In 1963 James Baldwin visited San Francisco to see, in his own words, “the real situation of the Negro in this city, as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present.” He was accompanied by a TV crew, led by Richard Moore, and you can watch the resulting documentary film, “Take This Hammer,” on YouTube, in five parts. It’s well worth it.
I don’t know how familiar most people are with James Baldwin these days, so let me say a few things about him. He was black. He was gay. He was a chain smoker. He was a child preacher who later broke with the Pentecostal church. He spent much of his adult life in Europe. He was exceptionally elegant, in appearance, gesture and in speech. And oh that speech! Few people seem to come so naturally to their language as James Baldwin. The fact that, as he himself noted, he had to work against the innate bias of the language (black as night! black as sin!) distinguished his brilliance from mere facility.
James Baldwin didn’t shy away from race or sexuality. He was famous for his uncompromising essays on the conditions of black folks in our racist society. His 1956 novel “Giovanni’s Room” wasn’t just about gay men, it was about gay white men: Black writers weren’t supposed to write about white people. He saw our confusion, ignorance, idiocy, hatefulness, etc., about race and sex clearly and intimately — he was, after all, the Other in so many different communities. But he wasn’t blinded by the objects of our confusion, ignorance, idiocy, hatefulness, etc. He saw the confusion, etc., as the true subject we have to look at. Put simply, the true subject isn’t race or sexual preference. It’s the human mind.
At one point in “Take This Hammer” he says: “That what you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you… What I think of you as being is indicated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me.”
This is not abstract philosophy. He’s very specifically talking about the word “nigger,” how this word, which dehumanizes people to the point at which they can be lynched, is a projection of white fears and does not describe any actual human being. But rather than seeing this as an isolated phenomenon, he sees it as an example of something even more fundamental and universal: “what you say about somebody else… reveals you.” And, in case you think he thinks he’s immune: “when I talk about you, I’m describing me.”
That’s the basic confusion. My image of you is me. It has nothing to do with you. Your image of me is you. It has nothing to do with me. But look at the terrible things we do to each other precisely because we can’t admit this truth to ourselves.