The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and you will trust me more than you do now. We can trust each other. I do believe, I really believe…that we can all become better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous and people are not yet willing to pay it.
James Baldwin is speaking in the last moments of James Baldwin: The Price of The Ticket, the unbelievably gorgeous and inspiring 1990 film about his life and work that has lately been rebroadcast on PBS, where you can currently stream it online. (The makers, distributor, and others are currently involved in a project to restore the 16 mm original film; there’s a wealth of information at their site.)
As a maker of beauty, a bearer of conscience, a model of the embrace of love in a time of pain, James Baldwin is a hero to me. Even as I am awestruck by his integrity and achievement, I have a feeling of kinship: I’ve lately come to accept that when people call me an optimist, I don’t have to demur. They don’t mean I have a mindless belief in dreams come true, but are remarking on the persistence of possibility in my vision. It persisted in Baldwin’s—despite monumental disappointments—to his last breath. When I read and listen to his words, I feel awe at his fearless commitment to speaking truth, at his insistence on the power of love and connection even amidst a storm of hate. Yet I know that we are members of the same growing tribe: he was one of those people who see clearly how simple it would be to conquer hate if only we were willing to pay the price. He was one of those people who see clearly the utter, tragic absurdity of all rationalizations and justifications on behalf of any system that makes some people less than on account of color or creed, gender, orientation, or condition.
It is not a romantic matter. It is the unutterable truth: all men are brothers. That’s the bottom line. If you can’t take it from there, you can’t take it at all.
We need that vision now. Lately I’ve been involved in projects, conversations, and inquiries about the racism that pervades American life. Check out the StoryCenter Blog to read about interviews I’m conducting with people across the country who care about human and civil rights, and who are partnering with the Center for Digital Storytelling to reach across generations, sharing stories of standing for these rights through a series of free All Together Now workshops around the U.S. This has given me the opportunity to hear some remarkable tales of standing against the odds and making a difference (check back weekly, there will be more to come). It will give many people (you? read about how to get involved) the opportunity to add their voices to a national conversation about equal rights that needs to ring out from every spot on the map.
It’s up to you. As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you. As long as you think you’re white, I’m going to be forced to think I’m black.
Baldwin was alluding to the many ways that the privilege attaching to white skin becomes internalized as an entitlement. The right to make the rules by which everyone else must play is easily assumed: consider the largely white, right-wing legislatures acting since the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act to discourage voters of color (I wrote about it here). Then think about how many ways there are each day to be made to feel whether one belongs in a particular place or is there on sufferance; whether one is the object of suspicion as a daily default (e.g., “driving while black”); whether one feels extra pressure to monitor every word and gesture—or not.
Nearly a million people have watched on YouTube a clip from Shakti Butler’s film Cracking The Codes: The System of Racial Inequality—and millions more, I’m guessing, on Facebook, given the frequency with which the link was shared with me. In the clip, writer and scholar Joy DeGruy describes visiting a grocery store in the company of her sister-in-law who “looks white.” The grocery clerk is warm and animated with DeGruy’s sister-in-law, then treats DeGruy—next in line—as if she were trying to pass a bad check. Her sister-in-law intervenes, challenging the clerk, using “her white privilege…to influence everyone in that space,…to educate and make right a situation that was wrong. That’s what you can do, every single day.”
Multiply such simple acts by millions and you help to potentiate a profound cultural change that can permeate the law, the economy, the human heart. It is long overdue.
What is it you want me to reconcile myself to? I was born here almost 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me it takes time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces’ and my nephews’ time. How much time do you want for your promise?
John Coltrane’s beautiful composition “Naima” is part of the soundtrack of James Baldwin: The Price of The Ticket. This live version features Eric Dolphy.