On the very first page of the book, in the section labeled Praise for James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work is the statement made by – Booklist “His instructive comments reveal what a black child and black audiences in general perceive in white-produced movies…” This is an interesting statement and brings up the question; what does a black child or person perceive about his race, what does he think about being black and how does this develop into his identity? I wonder also, what does he think about “white” people and how does this influence his perceptions and identity? The definitions of racial identity and the accompanying culture are a “hot” topic today and Baldwin in this book addresses his experience of being “black” through his film reviews and the stories he included of his life.
Starting on page 6, Baldwin says: “I was a child, of course, and, therefore, unsophisticated. I don’t ever seem to ever to have had any innate need (or, indeed, any innate ability) to distrust people:” Baldwin then goes on to describe what he thought and believed of white people: “White people as they lived in my imagination, and also as they were in life..” He describes that his views of white people “had a profound and bewildering effect” on his mind. There appears to be a conflict between his statement that he didn’t have a need or ability to distrust people and his views of white people: “I had found white people to be unutterably menacing, terrifying, mysterious – wicked, and they were mysterious, in fact, to the extent that they were wicked: the unfathomable question being, precisely, this one: what under heaven, or beneath the sea, or in the catacombs of hell, could cause any people to act as white people acted?”
How did he describe his involvement with white people? Baldwin in his description of Miss Miller included some of his experiences with white authority; “the cops who had already beaten me up…the landlords who called me nigger, the storekeepers who laughed at me.” He is separate from them, not like them, not authority and especially not white. It is apparent that Baldwin included these examples of differences to demonstrate his childhood confusion about the trustworthiness of people and his distrust of white people. This difference between the understood and familiar black community and the confusing, menacing and even evil whites were the foundations of his racial belief system and his discovery of what it meant to be black.
On page 10, Baldwin continues his exploration of his racial identity; “I knew that I was black, but did not yet know what being black really meant, what it meant, that is, in the history of my country, and in my own history.” Page 11 continues the theme of discovering what “being black” meant to him. “I had no idea what Two Cities was really about, any more than I know what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was really about, which was why I had read them both so obsessively: They had something to tell me. It was this particular child’s way of circling around the question of what it meant to be a nigger…I did not believe in any of these people so much as I believed in their situation, which I suspected, dreadfully, to have something to do with my own.” He continued to struggle with the question of race, trying to understand through films and his readings. On page 15 Baldwin says: “I could not see where I fit this formulation, and I did not see where black fit. I don’t think I ever dared pose this question to Bill, partly because I hadn’t yet really accepted or understood that I was black.” But he was beginning to understand. Being black also meant that he was ugly (6-7), that he was poor (10), that he was a victim of “the world’s social and economic arrangements” (10), that he could not be a hero and most importantly that as a black person, he lived in a country where the majority of its citizens were his enemy (19).
As Baldwin ages he identifies additional differences between his experience of being black and his beliefs about white people, now incorporating the identity of “American”. “White Americans have been encouraged to continue dreaming, and black Americans have been alerted to the necessity of waking up. People who cannot escape thinking of themselves as white are poorly equipped, if equipped at all, to consider the meaning of black: people who know so little about themselves can face very little in another:”(59) Blacks are often confronted, in American life, with such devastating examples of the white descent from dignity; devastating not only because of the enormity of the white pretensions, but because this swift and graceless descent would seem to indicate that white people have no principles whatever.” Baldwin declares that “Even the most thoughtless, even the most deluded black person knows more about his life than the image he is offered as the justification of it.” (62) He also sees white people of his era as “dimwitted, good natured and flamboyant, yet in the same phrase also said that “ not even the most vindictive hatred could have imagined the slimy depths to which the bulk of white Americans allowed themselves to sink: noisily, gracelessly, flatulent and foul with patriotism.”(85)
Throughout the book, Baldwin has built a picture of both the Black and the White person. A black person begins their lives trusting people, but soon learns that whites are not to be trusted. The white person is evil, wicked, menacing, terrifying, and mysterious, depraved with no principles, oppressive and perverse. They have a need, “a compulsion to civilize the world and remake it as their mirror (83). The whites also transform others, immigrants into more white men upon their arrival in America, as long as they are not Black (49). Baldwin also says “ Whites may or may not deserve to be hated, depending on how one manipulates one’s reserves of energy, and what one makes of history; in any case, the reassurance is false, the need ignoble and the question in this context, absolutely irrelevant.”(68) There is not really a question of whether or not whites deserve to be hated, because they already are. Page 64 explains the nature of this hatred and Baldwin’s belief that there is a profound misunderstanding of its nature. “There is hatred certainly. But the hatred is not equal on both sides; for it does not have the same roots….black men do not have the same reason to hate the white men as white men have to hate blacks. The root of the white mans hatred is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black…an entity which lives only in his mind. But the root of the black mans hatred is rage, and he does not so much hate white man as simply want them out of his way, and more than that out of his children’s way. It is a species of cowardice, grave indeed to pretend that black men do not know this, And it is a matter of the most disastrous sentimentality to attempt to bring black men into the white American nightmare, and on the same terms, moreover, which make life for white men all but intolerable.”
We need to work on change, not just on one front, but two. We need to find a way for Black Americans to see the whole range of possibilities around them, to bring the youth into pursuing their full range of interests, to remove the roadblocks that currently limit them. We also need to introduce the underexposed to the issues and work together to solve them. We need to learn about each other by exploring the question of how people come to understand their racial identity and how those beliefs continue to promote continuing conflict between the communities even today. We need to challenge the stereotypes, the stigmas and limitations of the imagination. In 1889 Fredrick Douglass delivered a speech, marking the twenty-seventh anniversary of the abolition of slavery. “The fact, for it is a fact, an ominous fact, that at no time in the history of conflict between slavery and freedom in this country has the character of the Negro as a man been made the subject of a fiercer and more serious discussion in all the avenues of debate than during the past and present year.. The American people have this lesson to learn, that where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property would be safe.”
Where ignorance prevails.
References in addition to reviewed text:
Fredrick Douglass speech on the twenty-first anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C. (April 1883).
Smith, Mark M, How race is made: Race, Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2006