Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Fire This Time


I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. -James Baldwin

With the Trayvon Martin incident in Sanford, Florida making worldwide headlines, even provoking a statement from President Obama, Americans are once again confronted with the ugly reality of a racially polarized nation, leaving many of them to wonder when or if it will be any different.

Of course, conservatives will have us believe that all this was settled long ago and that we have put it behind us. They argue that it is the Liberal media that is always banging this particular drum and preventing our national wounds from properly healing.

While the black community, including many entertainers, has spoken out about the case in Florida, I find myself wondering what Tina Turner is thinking, since she has chosen to live in Switzerland since 1994. Turner certainly experienced enough racial discrimination in the 1960s, when she performed with her then husband Ike Turner. Evidently, the issue is so painful to her that, now she has found an escape from it in a place where the history of Africans in America is little known or understood, she refuses to answer questions on the subject in interviews.

But Turner wasn't the first African-American entertainer who found refuge in Europe. After success in Harlem's Cotton Club, Josephine Baker travelled to Paris in 1925 to appear in a show called "La Revue Nègre". Her appearance onstage wearing nothing but a skirt made of bananas and a smile made her a sensation with French audiences. She became an artists' model, a recording artist and a movie actress before finally becoming a French citizen in 1937. When she returned to New York in 1951, she was refused service at the famous Stork Club and charged its owner of racism.

Miles Davis also visited Paris in 1949. He was astonished by his reception and by the relative absence of color discrimination. "This was my first trip out of the country," Davis later wrote in his autobiography. "It changed the way I looked at things forever ... I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren't prejudiced." He wrote scores for French films, including the splendid Elevator to the Gallows and had a love affair with the French actress/chanteuse Juliette Gréco. However much he loved Paris, Davis knew that the center of his musical world was in America, and he reluctantly returned there, back to its segregated hotels and restaurants, where he and other black jazz artists could perform but never eat or sleep.

James Baldwin, author of Giovanni's Room, which caused a stir in 1950s America for its "homoerotic" content, first visited France in 1948. He saw that before every black person in America could realize their own personal identity, they were confronted with a racial identity imposed on them by their society. Baldwin's residency in France was his way of realizing himself, free from the tags "negro" or "negro writer".

Baldwin wrote an extended essay called "Down at the Cross" in 1963, consisting of two parts, "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation", which was a long letter to Baldwin's 14-year-old nephew, and "Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind." Published in The New Yorker, the essays were published in book form under the title The Fire Next Time. The title comes from an old hymn: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign,/ No more water, the fire next time!" The book's popularity spread and it eventually became a "Civil Rights manifesto" of sorts. Baldwin was unflinching in his rejection of both Christianity and Islam (the brand of Islam represented by the so-called "Nation of Islam"):

I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering - enough is certainly as good as a feast - but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth - and, indeed, no church - can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakeable.

I remember hearing Richard Pryor joke about justice in the South ("It means 'just us'") and how a policeman accused of shooting a black man ten times in the back says in his defense, "Your honor, the gun just fell out of my hand and went crazy!" in his funny imitation of a white man's voice. The judge says, "Not guilty!"

Forty years later and alot of people are asking, "How much longer do we have to wait for justice?" Evidently, we're not there yet by a long shot.

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