Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant inspiration: Remembering James Baldwin’s influence on his 91st birthday

“What might be accepted as just good old American independence in someone else would be insufferable arrogance in me.”— James Baldwin, “Previous Condition” (1948)

 “Your self and your people are indistinguishable from one another, really, in spite of the quarrels you may have, and your people are all people.”— James Baldwin in the Paris Review (1984)

Happy birthday to the author and intellectual James Baldwin (1924-1987), who would be 91 today and whose words ring fresh and true into our time. At the crossroads where ongoing racial injustice and new rights for queer Americans meet, Baldwin deserves to be remembered as a civil rights icon who insisted on his human dignity as both an uncringing descendant of slaves and a bold “sexual heretic,” as he put it. Baldwin spoke, wrote and marched for full civic equality. But although he is worthy of the memes now circulating the Internet with his compelling face above a snatch of his wise words—worthy, too, of being held up as a possible exemplar for modern writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates—Baldwin cannot be reduced to a meme. No American of the 20th century resisted slogans more strenuously than this carefully nuanced thinker, and understanding him in light of his historical moment makes him an even more powerful necessary beacon for ours.

As American intellectuals go, Baldwin was not exactly born to privilege. At 3 he had never known his father when his mother married the man who gave Baldwin his surname and a great deal of abuse, although Baldwin never called it that. He called it “cruelty, to our bodies and our minds,” and while Baldwin tried to protect his eight younger siblings from their father’s rages, he could not help believing that he was “ugly,” as his stepfather said, that his slight size was a problem, and that his sexual attraction to boys was a sin. Yet Baldwin also understood how his stepfather turned his hatred of being oppressed into toxic bitterness and how living this way destroyed him. Baldwin determined to fight injustice and to begin the fight inside, “to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.” This was no small struggle in Jim Crow America.

The family was impoverished, partly because of the Great Depression that hit Harlem harder than other places, partly because of the structural inequality that kept the descendants of slaves poor, and partly because of his stepfather’s inability, as a minister, to keep a congregation happy for long. At home, Baldwin sunned in his mother’s love and cared for his little sisters and brothers, changing diapers, minding the little ones and reprimanding the older ones. He waited until they were all asleep to read the books he ingested like food, he said, on loan from the public library.

Those books: Baldwin cannot be understood apart from those books. He read Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Henry James, the entire canon of Western literature, which he made his own. There were no black stars in Baldwin’s early literary pantheon, but there was Frederick Douglass Junior High, a namesake who prefigured Baldwin’s mastery of high American English and code-switching. Baldwin attended a socially conscious, artistically serious high school in the Bronx, leaving the province of black Harlem for the integrated city of “Fame,” as Baldwin emblazoned his yearbook profile. He wanted to succeed on the scale of timeless literary excellence.

Before success came many years of writing articles, reviewing books he disliked and hustling for both sustenance and shelter. His first published short story, “Previous Condition” (1948), fictionalizes the experience of housing discrimination in New York. Evading his landlady to prevent being evicted for his color, the black protagonist fights anger and depression. “What might be accepted as just good old American independence in someone else,” the desperate protagonist thinks, “would be insufferable arrogance in me.” In that one line Baldwin named the riddle of the “American Dilemma,” as the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal titled his book of 1944, contrasting the widespread American belief in the creed of social equality against the equally widespread practice of racial discrimination. Baldwin simultaneously contested this creed and lived by it. “I would not allow myself to be defined by other people,” Baldwin later remembered of these years, “white or black.”

Baldwin’s intellectual independence drove his writing, both the polemical essays and the exploratory fiction. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949), Baldwin criticized a novel by his mentor and friend, the black novelist Richard Wright, by lumping it together with the 1852 antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. All that Dickens and James had conditioned Baldwin to read Stowe’s sentimental book as the propaganda it was, demanding of Uncle Tom such sexless purity that it reinforced the binary Baldwin would destroy, blackness and whiteness as separate, meaningful, hierarchically ordered categories. A character who was only two-dimensional, like Uncle Tom or Wright’s Bigger Thomas, could not be fully human—and Baldwin was determined to manifest his full humanity and to create space for others to do the same.

