[by Jenny Chu]
One Nation Still On Fire: James Baldwin and Jesmyn Ward
Guide: Béalleka Makau
*This blog article will appear also in the Oregon Arts Watch in 2018.
I want to write about a dead elephant.
As a scribe, my tuition was comped for the sold-out Delve, “One Nation Still on Fire,” which was the only way I could afford the seminar. And even though it started on November 20, 2017 and ended on January 20, 2018 – on the one year anniversary of the presidential inauguration of a demogogue – it has taken me months to process, a flight to a different country, and the space and distance from Portland for me to even begin. After three months, and missed deadline after deadline, I offer this painstaking reflection and these thoughts faltering, unfinished, heavy, and loaded…
In the change between fall and winter, the eighteen of us bridged the turning of a year by reading and discussing two books: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Jesmyn Ward’s curated and edited essay collection The Fire This Time. We also attended Ward’s Portland Arts & Lectures event on January 18.
Published in 1962, Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time contains two letters, one to his nephew “My Dungeon Shook” and the other about his crisis of faith “Down at the Cross.” Even after fifty years, Baldwin’s observations around race relations remain all too relevant, as if he penned them yesterday. In 2015, Jesmyn Ward, in response to George Zimmerman’s murder of baby-faced teen Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, edited the book The Fire This Time: a new generation speaks about race. Contemporary Black scholars, authors, and poets joined the omnipresent conversation that Baldwin and so many others have started, lived, still live, and still suffer because race remains a harbinger of so many other social ills, inequities, and human injustices in this country.
A conversation, it seems, that many white folks are still coming to the table to join—late.
My frustration was compounded by my experience in the seminar as a person of color unpacking and talking about race in a room that was 77% occupied by highly-educated and well-meaning white people. A frustration that was visceral. Trying to convince others on a reality backed by history is a crazy-making feat. Hearing the same thing or having the same conversations about race with different and multiple white people, can do that – it can make you feel like you’re a broken record. It can make you feel broken. Who is the famous person that defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results?
In Isabel Wilkerson’s essay “Where Do We Go from Here?” she writes:
We may have lulled ourselves into believing that the struggle was over, that it has all been taken care of back in 1964, that the marching and the bloodshed had established, once and for all, the basic rights of people who had been at the bottom for centuries. We may have believed that, if nothing else, the civil rights movement had defined a bar beneath which we could not fall.
But history tells us otherwise. We seem to be in a continuing feedback loop of repeating a past that our country has yet to address.
In Claudia Rankine’s essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” she observes succinctly, “The American imagination has never been able to fully recover from its white-supremacist beginnings.”
The dead elephant isn’t just about America’s racist founding. Nor is it just about the delusion of a post-racial America. The dead elephant isn’t even about how white Portland is, despite the growing racial and ethnic diversity in the country.
The dead elephant is the burden that people of color bear, in varying degrees, for being non-white in America – and which white people do not.
White people are still able to choose when and how they decide to talk about race, and when and how they decide to care. It’s important that the seminar was offered. It’s important that the seminar was sold-out. It was important that we delved into both these texts, together. But Literary Arts is an incredibly safe place for white people to wax poetic about race. It’s a space designed and reinforced to make white people feel smart, as if their minimal intellectual efforts to have these “talks” and to read these “texts” is somehow enough.
The room at Literary Arts reminds me of what one of my white friends said upon moving from Portland to Los Angeles. He said, “Even though the people in LA seem more intellectually dim, the people are far more racially and ethnically diverse compared to Portland.” To him the cultural diversity was much more valuable in expanding his perspective. In a world that already centers whiteness first and foremost, he said, “It’s much more dangerous for a white person to only be surrounded by other white people.”
I wonder how many people left that room changed. I wonder how many people left more aware of their whiteness and their complicity in this racist country we’ve all inherited. I wonder how deep the texts and our conversations seeped; if the words of Baldwin, Ward, Wilkerson, Rankine, Anderson, Young, and many others found root in the tissue, in their bodies; or if everything just stayed on the surface of their intellects. I wonder how many people left still thinking about, and most importantly, feeling what we had discussed together. Whether those white people chose to bear the load, or whether they left more stubborn than ever defending their innocence, preserving their own comfort, leaving the burden where it’s always been: on the shoulders and backs of people of color.
