In the month of what would be James Baldwin’s 94th birthday, White Supremacists gathered in our Nation’s Capitol on the anniversary of the murder of a Civil Rights activist. Heather Heyer, a young white woman who worked for a black lawyer and thus saw racism even in the eyes, actions, and words of those clients in need of her employer’s expertise, died on the front lines of this long-fought war. In the month of his birth, James Baldwin’s words are incredibly poignant:
Because on the American continent, they talk about the color problem, but the truth is, that no white American is sure he is white, and every American negro visibly is no longer in Africa. And we know what happened and we know who had the whip.
So it was not my grandmother who raped anybody.
…Forget all the mountains of nonsense that has been written, and everything that has been said. Forget the negro problem- don’t write any voting acts, we had that, it’s called the 15th Amendment. We don’t need a Civil Rights Bill of 1964. What you have to look at is what is happening in this country. And what is really happening is that brother has murdered brother knowing that it was his brother. White men have lynched negroes knowing them to be their sons. White women have had negroes burned knowing them to be their lovers. It is not a racial problem. It is a problem whether or not you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it. (“Baldwin’s Nigger” documentary, 1965)
In 1965 Horace Ové directed a rawly open documentary, “Baldwin’s Nigger,” in which James Baldwin and Dick Gregory spoke to a room of other people of color “presenting dialogue between black people as if no white people were present” (BFI Screen Online, “Baldwin’s Nigger,” 1965). The documentary is meant to be instructional for White people, to remove the White-washing of previous discussions and debates on race in White spaces; like that found in the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley (1965). Still, Baldwin was the first to earn a standing ovation for debate at Cambridge.
The crux of the meaning of Baldwin’s words- “It is a problem whether or not you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it,” places the “negro problem” directly in the laps of those who created it, who continue to invest in it. “We have invented the nigger,” he said in the documentary Take This Hammer in 1963, “I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. … If I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? … Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back: You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.”
Baldwin examines the White problem of attempting to escape the responsibility of creating the “nigger” while at the same time perpetuating their stolen privilege by supporting systems of racism. To put it more straightforward and forthrightly: White people hate themselves. They hate the abject evil their families inflicted on countless other families, the descendants of which they live next to today. They are perpetually attempting to escape the consequences of their wretched past by perpetuating hate of the “nigger-“ but the “nigger” is their own invention. The “nigger” is their brother by rape. When White Americans see Black Americans they see generations of White crime, of White ignorance, of White evil. White Americans hate what they see in Black Americans- themselves; the crimes of their fathers, the crimes they continue to perpetrate and perpetuate in their callow, absurd attempt to outrun history and maintain their privilege.
In 2016 Raoul Peck directed I Am Not Your Negro, based on Baldwin’s unfinished book, This House. Peck, Haitian by descent, said, “It was incredible to see. It’s happening again, almost the same words and the same anger. And then you see that, my God, nothing has changed fundamentally,” which is why Baldwin’s sales are up 110% now, and why blood that is no longer White and no longer Black will continue to spill, until White America holds itself accountable. And it will take more than one Heather Heyer to do so.