James Baldwin, the twentieth century novelist and writer, is as insightful as ever. If we want to understand our times, the racism and white supremacy we inhabit, I believe we should read Baldwin, especially his Notes of a Native Son. In Notes, Baldwin claims we live with “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality,” a denial-based optimism in which we fail to confront our racist history and its parasitic grasp on all of our lives. This sentimentality, he claims, “is the mark of dishonesty, and the inability to feel.” Those who think of themselves as white (I’ll add those tempted by the desire to be white) and live with a deep trust in the American dream embrace this mark of dishonesty as a way of hiding from the wretched underbelly of our history. The paradoxical consequence is this: “the sentimentalist betrays his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”
We can use Baldwin’s example in literature to unpack what he means by “self-righteous sentimentality.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a prime example of the American protest novel, dishonestly imagines the history of the United States and those who inhabit it. Its characters are marked by a humanist and liberal impulse, condemnatory of the violence they see. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” exclaims Miss Ophelia, the “disapproving Yankee cousin to St. Clare, the kindly master” who claims that “blacks have been turned over for the benefits of the whites.” There is a mark of moral perfection in her tone. “The exclamation is neatly framed, and incontestable, like those improving mottos sometimes found hanging on the walls of furnished rooms,” writes Baldwin. There is a sense in which the master’s voice is shocking to his cousin, his racism somehow never seen or experienced. The guiding ethos presumes that his racism is a minority opinion, that the majority culture universally affirms black dignity.
But such a reality is far from the truth. Under Baldwin’s diagnoses, the optimistic vision of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is “foreign, on the strength of these good intentions.” Its reality is “wild improbably.” Baldwin was not against a humanist vision, insofar as giving concrete and material freedom to African-Americans was concerned. Instead, he was suspicious of any short-cut to human freedom, and he believed that protests novels were shortcuts, attempts to affirm universal human dignity without paying attention to the past: the deep, violent, and bloodied social and cultural soil out of which their naive optimism grew. Protest novels are not telescopes that show us the future we are heading down, but “a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.”
It is not hard to imagine that Baldwin’s essay could have been written just yesterday: Imagine for a moment that he is alive now, he too is on lockdown, troubled by what he sees and reads in the news. Instead of reading protest novels he is watching the videos of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Arbery was shot dead under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute, which allows you to arrest someone if you witness them commit a crime. Abery’s killers didn’t see him commit any crime, they only assumed he did, and shot him in the course of his resistance to their attempted arrest. In Floyd’s video, Floyd lays forcefully against the concrete ground, begging for relief as a police officer thrusts his knee into Floyd’s neck. Both videos reveal what Baldwin calls “a hot, self-righteous, fearful, Spirit.” It is the “spirit of medieval times which sought to exorcise evil by burning witches; and is not different from that terror which activates a lynch mob.” Behind them stood some sense of law, justification, of right and duty, they were practitioners of justice, upright citizens and police officers filing their respective roles as responsible American citizens, living within the dream of “virtuous sentimentality.” This spirit brought Arbery and Floyd to their end.
In truth, most of us are not far from their killers, and I believe this to be one of Baldwin’s great insights—as Americans, so many of us carry that spirit of terror within. Of course, I didn’t shoot Arbery, it’s not my knee that Floyd felt jabbing his throat. Yet, if one looks at our cities, neighborhoods, and history, it is tragically not surprising—even if traumatic and shocking—to see these videos surface. This past year I lived in west Woodlawn, a predominately African American community on the Southside of Chicago. I have vivid memories of watching students from the University of Chicago purposefully avoid crossing Cottage Grove, the street that separates West Woodlawn from East Woodlawn, A predominately African American community from the University of Chicago. The death of Arbery and Floyd traces itself back to there, into that anxiety which stops so many of us from crossing Cottage Grove or spending time on the Southside. This is the same anxiety that instills that grave image of African American men as outside agitators, always Other, never Us, always breaking the law, never just going for a run.
Baldwin drew on a one-hundred-year-old novel to critique the political optimism of the 1960’s. Yet, such commentary speaks prophetically to us sixty years later. Amid today’s cries for justice, Baldwin begs for us to examine ourselves fully. This is no excuse to deny justice for the families of Arbery and Floyd. Instead, it is Baldwin’s prophetic announcement that we are guilty as a community, terribly guilty of a denial that stretches two hundred years back, a denial that built segregated communities, that scares us from crossing streets, a denial that—when not confessed—regularly pulverizes lives in the name of “justice.” Arbery and Floyd’s deaths are symptoms, and that is what is so terrible about all of it.
If we really want justice, then we have to do the terrifying but purging act of taking account for the whole. We must interrogate on every level that dishonest but violent spirit Baldwin speaks of: not only in the immediate killers, but in our economic system, in the organization of our communities, in our colleges, churches, towns, cities, friendships, and in ourselves.
“Our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult—that is, accept it.” Notes of a Native Son