White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.–James Baldwin, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” The Fire Next Time (1963)
Christian non-violence is not built on a presupposed division, but on the basic unity of man (sic). It is not out for the conversion of the wicked to the ideas of the good, but for the healing and reconciliation of man with himself, man the person and man the human family (sic). –Thomas Merton, “Blessed are the Meek,” Faith and Violence (1968)
There’s much power in anger, but love’s a bigger banger! –311, “Omaha Stylee,” Grassroots (1994)
Re-reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time for a class I’m presently teaching on African-American cultural criticism, I am reminded that the cause for racial reconciliation begins with me. I am a white male who, in spite or perhaps because of my privilege, sympathizes with the plight of the racially oppressed, embodied by Baldwin’s 14-year-old nephew to whom he addresses “My Dungeon Shook”—a public letter written in 1963 on the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation.
Keeping Baldwin in mind, racial reconciliation requires a radical self-acceptance which is neither a hasty defense of a falsely-perceived innocence nor a misinformed admission of guilt, but a “fruitful communion with the depths of [my] being”—a task to which Baldwin calls white people in his essay: “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.”
Taking Baldwin further, racial reconciliation is a matter of seeing myself as I really am: a sinnner. I do not say this in a self-flagellating way nor with the weight of an unhealthy shame that only serves to perpetuate sin. No. I am a sinner inasmuch as I do not love myself.
I sin in the conviction that there is an irreconcilable inner deficiency, a fundamental lack of wholeness at the center of my being, a space in my experience of being alive where loves does not exist. It is this kind of sin, understood as a skewed conception and willful ignorance of the original dignity of my own humanity, which gives justification for a sense of self-hatred that has dire social and political consequences. Indeed, in the conviction that I am somehow unlovable and therefore unloved merely by virtue of being me, I warp the way in which I relate to the world—responding to others with envy, lustfully coveting what I do not believe I already posses, when invited to humility.
I sin in jealously guarding my inner insecurity with anger, harboring a disease of self-doubt that blinds me to the humanity of the other, whoever that may be. For so long as I am convinced by my own unworthiness to be loved, I cast a shadow upon my brothers and sisters wherever they be located on the social map. So long as I do not love myself, I make of the other a slave to my own insatiable need for gratification—the gratification of power, status, privilege, and supremacy that betrays a deeply embedded anxiety about the actual status of my own existence in the world. It discloses an insidious pride, a compensatory arrogance that says this world exists for me, this world exists to satisfy an existential longing for love that I have been unable to locate within myself, that I have been unable, or unwilling, to identify as constitutive of what it means to be me, to be alive, in the first place.
If the history of racialized violence against black bodies in the United States is any indication, and I believe it is, we live in a society predicated on self-hatred that manifests systemically as white supremacy and all the privilege and power that comes with it. It is self-hatred masquerading as prestige that lusts after the possession of classed and black(ened )bodies for profit and, in this, the increased strength of the behemoth State—what 20th Century Trappist monk Thomas Merton would call Fatman, a metaphor for the despotic will to power which operates at all levels of society. It is Fat Man, drunk on his own gluttony for material security, who turns a blind eye to the facts of human history which detail a disorder in the human heart. A global pandemic that manifests as the prejudicial scapegoating of the demonized other, burdened with the weight of a projected self-hatred that manifests as oppression.
America has over 500 years of racialized oppression—including slavery and its treacherous effects in the ongoing socio-economic and political disenfranchisement of blacks by way of outsourced labor, the ghettoization of urban life through government neglect, and the racialized violence of police brutality—to prove that this predicament is very real. Such disorder is testament to the “inhumanity and fear” of the racist whites about whom Baldwin speaks to his nephew, warning his brother’s son that he was “born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being,” that “[y]ou where not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity” (21). This follows Baldwin’s more urgent call to awareness which is the thematic thrust of the letter: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger” (18).
Against this threat of social death, Baldwin reminds his nephew that the worthlessness which has been foisted upon his black male body is in fact reflective of white worthlessness. Knowledgeable of the danger that his nephew may indeed internalize such “inhumanity and fear” as lies at the heart of white racism, Baldwin bestows upon him a monumental task predicated on a radical self-love:
There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you (sic). The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them (sic). And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. (22)
This is the kind of love that infuses the spirit of the Christian Gospel. It lies at the heart of Christian Beatitude and is a fundamental tenet of Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violence which sought, by way of conversion, to awaken the oppressor to his own blindness—to in fact heal him of his blindness to a history in which he is trapped, as Baldwin notes, a history he will not understand until he sees it through the eyes of those whom he has oppressed.
This kind of reconciliation is impossible without love. It is a love that is costly, demanding a willing surrender of the will to power that implicates all of us—black, white, brown, or yellow—in a necessarily disorienting process of decolonization by which we dispossess ourselves of the jealous need to possess. Only then can we go about the work of change.
Though a highly charged and strikingly visual display of frustrated anger—especially righteous if it is coming from those whose waking existence is in constant surveillance of the watchful and disciplining eye of the law—protest and rioting will only go so far, if at all, to change how we learn to be human with each other. This is especially the case when those “anarchists” parading the streets displace the matter at hand—that is, the racialized violence of police brutality—by what church pastor and civil rights activist Michael McBride calls a “manufactured anger.” It represents a disingenuous cry for revolution which has more to do with a concern for their own image and place in the world than it does with those whose lives, they proclaim, matter.
