Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hammering Out Justice and Freedom: The White Man vs. James Baldwin in Take This Hammer

[this image of James Baldwin on the cover of Time magazine's 17 May 1963 ECD issue, is from here]

When James Baldwin speaks of "America" he is using the term most used often by many people to describe "The United States of America". It's the term that was, and is still today, used by many people to refer to this strange land that, as Andrea Dworkin once noted with stunning accuracy, has "no memory and no mind". Neither Baldwin nor Dworkin ever wrote about this country from a white heterosexual male conservative or liberal point of view. Andrea was a white Jewish radical feminist lesbian raised in a predominantly working class neighborhood of New Jersey. James was an African American boy, later a gay man, who was raised poor in Harlem in NYC. (For an utterly brilliant analysis of many aspects of James Baldwin's work, please read the "Communion" chapter in her greatly misunderstood and incredibly important book, Intercourse. For those who can afford to buy it, please try and get a copy or that tenth anniversary edition, as the twentieth anniversary version is being boycotted. To those who cannot purchase it, the tenth anniversary edition is most likely available through the interlibrary loan system across the U.S., if not also in other countries. To know why there is a boycott of the latest edition, click here.)

New York's harbor was an entrance point not only for people from Europe to come here to colonise and destroy this land, forging it with great violence into the United States, but was later a place for European immigrants to come to escape atrocities unfathomable to the new arrivals. What had been done here against African slaves and American Indians, was already wiped from the history books, or was told in such ways as to make slaves grateful, and Indians savage. But there has never been anyone more savage than the white man, and no Indigenous person could even attempt such savagery.

Born on August 2, 1924, Baldwin left this country for a good many years beginning in 1948, to escape the racism and homophobia that ran rampant across this land. He returned in 1957 to get involved in the struggle for Black Civil Rights.

All the quotes that follow were found  here.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. --James Baldwin

People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned. --James Baldwin

A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him [or her], and a child cannot afford to be fooled. --James Baldwin

Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the battle field. --James Baldwin

American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it. --James Baldwin

There's so much in Take This Hammer to analyse, appreciate, and apply to contemporary misogynistic Amerikkka. (I have three primary ways to refer to this country in writing: the U.S., Amerikkka, and "The United Rapes of Amerikkka".) The term America, to me never means only the U.S., as people from Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, and Argentina are all equally American. That is has been used by the white founding fathers to mean only the U.S. speaks to the arrogance of those white heterosexual men, living on land that never legitimately belonged to him.) There's so much for this radical profeminist (yours truly) to listen to and learn from. I wish there were more conversation between Baldwin and young and older women in it (there are bits, but they are brief indeed). But the footage is what it is and we cannot know that he didn't spend more time speaking with women; we only know this is how the editors thought it could be presented to a television audience. Most of his dialogue with women may well have ended up on the film editor's cutting room floor. James was not a man to see women as less human than men, which is obvious if you've read his novels. He portrays women with more complex humanity and political insight than any other male novelist, essayist, and playwright I know.

Be that as it may, what this film is reveals a great deal about oppression, how it works, what it does, how it impacts individuals who are part of a socially despised and politically subordinated group, and why morale is never ever an individual matter. It is always social and political, however personal it may also be. This is so whether we're speaking of the morale of women being structurally and intimately dominated by men; people of color or whites enduring and resisting white supremacist discrimination and invisibilisation; lesbians and other queer people or heterosexuals negotiating stereotypes, stigmas, and a lack of civil rights nationally; the poor enduring a country in which the rich are the greatest recipients of welfare (corporate welfare); in a capitalist state; Indigenous nations and people always facing genocide on lands stolen and colonised by white men; or Muslims and Jews being discriminated against and targeted for violence by white Christian men and boys--and all combinations thereof.

It's the sites of intersection and the overlapping of ways of being oppressed and oppressor that I think become especially truth-telling in a political climate where one issue and one vantagepoint tends to take center stage, as if everything else isn't also, always, going on too. So, for example, a working class Black woman in the U.S., some of whose heritage goes back to England and France as well as to the slaves as well as American Indians, due to white men raping each: what is her single issue? What is the single issue of any white middle class gay man who is part of a white settler country that Indigenous people are appropriately trying to reclaim? What about the white heterosexual woman who is being battered by her white husband, raising two children--a girl and a boy--from a previous marriage whose father was African American? How does she raise those children to know who they are in this country, while figuring out how to survive each day with a terrorist who threatens to kill all of them should she leave? And what of an elderly disabled Chicana woman who lives alone in an apartment in a white-majority city that won't keep sidewalks clear in the stormy winter months? What is the single issue for a homeless transgendered teenager who is drug-addicted and economically and psychologically trapped inside a system of prostitution and pornography, whose pimp takes most of the money, leaving them only with enough to buy drugs?

While people do not ever really live single-issue, single vantagepoint lives, urgent necessity may force--as class and race privilege often will allow--a person to prioritise one issue and perspective only. The battered woman may prioritise her need to escape over where she raises her children so that they are among people who can teach them how to survive in a white supremacist country. The gay white man think "gay rights" [not trans rights, not lesbian rights] is THE issue, never bothering to notice how his male, white, and class privileges make him ignorant of and callous towards the people fighting to take back their homeland.

