a geographical shift, as a linguistic one. I started writing fiction in English. I’m not an immigrant, refugee or exile — they ask me why I do this — but the commute between languages gives me the chance to recreate myself.

I love writing in Turkish, which to me is very poetic and very emotional, and I love writing in English, which to me is very mathematical and cerebral. So I feel connected to each language in a different way. For me, like millions of other people around the world today, English is an acquired language.

When you’re a latecomer to a language, what happens is you live there with a continuous and perpetual frustration. As latecomers, we always want to say more, you know, crack better jokes, say better things, but we end up saying less because there’s a gap between the mind and the tongue.

And that gap is very intimidating. But if we manage not to be frightened by it, it’s also stimulating. And this is what I discovered in Boston — that frustration was very stimulating.

At this stage, my grandmother, who had been watching the course of my life with increasing anxiety, started to include in her daily prayers that I urgently get married so that I could settle down once and for all. And because God loves her, I did get married. (Laughter)

But instead of settling down, I went to Arizona. And since my husband is in Istanbul, I started commuting between Arizona and Istanbul — the two places on the surface of earth that couldn’t be more different. I guess one part of me has always been a nomad, physically and spiritually. Stories accompany me, keeping my pieces and memories together, like an existential glue.

Yet as much as I love stories, recently, I’ve also begun to think that they lose their magic if and when a story is seen as more than a story.

And this is a subject that I would love to think about together. When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter)

I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.”

Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

 We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed.

Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women.

You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues.

What I experienced as a child in that school in Madrid is happening in the literary world today. Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria. We’re all thought to have something very distinctive, if not peculiar.

The writer and commuter James Baldwin gave an interview in 1984 in which he was repeatedly asked about his homosexuality. When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him as a gay writer, Baldwin stopped and said, But don’t you see? There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me.”

When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger.

There’s a fuzzy category called multicultural literature in which all authors from outside the Western world are lumped together.

I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian — like a joke, you know. (Laughter) And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports. Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary. A function is attributed to fiction. In this way, not only the writers themselves, but also their fictional characters become the representatives of something larger.

I must quickly add that this tendency to see a story as more than a story does not solely come from the West. It comes from everywhere. And I experienced this first-hand when I was put on trial in 2005 for the words my fictional characters uttered in a novel.

I had intended to write a constructive, multi-layered novel about an Armenian and a Turkish family through the eyes of women. My micro story became a macro issue when I was prosecuted. Some people criticized, others praised me for writing about the Turkish-Armenian conflict. But there were times when I wanted to remind both sides that this was fiction. It was just a story. And when I say, “just a story,” I’m not trying to belittle my work. I want to love and celebrate fiction for what it is, not as a means to an end.

Writers are entitled to their political opinions, and there are good political novels out there, but the language of fiction is not the language of daily politics.

Chekhov said, “The solution to a problem and the correct way of posing the question are two completely separate things. And only the latter is an artist’s responsibility.”

Identity politics divides us. Fiction connects. One is interested in sweeping generalizations. The other, in nuances. One draws boundaries. The other recognizes no frontiers. Identity politics is made of solid bricks. Fiction is flowing water.

In the Ottoman times, there were itinerant storytellers called “meddah.” They would go to coffee houses, where they would tell a story in front of an audience, often improvising. With each new person in the story, the meddah would change his voice, impersonating that character. Everybody could go and listen, you know — ordinary people, even the sultan, Muslims and non-Muslims.

Stories cut across all boundaries, like “The Tales of Nasreddin Hodja,” which were very popular throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans and Asia.

Today, stories continue to transcend borders. When Palestinian and Israeli politicians talk, they usually don’t listen to each other, but a Palestinian reader still reads a novel by a Jewish author, and vice versa, connecting and empathizing with the narrator. Literature has to take us beyond. If it cannot take us there, it is not good literature.

Books have saved the introverted, timid child that I was — that I once was.

