Freedom and James Baldwin
The tragic murder of Trayvon Martin encouraged me to revisit this powerful, poignant essay from James Baldwin, written in “celebration” of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to his nephew. December 1, 2012 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Baldwin’s death and next year marks the one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I am moved to question the very definition of freedom in a country becoming increasingly defined by incarceration and marginalization. This is my favorite passage from the essay, but the essay must be read in full,
There is no reason for you to try to become like white men 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 and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.