There are many overlapping issues lessons in this footage of James Baldwin visiting a predominantly African American section of San Francisco, to speak with the people there about the condition of their lives, their experiences of The White Man, and what forms of survival are possible while living under WHM supremacy. "The Man" has always been white in this country, and the white man has always been straight--or at least heterosexist, racist, misogynistic and classist as hell. Baldwin is not there to discuss matters of sexual orientation, though he was most certainly an openly gay man when he visited the city. But, as you may well know, the predominantly gay male parts of town have never been the Blackest parts of town, and wealthy white gay men have made sure that will not ever be the case, as long as they live in The Castro.

Simplistically white liberal minds will not likely be able to hear or understand what James Baldwin is talking about. White conservatives won't bother to listen to him, period. Even white progressives may make some very simple mistakes in comprehending what Baldwin and the people of San Francisco are discussing.

One likely liberal misread would sound like this: "the way those Black folks speak about 'The White Man' is racist and misandrist". To say this, let alone believe it, is to be willfully, seriously, and irredeemably trapped in the illusions of the privileged, who are so very fond of professing "all people should be treated the same" or "feminism has succeeded" or "Blacks now have it good: we have a presidential Black family in the White House, after all". And that proves what, exactly? That white men don't rule this land? They do, while Barack Obama figures out how to work with the majority white Senate and Congresspeople to pass legislation that will likely do very little to shift this country away from its odd obsession and sadistic infatuation with wealth and white supremacy, its condescending "Christian" faith in heterosexual male power in secular and religious laws and customs. Regardless of the color of the man who is presently president, the U.S. government, on the whole, will not do a goddamned thing to change the power structures that Amerikka is built on.

These structures are no less in place due to Obama winning the election in the fall of 2008, and they are maintained with enormous force by white conservatives and the white liberals who wish to believe--against all evidence--that we live in a just land that cares about its citizens. Liberals, at least, tend to recognise our xenophobia, our racist and classist wars against nations of color, but only if off these shores. The racist, classist, gynocidal and genocidal war against American Indians remains some footnote in history in the white liberal imagination.

Our atrocities are generally invisibilised as such no matter how frequently or systematically the force of the oppressor comes down on the oppressed who wish to live in freedom. It takes a lot of effort, to say nothing of ignorance, to hold to ideas of what "America" is, when such ideas never were part of what constructed this country. And few, if any, white men have been willing even to own what this country really stands for and is, in the sense of naming it accurately, detailing the violence done, to whom and by whom.

The White Man exists, but only in a deadly manner of speaking. He exists politically, but not humanely. He rules this country with force as surely as adult disciplinarians rule children with the strap. And neither oppressed child nor oppressed adult wishes to be treated in this way, as a thing, owned, possessed, and ordered about by conditions that are beyond any individual's control. It is not just that The White Man is totalitarian and domineering. He is also delusional, ignorant, egotistical, defensive and offensive. His sense of self requires the subordination of others to be what it is. He doesn't exist unless all women, and men of color, are oppressed by him. He can't know love or empathy or compassion because he cannot see people as human beings because he is barely one himself. He can only see them through his White Man distortions and deceptions, stereotypes and stigmas. He perceives by projecting his inhumanity onto those he believes are inferior, never caring to note that no one could be as inhumane as he is.

His perverse position of power is held in place with forces seen and unseen. There is no meaningful consolation or redemption in being an oppressor, except that one doesn't have to experience what those s/he oppresses institutionaly. The oppressor's humanity is atrophied, ghostly and garish, because s/he will not own what s/he does and what it means that s/he does it.

As a white man, knowing what I am and what my people do in the name of being willfully and unwittingly white, in the effort to bolster some straight idea of manhood, I have learned to listen most carefully to two groups of people, who overlap significantly in many regards, primarily by existing as the same people. Women, and people of color. Each group is oppressed for being what it is supposed to be in the imagination of the white man. The African American is seen as the n*gger. The woman is seen, among other things, as the wh*re. And each group has to bear the brunt of the white man's projections and resist taking in anything he has to say about them. This is hard in a country that offers so little to so many, and so much to so few. And so it is to women of color to whom I most turn for the deepest truths about who they are and who I am--about what it means to them to be human, and what it means that I with my people, are grotesquely inhumane, some horrid combination of both n*gger and wh*ore. These two terms best describe white straight men, even while they greatly and bitterly resent knowing this about themselves, and will do just about anything, commit any atrocity, to prove that they are not either. One day white men will wake up to what we do, and we will know the whole ugly truth about ourselves. On that day, and not until that morning's sun rises, there will be a new kind of hope for humanity.

Before viewing, I welcome you to listen to this one song. It is about what to do with a hammer, should you find one in your hands.

Take This Hammer will hopefully be discussed here for a while.

Please note that just under the video's frame, there is the option to view the film with or without captions. These captions are largely accurate but not entirely so; there are moments identified in them as "[inaudible]" when, if you are a hearing person and listen carefully, you can usually discern exactly what is being said.

I hope you get a lot out of viewing this amazing program that aired on National Educational Television in 1964.  It might just as well have been filmed last week: Take This Hammer. I hope we collectively use it wisely to create more justice and freedom for all.

[An addendum, written 23 Nov. 2009: As Dog16arma notes below, one need not watch this footage to learn about oppression. There are plenty of women of color whose work reveals the intricacies and entanglements of many forms of oppression, including the brutality, interpersonal and institutional of men's war against women.]