It is easy to imagine that the suffocating plight of Black inner city neighborhoods is a recent phenomenon. Civil rights leaders sometimes complain that Black youth, especially the denizens of “the hood”, have squandered the opportunities won for them with blood, sweat and tears. And then you read this piece by James Baldwin, written in 1960.
1960, half a decade before the landmark civil rights legislation of the Johnson administration. 1960, eight years before the martyrdom of Martin Luther King, Jr.
1960, three years before Fannie Lou Hamer was beat up in Winona, Mississippi and only four years after Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama.
1960, five years before the controversial Moynihan Report lamented the plight of the “Negro family”.
How could a world so distant sound so much like yesterday, or tomorrow?
James Baldwin may be the least sentimental American writer of his generation. He wrote what he saw. White people were never demonized, nor Black people lionized; Baldwin just described the lives unfolding before him. He didn’t single out villains to hate on or heroes to adore; he described the cage of history in which we all find ourselves trapped.
Baldwin’s essay in Esquire, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown”, was reprinted seven years ago because it said so much that needs saying, except that nobody these days can find the words. We whine, we make excuses, we finger jab, we flap our arms in frustration; but we can’t find the words. We appeal to our own tribe in our own tribal language, rhetoric guaranteed to push the right buttons; but for those outside the tribe its all raving and mumbo-jumbo.
James Baldwin spoke from the very heart of Black America, but the America he described belongs to everybody, in 1960 and in 2014. Baldwin understood white people better than we understood ourselves.
I came across Baldwin’s Fifth Avenue, Uptown essay this morning in the course of reading Larry James’ Urban Daily blog. Larry was talking about those exceptional people who, in every generation, and against all odds, transcend the poverty they were born into. To explain why these “poster children” are irrelevant to the poverty debate, James quoted Baldwin:
The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence — the public existence — of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare — at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare — and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. A few have always risen — in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children our doing. They are imitating our immorality, our disrespect for the pain of others.
“The Determined will is rare, at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare.”
Nothing has changed. Continue reading