Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Dangerous Disorder

James Baldwin, a 20th C. African-American novelist and parrhesiastes, wrote a letter to his nephew in 1963-- on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation-- that was later published under the title My Dungeon Shook. In that letter, Baldwin tried to persuade his young nephew not to fall prey to the more insidious temptations of assimilation, not to feel as if he had to "become white," and not to believe in white people's "impertinent assumption" that blacks needed to be "accepted" by them. In one of his characteristic expressions of both judgment and sympathy, Baldwin speculates that white people are trapped in a history that they do not understand, and from which they cannot be released because of their lack of understanding. That history, of course, is the United States' history of white supremacy, in which everything in this country ostensibly confirmed the "impertinent assumptions" of whites and their superiority. To let go of the impertinence and assumption of superiority, according to Baldwin, would entail a loss of identity for most white people, something which seems to them not only frightening, but also dangerous. Baldwin continues:

Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

There is a chorus of voices these days singing the significance of President-Elect Barack Obama's upcoming inauguration, but perhaps none capturing that significance so eloquently as Baldwin's letter. In all the excitement about hope and change we can believe in, I suspect some of us have forgotten that for many (many!) Americans, January 20th will be a day when nature suddenly seems disordered, frightening, and unreal. It will certainly seem to them like a "disaster"-- which literally means "without a star to steer by" (from dis- "away, without" + astro- "star, planet"). Because I reside in the part of our country where many of those people live, I am perhaps extra-sensitive to the importance of remembering their plight. It won't be enough to simply dismiss them as ignorant and racist. It will behoove us all to help them reorder their universe, to make it make sense again, to make it seem livable.

From everything he has said on the subject, it seems as if Obama understands this. I hope his supporters do, too. And I hope we all remember that this country really never did have that "national conversation on race" that President Clinton suggested back in 1998. There is so much about race that we haven't talked about or thought about, so many things that we do not understand but still effect even the most quotidian elements of our lives, so many ways that we have not yet acknowledged the role of race in "ordering" our world. The old world is about to be disordered, and that disorder will undoubtedly frighten many people. With all of the other things there are to be really frightened about right now, I suspect it will take some serious reflection and preparation to ensure that the movement of this particular fixed star is not the thing that blows us, hopelessly lost, out to sea.


The Detective said...

beautifully written, as always. I do think BO gets it; it will be interesting to see what he does with the burden/opportunity.

Pastor Charlie said...

Great observations brain food as always. It is something that we consistently over look as we accept as many "white folks" do that there should not be any issue with him being President based on his skin color. however, this new phenomenon will not be fully realized until the world sees him as the most powerful person in the world. Prayer is necessary for those who suffer from this allusion that things will be aight! Peace and love! Rev. Dr. Neckbone!

anotherpanacea said...

A nice essay. Did I ever tell you about my election night experience? A law school friend had a bunch of us over for dinner, including some non-academic relatives. Somehow, one of his cousins brought a boyfriend, a fairly low-brow Republican. (For instance, he didn't know about the electoral college until that night.)

Anyway, as soon as Obama's victory was announced, as we were all applauding and cheering, this guys asked the weirdest question: "Does this mean that they will start thinking they're better than us?" This soured our election night considerably ('they' and 'us' designating 'African Americans' and 'whites') but Baldwin really helps to elucidate why he might respond in this way.

I don't think he ever got an answer to his disastrous question: a few of the lawyers in the room nearly demolished him for being such a cad in our moment of victory. I'm all for helping my fellow whites understand the situation, but to be honest, I'm not really sure that I know what to say! Perhaps I, too, feel a little at a loss, especially because I feel this nagging pessimism that the fixed star of the racial contract is not really displaced or gone, only temporarily outshone.

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