Sunday, January 10, 2010


I read James Baldwin's novel Go Tell It On the Mountain when I was maybe 12 or 13, still tied to my mother and father. Did I have to read it for school? I think not--I automatically hated most required books. I don't remember much of it, except that Baldwin's portrayal of the inner life of a sensitive kid dominated by a preacher father made me feel less alone with my aloneness in my own family, which was in most respects very different. The other thing I remember was the ending. I may have put a gloss on the story that isn't there, but I recall feeling relieved when the boy, John, finally succumbs to the pressure his father has been exerting; at the end of a protracted war with this powerhouse of a preacher man, John gives in, falls in, fits in, and rises up in his father's image as a boy preacher--Hallelujah!

This was a relief.  In my 12-year-old mind I assumed that John's boat had at last landed on  a sheltered familial shore, where he would dance in Pentecostal fervor for the rest of his life. Then I guess I moved on to some other book. A year or two later I jumped off the family cliff into my own massive rebellion, but at that time, I still craved safety.

Now I am reading Baldwin's wonderful short story collection, Going to Meet the Man. Oh, there's so much I realize I didn't know. Consider this from a black character: "All the white people Louisa has ever met needed, in one way or another, to be reassured, consoled, to have their consciences pricked but not blasted; could not, could not, afford to hear a truth which would shatter, irrevocably, their image of themselves. It is astonishing the lengths to which a person...will go in order to avoid a truthful mirror."

A healthy 12-year-old needs simple moral categories: The world in Black and White, if you will.  The truth is that adults, families, entire cultures, will go to 'astonishing lengths' to maintain a comforting image of who they are, morally speaking.  For example, I think that for my family, having books by James Baldwin and Malcolm X lying around the house shed a liberal aura that 'proved' our own racial attitudes were just fine, thank you.

This description of white people as needing to be 'consoled' by black people was probably not new to most of Baldwin's black readers. For me, it's a new light on something I have sensed but never consciously noticed.  Slavery Was Awful, Jim Crow Almost as Bad, and we whites are hyper-anxious about being pegged as any kind of racist.  We are so sensitive about it, in fact, that a lot of us will more or less avoid black people, except in controlled situations such as work environments. This is ironic, considering that most of us don't believe in segregation. My contention is that in order to really come to terms with what it means to be white in America, we have to be willing to make dumb mistakes.  I myself have said truly idiotic things to black friends in the process of grappling with the whole mess of American racial history...(Perhaps the most stinging discomfort is to feel like a fool).

"Hi, I'm Helen.  You don't think I'm racist, do you? By the way, can you wash your hair when it's all braided like that?"  No, I never said that.  But I might as well have. 

You gotta laugh.  I hope James Baldwin would find me amusing.


Laura said...

This is great - you remind me, again, of my own experience. I mentioned my roommate before - she had never lived with a white girl and I had never lived with a black girl - the first days were spent checking each other out and wondering about all those things. My mother told me that black people don't wash their hair. Wrong. Anyhow, in time we were comfortable enough to just address it all straight up, and we laughed. I am blessed to have had that experience at a young age. But, now I live in Oregon and it is not as common to see black people outside of the cities and I notice THAT I notice when there is someone black at the store or wherever. But I always feel a connection and an appreciation for the richness that my black friends have brought to my life.

hmallon said...

Thank you! Your experience with your roommate sounds like a real gift to both of you. I believe you said you are still friends--life's so atomised now that keeping a friend from youth is all the more precious.

I think sometimes white people think that to be 'colorblind' --to pretend not to notice the skin color of people who don't look like us--is somehow enlightened or progressive. In fact, often I think we're just anxious about thinking about or acknowledging race. To have the opportunity to do that in the context of friendship is wonderful.

Have you noticed your own racial attitudes 'slipping' in Oregon--seeing people less as people and more as 'other'? (Not to imply they have, of course... It's just hard not to be affected by the prevailing atmosphere.)

Laura said...

Yes, I do notice a difference in my racial attitudes at times. I grew up in PA, went to high school in New York and college in Boston so I had many black friends and acquaintances. That is different here in Oregon. However, I work at a college and we try to have some diversity so I may interact with more blacks and Hispanics than the typical white Oregonian. The president of the college is black and that is definitely a rare thing, especially here!

hmallon said...

It's never static, is it? Once you break through your own silence, in a way you have to keep breaking though...that's how it seems to me, anyway.