James Baldwin on racial oppression

The Black American writer, James Baldwin, draws parallels between oppression in South Africa, Algeria and the United States.

James Baldwin. By Allan Warren. Credit: Wiki Commons.

This is a rare clip of James Baldwin debating William Buckley on “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro” at Cambridge University in 1965. The video via “We Who Are About To Die.” Among other things, Baldwin draws parallels between South Africa, Algeria and the United States.

That comparative reference:

Are white South African or Mississippi sharecropper, or Mississippi sheriff, or a Frenchman driven out of Algeria, all have, at bottom, a system of reality which compels them to, for example, in the case of the French exile from Algeria, to offend French reasons from having ruled Algeria. The Mississippi or Alabama sheriff, who really does believe, when he’s facing a Negro boy or girl, that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity. Of course, to such a person, the proposition which we are trying to discuss here tonight does not exist. And on the other hand, I, have to speak as one of the people who’ve been most attacked by what we now must here call the Western or European system of reality. What white people in the world, what we call white supremacy – I hate to say it here – comes from Europe. It’s how it got to America. Beneath then, whatever one’s reaction to this proposition is, has to be the question of whether or not civilizations can be considered, as such, equal, or whether one’s civilization has the right to overtake and subjugate, and, in fact, to destroy another. Now, what happens when that happens. Leaving aside all the physical facts that one can quote. Leaving aside, rape or murder. Leaving aside the bloody catalog of oppression, which we are in one way too familiar with already, what this does to the subjugated, the most private, the most serious thing this does to the subjugated, is to destroy his sense of reality. It destroys, for example, his father’s authority over him. His father can no longer tell him anything, because the past has disappeared, and his father has no power in the world. This means, in the case of an American Negro, born in that glittering republic, and the moment you are born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white.

In “No Name in the Street” (published in 1972), Baldwin wrote:

I had come to Paris with no money and this meant that in those early years I lived mainly among les misérables and, in Paris, les misérables are Algerian. They slept four or five or six to a room, and they slept in shifts, they were treated like dirt, and they scraped such sustenance as they could off the filthy, unyielding Paris stones. The French called them lazy because they appeared to spend most of their time sitting around, drinking tea, in their cafés. But they were not lazy. They were mostly unable to find work, and their rooms were freezing. (French students spent most of their time in cafés, too, for the same reason, but no one called them lazy.) The Arab cafés were warm and cheap, and they were together there. They could not, in the main, afford the French cafés, nor in the main, were they welcome there. And, though they spoke French, and had been, in a sense, produced by France, they were not at home in Paris, no more at home than I, though for a different reason. They remembered, as it were, an opulence, opulence of taste, touch, water, sun, which I had barely dreamed of, and they had not come to France to stay. One day they were going home, and they knew exactly where home was. They, thus, held something within them which they would never surrender to France. But on my side of the ocean, or so it seemed to me then, we had surrendered everything, or had had everything taken away, and there was no place for us to go: we were home. The Arabs were together in Paris, but the American blacks were alone. The Algerian poverty was absolute, their stratagems grim, their personalities, for me, unreadable, their present bloody and their future certain to be more so: and yet, after all, their situation was far more coherent than mine. I will not say that I envied them, for I didn’t, and the directness of their hunger, or hungers, intimidated me; but I respected them, and as I began to discern what their history had made of them, I began to suspect, somewhat painfully, what my history had made of me.

Further Reading

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At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.