Debate, History, Horror, James Baldwin, Lovecraft Country, Racism, Slavery, The Good Lord Bird, White Privilege, William F. Buckley
“Are white South African or Mississippi sharecropper, or Mississippi sheriff, or a Frenchman driven out of Algeria, all have, at bottom, a system of reality which compels them to, for example, in the case of the French exile from Algeria, to offend French reasons from having ruled Algeria. The Mississippi or Alabama sheriff, who really does believe, when he’s facing a Negro boy or girl, that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity.”
God damn that James Baldwin!
He was right about far too many things.
He was right about them in 1965, and speaking as he was in 1965, he is just as right about them today, damn it anyhow. It’s enough to make a white guy raised on stories of progress feel all somehow!
I really do hate that!
You can hear Baldwin’s voice in the first episode of Lovecraft Country. An exerpt from a speech he gave at Cambridge Union back in 1965 plays over a couple scenes this in this episode.
This is as brilliant as it is ironic.
This Baldwinization of Lovecraft effectively transforms the literary themes of a known racist into a meditation on the nature of racism in American history. You can see Lovecraft in the monsters. You can see Baldwin in the protagonists.
Lest one miss the connection to Baldwin’s speech in 1965, one has only to think about a few more of his words;
“We talk about integration in America as though it was some great new conundrum. The problem in America is that we’ve been integrated for a very long time. Put me next to any African and you will see what I mean. My grandmother was not a rapist.”
Now just think about the plot-line for the male lead in Lovecraft country, a back man (Atticus Freeman – played by Jonathan Majors) turns out to be an heir of a rich white explorer. Far from being a blessing, this proves to be a terrible curse.
Lovecraft Country, is James Baldwin’s critique of American racism transformed into a horror story. Just how much of a transformation that took is another question. It should come as no surprise to find Jordan Peele listed as one of the show’s producers. It wouldn’t be the first time, he mapped the patterns of racism directly onto a horror story and left some of us more than a little disturbed at how easy and obvious the connection turned out to be. It’s also fitting that Lovecraft, in particular, would be the vehicle for this narrative, not just because of the delicious irony, but because so much of Lovecraftian horror resides in the prospect of insanity. In Lovecraft, this horror is about the encounter with horrors such as C’thulhu, in the consequence of knowing one day a monstrous God will destroy everything and there is nothing we can do about it. In Baldwin, this insanity the consequences of racism. It is about the perception of whites threatened by those challenging racism, and about the impact of racism itself on the minds of white people struggling to rationalize our own privilege. As Baldwin suggests, white privilege leads us to think of those who challenge it as insane, and yet that same same privilege cannot skew the reality of those who benefit from it. Racism, as Baldwin describes it, does merely enable one segment of society to oppress another; it twists the minds of each into a distorted of reality.
“I suggest that what has happened to white Southerners is in some ways, after all, much worse than what has happened to Negroes there because Sheriff Clark in Selma, Alabama, cannot be considered – you know, no one can be dismissed as a total monster. I’m sure he loves his wife, his children. I’m sure, you know, he likes to get drunk. You know, after all, one’s got to assume he is visibly a man like me. But he doesn’t know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts, for example. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”
You can see the psychological impact of racism all over Lovecraft country. The horrors faced by the central characters in this story are consistently brought to them by white people. For their own part, the world of the white characters in this series appears to be quite insane.
But of course!
How could the white characters in this world not prove insane. They are on the back end of the cattle prod, so to speak, and that, as Baldwin warns us, has its own hazards.
This same theme, the psychological effect of racism, also plays out in yet another contemporary series, The Good Lord Bird. Ostensibly a story about John Brown, the series turns into a meditation on the insanity of slavery, and in particular of its effect on those who benefit from it. There are few well-grounded characters in this story. Most of them are slaves. Even Frederick Douglas comes across as a man spoiled by privilege, one whose sense of reality is distorted by his own fame as an abolitionist, and whose commitments to the abolition of slavery are compromised by that very fame. To say nothing of John Brown himself! As he is portrayed in this series, Brown is an absolute lunatic. We love him, of course, at least in the end, but there is little question about his sanity. He doesn’t have it. No. To find a sensible character in this story, one has to look with the characters held in bondage. The slaves in this story are the only characters with the good sense to look after themselves. The rest are either too busy defending slavery and exploiting it or spiraling into ever more crazy schemes for opposing it. For those held in bondage, slavery in the Good Lord Bird is a force which keeps subjected to it well grounded; it is a force which sends those free of it into ever more bizarre flights of fancy.
