Saturday, August 20, 2011

James Baldwin's Meditation on the Chromatics of Risk

From his most underrated, and last, work, The Evidence of Things Not Seen:

"It is time to realize that Europe--the West--which, out of an unspeakable poverty, created the delusion of color, has always depended on Black tribal divisions in order to divide and rule! In this endeavor, they have quite overlooked and forgotten the juggernaut of their tribal divisions, and nothing is more dangerous than to have one's history, relentlessly pursuing, at one's back. Georgia began as a convict colony and all the waste and terror and hope of love and life and joy and fear of death and dreams of everlasting life were loaded onto that beast of burden, the Black--the eye of the beholder!--and, in that dark face, that warm and inescapable presence, the orphan of the Old World saw, every hour of every day, all that he longed to be and hoped that he would never become. For to dare to hope to become--to dare to trust the changing light--is to surrender the dream of safety. It means doing one's utmost not to hide from the question perpetually in the eyes of one's lovers or one's children. It means accepting that those who love you (and those who do not love you) see you far better than you will ever see yourself. It means accepting the terms of the contract that you signed at birth, the master copy of which contract is in the vaults of Death. These ruthless terms, it seems to me, make love and life and freedom real: whoever fears to die also fears to live. Whoever fears to die also imagines--must imagine--that another can die in his place; hence, the compulsive hacking off of the Black/black man's sex, and the enforced sterilization of Black/black women. The dream of safety can reach culmination or climax only in the nightmare orgasm of genocide (102)."


In this excerpt, Baldwin begins to describe the indescribable, or make public that which was condemned to privacy: lynchings, castrations, forced sterilizations--genocide, perpetrated as a matter of programmatic necessity against not only the descendents of slaves but also American Indians. This kind of programming is written, Baldwin implies, as the cost of safety: in his short story "Going to Meet the Man," the white main character, a Southern sheriff, believes in the terrible cost of his duty. The rhetorics of safety are inseparable from the metaphorical meaning of whiteness, which is finally one with its meaning in general: purity, clarity, lightness. At the same time, the black (or native, or nonwhite) body becomes the "inescapable presence" upon which is written the violent terms of the "agreement" which was never consensual...as Hortense Spillers writes, the black body
"brings into focus a gathering of social realities as well as a metaphor for value so thoroughly interwoven in their literal and figurative emphases that distinctions between them are virtually useless...it is as if neither time nor history shows movement...I would call it the Great Long National Shame...We might concede, at the very least, that sticks and bricks mightbreak our bones, but words will most certainly kill us. ("Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe," Diacritics, 1987, 68)."
So the "Great Long National Shame," the truth of sexual gratification in and as theft, castration, allowing another to die in your place, is also the Great Secret Pride, the great open hidden secret, a wink and a nod, a slap on the back, fuel for the fire of the great projects of hierarchical establishment. This is why the women in Bill Duke's documentary on dark-skinned women say that they, in contradistinction to their lighter counterparts, tend to be seen as throwaway women, as flings or one-night stands, useful only for sex and not for marrying or commitment: the most disturbing thing about "Black is beautiful" is that Thomas Jefferson, against his own will and perhaps without his knowing, believed it, preferred Sally Hemings to his own wife, because there was something inescapable about the power relation indexed by color. Color became a crucial kind of therapy, as Derek Jarman would say, a means of assuaging one's fear and a sign which marked infinite love, infinite presence, a constellation which guided the nihilistic and psychotic drives and which held them as a reservoir.

The black children in my "multicultural," wealthy, cosmopolitan, liberal elementary school were those who bore the greatest number of epithets and were most ostracized for reasons which the white kids kept secret even from themselves: they never said, "we are teasing them because they are black," as we learned about Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass in second grade...somehow, however, certain children were pushed to the margins of the circle, obsessively taunted. Fred Moten argues, against Hannah Arendt's simple, "commonsense" idea of American racism as the rejection of the unwanted black, that in fact the black is the obsessively desired. How else do we explain the massive influence of a figure like Quincy Jones, a form like jazz or rock and roll, a disparate idiom like ebonics, upon the world?

The idea of the open secret: the open secret of gratuitous violence, to use Saidiya Hartman's notion, against the black body, borne out in the cases of Oscar Grant and Mark Duggan, Thomas Sankara, Walter Rodney, Tupac Shakur, Sarah Baartman, and Malcolm X, is inseparable from and in turn creates other secrets. Yet these secrets, these privatizations of space and language, are created for different reasons: the white secrets, "little white lies," (like the myth of whiteness itself) are created because people choose not to confront their own pasts--other secrets are made as improvised means to survive beneath an empire of conceits. As Baldwin put it in A Rap on Race:

Negro speech is vivid largely because it is private. It is a kind of emotional shorthand--or sleight-of-hand--by means of which Negroes express, not only their relationship to each other, but their judgment of the white world. And, as the white world takes over this vocabulary--without the faintest notion of what it really means--the vocabulary is forced to change. The same thing is true of Negro music, which has had to become more and more complex in order to continue to express any of the private or collective experience.