But I’m also aware of the danger of fetishizing them. When the poet and mystic, Rumi, met his spiritual companion, Shams of Tabriz, one of the first things the latter did was to toss Rumi’s books into water and watch the letters dissolve. The Sufis say, “Knowledge that takes you Not beyond yourself is far worse than ignorance.” The problem with today’s cultural ghettos is not lack of knowledge — we know a lot about each other, or so we think — but knowledge that takes us not beyond ourselves: it makes us elitist, distant and disconnected. There’s a metaphor which I love: living like a drawing compass. As you know, one leg of the compass is static, rooted in a place. Meanwhile, the other leg draws a wide circle, constantly moving. Like that, my fiction as well. One part of it is rooted in Istanbul, with strong Turkish roots, but the other part travels the world, connecting to different cultures. In that sense, I like to think of my fiction as both local and universal, both from here and everywhere.

those of you who have been to Istanbul have probably seen Topkapi Palace, which was the residence of Ottoman sultans for more than 400 years. In the palace, just outside the quarters of the favorite concubines, there’s an area called The Gathering Place of the Djinn. It’s between buildings.

I’m intrigued by this concept. We usually distrust those areas that fall in between things. We see them as the domain of supernatural creatures like the djinn, who are made of smokeless fire and are the symbol of elusiveness. But my point is perhaps that elusive space is what writers and artists need most.

When I write fiction I cherish elusiveness and changeability. I like not knowing what will happen 10 pages later. I like it when my characters surprise me. I might write about a Muslim woman in one novel, and perhaps it will be a very happy story, and in my next book, I might write about a handsome, gay professor in Norway. As long as it comes from our hearts, we can write about anything and everything.

Audre Lorde once said, “The white fathers taught us to say, ‘I think, therefore I am.'” She suggested, “I feel, therefore I am free.” I think it was a wonderful paradigm shift.

And yet, why is it that, in creative writing courses today, the very first thing we teach students is “write what you know”? Perhaps that’s not the right way to start at all. Imaginative literature is not necessarily about writing who we are or what we know or what our identity is about. We should teach young people and ourselves to expand our hearts and write what we can feel. We should get out of our cultural ghetto and go visit the next one and the next.

19:05 In the end, stories move like whirling dervishes, drawing circles beyond circles. They connect all humanity, regardless of identity politics, and that is the good news. And I would like to finish with an old Sufi poem: Come, let us be friends for once; let us make life easy on us; let us be lovers and loved ones; the earth shall be left to no one.”

Patsy Z shared this link. TED.2 hrs ·

“When we read a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night and start getting to know people we’ve never met before.”

‘I Am Not Your Negro’.  Might Make You Rethink Race

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James Baldwin in 1965. Raoul Peck’s documentary about him, “I Am Not Your Negro,” is an introduction to his work and an advanced seminar in racial politics. Credit Sedat Pakay

A few weeks ago, in reaction to something we had written about blackness and whiteness in recent movies, my colleague Manohla Dargis and I received a note from a reader. “Since when is everything about race?” he wanted to know. Perhaps it was a rhetorical question.

A flippant — though by no means inaccurate — answer would have been 1619.

But a more constructive response might have been to recommend Raoul Peck’s life-altering new documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro.” Let me do so now, for that reader (if he’s still interested) and for everybody else, too.

Whatever you think about the past and future of what used to be called “race relations” — white supremacy and the resistance to it, in plainer English — this movie will make you think again, and may even change your mind. Though its principal figure, the novelist, playwright and essayist James Baldwin, is a man who has been dead for nearly 30 years, you would be hard-pressed to find a movie that speaks to the present moment with greater clarity and force, insisting on uncomfortable truths and drawing stark lessons from the shadows of history.

To call “I Am Not Your Negro” a movie about James Baldwin would be to understate Mr. Peck’s achievement. It’s more of a posthumous collaboration, an uncanny and thrilling communion between the filmmaker — whose previous work includes both a documentary and a narrative feature about the Congolese anti-colonialist leader Patrice Lumumba — and his subject.

