In Memory of Dr. King – Part II of II

As promised, I post here the second and remaining part of James Baldwin’s essay, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” (Esquire magazine, July, 1960) in commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday tomorrow:


Harlem circa 1987(?)

The projects in Harlem are hated.  They are hated almost as much as policemen, and this is saying a great deal.  And they are hated for the same reason: both reveal, unbearably, the real attitude of the white world, no matter how many liberal speeches are made, no matter how many lofty editorials are written, no matter how many civil-rights commissions are set up.

The projects are hideous, of course, there being a law, apparently respected throughout the world, that popular housing shall be as cheerless as a prison.  They are lumped all over Harlem, colorless, bleak, high, and revolting.  The wide windows look out on Harlem’s invincible and indescribable squalor: the Park Avenue railroad tracks, around which, about forty year ago, the present dark community began; the unrehabilitated houses, bowed down, it would seem, under the great weight of frustration and bitterness they contain the dark, the ominous schoolhouses from which the child may emerge maimed, blinded, hooked, or enraged for life; and the churches, churches, blocks upon block of churches, niched in the walls like cannon in the walls of a fortress.  Even if the administration of the projects were not so insanely humiliating (for example: one must report raises in salary to the management, which will then eat up the profit by raising one’s rent; the management has the right to know who is staying in your apartment; the management can ask you to leave, at their discretion), the projects could still be hated because they are an insult to the meanest intelligence.

Harlem got its first private project, Riverton — which is now, naturally, a slum — about twelve years ago because at that time Negroes were not allowed to live in Stuyvesant Town.  Harlem watched Riverton go up, therefore, in the more violent bitterness of spirit, and hated it long before the builders arrived.  They began hating it at about the time people began moving out of their condemned houses to make room for this additional proof of how thoroughly the white world despised them.  And they had scarcely moved in, naturally, before they began smashing windows, defacing walls, urinating in the elevators, and fornicating in the playgrounds.  Liberals, both white and black, were appalled at the spectacle.  I was appalled by the liberal innocence — or cynicism, which comes out in practice as much the same thing.  Other people were delighted to be able to point to proof positive that nothing could be done to better the lot of the colored people.  They were, and are, right in one respect: that nothing can be done as long as they are treated like colored people.  The people in Harlem know they are living there because white people do not think they are good enough to live anywhere else.  No amount of “improvement” can sweeten this fact.  Whatever money is now being earmarked to improve this, or any other ghetto, might as well be burnt.  A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence.

Similarly, the only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive.  None of Commissioner Kennedy’s policemen, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in two’s and three’s controlling.  Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children.  They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corraled up here, in his place.  The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt.  Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality.  I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once.  The businessmen and racketeers also have a story.  And so do the prostitutes.  (And this is not, perhaps, the place to discuss Harlem’s very complex attitude towards black policemen, nor the reasons, according to Harlem, that they are nearly all downtown.)

It is hard, on the other hand, to blame the policeman, blank, goodnatured, thoughtless, and insuperably innocent, for being such a perfect representative of the people he serves.  He, too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed.  He has never, himself, done anything for which to be hated — which of us has? — and yet he is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it.  There is no way for him not to know it: there are few things under heaven more unnerving than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people.  He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country which is precisely what, and where, he is, and is the reason he walks in two’s and three’s.  And he is not the only one who knows why he is always in company: the people who are watching him know why, too.  Any street meeting,  sacred or secular, which he and his colleagues uneasily cover has as its explicit or implicit burden the cruelty and injustice of the white domination.  And these days, of course, in terms increasingly vivid and jubilant, it speaks of the end of that domination.  The white policeman, standing on a Harlem street corner, finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world.  He is not prepared for it — naturally, nobody is — and, what is possibly much more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are, to the anguish of the black people around him.  Even if he is gifted with the merest mustard grain of imagination, something must seep in.  He cannot avoid observing that some of the children, in spite of their color, remind him of children he has known and loved, perhaps even of his own children.  He knows that he certainly does not want his children living this way.  He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature.  He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased.  One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up.  Before the dust settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened.  What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.

Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words.  People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the Bible find this statement utterly impenetrable.  The idea seems to threaten profound, barely conscious assumptions.  A kind of panic paralyzes their features, as though they found themselves trapped on the edge of a steep place.  I once tried to describe to a very well-known American intellectual the conditions among Negroes in the South.  My recital disturbed him and made him indignant; and he asked me in perfect innocence, “Why don’t all the Negroes in the South move North?”  I tried to explain what has happened, unfailingly, whenever a significant body of Negroes move North.  They do not escape jim-crow: they merely encounter another, not-less-deadly variety.  They do not move to Chicago, they move to the South Side; they do not move to New York, they move to Harlem.  The pressure within the ghetto causes the ghetto walls to expand, and this expansion is always violent.  White people hold the line as long as they can, and in as many ways as they can, from verbal intimidation to physical violence.  But inevitably the border which has divided the ghetto from the rest of the world falls into the hands of the ghetto.  The white people fall back bitterly before the black horde; the landlords make a tidy profit by raising the rent, chopping up the rooms, and all but dispensing with the upkeep; and what has once been a neighborhood turns into a “turf.”  This is precisely what happened when the Puerto Ricans arrived in their thousands — and the bitterness thus caused is, as I write, being fought out all up and down those streets.

Northerners indulge in an extremely dangerous luxury.  They seem to feel that because they fought on the right side during the Civil Way, and won that they have earned the right to merely deplore what is going on in the South, without taking any responsibility for it; and that they can ignore what is happening in Northern cities because what is happening in Little Rock or Birmingham is worse.  Well, in the first place, it is not possible for anyone who has not endured both to know which is “worse.”  I know Negroes who prefer the South and white Southerners, because “At least there, you haven’t got to play any guessing games!”  The guessing games referred to have driven more than one Negro into the narcotics ward, the madhouse, or the river.  I know another Negro, a man very dear to me, who says, with conviction and with truth, “The spirit of the South is the spirit of America.”  He was born in the North and did his military training in the South.  He did not, as far as I can gather, find the South “worse”; he found it, if anything, all too familiar.  In the second place, though, even if Birmingham is worse, no doubt Johannesburg, South Africa, beats it by several miles, and Buchenwald was one of the worst things that ever happened in the entire history of the world.  The world has never lacked for horrifying examples; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes.  This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling.  The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes.  Thirdly, the South is not merely an embarrassingly backward region, but a part of this country, and what happens there concerns every one of us.

As far as the color problem is concerned, there is but one great difference between the Southern white and the Northerner; the Southerner remembers, historically, and in his own psyche, a kind of Eden in which he loved black people and they loved him.  Historically, the flaming sword laid across this Eden is the Civil War.  Personally, it is the Southerner’s sexual coming of age, when, without any warning, unbreakable taboos are set up between himself and his past.  Everything, thereafter, is permitted him expect the love he remembers and has never ceased to need.  The resulting, indescribable torment affects every Southern mind and is the basis of the Southern hysteria.

None of this is true for the Northerner.  Negroes represent nothing to him personally, except, perhaps, the dangers of carnality.  He never sees Negroes.  Southerners see them all the time.  Northerners never think about them whereas Southerners are never really thinking of anything else.  Negroes are, therefore, ignored in the North and are under surveillance in the South, and suffer hideously in both places.  Neither the Southerner nor the Northerner is able to look on the Negro simply as a man.  It seems to be indispensable to the national self-esteem that the Negro be considered either as a kind of ward (in which case we are told how many Negroes, comparatively, bought Cadillacs last year and how few, comparatively, were lynched), or as a victim (in which case we are promised that he will never vote in our assemblies or go to school with our kids).  They are two sides of the same coin and the South will not change — cannot change — until the North changes.  The country will not change until it reexamines itself and discover what it really means by freedom.  In the meantime, generations keep being born, bitterness is increased by incompetence, pride, and folly, and the world shrinks around us.

It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the fact of one’s victim, one sees oneself.  Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, have become.


I would simply add that even though Baldwin wrote this piece in 1960, much remains the same with respect to the treatment of the “black man.”  In fact, one might say that things are worse, what with the country’s first black president presiding over the populace and his willful declaration of a post-racial America, as fixtures of urban and now suburban America in ghettos and racially segregated enclaves continue to evolve in complexity and size.

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