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James Baldwin as a budding writer. He was as an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western society, most notably in regard to the mid-twentieth-century United States. Image: With Permission - Photograph by Richard Avedon / © the Richard Avedon Foundation
James Baldwin as a budding writer. He was as an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western society, most notably in regard to the mid-twentieth-century United States. Image: With Permission - Photo: all-souls.org/events/james-baldwin

The Pain of Others: Have we learned anything yet?

Jun 30, 2020
by Stephanie Hiller

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Black writer James Baldwin articulated a stunning revelation that white people need Negroes to carry the burden, not only of labor, but to embody our own negative or lower self, of which we are afraid..  In a New Yorker essay later published in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin wrote: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” A weird, symbiotic but destructive relationship has possessed us in the 400 years since white men enslaved blacks. But this “othering” of a class of people different from ourselves is not only reserved for black people, not only for people of color, but for people of sexual difference, and the poor; and it is a license to kill.

It may serve us for a time but it does not help us. The pressure that builds up as we suppress feelings we do not want to own eventually creates an explosion, not always physical but violent and destructive nevertheless, whether it takes the form of police brutality, genocide, war or domestic abuse. Our violence requires a victim, usually someone weaker, or made weaker by the circumstances we have created to corral them. The image of the policeman’s knee on the neck of a strong black man forced to the ground will remain with us for a long time to come. 

This is all very important, wrote a Sonoman to one of the papers during the uprising that followed the murder of Floyd George. But fortunately, he said, we don’t have that problem here. Was he being ironic? There was a naivete about the tone that suggests he was not. But we do have that problem here, partially concealed under the thin skin of our nice white liberalism.

Will Shonbrun writes, in an email: 

“The history of police brutality [in Sonoma County] is wide and deep and goes back to the 1990s and further back. In response to the inordinate number of deaths in the Sonoma County jail, and police-related fatalities, a federal Commission on Civil Rights and its Advisory Committees investigated Sonoma County law enforcement agencies and among its chief recommendations was the creation of an effective civilian review board” which happened 20 years ago.

A group is working on a petition “to expand and strengthen that oversight entity for the safety and protection of all county residents.” More information at  socoeffectiveoversight.org.

Black people have been telling whites for years that we need to deal with our race problem before we can stop racism in America. Janet Ryvlin and Denise Blanc have been developing a series of classes about whiteness, which they introduced last year at the Shambhala Center here. They just completed another, six-week series this spring and will offer another in July. “White people benefit from doing work with each other. Because of our privilege we don’t see our own racism,” Janet told me. To learn more, contact Janet at jplanet10@comcast.net 

These are slow, if painstaking signs of change. But perhaps the leap forward lay in the tenor of the protests this year.

D’mitra Smith, speaking at one of three protests in the Sonoma Plaza, all organized by students, raised a fervent fist in defiance of racism in this county. But she managed to acknowledge and engage white people in the fight. “It’s all connected and we need all of us to get through this.

“I have privilege,” she cried. “I am a citizen. I can vote. I don’t have to worry about ICE showing up at my door. 

“What do white folks need to do with their privilege? Your privilege is a tool. Use it! Use it!”

Four hundred people, mostly white, mostly young, cheered.

 

Stephanie Hiller

 

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