Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Monday, June 22, 2015

What Do You Read When You Are Feeling an Inconsolable Sorrow

     I could say that we need comfort, solace, and love right now. And I wouldn't be wrong. But we need something else; I need something else. I need truth.

     It is all to easy to call the massacre of nine worshipers at Emanuel AME church a senseless killing, or to pretend not to understand "where such hatred comes from."

    But that is a lie. Right now, more than anything, I need words of truth. What do you read when your country is being torn apart by a refusal to finally admit to and do the work of repairing the damage done by centuries of white supremacy? You have to read words of truth. Comfort and solace are stale crumbs compared to truth and justice.

     What do you read when you are feeling an inconsolable sorrow? You might begin with James Baldwin. You might begin with The Fire Next Time.

     The first essay in The Fire Next Time offers some hard truths. In "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emanciption," Baldwin talks about the brutal systematic racism that his father, uncle, brother, and nephew have encountered and continue to encounter. But worse, says Baldwin, is the innocence of whites who pretend the system doesn't exist:

" I know what the world has done to my brother, and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it."

     The crime that Baldwin accuses white America of is not knowing and not wanting to know of the destruction and devastation of black lives: "But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."

     Further, Baldwin tells his nephew: "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."

     Baldwin is as relevant today as he was in 1962. Reading his essays and fiction is like stepping into the bracing, cold air and the clear and glorious light of truth after stumbling in darkness.

"I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man's definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believe that your imprisonment made them safe are losing 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."

     Baldwin is just one writer who tells the truths we need to face. His message still seems radical: He outlines the purposeful destruction of a people, and then he prescribes love and truth as the way forward.

     It is ironic that a cold-hearted, cold-blooded killer, who intended to start a "race war" should have instead inspired an outpouring of unity, grace, and love. The way forward is through truth, truths told with grace and lived out with love.


bermudaonion said...

Amen. I love this post!

Andi said...

So glad you wrote this post. I haven't been sure where to go next in my reading in light of this enormous tragedy and this seeming moment of reckoning for our country. I read Citizen before this most recent event, and it is certainly of this time in a way that all readers should experience. Baldwin seems like an excellent choice. This really hit me: "But worse, says Baldwin, is the innocence of whites who pretend the system doesn't exist." YESSSS.

bibliophiliac said...

@bermudaonion-Thank you.

bibliophiliac said...

@Andi-Kiese Laymon is another writer you should read.How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Don't let the title scare you off!

Lisa said...

i have found myself, of late, unexpectedly reading books about slavery and the struggle of blacks since then and immersing myself like this has really opened my eyes to the scars. Reading can't answer all of the questions, but it can certainly help us.

bibliophiliac said...

@Lisa-Reading can do so much to help people unite, empathize, and understand.

Terra said...

I recall reading The Fire Next Time years ago and greatly admiring Baldwin's powerful words. I was thrilled when I was living in Istanbul and got to meet Baldwin when he attended my friend's birthday party.