The voice-over narration (read by Samuel L. Jackson) is entirely drawn from Baldwin’s work. Much of it comes from notes and letters written in the mid-1970s, when Baldwin was somewhat reluctantly sketching out a book, never to be completed, about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Reflections on those men (all of whom Baldwin knew well) and their legacies are interspersed with passages from other books and essays, notably “The Devil Finds Work,” Baldwin’s 1976 meditation on race, Hollywood and the mythology of white innocence.

His published and unpublished words — some of the most powerful and penetrating ever assembled on the tortured subject of American identity — accompany images from old talk shows and news reports, from classic movies and from our own decidedly non-post-racial present.

Baldwin could not have known about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, about the presidency of Barack Obama and the recrudescence of white nationalism in its wake, but in a sense he explained it all in advance.

He understood the deep, contradictory patterns of our history, and articulated, with a passion and clarity that few others have matched, the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: the suppression of black humanity under slavery and Jim Crow and the insistence on it in African-American politics and art; the dialectic of guilt and rage, forgiveness and denial that distorts relations between black and white citizens in the North as well as the South; the lengths that white people will go to wash themselves clean of their complicity in oppression.

A former child preacher, he remained a natural, if somewhat reluctant, performer — a master of the heavy sigh, the raised eyebrow and the rhetorical flourish.

At one point, on “The Dick Cavett Show,” Baldwin tangles with Paul Weiss, a Yale philosophy professor who scolds him for dwelling so much on racial issues. The initial spectacle of mediocrity condescending to genius is painful, but the subsequent triumph of self-taught brilliance over credentialed ignorance is thrilling to witness.

In that exchange, as in a speech for an audience of British university students, you are aware of Baldwin’s profound weariness.

He must explain himself — and also his country — again and again, with what must have been sorely tested patience. When the students erupt in a standing ovation at the end of his remarks, Baldwin looks surprised, even flustered.

You glimpse an aspect of his personality that was often evident in his writing: the vulnerable, bright, ambitious man thrust into a public role that was not always comfortable.

“I want to be an honest man and a good writer,” he wrote early in his career, in the introductory note to his first collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son.

The disarming, intimate candor of that statement characterized much of what would follow, as would a reckoning with the difficulties of living up to such apparently straightforward aspirations.

Without sliding into confessional bathos, his voice was always personal and frank, creating in the reader a feeling of complicity, of shared knowledge and knowing humor.

“I Am Not Your Negro” reproduces and redoubles this effect. It doesn’t just make you aware of Baldwin, or hold him up as a figure to be admired from a distance. You feel entirely in his presence, hanging on his every word, following the implications of his ideas as they travel from his experience to yours.

At the end of the movie, you are convinced that you know him. And, more important, that he knows you. To read Baldwin is to be read by him, to feel the glow of his affection, the sting of his scorn, the weight of his disappointment, the gift of his trust.

Recounting his visits to the South, where he reported on the civil rights movement and the murderous white response to it, Baldwin modestly described himself as a witness, a watchful presence on the sidelines of tragedy and heroism, an outsider by virtue of his Northern origins, his sexuality and his alienation from the Christianity of his childhood.

But he was also a prophet, able to see the truths revealed by the contingent, complicated actions of ordinary people on both sides of the conflict. This is not to say that he transcended the struggle or detached himself from it.

On the contrary, he demonstrated that writing well and thinking clearly are manifestations of commitment, and that irony, skepticism and a ruthless critical spirit are necessary tools for effective moral and political action.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is a thrilling introduction to his work, a remedial course in American history, and an advanced seminar in racial politics — a concise, roughly 90-minute movie with the scope and impact of a 10-hour mini-series or a literary doorstop.

It is not an easy or a consoling movie, but it is the opposite of bitter or despairing. “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive,” Baldwin said. “I’m forced to be an optimist.”

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Michael Benson’s book Cosmigraphics. Click image for more.

 In the eye of the hurricane: USA is the nation that can do more harm and is doing the most harm to humanity around the world

James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.”

NOTE: This is the first installment in a multi-part series covering Mead and Baldwin’s historic conversation.

Part 2 focuses on identity, race, and the immigrant experience;

part 3 on changing one’s destiny;

part 4 on reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist culture.

