Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Teju Cole re-reading Baldwin:
Reflections on the "many moving parts" of American racism.

 
James Baldwin via Ebony Magazine



In the aftermath of Ferguson, although it still feels so premature to call it that, I have found myself speechless, embarrassed and humiliated as many of us have. In disbelief over the absurdity of the particular incident but also utterly embarrassed to be a part of a culture that puts so little value in some of its citizens' lives. I feel the humiliation of so many African American parents... to have to instruct their kids on what to wear, and how to behave as to not arise suspicion. How do you raise a child when you have to simultaneously teach them to be their most true authentic self but also, to protect them, give them pointers on how to obfuscate their identity because "some people" might find it "threatening"?!

I have been reading news reports from Ferguson but knowing "the facts" of what happened, or how many bullets were shot and what cops are saying to protesters has brought me little understanding. What I've needed and what I have started seeking out is accounts on what it FEELS like to inhabit a black body in America. Because the laws are failing us and the institutions that are there to protect us are failing us and there is very little else that one can do other than really, sincerely try to place oneself in the shoes of those who are suffering.

To that end, read Teju Cole's beautiful essay on visiting Leukerbad (Switzerland) and re-reading James Baldwin's 1953 essay "Stranger in the Village." The essay is an examination of racism in the Swiss village, white supremacy "in its simplest form". Writing from Switzerland is also an opportunity for Baldwin to see America more clearly and to reflect on the "more intimate, intricate, familiar, and obscene American forms of white supremacy that he already knew so well."
He was a stranger in Leukerbad, Baldwin wrote, but there was no possibility for blacks to be strangers in the United States, nor for whites to achieve the fantasy of an all-white America purged of blacks. This fantasy about the disposability of black life is a constant in American history. It takes a while to understand that this disposability continues. It takes whites a while to understand it; it takes non-black people of color a while to understand it; and it takes some blacks, whether they’ve always lived in the U.S. or are latecomers like myself, weaned elsewhere on other struggles, a while to understand it. American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.
Should we put together a Ferguson reading list? How disheartening would it be to find texts from the 1950s and 60s so painfully relevant today?

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