“Because they think they are white…”

Adaptation of James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew that appears at the beginning of “The Fire Next Time”
(from Abagond)

You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.

They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death. But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

Take no one’s word for anything, including mine – but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.

By a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are loosing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers – your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

“The very time I thought I was lost,
My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”

We cannot be free until they are free.

“On Being White . . . and Other Lies”
James Baldwin

Just so does the white community, as a means of keeping itself white, elect, as they imagine, their political (!) representatives. No nation in the world, including England, is represented by so stunning a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre. I will not name names— I will leave that to you.

But this cowardice, this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living into the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen. And how did they get that way? By deciding that they were white. By opting for safety instead of life. By persuading themselves that a black child’s life meant nothing compared with a white child’s life. By abandoning their children to the things white men could buy. By informing their children that black women, black men, and black children had no human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of black people, they debased and defined themselves.

And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable population, cheerful natives, and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety. Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife— looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.

However—! White being, absolutely, a moral choice (for there are no white people), the crisis of leadership for those of us whose identity has been forged, or branded, as black is nothing new. We— who were not black before we got here, either, who were defined as black by the slave trade— have paid for the crisis of leadership in the white community for a very long time and have resoundingly, even when we face the worst about ourselves, survived and triumphed over it. If we had not survived, and triumphed, there would not be a black American alive. And the fact that we are still here— even in suffering, darkness, danger, endlessly defined by those who do not dare define, or even confront, themselves— is the key to the crisis in white leadership. The past informs us of various kinds of people— criminals, adventurers, and saints, to say nothing, of course, of Popes— but it is the black condition, and only that, which informs us concerning white people. It is a terrible paradox, but those who believed that they could control and define black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves.

Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
pp. 146-151

We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.

But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live— and there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else’s country, but in your own home. […]

This power, this black power, originates in a view of the American galaxy taken from a dark and essential planet. Black power is the dungeon-side view of Monticello— which is to say, the view taken in struggle. And black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. Even the Dreamers— lost in their great reverie— feel it, for it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying. We have made something down here. We have taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. […]

The power is not divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything— even the Dream, especially the Dream— really is. Sitting in that car I thought of Dr. Jones’s predictions of national doom. I had heard such predictions all my life from Malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. I saw the same prediction in the words of Marcus Garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of Middle Passage undead. No. I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.

Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves. […]

I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.

6 thoughts on ““Because they think they are white…”

  1. Thanks for posting these quotes- a moving, thought-provoking way to start my day.

    After quite a while now, I seem to be appreciating Coates’ use of dreamer to name Americans; it’s gone from feeling strange and partial to being apt for me. I especially appreciate both of them looping in other seemingly unrelated ills- petroleum, globalism- as part of the warp and weft of exploitive, discriminatory behavior. What was moving about these quotes for me is the fierce rebellion and naming of the enemy, while at the same time recognizing forgiveness and an awareness of interdependence as important for efficacy and personal development- such a mature and far-seeing perspective, and I think very powerful in the long run in blunting much of the resistance these ideas will create

    • I have great sympathy for those who think they are white. I’ve admitted that I don’t know how not to be white. I never chose to be white. It is simply how I’ve been treated all my life. A strange thing. White and black, they are inseparable, both in terms of ideas and in terms of humanity.

  2. The following will only be ostensibly tangential but it relates to the core of the OP:

    Awhile ago I made a post on how HBDers routinely misunderstand their own stats and it disappeared. Any reason?

    It’s an important point. HBD is animus and has no logical case. It is fundamentally the search for ways to justify both economic and legal inequity between groups of people.

    I recently was in a discussion on another blog where I merely suggested that NYPD’s stop-and-frisk not be applied to blacks and hispanics because it had been found unconstitutional. The proprietor first claimed that SCOTUS generally “makes up” what the constitution says. To which I responded that the general trend in “making things up” had been in favor of more permissive intrusions on the right rather than less, suggesting that unconstitutionality in this climate is especially bad. I also pointed out that the founders (quoting Hamilton) had envisioned law enforcement behaving in essentially the opposite manner as contemporary law enforcement. The response was that Hamilton was talking about “well-behaved white people,” to which I responded that the white people of that era were just as violent if not moreso than modern blacks and definitely more violent than modern hispanics. The response was that the proprietor had been on a “ride along.”

    HBDers simply do not care about facts.

    I’m sure you’ve addressed this somewhere, but the animus itself does seem to have a valid source: the declining economic prospects of poor whites. Certain, interested groups seem to flood the media with disinformation that generally concords with just-world thinking, to where elites are worshipped and everyone else despised. So the natural impulse is to blame those beneath an individual in both power and status in response to current problematic reality.

    • I’m sorry about that. There were some comments that made it into the spam box. I hadn’t looked in my spam box recently and I didn’t realize your comment was there. I’ll try to remember to check more often. BTW what post was it at? I lost track of it and I can’t figure out where it is. For some reason, it doesn’t show up in the recent comments.

    • There are many reasons to be critical of HBD. I basically agree with all that you say. But I would point out that the originator of HBD theory actually was arguing against race realism. He pointed out that, in terms of genetics, there simply was too much human biodiversity to fit into folk racial categories.

      There is no doubt that poor white people used to be unruly and violent to the extreme. Even looking back just a century ago, there were cities where particular white ethnic groups had higher rates of violent crime than blacks. The fact is blacks weren’t known for violent crime until they became a majority urban population around the mid-20th century. Immediately following the Civil War, they were quite non-violent, at least in certain areas (e.g., a study done for rural Louisiana).

  3. Reblogged this on Napkin Scrawlings and commented:

    How can Ta-Nehisi Coates be truly black wearing those wool sweaters? And how can anyone but whites have four eyes that aren’t radioactive green? I kid because the dominant white posture is aggrieved self loathing, and persecution of the perceived dark “other”; perhaps because they cannot find anything to admire within their own imaginary.

    The term Dreamer has the lightness to contrast with the more horrific imagery of nature’s reckoning in Coate’s essay. When I’ve ventured into the Qanon people’s mental circus via social media, they don’t seem motivated by the blankly serene hunger that emanates from the upper crusts of the Democratic and Republican mold. They seem to travel the dark paths of their resolute moral imaginations, and precisely because they cannot conceive of the dream’s furnishings and statuary being lies and decay, they are Dreamers.

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