On the evening of August 25, 1970, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) and James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat together on a stage in New York City for a remarkable public conversation about such enduring concerns as identity, power and privilege, race and gender, beauty, religion, justice, and the relationship between the intellect and the imagination.

By that point, Baldwin, 46 and living in Paris, was arguably the world’s most famous living poet, and an enormously influential voice in the civil rights dialogue.

Mead, who was about to turn 70, had become the world’s first celebrity academic — a visionary anthropologist with groundbreaking field experience under her belt, who lectured at some of the best cultural institutions and had a popular advice column in Redbook magazine.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

They talked for seven and a half hours of brilliance and bravery over the course of the weekend, bringing to the dialogue the perfect balance of similarity and difference to make it immensely simulating and deeply respectful.

On the one hand, as a white woman and black man in the first half of the twentieth century, they had come of age through experiences worlds apart.

On the other, they had worlds in common as intellectual titans, avid antidotes to the era’s cultural stereotypes, queer people half a century before marriage equality, and unflinching celebrators of the human spirit.

Besides being a remarkable and prescient piece of the cultural record, their conversation, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), is also a bittersweet testament to one of the recurring themes in their dialogue — our tendency to sideline the past as impertinent to the present, only to rediscover how central it is in understanding the driving forces of our world and harnessing them toward a better future.

This forgotten treasure, which I dusted off shortly after Ferguson and the Eric Gardner tragedy, instantly stopped my breath with its extraordinary timeliness — the ideas with which these two remarkable minds tussled in 1970 had emerged, unsolved and unresolved, to haunt and taunt us four decades later with urgency that can no longer be evaded or denied.

Although some of what is said is so succinctly brilliant that it encapsulates the essence of the issue — at one point, Baldwin remarks: “We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.” — this is nonetheless a conversation so complex, so dimensional, so wide-ranging, that to synthesize it in a single article or highlight a single dominant theme would be to instantly flatten it and strip it of power.

Instead, I am going to do something I’ve never done in nearly a decade of Brain Pickings — explore this immensely valuable cultural artifact in a multi-part series examining a specific viewpoint from this zoetrope of genius in each installment, beginning with Mead and Baldwin’s tapestry of perspectives on forgiveness, the difference between guilt and responsibility, and the role of the past in understanding the present and building a more dignified future.

As they bring up their shared heartbreak over the bombing in Birmingham that killed four black girls at Sunday school a month after Martin Luther King’s famous letter on justice and nonviolent resistance, Mead and Baldwin arrive at one of the most profound ongoing threads of this long conversation — the question of guilt, responsibility, and the crucial difference between the two in assuring a constructive rather than destructive path forward:

MEAD: There are different ways of looking at guilt. In the Eastern Orthodox faith, everybody shares the guilt of creatureliness and the guilt for anything they ever thought. Now, the Western Northern-European position and the North American position on the whole is that you’re guilty for things that you did yourself and not for things that other people did.

(The West must be wracked with enormous guilt for their current pre-emptive wars and colonial occupations if they desist pounding on the concept that past is past)

[…]

BALDWIN: The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger. I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else — any other black person — in it.

If I don’t know that, then I’m fairly self-deluded… What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility. I didn’t drop the bomb [that killed four black school girls in Birmingham]. And I never lynched anybody. Yet I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.

MEAD: Yes, that’s different. I think the responsibility for what can happen, which in a sense is good guilt — which is sort of a nonsensical term —

BALDWIN: Yes, but I know what you mean. It’s useful guilt.

MEAD: Responsibility. It is saying I am going to make an effort to have things changed. But to take the responsibility for something that was done by others —

BALDWIN: Well, you can’t do that.

Mead illustrates the perils of confusing responsibility and guilt with an exquisite example from her own life as a mother, from the time in the mid-1940s when she was heading a university initiative to foster cross-racial and cross-ethnic relationships:

MEAD: I was walking across the Wellesley campus with my four-year-old, who was climbing pine trees instead of keeping up with me.

I said, “You come down out of that pine tree. You don’t have to eat pine needles like an Indian.”