The Good Lord Bird follows the story of an adolescent boy, Henry Shackleford (played by Joshua Caleb Johnson). Henry is labeled a girl by John Brown himself and Christened with a new nickname, ‘Onion’. When Brown proves incapable of correction, Henry simply accepts his new identity and thus becomes ‘Onion’ for the rest of the series. Henry knows who he is of course, but this is what it takes to get along in a world driven mad by people high on the privilege of freedom denied to others.
There is something especially interesting about the insanity of Brown and Douglas in the Good Lord Bird. It is as though the series producers believe you would have to be a little crazy to cut so far against the grain of the society in which you live, to seek to act effectively in opposition to slavery, to actually do what it takes to end it. Brown is typically regarded as something of a lunatic or a fanatic in history. (As I recall, this was one of the gripes mentioned by James Loewen in Lies My Teachers Told Me.) But how does one oppose an institution as powerful as slavery without becoming a lunatic or a fanatic. You can mumble, “oh that’s wrong,” or speak of some day overcoming the institution, but systemic oppression is not so fragile as to be threatened by expressions of passive regret. To actually confront the institution is to wage war against so many other things right along with it, even to risk bringing about harm to many people. That would of course include friends, and family, and even those one might seek to help in the end. You’d have to be a little crazy to want to do such a thing. Ethan Hawke is a lot crazy as John Brown in this series, and (for some of us anyway) it is a truly lovable performance.
James Baldwin reminds us that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see a man confronting slavery treated as a crazy person, not at the time, not the history books, and not now on screen.
Damn that Baldwin!
His ghost is writing scripts for cable television.
But of course Baldwin wrote one other script with his speech back in Cambridge. He wrote the script for his debate opponent. You see, Baldwin was there in Cambridge on that day in 1965 to debate William F. Buckley, Jr. The topic for the debate was the proposition; “The American dream is at the expense of the negro.” Baldwin was to take the affirmative and Buckley was there to oppose it.
Two things are particularly striking about this debate: the absolute brilliance of Baldwin’s own speech, and the utterly pathetic response that Buckley makes to it.
It’s worth noting that two separate publications haunt the debate. (See, I haven’t given up the horror references.)
The first of these writings was an article published in 1957 by William F, Buckley entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” In this publication, Buckley, argued in defense of segregation, suggesting that white southerners needed to maintain segregated institutions and reserve power to whites until such a time as African-Americans (‘negroes’ in Buckley’s article) would prove worthy of it. Now some have suggested Buckley had changed his mind by 1965, but at least in this debate the difference is little more than a courteous veneer. Buckley was always capable of being courteous (though Gore Vidal might have thought otherwise); he was always capable of putting a polite face on his life-log defense of elitism and privilege. The second of these publications was book Baldwin had published in in 1963, The Fire Next Time, which is said to contain a warning that violence could well be the result of continued injustice. Buckley would have described it as a threat. Buckley’s article is the reason he was invited to debate Baldwin. Baldwin’s book is the key to Buckley’s response.
That and Baldwin’s tip that opposing racism must seem like insanity to those whose identity is tied to it.
It’s worth noting that Baldwin makes a point of personalizing the issue of race in his own speech. He claims that he built the infrastructure of the American south, that he himself is the subject of discrimination and racist policies. In effect he makes of himself an indexical icon (as my old professor would have put it), through which to contemplate all of the implications of racism. This offends Buckley a great (as it often seems to offend many today to hear that racism has a negative impact on persons of color). So, Buckley’s first move is to deny it. He suggests that he is going to treat Baldwin as though he were white, and that he will do so, because Baldwin’s race is irrelevant to the matter at hand. He does this in order to deny Baldwin the protections afforded to him as a public speaker making use of a negro identity.
And thus, Buckley’s own speech begins in a world where in Baldwin’s race is irrelevant to the topic of racism; a world in which being black is a privilege, one to which Baldwin is not actually entitled.
But that’s not insane is it?
(Of course it is.)
It gets worse from there!
Buckley does not defend segregation here, nor racism. Instead he dissembles his way through the topic, describing segregation as a ‘dastardly situation’, mocking the excessive concern about racism in American Universities, and suggesting in the end that it is negroes themselves that have failed to advance themselves as a people. In Buckley’s narrative, Segregation appears to be a ghost in the machine, a presence over which no-one takes responsibility, except as it seems, those oppressed by it. If only those gosh-darned negroes and their rotten liberal friends could just get over the whole thing and get on with their lives! As Buckley would have it, the only reason racism is still with us, is because it lives in the efforts of those actively opposing it. You can hear people saying similar things, today of course. It’s just a little more jarring to see someone saying this in the very era in which buses were burned, bombs, were set off, and children spat upon while going to school, all over the topic of racism. …but wait! Dammit! It’s just as jarring to hear it in the era when cops put a knee to man’s neck in broad daylight and on camera, when the Republican Party actively works to deny African-Americans the right to vote, and when white supremacists openly mix their own flags and symbols with those of mainstream American politics.