I am of course referring to myself when I offer this critique–a riff on a range of voices I’ve been “hearing” via social media in the days since the Eric Garner decision. In recognizing my own “manufactured anger,” I cannot but implicate myself in the critiques of misguided provocateurs. For I am no less guilty than the disillusioned looter of letting my misdirected hostility distract from what I would like to believe at heart is a sincere concern for the ones who are actually suffering.
Instead of cultivating into love the anger I feel at the injustices wrought on black bodies, I unleash spiteful and what one colleague would deem “polarizing epithets” against Fat Man where my rightness, righteousness, and anti-authoritarian “coolness” might be put on public display—be it on my facebook wall with the juvenile hashtag #FuckCrookedCops, a reactionary response to the unaccounted for deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among countless other unnarmed black men (and women), at the hands of white officers; or in a mutually aggressive verbal altercation with a city cop outside of the Berkeley Police Department Headquarters this past Saturday night after I was admonished for impetuously walking inside of a police barricade on my way home from dinner with a friend.
In each instance I have failed to acknowledge the disorder in my own heart, refusing to withdraw the shadow of “fear,” the terror of worthlessness, I have projected onto the demons I’ve made of the other—in this case, “the system,” or the “crooked cops” who represent it. In this way, I have failed my brothers and sisters of color who are really suffering, whose bodies are the target of the violence I decry but in fact perpetuate, my housemate reminded me after telling her of my brief brush with police, by my own frustrated and reactive anger—a rage informed by hatred rather than love.
Thus Baldwin’s challenge to his nephew is no less a challenge to me, as a self-proclaimed white ally, to consider seriously how my own sense of worthlessness—that sin of self-hatred—is part and parcel of what keeps Fatman in power as a social system structured by a discourse of deficiency. His is a language of lack which blinds us to our in-born capacity for love and the responsibility to love that this entails. Indeed, Fatman’s gluttony is my own. And until I accept myself as I am—a sinner in need of love—I will only contribute to a cycle of violence that pits “us” versus “them” rather than loving in a way that will “force [my] brothers and sisters to see themselves as they are” (24): beloved children of love who, in their sin, are in need of love. It is a love that resists definition, that is beyond comprehension, but which exists in each of us as the source of life itself.
Taking up the task which Baldwin bestows upon his nephew, I ask myself: What in me is in need of acceptance so that I may accept the demonized other—whoever that may be? What is to be gained by recognizing my own culpability in a system of self-hatred, owning my projected self-hatred, and transforming the anger I feel at the injustices I see into love for the ones who persecute? I believe a lot is to be gained, namely the freedom to end my participation in the cycle of violence which makes of racial reconciliation nothing more than the impossible dream of a soft utopian idealism.
With Baldwin, I recognize that “[o]ne can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical in the face of destruction and death, for this is what most of [humankind] has been best at since we have heard of [human]” (19). And with Baldwin, I likewise hold to the qualification that “most of [humankind] is not all of [humankind]” (19). If I didn’t believe that, I would not be writing this—an attempt at reconciling with that demon self-hatred within which, when so easily projected onto the other, aborts all possibility for calling the oppressor to historical consciousness. For calling him to a self-critical awareness of his own status as victim to an ill-conceived innocence which, Baldwin rightly notes, “constitutes the crime” (20).
As a self-appointed advocate for the racially oppressed and a self-proclaimed nephew to Baldwin, to say nothing of my location as a human being, I can do nothing to change the system without love. So long as I resort to violence in word, thought, or deed I submit to what I’ll call the white man’s disease of “niggerism”—an unreconciled sense of inner deficiency, an original self-splitting wound of separation, that refuses to love because it cannot believe that it can be loved, yet which can only be redressed by love, in love, through love, for love.
Hence Baldwin’s closing remarks to his “truculent” recipient in “My Dungeon Shook”: “We cannot be free until they are free” (24). Riffing on this profound insight, I’d add that the dynamic works both ways: “They cannot be free until we are free.” So long as we believe we are unlovable and therefore unloved, we will not be free to love those who would have us believe in the fiction of human worthlessness—who are themselves victims of the conviction to worthlessness.
Instead, we will fester in our loathing and react in ways that do nothing to convince either our “true selves,” echoing Merton, or each other of the dignity we share by dint of being human. Let our protest, in the spirit of Baldwin, Buddha, Day, Gandhi, Jesus, Merton, Mohammad, King, X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Parks, Tubman, Douglass, Mother Mary, The Beatles, Sun Ra, Tupac, Cohen, Dylan, Lamar and so on be one of love. This is no small matter. Indeed, it is a very grave matter—a matter of life or death, freedom or slavery—that implicates every single one of us in an act of becoming. Not over and against each other, but in reciprocal appreciation for the fact that we are in this place together—saints and sinners within ourselves—who come to know love by being loved, who come to being loved by loving.
For my part, as one who claims identification with Baldwin’s nephew, as one who considers himself an adopted nephew of Baldwin in his own right, I cannot persist in hating the hater for, as Baldwin makes clear in “Down at the Cross,” to debase others is to debase oneself (113). To debase others is diabolical behavior symptomatic of an already debased sense of oneself. It is as Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation: “Instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed–but hate these things in yourself (sic), not in another” (122). Thus, the cause for racial reconciliation begins with me.