The Job of Black Writers

Me + Baldwin @ a beach in Long Island, Summer ’08.

I Love Baldwin and it seems that every summer I return to his collection of essays published by the Library of America.

What is the job of Black writers? The work?

Baldwin addresses this in the essay “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel.”

I like this quote because it gets at how writing is profoundly rewarding and often a Sisyphean task as well.

The importance of a writer is continuous;?? I think it’s socially debatable and usually socially not terribly, but that’s not the point; his importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe. It is a function, let’s face it, it is a special function. There is no democracy on this level. It’s a very difficult thing to do, its a very special thing to do and people who do it cannot by that token do many other things. But their importance is, and the importance of writers in this country now this is, that this country is yet to be discovered in any real sense…

Baldwin doesn’t say that this is the job of Black writers, but in reading this it certainly made me think of it in these terms.

Black people are richer than ever before, financially. More Black men and women are in jail than ever before. We also have a Black president.

As media, and the rest of our lives moves online, I am mindful that most of the popular Black websites are concerned with the lives, affairs and misery of the Black famous rather than using the space to cultivate what Dayna Cunningham calls Black voice.

Black people have continually forced the United States to live up to being the democracy that it claims to be.

What happens when Black people who are media savvy are not primarily concerned with cultivating Black voice during a time of great change?

If everything that is digital is free, and as books become digitized, what will happen to Black writers ability to sustain themselves and how will this impact Black people?

Musing on a [Lack of a] US Negro Agenda

I dedicate this to Latoya and Matthew. LaToya, write that post girl. Im waiting. Matthew, thank you encouraging me to write honest, from the get go.

I think it was Chomsky who said that Democracies by their very nature are fragile.

But then again, isn’t any democracy stable? Isn’t it fragile, delicate, tenuous and exceptional?

Every time I think of a critique of the presidents lack of a “Black Agenda” I am reminded of both Baldwin and the founding fathers.

I am reminded of Baldwin for two reasons. The first is because during the sixties he was routinely called down to Washington, at the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson, to discuss “the negro problem.” The second reason is because Baldwin was always really clear about how our fates and lives are interconnected in this country, across race, class and gender.

My Love of Baldwin is rooted in my fascination with Democracy.

A Democracy, with a huge portion of its citizens, prevented from participating because of prior non violent drug offense related convictions, a democracy that saddles its young with tens of thousands of dollars with the school loan debt at twenty-one, a democracy where people are quick to criticize folks on food stamps yet are mute on the newly authorized one year trillion dollar budget for two wars, a democracy that has never dealt with economic and psychological impact of three centuries of forced free labor isn’t stable, nor sustainable.

You may say, Renina is doing to much, these things are not connected
she is on that shit again.

But let me ask you this? How can these things not be connected?

Don’t we live and survive here together? This is preciously Baldwins point and why I was moved to (finally) write this piece this morning.

There are three essays where Baldwin makes it clear that our future’s are bound together. The first is, American Dream American Negro, where he argues that,

It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. Until the moment comes when we, the Americans, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity, that we need each other, that I am not a ward of America,, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one o the people who built this country- until this moment comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream. if the people are denied participation in it, by their very presence they will wreck it. And if that happens this is a very grave moment for the west.

I am struck by the notion of mixed ancestry, and thinking about President Obama and the potential that thinking about his background offers us. I am also struck Baldwins keen observation around the idea that “if people are denied participation in it, they will wreck it.” I don’t know how much this holds true. Not they they will wreck it overtly, but that it will implode.

At the time, Baldwin was talking about Black folks, but as I keep track of unemployment figures for working class and college educated white folks as well, it is getting crowded in the these un and underemployed margins.

Peace to the good people that run the unemployment union and their thirty one million members.

Furthermore, I have been interested not just in the need for a Negro agenda, but the ways in which white working class folks and young college educated white folks are suffering in this economy as well, and the profound silence around addressing it. The most ambitious article I have seen on the topic was How a New Jobless Era will Transform America.