So she came down and she asked, “Why do the Indians have to eat pine needles?” I said, “To get their Vitamin C, because they don’t have any oranges.” She asked, “Why don’t they have any oranges?”

Then I made a perfectly clear technical error; I said, “Because the white man took their land away from them.” She looked at me and she said, “Am I white?” I said, “Yes, you are white.” But I didn’t took their land away from them, and I don’t like it to be tooken!” she shouted.

Now if I had said, “The early settlers took their land away,” she would have said, “Am I an early settler?” But I had made a blanket racial category: the white man. It was a noble sentiment, but it was still racial sentiment.

With an eye to this demand for responsibility in the present rather than guilt over the past, the conversation once again reveals its contemporary poignancy:

MEAD: The kids say — and they’re pretty clear about it — that the future is now. It’s no use predicting about the year 2000.

BALDWIN: No.

MEAD: It’s what we do this week that matters.

BALDWIN: Exactly.

MEAD: That’s the only thing there is; there isn’t any other time.

They revisit the subject of guilt, with its perilous religious roots, and the complexities of forgiveness in discussing the crime of slavery:

BALDWIN: I, at the risk of being entirely romantic, think that is the crime which is spoken in the Bible, the sin against the Holy Ghost which cannot be forgiven. And if that is true —

MEAD: Then we’ve nowhere to go.

BALDWIN: No, we have atonement.

MEAD: Not for the sin against the Holy Ghost.

BALDWIN: No?

MEAD: I mean, after all, you were once a theologian.

BALDWIN: I was once a preacher, yes indeed.

MEAD: And the point about the sin against the Holy Ghost is that —

BALDWIN: It is that it cannot be forgiven. (Which need further explanation of what the Holy Ghost is meant to mean)

MEAD: So if you state a crime impossible of forgiveness you’ve doomed everyone.

[…]

Look, there have been millions of crimes committed against humanity. Millions! Now, why is one crime more important than another?

BALDWIN: No, my point precisely is that one crime is not more important than another and that all crimes must be atoned for. (by politicians and war mongers to start with)

MEAD: All right, all crimes… But when you talk about atonement you’re talking about people who weren’t born when this was committed.

BALDWIN: No, I mean the recognition of where one finds one’s self in time or history or now. I mean the recognition. After all, I’m not guiltless, either. I sold my brothers for my sisters —

[…]

MEAD: I will not accept any guilt for what anybody else did. I will accept guilt for what I did myself.

[…]

BALDWIN: We both have produced, all of us have produced, a system of reality which we cannot in any way whatever control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.

(History of atonement should be written. History of reparation. History of nations admitting guilt and responsibilities)

This is a conversation underpinned by a profound baseline mutual respect and punctuated by wonderfully sweet in-the-moment manifestations of it — Mead and Baldwin frequently repeat each other’s words in a gesture of validation, and even bicker amicably about not letting the other be too self-effacing (“If I’m bright at all, and that’s debatable,” Baldwin says in one aside,

And Mead quickly interjects, “It’s not very debatable.” “It’s very debatable to me,” Baldwin counters. “Well, permit somebody else to do the debating,” she quips affably.)

But they have no reservations about voicing, if courteously, ideological disagreement — which is what makes the conversation so rich, stimulating, and full of wisdom.

One of the most moving instances of this dynamic emerges when they return to their divergent views on guilt and responsibility, only to discover under the surface divergence profound common ground:

MEAD: Did you bomb those little girls in Birmingham?

BALDWIN: I’m responsible for it. I didn’t stop it.

MEAD: Why are you responsible? Didn’t you try to stop it? Hadn’t you been working?

BALDWIN: It doesn’t make any difference what one’s tried.

MEAD: Of course it makes a difference what one’s tried.

BALDWIN: No, not really.

MEAD: This is the fundamental difference. You are talking like a member of the Russian Orthodox Church… “We are all guilty. Because some man suffers, we are all murderers.”

BALDWIN: No, no, no. We are all responsible.

MEAD: Look, you are not responsible.

BALDWIN: That blood is also on my hands.

