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#157: PROPHETS AND ANGELS. A few more words and works apropos of the new visibility of racism in America.

One of the best documentaries I’ve seen of late has been Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, about Richard Baldwin. Later in life Baldwin wanted to write about the near-simultaneous murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom he had known and all of whom he had counted as friends. The book was never written, and Peck has delved, with the assistance of Baldwin’s family, into the literary and visual archives Baldwin left behind to tell the story. This is a superb film, both aurally and visually. Peck enlisted Samuel L. Jackson to do the narration, and Jackson’s voice has never sounded so calm and beautiful; he deliberately stayed away from mimicking Baldwin’s own voice, which in the film excerpts is a splendid mixture of the terse and the thoughtful. The visuals are skillfully chosen to tell the story and to deliver some startling contrasts: at one point the romantic angle of Doris Day’s throat during a musical number is juxtaposed with the image of a lynched woman. Here again we see the shocking and cheap meanness of racism as well as its dangerous and often murderous intent. The anguish of the film makes it a moving triple elegy, a questioning of whatever progress we might hope and think we’ve made, and a powerful incitement to an examination of our own motives and actions. As with Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, we are caught off guard when some of the period footage is mixed with more recent events. Of his time, Baldwin wrote, “To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep.” We must assume they are weeping still.

Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Anti-Racist (One World, 2019) is a sharp-edged, sharply reasoned anatomy of the varied ideas and manifestations of racism. It would be a wise or stubborn person, I think, who could read this book and not learn from it. Kendi uses an autobiographical framework to trace how the ideas of racism flow one out of the other—he delineates them and we consider them as he experiences them. It’s an ingenious device, subtly used, and it gives logic and weight as well as form to his reactions. His theory is that our notion of how racism originates is literally backwards. Kendi said, in an interview on WNYC, “Instead of ignorance and hate leading to racist ideas and racist ideas leading to racist policies, racist policies have been leading to racist ideas and racist ideas have been leading to ignorance and hate,” and that “Those who were producing racist ideas were doing so to justify existing policies that typically benefited them.” I’m not sure that mightn’t be open to chicken-and-egg argument, but Kendi’s presentation of the reality and effect of these ideas is vivid and cogent. He’s particularly interesting on when racism branches off into ideas of family structure, feminism and gender preference: the chapter, for instance, about when, in the 1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan took a shot at reinforcing the patriarchy for black families. “Ideas often sing a cappella,” Kendi writes about his own family’s silence on homophobia, but the Moynihan moment reminds us that idiocy is often legion and sings in chorus. Happily, Kendi always keeps the ideal opposite in view: for every chapter and facet of racism, there is its corresponding anti-racist definition, so that the book is more about incitement to action than to despair: “Racism has always been recognizable and mortal.” His policies-first theory leads with some logic to the extended similes at the end of the book between racism and cancer—not just cancer but his own experience of it and victory over it. It comes at a time when we need not just encouragement but instruction against despair—if there is indeed any other time—and Kendi’s angels are too busy thinking and teaching to spend time on tears.

P.S. 2021: A recent and excellent book is The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America, by Nicholas Buccola (Princeton, 2019). In 1965, James Baldwin’s British publisher got him invited to the Cambridge Union to debate, the chosen theme being “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin’s opponent in the debate would be William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review and seen at the time as the conservative movement’s heavy thinker. The debate was widely publicized, broadcast by the BBC, and is still visible (in an edited form, though Baldwin’s speech is complete) on Youtube. Buccola does an admirable job of tracing the two opponent’s careers as well as their stances towards the civil rights movement. Reading Buccola—who seems to me to play fair throughout—and watching the debate itself, I felt that Buckley showed a disconcerting ability to handle things wrong end foremost and, less importantly, comported himself like the character in an Indiana Jones movie whose suavity marks him out (immediately) as a rotter and probably a Nazi. I am not, I admit, impartial: Buckley has always gotten up my nose. But by the end of Baldwin’s speech, which received the only standing ovation then on record in the Cambridge Union, Buckley admitted later he knew he wasn’t going to be able to win the evening. Both the debate and Buccola’s book are hair-raising exhibits of what you could say even into the nineteen-sixties and not be thought a raving racist; they make Baldwin’s passion and his concern the whole American community seem all the more heroic and humane.


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