That Baldwin guy just keeps getting righter and righterer!
It’s almost like he’s had some personal experiences with racism or something.
And what about this segregation anyway!?! Buckley’s vision of segregation is a monster worthy of Lovecraft country, one which somehow appears to the majority of us only in hindsight, but which haunts the lives of those afflicted with it. One must think those who complain of racism terribly insane to be afflicted by a demon that exists only in their own politics! Buckley certainly seems to think so. Those telling us “liberalism is a mental illness” today surely do, but of course the brunt of their criticism falls less on liberals than on those in need of remediation. We get insulted; they get to go on living with the with the demon folks like Buckley and his modern descendants will neither claim as their own nor confront in any meaningful way. Buckley did a lot to set ‘conservative’ politics on this course through his publication, National Review. That his vapid waffling response to racism could be considered intellectualism, as it has for so many calling themselves ‘conservative’ has always been a mystery to me. Buckley, never really had anything to say about anything, but he could sure as Hell take more words to say nothing than most any other public figure in modern history. Most particularly, he had nothing meaningful to say about racism or segregation in response to Baldwin.
Buckley concludes his meandering speech by warning Baldwin and those who sympathize with him of an apocalyptic scenario worthy of modern horror films. If, Buckley suggests, folks such as Baldwin insist that the American dream itself is antithetical to the justice which they seek, then he and others who love their country will be forced to fight over it, “on the beaches,” so to speak. Oddly enough, they would be doing so, even for for the benefit of the negro himself, as Buckley would have us believe.
Thus, Buckley ends his speech by imagining, not how segregation might be ended, but how the call for it threatens everything he loves, and how the defense of segregation under the pretense of basic patriotism is in the end, all for the benefit of those oppressed by it.
As beautiful as Baldwin’s speech was, Buckley’s own efforts are sickening.
What’s worse! This debate hasn’t moved a whole Hell of a lot since 1965. In this Debate, Baldwin struggled not to impress the audience with the notion that racism is wrong, but to get people to give a damn about it, to act meaningfully against it. For his part, Buckley struggles to hide it, and to hide the degree to which racism was always central to the world he defended throughout his life. Buckley has a lot in common with an awful lot of people today.
Small wonder that the script for this debate can still be found on your cable television networks.
Those present voted 544 to 164 in favor of Baldwin as the winner of the debate. For his part Buckley, bragged that he “didn’t give them a goddamned inch,” or something to that effect.
People can be proud of the strangest things!
Jacob Dugan-Brause said:
Ah yes, the Oxford Union debate of 1965…
Trouble is, you haven’t seen through the pomposity of that vote, taken by the very ‘public’ (meaning private in England) school boys & girls of that time — young men & women who knew little-to-nothing of the role that Britain’s Empire had in creating the American system of race-class, including set its slavery ‘recruitment’ system in order.
I live in Britain now and took its citizenship; I am American by birth and temperament, but I found this debate hopeless preaching to a ready-to-be-seen as enlightened privileged audience.
And it is the class system that these students enjoyed, that hung over this debate like a shroud to my now more attuned awareness of class. Like you, as I have lived in South Africa in the 1970s, I was awakened to the very reservation system that exists in the USA and the then RSA. I was made aware that a first ‘original’ sin of both these countries was its war on the First Nations of two very different continents experiencing the same European domination.
Baldwin is a genius, yes. But his sweep isn’t as broad as it could (or shall I dare say, should) have been. For America will never understand that its class system promoted the very grounding of its ‘class by colour’ that racism achieved.
For in the ‘wisdom’ of this form of subjection, all and any who are white are one step up off the bottom.
So please forgive a first-draft, off-the-keys reply to your very thoughtful work today. I just had to throw in my tuppence.
Tyson Adams said:
I love the way Baldwin was able to articulate anger and oppression in combination with knowledge and insight. Made mincemeat of Buckley.
Haven’t seen the Lovecraft Country series yet, but recently finished the book. Well worth a read: https://tysonadams.com/2020/12/28/book-review-lovecraft-country-by-matt-ruff/
Elephant's Child said:
This is all new to me and I see I have some disturbing explorations ahead.