As Baldwin so eloquently asserted, “…whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Blackness and whiteness are inextricably intertwined in this country. One does not exist without the other, and the inability for white folks to acknowledge this is what Baldwin called, “…the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
Before I go much further, I am not black and I am not white. I do not have the experiences of either. Though the way that the hierarchy of race works I am much closer to the experiences of white people than I am to black people. I am a Chinese-American woman raised by immigrant parents in a white suburb in Oregon. I grew up in Portland’s particular brand of whiteness – which is polite, microaggressive, and indirect. I have navigated whiteness expertly, because there was a period of time when I had so much internalized racism that I thought I was white. Being a lighter-skinned Asian aided by the model minority myth, has provided me with specific opportunities and access compared to other people of color—and it is my responsibility when moving this conversation of race and racism forward to acknowledge this privilege. I have not suffered in the same way as other people of color, but all people of color have suffered under white supremacy. After years of assimilating, feeling ashamed of being Asian, losing my language, compromising and minimizing myself to fit into whiteness, which often meant being an ornament, a sidekick awkward and ugly, and then suddenly inappropriately sexualized, othered, fetishized, and tokenized all these years—I know I am absolutely, not white.
It could also be argued that good white people suffer under white supremacy. It’s dehumanizing: what kind of white savages have time and time again oppressed and re-oppressed others for their own selfish gain?
This post is not about hating white people. Though in my most immature moments, the frustrations are hard to tweeze out. I still have a lot of friends who are white, who I love and have loved, learned and lived with. For some, I have shepherded them into the awareness of their whiteness, have gone through the painful dismantling of their perceived innocence, and have helped them into the understanding of what their whiteness means in the context of this unjust country—and this has always been a deep labor of love.
However, my labor of love and patience for other white people to understand all of this weighted history and how it frames our present is not infinite, nor is it indiscriminate. I am human. I have a threshold.
When I entered the seminar space that first night on November 20 into a room full and eager to discuss the “literature,” I was already dealing with my disillusionment and anger at the rigidity and self-righteousness of individuals. After recent eruptions in the social justice community, I had started questioning the effectiveness of my resistance work. I was constantly being confronted with the same circular, nearsighted, and myopic conversations, the vernacular of social justice speak, the rhetoric, the infighting, the hubris, the self-righteousness—I was losing my faith that this fight against white supremacy would ever be reached. And to the degree that my fellow Delvers were unaware: their whiteness, and their naive ignorance about their own whiteness and their well-meaningness around the literature and about race in particular, all but confirmed my despair and hopelessness that things would ever change.
It was pointed out by our guide Béalleka, that only three of the nineteen essays in The Fire This Time talked about the future. Another Delver recounted author Ta-nehisi Coates’ comment at the most recent Wordstock Book Festival about how difficult it was for him to have hope or to imagine a future when the present looks so much like the past.
It was either our first or second session together when Béalleka asked us what Ward meant by the words, “I burn, and I hope.”
I have been seeking an answer inadequately since that question was breathed into that room. But I know it has something to do with the dead elephant.
The dead elephant makes up the scaffolds in which we exist, and which bodies are ordered socioeconomically, socially, professionally, and politically. The United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but the wealth and income gap is becoming more unequal. According to a 2015 Forbes article, a typical white household has 16 times the wealth of a black household. Portland is not much different. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) 81% of Portland residents are white, and with the exception of Asians, people of color face higher unemployment rates and lower wages than white workers, and are employed in lower-paying industries.
