The Brilliance of Children, The Duty of Citizens

Part 4 in a series of four posts by Ed Pavlic to commemorate what would have been James Baldwin's 90th year.

At the outset of the first essay in this series [to commemorate what would have been James Baldwin’s 90th year–Ed.], I asked “What changes, what constants and what chimeras made the United States the place that elects a black President?” And, “What does black president actually mean?” 

Consider a statement made off-hand and in jest by President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner on May 1, 2010. In his remarks, President Obama recognized the presence of the pop group Jonas Brothers. He went on to state the following, “Sascha and Malia are huge fans, but boys don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you: Predator Drones. You’ll never see it coming.”

I can see Jimmy Baldwin slipping on his shades. He saw this coming. Everyone knows the President is a persona, highly crafted. It’s interesting to see President Obama, here, consciously playing upon the protective father role. And, he’s twisted the irony of his father/President persona precisely to enlist the deadly military force of the state to his shotgun-at-the-door-on-prom-night purposes as a father. He’s playing with changes and constants. Or, is he working? A father’s love of daughters? Constant! But, do we hear the smack of numb patriarchy, even an echo of the fathers of the white South’s fear for their daughter’s chastity? Change? A black man is Commander and Chief? Change! But, where and against whom are Predator Drones actually mobilized when they’re not metaphorically menacing teen idol pop groups? Constant? 

The threat and use of state violence against “insurgent” forces is nothing new. All American militant groups and many that weren’t militant experienced levels of state terror as well as state apathy in the face of social terror in the 20th century. Baldwin knew such state terror first hand. Baldwin was conscious of state as well as vigilante threats against his life and livelihood. In Istanbul, for instance, he noted the proximity of his house to consulates not aligned with the United States in case he should need emergency political asylum. His family opened his mail, intercepted the death threats and more than once attempted to dissuade him from returning to the U.S. for fear he’d be shot. In his biography, James Weatherby quotes Baldwin from an interview with Italian press soon after the murder of Malcolm X: “He said his own mail had got ‘so horrible’ he had turned it over to the FBI. ‘Maybe they were writing some of it’” (264). These were not unreasonable fears and precautions. The family knew their phones were tapped. Baldwin suspected that his mail was being opened. References to surveillance and tactics and codes for eluding it appear in his correspondence.

Cases prosecuting American terrorists who as employees of and / or with the sanction of local governments menaced and murdered American citizens are currently on-going or recently concluded in Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Chicago and elsewhere. The blogosphere was full of commentary about the international politics of President Obama’s joke before the first correct fork was lifted amid all the comic incorrectness at the Correspondents’ Dinner. Frequent mistaken or collateral killings of Afgani, Pakistani, Somali, and Yemeni civilians and numerous intended murders of “suspects” by Predator Drones immediately struck many as bizarre territory for a joke about a father protecting his daughters. It doesn’t take much to mark the offense.

But, the change/constant structure of Baldwin’s work takes it further. The fact that vast numbers of bloggers stop at marking ironies with outrage—and vice versa—opens and limits our discourse. The fact that the mainstream media often do less than that (ask Helen Thomas why) intensifies our need for clearer, deeper perspectives such as James Baldwin’s work offers. If jokes are often funny because they flout convention, they’re revealing for exactly the same reason. About involuntary confessions hidden in humor, in No Name in the Street, Baldwin wrote: “one’s merely got to listen . . .to what they think is funny, which is also what they think is real” (Collected 469). If I hold a mirror between us at arm’s length, my one-year old son sees my face at the end of my arm, but he doesn’t laugh until he looks back at where my face actually is. Such is the brilliance of children. Such is also, exactly, the duty of citizenship. How about a quick look back at where it’s at? Baldwin can see this coming even from the grave.

Possibly, a small glimpse of what’s changed and what’s constant in President Barack Obama’s America appears in this joke. And, more interestingly, the relationship appears between what’s constant, what changes and the dangerous chimeras of confusion between them. Short of two weeks after the Jonas Brothers gag, on May 13, Scott Shane’s story entitled, “US Approval of Killing Cleric Causes Unease,” in The New York Times began like this: “The Obama administration’s decision to authorize the killing by the Central Intelligence Agency of a terrorism suspect who is an American citizen has set off a debate over the legal and political limits of drone missile strikes, a mainstay of the campaign against terrorism.”

Moving the President’s joke closer to home, by May 13th it was clear that the “suspects” targeted for killing by Predator Drones could also be American citizens. In fact, the American-born cleric / “suspect” in question, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Samir Khan, an American-born editor of the English-language, militant web magazine, Inspire, were intentionally killed in a CIA-led U.S. drone strike while driving in Yemen on Friday, September 30, 2011.