MEAD: Why?

BALDWIN: Because I didn’t stop it.

MEAD: Is the blood of somebody who is dying in Burma today on your hands?

BALDWIN: Yes, yes.

MEAD: Because you didn’t stop that? That’s what I mean by the Russian Orthodox position, that all of us are guilty of all that has been done or thought —

BALDWIN: Yes.

MEAD: And I will not accept it. I will not.

BALDWIN: “For whom the bell tolls.” … It means everybody’s suffering is mine.

MEAD: Everybody’s suffering is mine but not everybody’s murdering, and that is a very different point. I would accept everybody’s sufferings. I do not distinguish for one moment whether my child is in danger or a child in Central Asia.

But I will not accept responsibility for what other people do because I happen to belong to that nation or that race or that religion. I do not believe in guilt by association.

BALDWIN: But, Margaret, I have to accept it. I have to accept it because I am a black man in the world and I am not only in America… I have a green passport and I am an American citizen, and the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for.

MEAD: But you see, I think there is a difference. I am glad I am an American because I think we can do more harm than any other country on this earth at the moment, so I would rather be inside the country that could do the most harm. (Awesome sentence)

BALDWIN: In the eye of the hurricane.

MEAD: In the eye of the hurricane, because I think I may be able to do more good there.

[…]

We are responsible for that. That we are responsible for those unborn children, black, white, yellow, red-green, as the Seventh-Day Adventists say — all of them. We agree completely on that.

Now, is it necessary at this moment in history … for someone who is black to take a different stance in relation to the past although we take the same stance in relation to the future?

Now it may be. You see, the question I was raising earlier is that maybe in order to act one has to take a different stance.

BALDWIN: … Now, a thousand years from now it will not matter; that is perfectly true. A thousand years ago it was worse; that is perfectly true. I am not responsible for that. I am responsible for now.

MEAD: Now.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s; found in Cartographies of Time. (Click image for more.)

Reflecting on “that peculiar chemistry which we call time,” Baldwin stresses “the necessity of the long view” — something triply necessary today, amid our epidemic of short-termism — and considers the relationship between the past and the present in making sense of responsibility:

BALDWIN: A man’s life doesn’t encompass even half a thousand years. And whether or not I like it, I am responsible for something which is happening now and fight as hard as I can for the life of everybody on this planet now.

[…]

MEAD: The more one wants to be an activist the narrower the time is.

BALDWIN: Precisely! Precisely!

MEAD: What the kids say … if you cut out all the past —

BALDWIN: You can’t.

[…]

They are acting in the past. They don’t know it. It takes a long time to realize that there is a past… It takes a long time to understand anything at all about what we call the past — and begin to be liberated from it.

Those kids are romantic, not even revolutionaries. At least not yet. They don’t know what revolution entails.

They think everything is happening in the present. They think they are the present. They think that nothing ever happened before in the whole history of the world.

They return to this dance between past and present a few hours later:

BALDWIN: We are responsible —

MEAD: For the future. For the present and the future.

BALDWIN: If we don’t manage the present there will be no future.

As someone who thinks a great deal about the interplay of hope and cynicism, I was particularly moved by Baldwin’s de facto disclaimer to the whole question of demanding responsibility from others:

BALDWIN: A great deal of what I say just leaves me open, I suppose, to a vast amount of misunderstanding. A great deal of what I say is based on an assumption which I hold and don’t always state.

You know my fury about people is based precisely on the fact that I consider them to be responsible, moral creatures who so often do not act that way. But I am not surprised when they do.

I am not that wretched a pessimist, and I wouldn’t sound the way I sound if I did not expect what I expect from human beings, if I didn’t have some ultimate faith and love, faith in them and love for them.

You see, I am a human being too, and I have no right to stand in judgment of the world as though I am not a part of it. What I am demanding of other people is what I am demanding of myself. (Proper communication is based on sharing the correct pieces of intelligence that are always secretive or manipulated)

The enactment of this moral optimism, Baldwin argues and Mead agrees, is in the hands of the future generations — those generations to which, half a century later, you and I belong — which lends their conversation extraordinary poignancy:

BALDWIN: The world is scarcely habitable for the conscious young… There is a tremendous national, global, moral waste.