White supremacy is not just the KKK, or lynchings, or police shootings, or extreme violence, but that is part of its monstrous history and its present. White supremacy, in its silent form, is insidious. It’s economic. It’s social. It’s in policies and redrawn district lines. It’s how resources are allocated. Who gets infrastructure and well-paved roads and who doesn’t. It takes the form of the faces we frequently see in film or on TV, and the faces that are omitted. It determines who gets published and who our literary gatekeepers are (in an independent study that Lee & Low Books released in 2015 about 80% of folks that worked in publishing identified as white). It defines who gets to teach our ethnic studies courses. It’s in curriculum. It’s in how culture is defined. It’s in who gets the job; who gets to keep their jobs; who gets to own a home and who gets to accumulate wealth and equity to pass onto future generations.
As Carol Anderson in her essay, “White Rage” affirms, “It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets to face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures, and governors, who cast its efforts as noble…”
In addition to the large institutional and cultural structures that shape our lives undetectably, it’s deeply personal. Our identities are tied to our ability to know and access our ancestry. The stories that are told and shared and passed on, are a privilege. It requires an undisrupted lineage, one that isn’t peppered with displacement, war, slavery, rape, destitution, poverty. Some of us don’t know our pasts because they’ve been suppressed or erased or unknown. This is a direct relationship of whether you were a victor or a victim in this white-supremacist history.
Inspired by Jesmyn Ward’s essay, “Cracking the Code” about her search for identity, we started one of our sessions with a writing prompt asking us to trace our ancestral history as far back as we could remember. I didn’t have much. My mom was a refugee during the Vietnam – or American – War, depending on which direction you’re looking. My family history is one of dark unending holes. The traumas of my mom’s past have resulted in many consequences including my little brother’s generalized anxiety and my depression, among other things that reach deep into the dark.
Ward notes, “It’s impossible for most black Americans to construct full family trees. Official census records, used by so many genealogy enthusiasts to piece together their families’ pasts, don’t include our non-European ancestors.” (91)
After we were done writing our memories down, our guide Béalleka asked us to share our histories with the person sitting next to us. My partner was a very kind and well-meaning ethnically-Irish man, who traced his entire family back to a single patch of land. It was impressive. I shared mine, and after I was done he responded with, “Well that’s very sad, Jenny.” He meant well, I know. But all of a sudden, just like that I felt unseen and pitied. I wasn’t looking for sympathy. My history, as incomplete and pockmarked as it was—was still mine. It was my mother’s, my brother’s, my aunties, and uncles. I felt a pang of shame. Then anger.
In the essay, Ward takes the 23andMe DNA mail-in test to confirm her blackness, but she finds something else:
I had thought that my genetic makeup would confirm the identity that I’d grown up with—one that located Africa as my ancestors’ primary point of origin, and that allowed me to claim a legacy of black resistance and strength.
So it was discomfiting to find that my ancestry was 40 percent European […] and less than 1 percent North African. For a few days after I received my results, I looked into the mirror and didn’t know how to understand myself.
After our pairs, our guide opened up the discussion to the group. A well-meaning and engaged white woman raised her hand excitedly to share. She said that she had also been inspired by Ward’s essay to take the 23andMe test. She nearly squealed as she continued her story. She mentioned the dark skin and dark hair of her great grandmother and grandfather. She used the word, “olive.” She used the word, “black.” Then theatrically she dropped her shoulders and said, “But when I got the results back, I’m all white.” She deflated into a caricature of herself. Béalleka, our guide, asked, “Well, what was so disappointing about that for you?” And this woman replied, “Oh, I guess I was just hoping for some Indian or African blood.” Then Béalleka probed further, “Why wouldn’t you use this opportunity to investigate your whiteness?” Then this white woman, as well-meaning as them all, responded, “I guess I just wanted something more exotic.”
A friend once said to me, “The reason why race is so hard to talk about, and to talk about rationally is because it’s in the body. It’s literally our DNA.”
Something unhinged in me that evening. There were a few other comments that were made, and the conversation continued until I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. I interrupted the 77% white room and said to this woman, “I’m really sorry, but in full transparency I have to admit that I really bristled at your use of the word ‘exotic.’ That word has been used to other me, fetishize, and sexualize me my whole entire life.”
