The debate hall of Cambridge University is filled with graduates and undergraduates, with handfuls of people still left outside. James Baldwin, best known at the time for his eloquent essays and literature, such as Go Tell It on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son, is debating William F. Buckley, an American conservative who laid the groundwork for Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The question up for debate: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”
James Baldwin left his quotable handbook of statistics at home this day and decided to turn the audience inside out. Baldwin spoke of the destruction of his identity, a collective experience among the black community in the United States. The destruction of his identity, caused by the American population’s refusal to accept the growing racism in the United States, adding decades more to the centuries of oppression.
Baldwin spoke of his experience as something that came from an utter shock, from the realization of his ancestor’s upbringing, to the realization of the color of his skin. He expressed that everything in his world was white, from the sticks and stones, to the faces on television, to the faces down the block — all white. He continues to express his shock, the realization that he himself was not white, since he never looked in the mirror before. He explains, “It comes as a great shock around the age of five, or six, or even seven to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.” Baldwin’s analogy proved his offset. The country in which he was born left no place in society for him; nowhere to evolve, grow, or prosper.
Baldwin’s systemic reality can be applied today. We, as people of color, are searching for identity, which is slowly decaying in the dominance of Anglo society. Forced assimilation has become a natural process, that is, until the day we are no longer accepted into the dominant culture. Today, there is much talk of belonging, and the need to assert such belonging. Since we are no longer convenient to the American Dream, even as a source of exploitation, the leaders of this country want us out.
In the third grade, I willingly accepted blame for the atrocities committed by the American people. Rather than writing, Americans killed off over one million Indians in the course of a decade, I wrote, We killed off over one million Indians in the course of a decade. I turned on Baldwin’s words in the third grade during history class. If taking blame for the atrocities against an entire civilization meant acceptance from the “white man,” then I counted myself in. At this point, the price did not matter, only approval and acceptance from all the white dominant figures around me mattered.
Baldwin’s systemic reality takes the person of color’s experience and shows the manipulation behind every structure in America. In my personal case, the school system. Last year, I started my field experience for teaching in a predominantly Latinx community. The children were learning about the Native Americans, before the colonizers took over the Native civilizations. The responses were the same; they associated themselves with the conquerors, and felt guilty for taking the lives of millions of Native Americans. How was I, a sophomore in college, supposed to break it to them? They were the Indians! They were the massacred. They were the ones sent to boarding schools. They were the ones being reeducated for Anglo society. They are the ones being reeducated for Anglo society.
Today, I can declare, “I am an American,” but it is not as sound as “President” Trump or Bush declaring, “I am an American.” No, my heritage, my birth, my allegiance is constantly put into question.
The realization is different for every person of color. It can be the Italian boy or girl next door, who you thought was your childhood best friend, who questions your allegiance to this country because of the color of your skin. A cocktail of emotions shakes inside your abdomen. It starts in the stomach, something ticklish and irritating. You feel your body shaking. The large intestine constrains itself, as the tickling sensation becomes a bitter-cold riding up the esophagus, becoming more of a nuisance. Your body stops shaking. But, before it makes a sudden stop below the heart, a nasty-freeze overcomes the rest of your body. Your skin is garnished with freshly squeezed goose-bumps. This new cocktail, this new-found emotion — we can call it resentment.
Baldwin’s experiences are all collected in Raoul Peck’s film I Am Not Your Negro, which uses all of Baldwin’s inspiring quotes from all the work he did before, during, and after the Civil Rights movement. Peck’s inspiration for detailing Baldwin’s life comes from the sudden burst of realization. The realization that we live in a country which promotes equality and justice, yet marginalized people are constantly fighting for justice and equality. To say we have made progress is a setback. Progress is a redundant word in a country that promotes equality. If this country were truly equal, then progress would not be a necessary measure.
Baldwin left the United States for France, in hopes of reconstructing his identity from the broken shackles he left behind. This only proved that the “white attitude” he left in the United States did not change to the “white attitude” he arrived to in France.
Baldwin’s mission stretched to integration. Educating Anglo nations in realizing their prejudices took priority. Reconstructing the identity crushed by said Anglo nations evolved from this priority. This is the work illustrated in I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin’s experience is universal to almost every person of color. In his time, he fought against the label, “Negro.” He used it to define himself because this is how society identified him. His work meant to destroy the label as an identifying marker, but since his identity became so familiar around the word, he had no choice but use it in discussion.
The word is up for discussion, but should be erased as an identifying marker. This label erases any form of individuality he hoped to showcase. Today, the identifier is “people of color;” we use this as a general identifying marker during discussions of racial and ethnic relations, but it is not a self-identifying marker. It is used to represent our push for equality and justice as a group, but if we continue to prolong the use of this word, our individuality will shrink away into it.
As Victoria Santa Cruz said, “Voy a reíre me de aquellos, / que por evitar-según ellos- / que por evitar algún sinsabor / Llaman a los negros gente de color.” In her spoken word, “Me Gritaron Negra,” Santa Cruz fits with Baldwin’s view on labels. She says she will laugh at those who want to avoid distaste, so they call black people, “people of color.” It is laughable, because of course people will be upset; no one wants to be stripped from their individuality. I will reiterate, the term is used in discussion, as a general term, but never as an identifying marker when speaking of an individual.
This all begins to mold together. Baldwin’s exclusion from Anglo society, to my realization of also being excluded begins to take form as resentment. This resentment fuels racism, only proving that racism breeds racism. It is these open discussions that help identify how terminology is used and approved. It is clear that people, as individuals, do not represent these labels; they are limited to representing themselves, and only themselves. These labels represent the oppression of the people who have been afflicted by the dominance of Anglo society.
Our identity will constantly be at risk. This forced assimilation in schools is destroying centuries of traditions and cultures, yet the world seems to be fine by it. James Baldwin’s work is beginning to popularize in the mainstream media. This is more than just “fancy Liberal talk.” What is being discussed is the intrinsic value we hold to our history and culture. For it to be wiped away is an unforgivable injustice.
— Miguel Soto, Special Sections Editor