Out of the hurricane of words published in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, I found Robin D.G. Kelley’s essay, “The U.S. v. Trayvon Martin: How the System Worked,” to be the most affecting, accurate, sober piece, especially in its pronouncement that the shooting and subsequent verdict were not aberrations of American life, but routine outcomes that followed its underlying historical and racial logics. I had not planned on writing about Trayvon Martin, but when I came across this line from James Baldwin’s Evidence of Things Not Seen about the lynching of Emmett Till, I found it worth resurrecting: “But the boy was Black and so they had to kill him–of course.”
This example of Baldwin’s drastic style exhibits both crudeness and understatement. The assertion that America kills black boys as a matter of course is both offensive and undeniable. On the other hand, there is no doubt that there are also black boys who have managed to flourish in America, a fact pointed out by people who use examples of successful black men to deny the reality of systematic racism, mass incarceration, and the uneven use of deadly force by police authority (or extra-legal keepers of “the peace” like Zimmerman). This is, of course, comparable to pointing to a survivor of D-Day to support the claim that storming the beaches was not, in the end, a deadly endeavor.
Baldwin published his classic essay collection Notes of a Native Son in 1955, the same year of Till’s murder. I often return to Baldwin’s writings when I hear of something as tragic as the killing of Trayvon Martin, occurrences that are all too frequent, and much more frequent than U.S. mass media coverage would lead one to believe. I don’t know that I have much that is better to say than what Baldwin already said, for his writings remain, strangely, and sadly, current. Whenever I read his nonfiction, whether book reviews and short essays from the late forties and early fifties, or his even more exacting work in the early 80s, I am baffled by the fact that these writings–which elucidate the origins of our racial tensions–have existed for decades, yet America remains mired in terms of race relations, violence, oppression, and the perpetual terror, for the most part self-inflicted, that conditions the psychic life of so much of its populace.
To conclude, I’ll quote David Leeming’s excellent biography, at length. An anecdote about Baldwin’s teaching experiences in the Midwest, this passage captures the spirit of his intelligence, compassion, and furious dedication to the possibility of real exchanges across racial divides, a perennially difficult task since the humanity of one group was forged out of the dehumanization of the other:
“When he walked into his first class at Bowling Green and asked, ‘What shall we talk about?’ and a white student stood up and inquired in apparent innocence, ‘Why does the white man hate the nigger?’ Baldwin sensed what he later described as the student’s ‘terrifying innocence’ and threw the question back at the class: ‘Why do you think the white man hates the ‘nigger’?’ The discussion that followed, as Ernest Champion said later to Baldwin, was like Blues for Mister Charlie come to life, with Blacktown and Whitetown squaring off, but with Baldwin there to constantly urge the ‘children’ to ‘be better than you are, ‘ to ‘attempt the impossible.’ They must see that to recognize one’s true identity as an American, and ultimately as a human being, was to recognize the history—however painful—of the black-white experience, with all its fantasies and attendant myths. To dehumanize another was to dehumanize oneself, he taught: You must free yourselves from the common captivity, form the ‘house of bondage’ in all its forms—racial, sexual, ideological.
“Describing that first class later in an Esquire article called ‘Dark Days,’ Baldwin suggested that the students were not really talking about race; ‘they were talking of their desire to know one another, their need to know one another; each was trying to enter the experience of the other.’ To him education meant the courage to ask questions, to confront the dominant priorities, and to challenge them. The student, the teacher, and the poet were at their best when they were disturbers of the peace, when they threatened any given society’s sense of safety.”
I can testify, as someone who has spent nearly a decade teaching literature, history, critical theory, and other topics in the Midwest, that American students still long for the kind of conversations Baldwin cultivated, and still find themselves limited by the lack of tools American culture supplies for discussing race, sexuality, oppression, and their place within the systematic processes that sustain inequality. Almost without exception, none of them have read a single piece by Baldwin, his fiction or nonfiction, by the time they enter my classroom. But we still need him; we still need “Stranger in the Village,” Another Country, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” “Going to Meet the Man,” “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American.” Trayvon Martin’s death, whatever else it might mean, certainly proves that. Unfortunately, we may continue to need him for a while longer, until the day a death like Trayvon Martin’s is actually a freak occurrence, and a not guilty verdict is not just a shock, but a surprise.