The second Baldwin essay is the East River Downtown, where he states,

“Negroes know how little most white people are prepared to implement their own words with deeds, how little, when the chips are down, they are prepared to risk. And this long history of moral evasion has had a an unhealthy effect on the total life of this country, and has eroded whatever respect Negros may have once felt for white people.”

I went back and forth with @fwmj a couple of weeks ago about the futility of a “Negro Agenda” and “Negro Leaders” and I reminded him that my concern isn’t just for Black folks, but with the viability of our Democracy in general. This Baldwin quote really captures, what I was trying to get at. He writes, in the essay, Fifth Avenue Uptown,

“People are continually pointing out to me that the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of American failure does not console me ant it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, no better than “niggers” is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by the is fact is the bitterest, most terrifying kind.

And this is where the founding fathers come in. According to the book Founding Brother, by Joseph Ellis, the founding fathers were so troubled by and dependent on the institution of slavery that many of them refused to debate it publicly. It is in this moment that I reminded that our silences speak as much as our words. Ellis writes,

“Granted the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had engaged extensive debates about the slave trad and how to count slaves for the purposes of representation and taxation. But these debates had all occurred behind closed doors under the strictest codes of confidentiality. (Madison’s informal record of these debates the fullest accounts, were not published in his lifetime.) ….(No specific mention of “slavery” , “slaves” or Negros” had been permitted into the final draft of the document.) If the political leaders who had pushed through the constitutional settlement of 1787-1788 had been permitted to speak, their somewhat awkward conclusion would have been that slavery was too important or controversial of a subject to talk about publicly.”

Lastly, Baldwin speaks to how our futures are bound, connected, and many ways have been every since James Madison thought slavery was so important that it shouldn’t be debated in public. Baldwin writes in American Dream, American Negro,

Unless we can establish some kind of dialogue between those people who enjoy the American dream and those who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble. This is what concerns me most.

I write with hope, Love and my word this morning.

In some ways our fear of critiquing and pushing the president reminds me of how when we are dating someone, whom we really want to liked by, we remain silent, and let them do shit, that we wouldn’t otherwise
let someone else get away with. Then we complain about the outcomes.

I am not an object, and neither are you. Word to Sartre.

To critique something, is to take it seriously, invest in it, learn about
it, play with it, in some ways it means growing, possibly in uncomfortable ways.

In sum, Baldwin was on to something in ’65 in thinking about
what it means to live in a democracy where huge swaths of people are prevented, structurally, from participating in it, and the danger this poses.

Why does a negro agenda make folks so uncomfortable, when agenda’s are inherent in Democracies especially in this county?

Corn, Israel, the Wars, No Child Left Behind, Banking Reform, Iraq etc, all have agenda’s, why the avoidance of a Negro agenda?

Is it because of the threat that it represents, to speak about what James Madison would have rather remained silent about?

Some Children Are Disposable

Because what is happening on the streets of Harlem to black
boys and girls is also happening on all America’s streets to
everybody. It’s a terrible delusion to think that any part of this
republic can be safe so long as 20,000,000 members of it are
menaced as they are.

Th reality that I am trying to get at is that the humanity of this
submerged population is equal to the humanity of anyone else,
equal to yours, equal to to that of your child. I know that when
I walk into a Harlem funeral parlor and see a dead boy lying there.
I know, no matter what the social scientists say, or the liberals
say, that it is extremely unlikely that he would be in his grave
so soon if he were not black
-James Baldwin, Words of a Native Son
Playboy December 1964

People vote differently when they have skin in the game.

They MOST certainly vote differently when their children comprise
said “skin”.

I had this thought in mind while reading folks rationalize why
it was “expected” for the Obama’s to send their children to
private school because they are “lawyers” or the children
of a senator.

I don’t have an issue with where the Obama’s send their
children to school per se. I have an issue with our whole
hearted acceptance of an individualized approach to education
that clearly does a disservice to our young people (across ethnicities).