I was furious. For the rest of the evening I couldn’t focus. I thought of colonialism. I equated every single white person in that room as a colonizer. All it took was one person’s seemingly innocent and playful gesture in thinking that they could turn race into something that they could just have. As if race were something a white person could adorn themselves in, like a pair of earrings for a special occasion. I thought of gold. I thought of Christopher Columbus. I thought of all the violent things between.
In Kevin Young’s piece, “Blacker than Thou,” about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who posed as a black woman and was fired from being the president of the NAACP of Spokane, WA after her identity was exposed, he investigates how her deception is a direct indication of her whiteness and privilege. Young says:
[…] an array of attempts to be not just someone else as anyone might, but to be exotic, even in her birth (which she said was in a teepee or tipi). When asked directly on the teevee if she was born in a teepee, she answered, “I wasn’t born in a teepee,” emphasis allowing that maybe, just maybe, she could later say she was born near or under one. The hoaxer is always leaving the pretend teepee door ajar. (114)
Language is slippery. When white people want something or they want to escape their culpability around race, it is like watching them construct the slip n’ slide of racism—oh, isn’t racism fun for me?Of course, no white person actually thinks this. But their ignorance doesn’t take away from the facts and statistics that mark them as the historical benefactors and perpetrators of white supremacy.
Part of the frustrations with a well-meaning white person is that their intentions are in the right place, but a well-meaning white person is impotent to our greater need for change. At worse, they siphon our attention and energy from the issues that really matter. For people of color that exist in this white-supremacist reality, who struggle against it, who work to tilt the scales back toward justice, we don’t have time for the well-meaningness of white folks. We need white people to ask the same probing questions. We need white people to be just as suspicious of these systems. We need white people to challenge racism in every corner of their lives, because it’s often where it’s most prevalent and self-reinforcing. We need white people to care more about the common good, than they do about their own comfort, shame, or guilt.
I’ve been thinking about why white people are so resistant or defensive when confronted with their own whiteness, and I think Baldwin observes this in his essay, “Down at the Cross”:
Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.
I assume, that despite a white person’s wealth or position in life, that they recognize on some deep fundamental level that white supremacy challenges their basic sense of what it means to be a good person. I would argue that the gravest thing at stake for a white person in ignoring history and how their whiteness is complicit in this history, is the one thing that money or power can’t buy: their humanity.
On the evening of January 18, I came alone to Jesmyn Ward’s Portland Arts & Lecture. I saw some of the Delvers in a nearby row. The lights in the great hall dimmed. A beautiful and gentle Ward walked up to the podium under spotlight. She spoke about her children. She talked first about her daughter’s birth, and how she came out lighter-skinned than she had hoped. Then she talked about how she cried when she found out that she was having a boy. In the 2,776-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall occupied by a mostly white audience, I heard echoes of suppressed laughter and chuckling.
I assume that the white mothers in the audience must have thought that they were in on the joke: that little boys are harder to raise than little girls because they’re rascals. But Ward, a Black woman, a Black mother bearing a Black son was not speaking about that. She spoke about mourning his mortality as soon as he was conceived. When would she have “the talk” with him? When he was seventeen, the age that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed? Or at fourteen, the age Emmett Till was beaten and lynched to death. Or at twelve years old, when Tamir Rice was murdered by officers at gunpoint. “No,” she said. “She would have the “talk” with him, much younger than that.
The dead elephant is the burden that black people bear in America – and which white people do not.
These issues are large, historical, pervasive, and insidious. They bleed out from our cells. They effect how we live, how we relate, how we love, who makes it into a literary space to discuss race intellectually, safely in a temperature-controlled and warmly-lit room. It determines who fills the auditorium to hear the first woman and the first person of color to be awarded the National Book Award twice, speak. It determines the safety and voyeurism of a white audience watching a Black woman talk about her Black babies. These systems make the reality of a white-dominant space still possible in contemporary literary Portland. The weight of these realities and inequities are felt, rippled out from the center and from the invisibility of white privilege, in white ignorance, in the well-meaningness of white people thinking that they’re always the center of every human experience.