“[O]ur humanity is our burden, our life,” Baldwin said in his conclusion to that essay. “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.”

 Baldwin’s own humanity included both an awareness of his erotic attraction to men and a willingness to bear the scorn of his peers by acting on that attraction. Thirteen years before the Stonewall riot—to which modern gay rights activists often trace their origin—James Baldwin published “Giovanni’s Room” (1956), a novel that naturalized same-sex sex as beautiful. (The book later lent its name to the first gay bookstore in America.) Baldwin had given homoerotic hints in his first novel, the bestselling “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953), which he had composed in the Alps while listening to Bessie Smith after the heartbreaking marriage of his first love, the Swiss Lucien Happersberger. Baldwin created characters who had never been seen in literature before, and by shaping them three-dimensionally, he portrayed black characters as richly human. In “Giovanni’s Room,” Baldwin did the same for men who loved men. Upon acting on his desire for another man, Baldwin’s protagonist felt a “great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy, we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love.”

After all of that self-exposure came the civil rights movement, but not exactly as history remembers it. Many Americans depend on a narrative of civil rights that swings from the (good) nonviolent phase to the (bad) black power phase, but Baldwin’s participation shows that there was always a spectrum of activism and opinion in the movement, which cannot be reduced to figureheads. For all the extremism of James Baldwin’s loneliness—he had to live in France in order to feel safe enough to express himself freely—his role in the civil rights movement was that of a moderator, a translator between different views. Baldwin supported Martin Luther King Jr., and considered him like a younger brother; he went on television with King and marched at Selma; he was devastated by King’s assassination. Baldwin also debated Malcolm X and disagreed with him on some points but did so in debates so civil, so thoughtful, they forged a strong partnership while Malcolm X was alive and Baldwin wrote a screenplay for Malcolm’s autobiography after his death. (These debates between two self-taught, grass-roots intellectuals also hold a great lesson in paying attention for today’s quick-fix generation.) Eldridge Cleaver viciously attacked Baldwin, for his homosexuality and his friendliness with the white literary establishment, but Baldwin still supported black power and the Black Panther Party, working with Huey Newton, Angela Davis and others. “He put a psychological arm around my shoulder,” remembered Alex Haley. Toni Morrison said Baldwin gave her “a language to dwell in.” The list could go on. Way on.

Until today, and doubtless tomorrow. It should be no news to anyone that the Obama presidency did not cure America’s disease of discrimination on the basis of race. It would not surprise Baldwin, were he alive. Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland, Eric Garner choked to death and Walter Scott shot in the back for nothing are all in the news not because they are new but because of the ubiquity of video cameras. Americans “who believe that they are white”—to use the phrase of Baldwin’s that Coates chose as a refrain for his new memoir, “Between the World and Me” (2015)—are being held accountable for the first time, with media and commentary reaching into places news cameras had never penetrated before. Americans “who have opted for being white,” as Baldwin put it during the Reagan era, complain about urban riots in the wake of police brutality, counter the anguished protest that “black lives matter” with the dopey retort that all lives matter, expect all activists to portray perfect nonviolent equanimity in the face of any kind of harassment, and doubt the testimony of the victims of racial discrimination.

Whether these Americans are able to listen to James Baldwin with any more open-mindedness than the arch-conservative William F. Buckley Jr. could in 1965 is an open question. But if they listen they will hear how the aspiring writer James Baldwin felt as a young man, a very small, unarmed, hungry young man, upon being denied service in a New Jersey restaurant because of his race. A year before a friend and social activist had leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge. Now Baldwin heard a waitress say, “We don’t serve Negroes here,” and from within him boiled such a profound, murderous anguish that he hurled a glass mug at her. Shocked at himself, glad he missed, he ran from the scene and realized that he could have been murdered, and that he “had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger.”

America may be glad that Baldwin went on to live his full, real life.


Posted by The NON-Conformist

50 Years Ago, Medicare Helped To Desegregate Hospitals

The law creating a national health insurance program for older Americans was signed in 1965 after a long political battle. Renee Montagne talks to Edith Mitchell of the National Medical Association.


