Tag Archives: James Baldwin

A Consequence That Has Been Years in the Making

Laurie says:


A friend pointed me at an article by Danté Stewart: “Their Lives Are Defended. Ours Are Ruined” in Sojourners yesterday.

I was planning to post this later. I’d watched the attack on the Capitol as it happened. Then today I was watching the videos of the attack at the impeachment and I realized I needed to post this now. What he says is true and clear and important. These are extracted quotes – you want to read the whole article.

“This demands, indeed, a simple-mindedness quite beyond the possibilities of the human being. Complexity is our only safety and love is the only key to our maturity. And love is where you find it.” ―James Baldwin

Danté Stewart: I have tried to find ways to speak about this country and its failure — failures that we have tried to preach about and write about and pray about; failures we sometimes try to ignore to salvage what little peace human beings can be afforded. This week, I witnessed the same terror so many of us did. I witnessed it all, and I am afraid, and I am angry.

“Trump incited a mob to storm the Capitol and fled the white house,” my friend texts me. I read over her text, and I read it again. “What? Really?” I respond as I pull up the news on Twitter. “The US Capitol is on lockdown,” she says, “They are evacuating the Capitol right now.”…

“If they invaded the U.S. Capitol with Confederate flags, a noose, and other symbols of American hatred and were simply escorted out of the building, what does that say about a country that allows it?” —@stewartdantec

…But this is not a failure. This is the country that has been chosen for us. President Donald Trump and his supporters are but a reflection of the worst of American tradition. A country that meets people fighting for dignity and justice with tear gas and bullets, but meets people attempting a violent coup with apathy and silence is one that is loud in its declaration that it cares more about white supremacy than it does about democracy. It is a country that dares not face itself nor the terror it created. It dares not deal with the rot beneath the surface because, as Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) so audaciously declared, it is “the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”

This is a powerful and persistent lie. It is a lie that keeps the country proud, singing songs, declaring blessings, and never doing anything to stop the terror that destroys us. If they invaded the U.S. Capitol with Confederate flags, a noose, and other symbols of American hatred and were simply escorted out of the building, what does that say about a country that allows it?

This is a consequence that has been years in the making.  At every moment in American history, historian Carol Anderson writes, this country has had chances to deal with white rage that “has undermined democracy, warped the Constitution, weakened the nation’s ability to compete economically, squandered billions of dollars on baseless incarceration, rendered an entire region sick, poor, and woefully undereducated, and left cities nothing less than decimated.”…

…It is a profound delusion. It is a delusion that damns us. It is a delusion we can and must be liberated from if there is any hope for us, for our country, for our children, and for our future. 

I have not slept well in days. I wake up at 4:48 a.m. and I turn on James Baldwin’s 1987 interview with Mavis Nicholson as I make coffee. MSNBC plays in the background as I take a sip. I see the images from Wednesday and I am reminded of terror. In the interview, Baldwin cracks a smile. His teeth show. His mouth closes. He becomes resolute.

“Are you still in despair about the world?” Mavis asks him.
“I have never been in despair about the world,” Baldwin quietly responds. “I’m enraged, but I don’t think I’m in despair.”

I take another sip from my coffee. I want to feel love. I think I do, but I don’t. I want to feel hope. I think I do, but I don’t. I see more images of terrible white American men. I see a Confederate flag. I see a noose.

“Black people need witnesses in this hostile world which thinks everything is white,” he says.

I listen to Baldwin. I read Toni Morrison’s words on Jimmy’s courage: “to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges, to see and say what was; to recognize and identify evil but never fear or stand in awe of it.”

My son comes downstairs. I look at him, his small Black body, his smile as he plays. “Daddy,” he says. He does not know Daddy is sad. Daddy is terrified. He does not hear my silent prayers over his body and over his future. I know the spirit of the ancestors is in my bones. The spirit of the Lord is upon me. I know that one day, we shall shake the foundations together.

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Re/Considering Uncle Tom

Laurie says:

This month is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a major figure in the abolitionist and other social change movements of her day.



Harriet Beecher Stowe (June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896) was a American Abolitionist and author. Her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin(1852) depicted life for African Americans under slavery; it reached millions as a novel and play, and became influential in the US and the United Kingdom. It energized anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the South. She wrote more than 20 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters. She was influential both for her writings and her public stands on {social issues} of the day.

I read about her in high school, but the major influence on my opinion of her was James Baldwin’s critical  pairing of her with Richard Wright in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel in Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin castigates her for being too sentimental, and for portraying black slaves as praying to a white God so as to be cleansed/whitened. Equally, he repudiate Richard Wright’s book Native Son for portraying Bigger Thomas as an angry black man – he views that as an example of stigmatizing categorization.

I changed my mind (much as I have always admired Baldwin) after learning a lot more about the history and context of her work, and reading the book again myself.

Except for an oddly deprecatory first paragraph, David Reynolds has written an excellent timely essay in the NY Times on Rescuing the Real Uncle Tom.

…driven by a passionate hatred of slavery, she found time to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which became the most influential novel in American history and a catalyst for radical change both at home and abroad.

Today, of course, the book has a decidedly different reputation, thanks to the popular image of its titular character, Uncle Tom — whose name has become a byword for a spineless sellout, a black man who betrays his race.

And we tend to think of the novel itself as an old-fashioned, rather lachrymose affair that features the deaths of an obsequious enslaved black man and his blond, angelic child-friend, Little Eva.

But this view is egregiously inaccurate: the original Uncle Tom was physically strong and morally courageous, an inspiration for blacks and other oppressed people worldwide. In other words, Uncle Tom was anything but an “Uncle Tom.”

Indeed, that’s why in the mid-19th century Southerners savagely attacked “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a dangerously subversive book, while Northern reformers — especially blacks — often praised it. The ex-slave Frederick Douglass affirmed that no one had done more for the progress of African-Americans than Stowe.

The book was enormously popular in the North during the 1850s and helped solidify support behind the antislavery movement. As the black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois later wrote, “Thus to a frail overburdened Yankee woman with a steadfast moral purpose we Americans, both black and white, owe our gratitude for the freedom and the union that exist today in these United States.”

The book stoked fires overseas, too. In Russia it influenced the 1861 emancipation of the serfs and later inspired Vladimir Lenin, who recalled it as his favorite book in childhood. It was the first American novel to be translated and published in China, and it fueled antislavery causes in Cuba and Brazil.

At the heart of the book’s progressive appeal was the character of Uncle Tom himself: a muscular, dignified man in his 40s who is notable precisely because he does not betray his race; one reason he passes up a chance to escape from his plantation is that he doesn’t want to put his fellow slaves in danger. And he is finally killed because he refuses to tell his master where two runaway slaves are hiding.

It’s worth reading the whole essay. And if there is time in your life for it, it’s definitely worth reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.