Thursday, September 16, 2021

Baldwin,  "Down at the Cross", The Fire Next Time.  Published in the New Yorker as Letter From a Region in my Mind, 1962

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun in­exorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the dark­ness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are con­stant, and so is love, though we may not always think so­—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change.I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths-change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not-safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope-the entire possibility-of freedom disappears. And by destruction I mean precisely the abdication by Americans of any effort really to be free. The Negro can precipitate this abdication because white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him as a man like them­ selves. This point need not be labored; it is proved over and over again by the Negro's continuing position here, and his indescribable struggle to defeat the stratagems that white Americans have used, and use, to deny him his humanity.

America could have used in other ways the energy that both groups have expended in this conflict. America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept o f color. But it has not dared to accept this opportunity, or even to conceive of it as an opportunity. White Americans have thought of it as their shame, and have envied those more civilized and elegant Eu­ropean nations that were untroubled by the presence of black men on their shores. This is because white Americans have supposed "Europe" and "civilization" to be synonyms­ which they are not-and have been distrustful of other stan­dards and other sources of vitality, especially those produced in America itself, and have attempted to behave in all matters as though what was east for Europe was also east for them. What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we con­demn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and trans­ form them. The price of this transformation is the uncondi­tional freedom of the Negro; it is not too much to say that he, who has been so long rejected, must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his. And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way. Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?

White Americans find it as difficult as white people else­ where do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption-which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards-is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy's assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the un­fortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals. It is the Negro, of course, who is presumed to have become equal-an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man's sense of his own value. 

Interview with Richard Goldstein in 1984

Do you think your unresolved sexuality motivated you, at the start, to write?

Yeah. Well, everything was unresolved. The sexual thing was only one of the things. It was for a while the most tormenting thing and it could have been the most dangerous.

How so?

Well, because it frightened me so much. 

I don’t think straight people realize how frightening it is to finally admit to yourself that this going to be you forever.

It’s very frightening. But the so-called straight person is no safer than I am really. Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility. Loving of children, raising of children. The terrors homosexuals go through in this society would not be so great if the society itself did not go through so many terrors which it doesn’t want to admit. The discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society.

Have you got any sense of what causes people to hate homosexuals?

Terror, I suppose. Terror of the flesh. After all, we’re supposed to mortify the flesh, a doctrine which has led to untold horrors. This is very biblical culture; people believe in wages of sin is death, but not the way the moral guardians of this time and place understand it.

Is there a particularly American component of homophobia?

I think Americans are terrified of feeling anything. And homophobia is simply an extreme example of the American terror that’s concerned with growing up. I never met a people more infantile in my life....

[break]

I sometimes think gay people look to black people as healing them…

Not only gay people.

...healing their alienation.

That has to be done, first of all, by the person and then you find your company.

When I heard Jesse Jackson speak before a gay audience, I wanted him to say there wasn’t any sin, that I was forgiven.

Is that a question for you still? That question of sin?

I think it must be, on some level, even though I am not a believer.

How peculiar. I didn’t realize you thought of it as sin. Do many gay people feel that?

I don’t know. (Laughter). I guess I’m throwing something at you, which is the idea that gays look to blacks as conferring a kind of acceptance by embracing them in a coalition. I find it unavoidable to think in those terms. When I fantasize about a black mayor or a black president, I think of it being better for gay people.

Well, don’t be romantic about black people. Though I can see what you mean.

Do you think black people have a heightened capacity for tolerance, even acceptance, in its truest sense?

Well, there is a capacity in black people for experience, simply. And that capacity makes other things possible. It dictates the depth of one’s acceptance of other people. The capacity for experience is what burns out fear. Because the homophobia we’re talking about really is a kind of fear. It’s a terror of the flesh. It’s really a terror of being able to be touched.

Do you think about having children?

Not any more. It’s one thing I really regret, maybe the only regret I have. But I couldn’t have managed it then. Now it’s too late.

But you’re not disturbed by the idea of gay men being parents.

Look, men have been sleeping with men for thousands of years — and raising tribes. This is a Western sickness, it really is. It’s an artificial division. Men will be sleeping with each other when the trumpet sounds. It’s only this infantile culture which has made such a big deal of it.

So you think of homosexuality as universal?

Of course. There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me. We’re trapped in language, of course. But homosexual is not a noun. At least in my book.

What part of speech would it be?

Perhaps a verb. You see, I can only talk about my own life. I loved a few people and they loved me. It had nothing to do with these labels. Of course, the world has all kinds of words for us. But that’s the world’s problem.

Is it problematic for you, the idea of having sex with other people who are identified as gay?

Well, you see, my life has not been like that at all. The people who were my lovers were never, well, the word gay wouldn’t have meant anything to them.

That means that they moved in a straight world.

They moved in the world.

Do you think of the gay world as being a false refuge?

I think perhaps it imposes a limitation which is unnecessary. It seems to me simply a man is a man, a woman is a woman, and who they go to bed with is nobody’s business but theirs. I suppose what I am really saying is that one’s sexual preference is a private matter. I resent the interference of the State, or the Church, or any institution in my only journey to whatever it is we are journeying toward. But it has been made a public question by the institutions of this country. I can see how the gay world comes about in response to that. And to contradict myself, I suppose, or more precisely, I hope that it is easier for the transgressor to become reconciled with himself or herself than it was for many people in my generation — and it was difficult for me. It is difficult to be despised, in short. And if the so-called gay movement can cause men and women, boys and girls, to come to some kind of terms with themselves more speedily and with less pain, then that’s a very great advance. I’m not sure it can be done on that level. My own point of view, speaking out of black America, when I had to try to answer that stigma, that species of social curse, it seemed a great mistake to answer in the language of the oppressor. As long as I react to “nigger,” as long as I protest my case on evidence of assumptions held by others, I’m simply reinforcing those assumptions. As long as I complain about being oppressed, the oppressor is in consolation of knowing that I know my place, so to speak.

Goldstein was always a putz. He's pathetic. 

Arendt to Baldwin, 1962

Your article in the New Yorker is a political event of a very high order, I think;  it certainly is an event in my understanding of what is involved in the Negro question.  And since this is a question which concerns us all, I feel I am entitled to raise objections.

What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end.  In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy.  All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people.  They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs.  Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes.  Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive;  you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.

They share a sense of the necessity of tragic consciousness. The still religious Baldwin dreams of an out. Arendt remembers the fantasies of those who claimed the out had been reached. 

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