Medicare turns 50 years old today. The law creating a national health insurance program for older Americans was signed in 1965 after a long political battle. One big opponent was the American Medical Association. The AMA famously signed up then-actor Ronald Reagan to campaign against Medicare.


RONALD REAGAN: Write those letters now. Call your friends, and tell them to write. If you don’t, this program, I promise you, will pass just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow. And behind it will come other federal programs that will invade very area of freedom as we have known it in this country. Until, one day, as Norman Thomas said, we will awake to find that we have socialism. And if you don’t do this and if I don’t do it, one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, that ad did not stop the bill from being passed. And when he signed it into law, President Lyndon Johnson made a point of not inviting the AMA to the ceremony. He did invite the National Medical Association. That was the organization for black doctors. They’d long supported the bill. They saw the potential for Medicare to help desegregate health care for patients and professionals.

EDITH MITCHELL: I think that Medicare actually contributed to a new day.

MONTAGNE: Edith Mitchell is the president-elect of the National Medical Association.

MITCHELL: They had access to health care in a way that it had not been provided before. And no longer did individuals have to go through the door that said colored only.

MONTAGNE: Medicare became a force for civil rights because the Civil Rights Act was signed just a year before, and it now barred federal funding for institutions that discriminated on the basis of race. For hospitals, the fear of losing federal funds became a powerful motivator.

DAVID BARTON SMITH: The money and the holding of the dollars to hospitals really created a rather dramatic and amazing transformation in a very short period of time.

MONTAGNE: Temple University professor David Barton Smith is writing a book on Medicare and the Civil Rights Movement. But he says it wasn’t just how the law was written, it was how it was enforced. After the signing, a tiny understaffed team of official inspectors was bolstered by hundreds of volunteers.

SMITH: Most of them had already been involved in civil rights activities. They were all very passionately committed people. Early on, they were making sure that all of the white and colored signs were removed. But then, they would go back and insist that hospital employees and patients not self-segregate in the waiting rooms. They were pretty fierce about it. And they had an invisible army in the sense of local civil rights groups that would guide them in their inspections, including a lot of black health workers that helped in providing the eyes and ears for making sure that the hospitals were not just trying to cover everything up.

MONTAGNE: Within a few months, Smith says 2,000 hospitals had desegregated. Dr. Edith Mitchell is from the South. And soon after Medicare was implemented, her grandmother went to the hospital for the first time.

MITCHELL: My grandmother was in the first group of individuals to receive a Medicare card. And it was the first time that my grandmother had ever been admitted to a hospital, although she had given birth to five children. She had a chronic condition, and she was in a hospital room with a Caucasian patient, who we knew, who my grandmother knew. And just to be able to lay in the bed in a room where another Caucasian patient was in the room was something that never happened before.

MONTAGNE: That’s National Medical Association President-elect Edith Mitchell. We spoke to her for this 50th anniversary of Medicare.

From NPR

Posted by The Non-Conformist

Former President Jimmy Carter Says America Has Become an Oligarchy

Despite being one of the most hated presidents in American history─right behind Nixon and Bush Jr.─former United States President Jimmy Carter has been known to be outspoken from time to time. He publicly criticized the NSA’s spying programs and even announced  he would not be using his email as he was convinced that the NSA was spying on him. In an interview with NBC in 2014, Carter stated:

… I have felt that my own communications are probably monitored. And when I want to communicate with a foreign leader privately, I type or write the letter myself, put it in the post office, and mail it.”

President Carter has also gone on record saying that if given the opportunity, he would consider pardoning Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor wanted for the distribution of classified data. Now, once again, he’s gone loud with his political positions.

President Carter appeared as a guest on The Thom Hartmann Programa nationally broadcasted radio show, and dropped a serious bomb on modern policy. When asked about the supreme court’s ruling to allow unlimited corporate spending in politics, Carter had this to say:

“It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors, and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over… The incumbents, Democrats, and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody who’s already in Congress has a lot more to sell to an avid contributor than somebody who’s just a challenger.” 

