Where Do You Believe That We Should Go From Here?: A Question About James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro

This is a communication that I received in response to a posting dealing with the need for African-Americans to go and see James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro.

I believe that it is not only imperative for African-Americans to view “I am not your negro”, but it is imperative for European-Americans as well.   

It is simply impossible to argue with Mr. Baldiwn.  He his powerful, persuasive, rational and cuts to the quick without fear or hesitation.  His words are hard for European-Americans to hear.  They are an unwelcome reminder that we (yes I’m one of them) have been the beneficiaries of 400 years of racial politics in White America’s favor, and of the debt we therefore owe to those who were oppressed, abused and murdered for our benefit, namely principally, but not exclusively those of African and Native-American dissent.  Until we in White America can face this fact, we white Americans cannot reasonably expect the stain of racism to be washed from us, and we cannot expect the anger, justifiable anger, at us and at the hypocrisy of our “liberal” and “humanist” principles.  

And this is just as true for the recent European immigrant as the “sons and daughters” of the so called American Revolution.  My family did not come into this country until 2 and 3 years before the Civil Rights act and Voting rights act passed and became law, respectively.  I was not born until after their passage.  So it would be easy for me to say I have no blame, no guilt and no responsibility for what European-Americans did before my family even landed on these shores.  

However, that is so clearly a cop out and is based on a complete misunderstanding of the legacy and current state of racism in America.  Wittingly or not, I personally benefited from a system that favored me over others because of the color of my skin (and because of my being male).  As a child perhaps I was too young to know or object or reject those benefits, but as a man, I must face the truth of them.  It is not different than the child of a slave owner saying, “it’s not my fault that my daddy owns slaves, and that they make my bed, and cook for me, bathe me, farm for me, and make my family wealthy while they are abused, oppressed and not free”.  It may not be the child’s fault, but it is the man’s fault if he fails to recognize that he benefitted at the expense of others suffering and to seek to find a way to make it right, to the extent such a thing can ever be made right.  

So as a European-American male let me say this:  I KNOW that I have benefitted unfairly from the color of my skin and from my sex.  Any European-American who does not fully and completely accept that truth is lying to themselves and is harming this nation and perpetuating the wrong done by slavery and racism.  Any European-American who does not fully accept this is just as much the cause of the perpetuation of racism and oppression as Trump or the KKK or White Supremacists.  

The question that all awake European-Americans must struggle with is, ok, so I know I got that benefit, unfairly, undeservedly at the expense of others, what now?  What now?  What are my responsibilities and my duties and my obligations now that I am awake to that awful and awesome truth.  That is where the discussion should be for White America.  And I believe that the words of James Baldwin and the movie “I am not your Negro” present an incredible opportunity for self reflection and awareness in White America as well.  That is why I believe that it is imperative that White Americans also go see that extraordinary film.

I don’t and can’t blame an African-American for hating White Americans especially where we White Americans almost universally refuse to see the hypocrisy of our principles and the obvious fact of our personal gain at the expense of our African-American peers.  To not understand that and expect that is willful blindness, a comfortable place no doubt, but nevertheless wrong, utterly wrong.

Where do you believe we should go from here?

Christoph T Nettesheim

Let me first say thank you for reaching out to me with this poignant thought that conveys an excellent view of the quagmire that we call American race relations; I wish white people possessed such acumen and the courage to espouse it publicly. I pray that you are doing so when surrounded by others from your community whose view of American racial dynamics conflict with your insightful thoughts. I believe that Malcolm X was correct in his summation that the most efficient way that sympathetic whites could aid the struggle for racial equality is for them to return to their community and teach those within their community who are deaf to blacks in regards to anything dealing with race. The alluded to deafness becomes insurmountable once it becomes clear that the evils of prejudice, discrimination, and racism not only have its origins within that community but also it is maintained by the members of their community.

Now in regards to your query of, “Where do you believe that we should go from here?” I have two strains of thoughts. My initial thought is aimed at what I see as the only path to racial justice, not equality or fairness, in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It is also one that I articulate with the full understanding that it will NEVER occur for reasons that will become apparent as you read it.

Answer I: The path to racial justice in America.

