18 Nov 2022

James Baldwin, “They Don’t Want to Hear the Truth”

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: American Empire, Black History, Bobby's World, Christian hope, Contemporary Ethics, Love, Politics, Race Relations

Human blindness is proverbial. Blindness is even more profound where oppression and injustice is perpetuated. The oppressor, short of a miracle, without fail will minimize, deny, or justify what they have done. It is not unusual for the oppressor to blame the oppressed and even claim it was for their good. The Bible testifies to this truth over and over again. One of the most frequent exhortations (or lament) is some variation of the people having eyes to see and ears to hear.

Yahweh said, through the prophet Isaiah, his people are

ever hearing,
but never understanding;
ever seeing
but never perceiving” (Isa 6.9-10).

This truth is never more true than when God’s people contemplate race, racism, and racial justice.

I first “met” James Baldwin about twenty years ago when I discovered The Fire Next Time. I wrote my first blog on Baldwin in February 2010 when I “meditated” on Nobody Knows My Name: Thoughts Prompted by James Baldwin and Black History Month. Not only is Baldwin, literally, one of the greatest American writers in our collective history, he is an amazing speaker. Baldwin wrote both fiction and essays. His language is elegant, even beautiful. He is among the most profound thinkers I have ever engaged. I do not know why I was not introduced to Baldwin in high school. Given the “blind” rage going on in our public schools right now, Baldwin ought to be added to the curricula not removed.

Years before I was born, in 1965, William F. Buckley engaged Baldwin in a debate at Cambridge University that I only discovered 7 or 8 years ago (the entire debate is on YouTube). I went down the rabbit hole. Nicholas Buccola traces the events leading up to debate and then traces how Buckley and Baldwin pretty much set the parameters for discussion on race relations basically to this day in the United States. Buckley exerting heavy influence through such persons as Ronald Reagan. The sheer moral force of Baldwin destroyed Buckley. But 57 years later it amazes me how many Christians still sound like Buckley. I cannot recommend The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr and the Debate over Race in America enough. (This book also contains a full transcript of the debate).

Buckley did not want to “hear.” To this day, even those of us who claim we want to hear, often do not. Too much self-investment is at stake.

In July 1968, about two months after Martin Luther King Jr was murdered, Baldwin was interviewed by Esquire magazine. The magazine wanted Baldwin to reflect on King’s murder and the hell that erupted in America. Baldwin sounds like the beautifully poetic Isaiah himself and spoke words we still, 54 years later, do not want to hear.

I’m not trying to accuse you, you know. That’s not the point. But you have a lot to face … All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history … which is not your past, but your present. Nobody cares what happened in the past. One can’t afford to care what happened in the past. But your history had led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself and save yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history.

That is quite a profound statement. It is one that many will deny. Buckley did. But it certainly describes what is happening in our country right now.

In Isaiah’s day, people with no eyes to see and ears to hear thought Israel was declining because they did not spend money enough on the army or they did not have powerful alliances with Egypt to face Assyria. Even though Isaiah, along with Amos and Micah and the rest of the prophets, explained clearly that was not the issue. Israel was in the predicament it was in not because the army budget, but because of the country was fundamentally greedy and full injustice toward the widows, orphans, aliens. Israel was not serving the least of these.

cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead the cause of the widows” [in court]

(Isaiah 1.17)

You are doomed!
You buy more houses and fields to add to those you already have.
Soon there will be no place for anyone else to live,
and you alone will live in the land.
I have heard the LORD Almighty say,
‘All these big, fine houses will be empty ruins
(Isaiah 5.8-9, TEV, read verses 8-30)

They covet fields and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress families
and steal their inheritance

(Micah 2.2, BV translation, “inheritance” refers to ancestral family land)

Greed driven injustice towards the poor and the powerless. The wealthy never had enough so they find ways to take the little the poor have. And they even seem to find “legal” ways to do this, which is Isaiah’s point about defending the cause of the poor and powerless in court. This is why Israel is doomed. God is the God of the Oppressed, this is “inscripturated” into Israel’s very foundation in the Exodus story memorialized in Sabbath and Passover.

It is only after this condemnation of oppression on the widows, orphans and aliens by those who had enough but wanted more, that we get the “call” of Isaiah. It is in that call that Yahweh told the prophet, they will never open their ears. They will never open their eyes to see what they are doing and have done. Israel will not “confront” its history.

Periodically women and men appear before the human family and tell us the truth. One of those men was James Baldwin. And Baldwin said many of the same things as Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and even John the Baptist. But Israel did not want to hear that “your history has lead you to this moment.” Neither do we!

Baldwin, in 1969, about a year after King’s murder and the soul of America was in the balance, sounded not merely like Isaiah, but Yahweh.

A Man we Should Read

It began to be very clear to black people in the United States that what Time magazine calls ‘the troubled American’ is not going to listen, does not want to know, does not want to hear the truth about the situation of the American black.

Israel never did “hear” and never did “perceive.” Jerusalem was destroyed not because Israel did not have a big enough army but because Israel refused to accept responsibility for her actions (or non-actions) toward her greed and injustice in the land.

Baldwin is one of the reasons I believe Black History Matters. We must know that our history has brought us to this moment. We must confront it. We must SEE and HEAR and then we will finally recognize the truth. It is the truth that will set us free. We can find healing. As Maya Angelou said so beautifully,

History, despite its wrenching pains cannot be unlived,
but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.


2 Responses to “James Baldwin, “They Don’t Want to Hear the Truth””

  1. JT Says:


    I recently took a tour of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, and then attended an NFL game there. Our tour guide, an older man of color, told me he was from Jamaica. Before the tour began he and I became acquainted. He and I both, coincidentally, had our cell phones tuned to the USC-UCLA game. (Late in the tour as we were walking he looked back at me and softly said, “By the way, it’s now 21-20.) Meaning, USC had finally come from behind. His ball cap had a “USC” emblem on it. He said he was a 1974 graduate of USC. At my request, he suggested a good place to eat, you know, where “locals” eat. Surprisingly, the tour included a large hallway that was totally dedicated to “Black History” themes. I noticed several redeeming showcased historical displays, including a substantial one about James Baldwin, and some black soldiers and firemen. In a short trading of comments he said privately to me, “History books don’t show this stuff”. He also asked, “Why? Why doesn’t history cover what blacks have accomplished? What are they afraid of?” I kid you not.

    Owen is an educated, kind, gentle, and soft-spoken man and I’m thankful for the time I had with him.

    Are we not all so looking forward to the time when superficial differences of skin color, of opinions about doctrinal differences, of “doing church”, and so many other things that keep us all in various states of division are NO LONGER!!??

    Bobby, I realize you like history, but I also realize that you write about and post occasionally on things to do with people of color because it is so significantly relevant with biblical justice, for us as people of the Book, etc. Thanks.



    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      JT, I always enjoy reading your comments. I’ve only been to Inglewood stadium once and that was for a concert a few years ago (before Covid).

      You sure the name of your tour guide was not Raphael … like the angel who traveled with Tobias incognito revealing truth to him. 😉

      Thanks for sharing that wonderful story. I am sure he was a gentleman but his question is a great one.

      I am grateful that one of the panels included Baldwin too. Baldwin is without a doubt one of the most significant thinkers and writers in American history, period.

      Thanks for reading and sharing.

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