Invoking James Baldwin: When a People is Isolated in the Sights of Hate

Actor Liam Neeson is in the news this week after having told an interviewer that he understood and could draw on the deep, primal urge for violent revenge because he had felt this nearly forty years earlier when a close friend revealed that she had been brutally raped.  Neeson also immediately told the same interviewer that within a few days of seeking an opportunity to act on his race-focused rage, he “came back to Earth,” and was horrified and deeply ashamed of what he had felt and of what he had nearly done.  For the last several days, he has dealt patiently and humbly with dozens more interviewers who want to focus on the rage, rather than on his shame–and on what that shame could teach any of us who, in dormant or wakeful rage, have trained our assault sights on a people, rather than on a particular guilty person.

Listening to Neeson, I keep hoping someone will invoke the great James Baldwin, whom I believe would, if he could, lay a hand on the actor’s shoulder and say, “I understand.”    Many years ago, when I was writing an essay about a similar, shocking rage and the shame that followed, I remembered how Baldwin had whispered in my ear.

Here’s a passage from my essay, “Notes of an Expatriate Daughter,” which is in my first book, Window: Stories and Essays.

 

In “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin describes his own moment of breaking.  Though he was plenty aware that racial hatred was thriving—on both sides—he believed he could prove to the world how anyone, if he so chose, could rise above it.  He had discovered, he was sure, that if he behaved as though he was worthy of respect, he would get it, and he scorned as primitive and paranoid his father’s certainty that whites, no matter how outwardly decent they might appear, conspired to obliterate blacks.  It wasn’t until his first year out of high school, when he went to work at a defense plant in New Jersey, that Baldwin realized there were people who didn’t care how he acted, since all that mattered was that his skin was the wrong color.  Day after day, week after week, he was either openly rejected with “We don’t serve Negroes here” or patently ignored.  He was twice fired without cause, but because of his intelligence and presence of mind, was able to force the plant to rehire him.  By the third time, the plant management had figured out how to close all the loopholes, so he prepared to move back to his family’s apartment in Harlem.

On his last night in New Jersey, a white friend came in from New York to treat him to dinner and a movie.  Baldwin writes how he could feel the tension of that year pulling tighter and tighter from the moment the ironic title of the film, This Land is Mine, flashed across the screen.  Afterwards, he and his friend stopped into the American Diner where the counterman glared at Baldwin and hissed, “We don’t serve Negroes here.”  In reply, Baldwin made a cutting remark about the diner’s name, but it wasn’t until he was on the street again that at last he snapped.  It was as though, he says, a cord connecting his head to his body had been severed, and so he walked on, without any plan or destination, every step mastered by body rather than mind, his only conscious desire “to do something to crush the white faces, which were crushing” him.

Moments later, he pushes through the doors of a swank restaurant, sits down at the first vacant table he sees, and waits until a frightened waitress approaches and whispers, somewhat apologetically, “We don’t serve Negroes here.”  Wanting to wrap his hands around her throat, he pretends not to have heard her, willing her to come closer to repeat the phrase.  When she doesn’t, he grabs a water pitcher from the table and hurls it at her, but she manages to duck, sending the pitcher crashing into a mirror behind the bar.

Suddenly awake to what he has done, he runs for the door and with difficulty escapes the knot of men who have caught him and begun to beat him.  Once outside, his white friend, who has been waiting in the shadows, tells him to run, then misdirects the police, allowing Baldwin to slip away and get back to his apartment.

Over the next several hours, he relives the incident dozens of times, realizing that he could easily have been killed.  But he must also face, to his own horror, that he himself “had been ready to commit murder.”  He continues:  “I saw nothing clearly but I did see this:  that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.”

 

 

 

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