Claudia Rankine in her essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” shares an exchange between her and a friend:
It’s extraordinary how ordinary our grief sits inside this fact. One friend said, “I am so afraid, every day.” Her son’s childhood feels impossible, because he will have to be—has to be—so much more careful. There is not life outside of our reality here. Is this something that can be seen and known by parents of white children?
This isn’t about sympathy, or pity. Pity is a subtle way of separating yourself from another person’s plight, because to feel sorry for someone you have to feel that you are better than them. What this is about is genuinely caring about another human being. Rankine continues her thought:
This is the question that nags me. National mourning, as advocated by Black Lives Matter, is a mode of intervention and interruption that might itself be assimilated into the category of public annoyance. This is altogether possible; but also possible is the recognition that it’s a lack of feeling for another that is our problem. Grief, then, for these deceased others might align some of us, for the first time, with the living.
It’s not that some of the white Delvers didn’t try, or that some weren’t intelligent and sensitive. A very small percentage of the 77% in the room were deeply aware of their whiteness, while most were well-meaning, and another small percentage were resistant and deeply ignorant.
There were moments in the seminar where I felt like I was swirling. Where I read the words of Ward, Wilkerson, Rankine, Anderson, Young, and many others, and was met by the whiteness of the room. I watched, felt, and experienced these authors’ observations about whiteness unfold in real life, right before my eyes with the well-meaning white people in that room. Where Baldwin’s words, written over fifty years ago were a prognosis of a reality we were all currently living—but a reality that was only shared by a small percentage of the room. I was consumed with the fissures and dysfunctions of society, which spilled over into my ever-eroding faith in humanity. I felt demoralized, how many more words and convincing do we need before things will ever change? We were trapped in a vortex.
One evening I said out loud, “I’m losing hope.” And another person of color fiercely interrupted me and jabbed her finger on the table emphasizing, “I expect change in my lifetime.”
I go back to the dead elephant. I’m also aware of how dogmatic and self-righteous the secularism of social justice work can become—how pedantic even this blog post is. I recognize how the social justice rhetoric reduces all of our humanity into pure ideology, which can make us ruthless to each other. When at heart all we want is to be human to and with one another. As Baldwin said, “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…”
But what these words do is wrestle, they grapple. They are a desperate plea, an angry shout for understanding. Being human to one another is impossible without white people bearing the burden of this shared reality—there cannot be reconciliation without recognition.
And maybe the reason this reflection has taken me so long to struggle through is because this is my community. It is mine, with all the infuriatingly well-meaning white people and all of the incendiary self-righteous social justice warriors. I am a Chinese-American child that has been equally reared by my immigrant parents as I have been by Portland’s particular brand of racism. The role of intermediary is a natural one for a person of my background and race—but it’s tiring. And I’ve labored here, and it might be compulsory, and maybe that is an expression of my love—I’m not sure. The exhaustion muddles and distorts. But as a writer, I know that somewhere the rhetoric and the hubris that comes with it will have to die for us to see each other, even if my compassion is worn thin.
Baldwin says, “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
In Ward’s intro to the collection The Fire This Time, she writes, “I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words. That sharing our stories confirms our humanity. That it creates community, both within our own and beyond it. Maybe someone who didn’t perceive us as human will think differently […]”
After Ward’s Portland Arts & Lecture, we returned to meet one last time on January 20. It was a smaller and caring group, lit by the afternoon light. We shared how touched we were by Ward’s story about her son. A white woman shared her own guilt about not being more active in resisting racism. She shared that she felt that reading alone or listening to podcasts about race was barely anything, but that she was listening, “I know it’s not enough, but I feel like I’m getting as close as I can to understanding.”
In Baldwin’s essay he pleads:
Everything now, we must assume is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.
That afternoon, something shifted ever so slightly…and still not enough…but a hint…
And in the words of Ward, “I burn, and I hope.”