For those unfamiliar with the term “oligarchy,” it simply means that our country is run by a very small group of very rich people. While it’s refreshing to hear someone other than activists and conspiracy theorists talk about the United States oligarchy, ironically, it came from one of the most detested politicians in America.

While this statement may seem drastic in the face of blanket media coverage that says America is a democracy, a major study from Princetoncame to the same conclusion.

President Carter doesn’t stand alone as a politician admitting that money controls politics. Even Vice President Joe Biden ironically admitted that money fuels politics.

“You have to go where the money is. Now where the money is, there’s almost always implicitly some string attached […] It’s awful hard to take a whole lot of money from a group you know has a particular position then you conclude they’re wrong [and] vote no.”

The 29-term congressman John Dingell also had some heavy words on spending in politics before his retirement:

“Allowing people and corporate interest groups and others to spend an unlimited amount of unidentified money has enabled certain individuals to swing any and all elections, whether they are congressional, federal, local, state […] rarely are these people having goals which are in line with those of the general public. History well shows that there is a very selfish game that’s going on and that our government has largely been put up for sale.”

Yes, it is sad that our political system has simply become a business model with fatal expenses, but does it actually come as a surprise? When one considers how closely media and politics are linked today—and the fact that a total of 6 companies control 90% of the media outlets in America— does it actually come as a surprise? When the same people that bring you fiction on HBO bring you “reality” on CNN (Time Warner) is this anything but predictable?

People can view Jimmy Carter as one of the worst presidents in history all they want. In this case, he’s right. Our politics are not fueled by morals, values, or the good of the American people, but rather, the weight of our politicians’ wallets. The sooner we come to grips with this, the sooner we can stop just pointing fingers at Obama—or Bush before him—as if they are the master orchestrators of America’s shit-show of a political system. Want to start getting good and honest politicians in office? Kicking corporate influence out of the system would be a fantastic start.

By Josh Mur

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Republican women’s group apologizes for posting photo of a lynched black man hanging from a tree

The Oklahoma Federation of Republican Women apologized on Wednesday after they posted an image of a black man being lynched on their official Facebook page. The image included a solitary African American man hanging by a noose from a tree, with the text “The KKK was formed by the Democrats to keep control over black Americans. The Democrats of today just traded ropes for welfare” accompanying the image.

After KFOR, a local news station, contacted the organization’s president, Pam Pollard, about the image, Pollard deleted the post. She later released a statement saying that she “did not make the post or approve the post and when it was brought to my attention I immediately deleted it.”

Republican posting lynching photo

Image: Daily Kos

More from the Daily Kos

Posted by Libergirl…who says WTF! Ignorance reigns in this so-called exceptional nation…ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

Officer charged with murder in Ohio motorist’s death

A University of Cincinnati police officer was indicted Wednesday on a murder charge for fatally shooting a motorist during a traffic stop July 19.

A sign with a picture of Samuel Dubose at the visitation

Image: The Enquirer/Patrick Brennan

It’s the first time a police officer in Cincinnati has been charged with murder for killing someone while on duty. Ray Tensing, 25, faces 15 years to life in prison if he’s convicted.

The decision came after 12 Hamilton County, Ohio, citizens reviewed evidence all day Monday as part of a grand jury investigation into the incident, which has put the city on edge and rekindled worries about the sometimes strained relationship between police and African Americans in Cincinnati.

“He purposely killed him,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters. “He should never have been a police officer.”

Deters said his office reviewed hundreds of police shootings. “This is without question murder,” he said.

More from USA Today

Posted by Libergirl

Honore: America’s in denial about gun culture

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Russel Honore, Louisiana’s most well-known 21st century military hero, said America is mired in a state of denial about its gun culture and that’s harming the country.


“As a country we’re in a state of denial because we’ve confused the right to bear arms with the right to carry arms all the time anywhere or anyplace you want,” Honore told Gannett Louisiana on Monday.
“We have to have a different kind of conversation in America and be prepared to speak about the politically unspeakable.”

Honore said the string of recent mass gun murders — culminating with the tragic movie theater shooting in Lafayette Thursday in which two victims died — should provide a wake up call.

More from USA Today

Posted by Libergirl


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