MEAD: I know.

BALDWIN: And the question is, How can it be arrested? That’s the enormous question. Look, you and I both are whatever we have become, and whatever happens to us now doesn’t really matter. We’re done.

It’s a matter of the curtain coming down eventually. But what should we do about the children?

We are responsible; so far as we are responsible at all, our responsibility lies there, toward them. We have to assume that we are responsible for the future of this world.

MEAD: That’s right.

BALDWIN: What shall we do? How shall we begin it? How can it be accomplished? How can one invest others with some hope?

MEAD: Then we come to a point where I would say it matters to know where we came from. That it matters to know the long, long road that we’ve come through. And this is the thing that gives me hope we can go further.

(That is why people like best storytelling)

A Rap on Race is spectacular and pause-giving in its entirety — the kind of perspective-normalizing read that reminds us both how far we’ve come and how much further we have yet to go, equipping us with that delicate balance of outrage and hope that translates into the very moral courage necessary for building a more just and noble world.

Complement it with Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society and Mead on the root of racism.

 

 

“Vast land of unconscious suffering”; (Feb. 28, 2010)

“I knew, as I gained consciousness, that none of my dreams were feasible.  Separation in Whites and Blacks was getting pretty clearly a fact.  It was its effects on the personality of the individual that devastated me.  I was no threat to anyone.  At the age I could reflect, I comprehended that, for so long, my individuality and aspiration counted for nothing.  What I did say could not be understood.  There is nothing in human history a worst corrosive attack to individuality than racial discrimination.  Racial discrimination defined an inferior place for blacks.  The Blacks (having the same dreams as Whites and sharing the same culture) reacted by burying deep down their consciousness this difference: I felt isolated and was scared.  Pride led me to hiding my hatred: I could not let the White feels how profoundly he vanquished me; how he is regulating my life.

I used to hide “the hatred for myself” and could not help but hate the one who provoked this feeling.  Most of the day was wasted on a cruel war waged against my emotions and to dominate my tumultuous emotions.  Emotions I wished not to feel at all but could not help but to feel.  I was in perpetual conflict with reality; I lost hold on my means; my judgment for the objective world was impaired.

I ended up hoarding fantastic ambitions in my day-dreaming; I stored them in this still empty part of my personality so that the ship would not sink into the absurd.  Like every American, I wanted a good job, my home, my own status.  I was day-dreaming that I was organizing secret groups of Blacks; if Blacks refused to cooperate with my schemes then I will fight them: I started hating the uncooperative Blacks.

Then I went on to dreaming of feasible projects.  I was re-living a second childhood; a new feeling of limited possibilities emerged in me.  What of these limited dreams could be feasible?  I found none.  It is based on this feeling of void that I focused my energy:  This constant want that cannot be had; of being hated for no reason.  It was no longer fear of being lynched, discriminated against, or submitting to interminable brutalities that harassed my consciousness: It was this psychological ache from contradictory emotions.  I felt there were only a few Blacks who could make any sense of their lives and who could tell about their history.  A Black life is a vast land of unconscious suffering.” (Black Boy: Hunger for equality)

Richard Nathaniel Wright (1908-60) was born in the south, Mississippi State.  He fled to Chicago in 1927 and experienced the big depression.  He witnessed another form of discrimination: class segregation.  In these conditions, father figure relationship testified for the wide psychological rift between races.  How a Black internalizes class discrimination that is a major obstacle for conscious awareness?  A Black is relegated to inaction and society excludes him.  This conscious inaction is the launching board for getting organized to overcoming this hunger for equality.

Wright published “The children of Uncle Tom, 1938” and an autobiography “A kid from the State”.  Then he published “Black Power, 1954” and “Black Boy”.  He was a communist and was persecuted; he fled to France where he had large impact on black intellectuals such as James Baldwin and Paul Gilroy; he was the inspiration for many movements such as Black Consciousness and Black Power in the 60’s.


adonis49

adonis49

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