Civilization

Reading James Baldwin is simultaneously a window into what America was and what America is.

Earlier this month, David Remnick in the New Yorker magazine called Baldwin the American Orwell and quoted a passage from his 1960 essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.” The passage is a manifesto to acknowledge “police incompetence, injustice, or brutality…. It is hard, on the other hand, to blame the policeman…. He, too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed…. — and yet he is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it.”

Baldwin wrote this 55 years ago. Everything and nothing has changed. A black man in the White House is an astonishing accomplishment of hope and healing, yet on the ground, day in and day out, the struggle in the streets remains the same.

When terrorists attacked Paris, I was reading “James Baldwin The Last Interview and Other Conversations.” Near the end of his last interview in 1987, only weeks before his death, Baldwin said, “The whole American optic in terms of reality is based on the necessity of keeping black people out of it. We are nonexistent. Except according to their terms, and their terms are unacceptable…. And all this, because they want to be white. And why do they want to be white? Because it’s the only way to justify the slaughter of the Indians and enslaving the blacks — they’re trapped…. And the world is not white and America is not the symbol of civilization.”

A million people, including the leaders of every major country except America, marched in Paris to proclaim that terrorist will not win; fear will not win; courage, commitment and effort will win. Why weren’t our leaders there? What can America possibly expect to be if we aren’t being honest about our heritage? How can America claim to be a civilization when we were missing from one of the greatest civil actions in history?

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