Strangely, Americans living under the same conditions have advanced two irreconcilable arguments regarding the way to solving this nation’s racial dilemma. One path projects that if we would simply ignore race, it would disappear. Others advance the idea that if we would communicate about racial matters that they would eventually work themselves out. Although I am a member of the latter camp, I also hold grave reservations regarding this thinking as I believe that it is not only flawed but also a convenient escape from responsibility for those who have reaped a bounty of political power and economic might.  Let me also say that I most certainly do recognize that the stolen African and their descendants were not the only populations exploited for labor on the North American continent. However, at this moment I am specifically addressing the systematic state-sanctioned injury perpetrated against persons of African descent.

When one considers that the multi-faceted injury to persons of African descent occurred over several centuries the repair of such an injury, not to mention the dispensing of a modicum of justice, is nearly unfathomable. Let’s be clear on this matter and forthrightly state the reality that this genocidal injury could never be justly addressed with economic resources as many have foolishly called for. Not even the complete transferal of all of the wealth generated by the forced labor of Africans could repair the injury that has been caused by whites. Put simply; if we are seeking justice, the type and intensity of damage doled out by whites on persons of African descent can and never will be repaid.

Now on to a more realistic discussion of a possible solution to the American racial dilemma.

Answer II: Where do we go from here?

Considering that contemporary Americans have inherited what can only be termed an absolute mess in regards to racial dynamics, the path forward begins with an honest conversation regarding the very pillars of this nation. Towards that end, it is imperative that all Americans receive an education regarding the dubious roots of this nation.  An unsuspecting white populace must be made aware of a historical record that includes figures such as that made by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson to allow their actions to contradict their words.  The construction of a politically expedient and economically beneficial system providing many politico-economic benefits to whites. I have found that unless we have all read the same books and fact sheets that a productive discussion regarding race is impossible. Honest discussion is crucial to this process as it tends to usher persons on both sides of the debate toward unprecedented breakthroughs. However, the American record definitively proves that small discussion is insufficient to close the racial divide.

Make no mistake about it; I place both the generation and perpetuation of American racial discord at the feet of whites; as the great James Baldwin related, African-Americans only want whites to get out of our way. When viewed closely, the antics and utterances of those who could be comfortably termed “black supremacists” are merely unenforceable wishes and desires being hurled at a dominant white community that refuses to get out of their way. It is crucial that whites realize that black anger is solely attributable to a hostile white population that has not only monopolized the politico-economic resources that are pre-requisites to merging onto the path to liberation. Particularly troubling is the reality that whites’ have strategically placed themselves as toll booth operators possessing the power to impede both your access and travel on the path toward “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” America’s racial problems will never recede until whites realize that they are the originators and perpetrators of racial bias.

If a progressive white consciousness regarding racial matters were ever achieved, I think that whites would no longer recoil at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., poignant assertion that “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”

Dr. King’s decades’ old insightful observation is the very pivot that will determine the future of American race relations. There is no hope for any genuine racial reconciliation without a serious attempt at repairing the prolonged damage done to the material subsistence, educational restraints, and psychological state of the descendants of enslaved Africans. Make no mistake about it; this is a long overdue bill. If this nation is serious about quelling racial discord, which I do not believe to be true, there is no other reasonable path forward.

Probably the most challenging aspect of this process is not securing agreement among whites regarding the need for reparations, rather it is found in reaching a consensus regarding what the alluded to compensation will look like. Having viewed quite a few reparation plans that called for land, monies, education, and loans, I must relate that each has left me with an unsettled feeling. I attribute my queasiness to the reality that regardless of the compensation being pursued, it neither approaches an unreasonable threshold of justice nor offers the potential to close the historical racial inequities that have held steady for since emancipation.

After having articulated all of this, I am forced to admit that I do not know what the path forward looks like for a nation whose daily operation reminds persons of African descent of the historical injustices that their ancestors experienced on this soil. Particularly saddening to me is the reality that I have so much company in this club of not knowing what an appropriate path forward looks like. When I think about it, not knowing what to do about the racial dilemma may be the only commonality to be found among a politically diverse and economically stratified American populace.

And that is most certainly not a good thing.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race, and Culture, 2017

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