18 Feb 2010

Nobody Knows My Name … Thoughts Prompted By James Baldwin & Black History Month

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Black History, Christian hope, Kingdom, Ministry, Race Relations

Consider the generations of old and see …” said the ancient Jewish sage Jesus the Son of Sirach (cf. Sirach 2.10).

You shall love your neighbor as yourself” said the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (Mt 22.39)

If “considering,” “honoring” or even “listening” to previous generations is difficult for the living then it is doubly so when we speak of previous generations from different ethnic backgrounds. Yet that is exactly what Carter G. Woodson dreamed of in February 1926 when he created what became Black History Month. The month of February was chosen to honor two men of a previous generation, one black and one white. Those two men were Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. This post, and possibly a few more to come, are an effort to consider, listen to and learn from generations different than my own.

Since the mid-1990s, during the Valentine sojourn in New Orleans, I have attempted to expand my horizons and perhaps (that is a PERHAPS!) understand people different from myself – though my own grandfather was Italian and African. African American history is an unknown commodity for many non-African Americans often to our impoverishment. Sadly it is also often unknown for black Americans. In previous years I have read Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower, the anthology Crossing the Danger Water, or Parting the Danger Waters. This year I have spent some time reading a few selections of James Baldwin. Baldwin is a brilliant and sensitive writer. Nobody Knows My Name is a powerful book with layers of eloquence and pathos. It is a journey of self-discovery as much as it it is on race relations in America.

Nobody Knows My Name is a collection of essays published in various magazines between 1954 and 1961. Baldwin, characterizing his effort as leaves from his “private logbook,” wrestled with the issues race but more important the “graver questions of self.” One of his discoveries during his self-imposed exile in France was what it meant to be an American. This revelation pushed him to the conclusion that he and white Americans have a common bond whether confessed or not!

“… I proved to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I. And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris. Like me, they had been divorced from their origins, and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine African-they were no more at home in Europe than I was.” (p. 4).

Baldwin had a stake in what happened in the USA. Yet in spite of the common bond to America, Baldwin confesses he was “afraid.” It was the fear that made him return to end his exile and return to the United States. One gets the feeling while reading “The Discovery of what it means to be an American” that Baldwin is saying he could no more return to Africa (and thus absolving America of her race issue) than whites could/would return to Europe.

The essay that lends its name to this book is a reflective, even interpretive, account of a visit by Baldwin to Atlanta. This is followed by a brilliant rebuff of renowned southern writer William Faulkner. Faulkner had made excuses for segregation and suggested things were getting better in Mississippi because “only Negroes were killed by whites last year” (p. 125). What Faulkner fears and laments is “real change.” “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety” (p. 117).

Near the end of his book Baldwin offers an analysis of Richard Wright. Wright’s works can make the reader uncomfortable (Native Son did me!). Baldwin states insight-fully that “Wright’s unrelentingly bleak landscape was not merely that of the Deep South, or of Chicago, but that of the world, of the human heart” (p. 185). Put another way Wright opens a window into the “demoralization of the Negro male and the fragmentation of the Negro family …” Theologically, we might say that, Wright captures well the fallenness and the alienation that pervades a world in need of redemption.

Times have changed considerably since this small book was published. We have Martin Luther King Jr day as a federal holiday. There are black mayors, members of congress and the Supreme Court. Colin Powell and Condeleezza Rice have served as Secretary of State. And Barack Obama is President of the United States.

Yet for all the change Americans are still incredibly uncomfortable with talking about race. There are still huge disparities between between neighbors and there is still plenty of prejudice. But we as Christians, those who pledge allegiance to the kingdom of God, confess that God has called us to love our neighbors. It is difficult to love when we do not even know our neighbor! Sometimes getting to “know” and learning to love means listening to those of a different generation. Getting to know and coming to understand requires walking in their shoes. That journey is what opens us up as humans to authentic and realistic dialogue where honor and respect can take place. Listening to the past helps us to examine ourselves. And “if we are not capable of this examination,” Baldwin opines, “we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations” (p. 116).

It is my prayer that we continue to join God’s mission of redeeming his world. That we open ourselves up to points of view that may require us to refocus on “what it means to be an American” or better what it means to be God’s healing shalom in a dark and hurting world. Dare we be ministers of reconciliation?

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