As I began to read the first of two letters in this brief book written in 1963, I was struck by the message which seemed to contain elements of hopeless resignation and self-loathing. It was a letter that outlined injustice and placed blame on many shoulders. It openly acknowledged that there were members of the police department who were racist and that there were elements of documented police brutality. It acknowledged that there were fewer opportunities for black people and that most doors were closed to them. It acknowledged that there was an overarching distrust and fear of authority and the police department, most often, with good reason. There was little opportunity to succeed, since most men were reduced to idleness due to a lack of job opportunities for them, even when well trained. Their color locked them out of the system. The women were employed doing menial labor, but they became the breadwinners, for the most part. The men gathered in groups, drank, did drugs and were led into a lifetime of crime when no other opportunity presented itself. This was not the life that Baldwin wanted for himself or his nephew.
In the second letter, a broader view of his perspective became evident as he reviewed aspects of his own life. His ideas were colored by his background in the ministry. He realized that his community had no power and he knew that the lack of that power was preventing them from gaining respect. He achieved success by not getting sucked into a system that was designed to betray him. He wrote about The Nation of Islam and its effect on the world view of the “Negro”. The Nation of Islam had suddenly gained prominence and had positively influenced many in his community to live a cleaner life, stay out of prison, refrain from drinking and doing drugs; at the same time, it also preached hate for the “white devil”, demanding that the white world accept the superiority of the blacks in society. This goal to gain power was to be accomplished by any means available to them.
When Baldwin wrote about The Nation of Islam, there was definitely a respect for what they had accomplished in inspiring so many to follow a different path, to have hope and to respect themselves, as they should. However, they believed that to accomplish that goal for one group, it must be at the expense of the other. The Nation of Islam believed in violence and in black supremacy. It did not seek equality, but superiority. Baldwin did not subscribe to all of their demands or dreams of a separate nation with land and reparations. He did not wish to disengage from the white culture and live separately.
Baldwin hoped for more opportunity and justice in his world, but he did not consider all white people devils, as they did. He did not agree with all of their principles. He did support their goals to empower the “Negro” and their movement to create a hopeful future, instead of a life of despair. He did agree that “Negroes” had not been afforded the opportunity to succeed, had been subjected to a horrific life of slavery, and that a path to a different future for them must be found. The manner and method is what he seemed to differ with, and he did not join their movement. There was, and still is, a great deal of simmering anger that is passed on from generation to generation. There is so much frustration and suffering that continues even today, decades later.
Baldwin’s message was prescient since he predicted the election of a black president in the future, and only half a century from the time of his writing, it became a reality. However, although the book was written in the mid sixties, it might just as well have been written yesterday. The anger and the injustice still exist in many arenas. There is still police brutality. There are still advocates of a violent movement to gain power. There are still demands being made that may or may not be realistic. These demands, however, are not yet being met. There are still families that are passing on a legacy of hate, fear and insecurity in the “white devil” community and the “black lives matter” movement. There is still racism, on both sides, but only one side is suffering from the ramifications of such unnecessary, unjustified and unwarranted prejudice.