Where is our willingness to critique and reform an educational
and economic
system that has allows parents, policy makers,
and politicians to focus on “their children” and say “good luck”
the others.

It takes a village went out with the Jheri Curl, hunh?

Its easy to be angry but then I began to think about what
an alternate future could look like.

How different would our neighborhoods look if the police
officers had to live in the neighborhoods they served?

How would our schools look if teachers had to live in the
neighborhoods they taught in?

What if public servants had to send their children to public schools?

If the children of the well off are only those that receive a
first rate education then isn’t that more of a feature of an
rather than a Democracy?

All children, in this country are entitled to a first rate education
regardless as to whether their parents are senators, janitors or addicts.

I don’t mean a drill and kill education. But an education that builds
critical thinkers who are content with who they are as human beings
and feel that they have a contribution to make to society.

Baldwin continues in the same essay about how the fate
of all of our children, and I would argue similar to the fate of
our global economy is tied together. He writes,

As long as my children face the future they face, and come to ruin
that they come to, your children are in danger too. They are
endangered above all by the moral apthay which pretends it isn’t
happening. This does something terrible to us. Anyone who
is trying to be conscious must begin to be conscious of that apathy
and must begin to dismiss the vocabulary which we’ve use so
long to cover it up, to lie about the way that things are.
-James Baldwin, Words of a Native Son
Playboy December 1964

How to Survive in East Oakland

I spoke to my momma yesterday and apparently because of the
slate of robberies in Oakland, the police have posted up outside
one of my favorite restaurants, Mommas Royal Cafe.

This place is amazing.
Farm fresh eggs for avacado, tomato
and crab omelette’s, fresh salsa and Peerless coffee.
Living in Oakland
this past year, I have spent many a Saturday there.
When Filthy
came to visit in February, I took him there. When I would
visit from New York, my dad would
pick me up from the airport and
we would go there directly. One of my homies from college is a
waitress there, so when I walk in I greet folks and feel like I am
at home.

The place is an Oakland institution.

The police are posted up outside of Mama’s because there have
been a serious
of take over robberies in Oakland. These aren’t
just regular robberies.
These cats are robbing the employees of
their personal belongings
and robbing the cash registers.
The KTVU news reports,

The latest in a brazen series of takeover-style robberies of Oakland restaurants and businesses had left two employees nursing minor injuries and bruises Monday after they were pistol-whipped in separate Sunday attacks.Over the weekend, the pace of violent takeover-style robberies picked up with four taking place since Friday night. The robberies have followed a similar pattern — two or three hooded bandits target the business around closing time, storm in with at least one gun drawn and then flee with an undisclosed amount of cash.

Welcome to The Town.

Yes, a police presence may work in the short time. But it is
not a long term solution.
Many folks are reacting saying that
people live with violence everyday in less affluent and low income
areas of Oakland, so why do the certain business and affluent
neighborhoods receive protection.

The answer is simply that the police are a tool of the state and
as such are responsible
for protecting the rights of property
When we understand this, we will understand why the
police are sitting in
front of Mama’s and not out in East Oakland
investing x, y or z murder that
occurred last night.

It’s amazing to me how we allow politicians to enact policy
that is reactive, then get mad when we have the same problems on
our hands.

When I read about the robberies I thought of study I came across
earlier this year titled, The Public Returns of Public Educational
Investments in African American Males by Henry Levin
positive fiscal impact of graduating more Black men from high school.

The paper makes the argument that if we graduate more young
Black men from high school, they are more likely to work in the
above ground economy, pay taxes (and implicitly child support),
and less likely to receive public assistance, go to jail and receive
medicare, thus the savings to the state.

To be able to implement such a policy would be a reflection of our will
and our priorities.
If we know that crime is related to education and
and we don’t make politicians create policy that reflects this
then the consequences in our society is our fault.

James Baldwin says to act is to commit and to commit is to be in danger.

I am both haunted and motivated by this statement. Furthermore,
I think we are already in danger if young people are robbing
in restaurants and our only solution is to place police officers in
front of them for protection.