Leading up to the 2012 election, discussions of Nobel Peace Laureate, President Obama’s foreign policy credentials begin with his presiding over the murder of Osama bin Laden. In the vaunted post-racial age that bears his name, “the Obama era,” it’s difficult for me to distinguish this credential from the old-fashioned, time-honored horror of the American political spectacle: the tough man waving his trophy scalp. 

Echoing as it does real-time state terror on Earth, President/father Obama’s joke links the human constant of fatherly love with the capricious nature and terror of political power. Fathers and politicians are dangers in their own ways. That’s constant; we can work with it. But, by this kind of gesture, illusory permanence, state power, borrows the universal permanence of a basic fact of life, fatherhood. And, the fact of life, fatherhood, adopts the (to me, a father, destructive) straight-backed, macho force of technologically abstracted military violence. Exactly as Baldwin’s work diagrams, such chimerical traffic between changes and constants is dangerous to democracy and family life. And that’s no joke. Ask a Kennedy. Ask any President/father. Ask any dissident/daughter. 

Historically speaking, this is not “post-racial” territory; and neither is it now. Cloaked in the constants of family, state terror becomes familiar, natural, to people while its ideological, unlawful, and error-prone deployment is obscured. This impairs the mirror-and-back vision of citizens and makes the nation more dangerous to the world, and vice versa than it has to be. And, dressed in the gleam and ferocity of abstract killing force, the role of fatherhood becomes further dehumanized and abstracted from the lives of actual men and daughters attempting—however over-matched—to live as people. This obscures the privately panic-stricken vacuum of our errors as fathers. And, that makes our houses and neighborhoods more dangerous than they already are. In 1964, in “Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin revealed the hidden transactions that prop up the structure of this chimerical American theater. He wrote:

People who don’t know who they are privately, accept as we have accepted for nearly fifteen years, the fantastic disaster of American foreign policy, and the incoherence of the one is an exact reflection of the incoherence of the other. Now, the only way to change all this is to begin to ask ourselves very difficult questions” (Baldwin Cross 66).

Here Baldwin connects the private panic in the American head and home to the forces of global terror played out on behalf of so-called American interests in the world. In case this is sounding rhetorical, consider the following image:

Ask, for instance, the driver of this SUV in Georgia for his views on drone strikes, gun laws, neighborhood watch programs and related social issues. You ask, that is; I’m afraid to. All of this, at each level, is driven by private questions the language for which—to say nothing of any answers—is obscured by the whole pageant of guns, jokes, and (by whatever name) drones.

This paradigm is directly applicable, for example, in the relation between the neighborhood watch mentality with its reliance on pro-gun legislation pervasive in much of the contemporary U.S. and the popular support, indeed demand, for preemptive strikes in the American “war on terror.” In this sense, the “war on terror” appears, in fact, to be a kind of “natural” (meaning veiled ideological) extension of the nexus of pro-gun legislation and gated community or neighborhood watch mentality. Bush’s war on terror or homeland security policies positioned constitutionally by John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales and kept basically intact or extended by Eric Holder in the Obama administration, in Baldwin’s lens, operate precisely as a global neighborhood watch program. The system of connections at work here is toxic to lives in ways few are conscious of and, in fact, in ways few want to know anything about. In this, then, as it was in 1964, Baldwin recommends that the place to start may not be located in Somalia or Afghanistan, not even in Washington, but with the lyrical resuscitation of a strangled blues self beginning with difficult questions in the hallway mirrors and across the dinner tables of American private life. And, the proportion of panic in the stricken vacuums produced by these reckonings, I’d bet on Baldwinian logic, will decrease in direct proportion to the level of privileged bankruptcy which have afflicted the persons in the mirrors.

Now. We know some of what the black President has in the bank. And, it’s not because he’s black and it’s not not because he’s black either. We know because he wrote it down, which is exactly the same reason so few of us know it. Which scarcity itself, it appears, is a crucial political (if not survival) tactic. I read Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father while flying to Kenya when the author was a newly elected U.S. Senator. I read parts of the book in shock and disbelief. The author of these paragraphs is a U.S. Senator? My amputation: I’d have never thought it possible. For one thing, we know for certain that Barack Obama understands what Baldwin wrote about gangrene and amputation. Consider the following two passages from Dreams From My Father where Obama riffs on Du Bois and describes what he imagines about a Kenyan waiter in a restaurant frequented by Westerners : 

If he’s ambitious he will do his best to learn the white man’s language and use the white man’s machines, trying to make ends meet the same way the computer repairman in Newark or the bus driver back in Chicago does, with alternating spurts of enthusiasm or frustration but mostly with resignation. And if you say to him that he’s serving the interests of neocolonialism or some other such thing, he will reply that yes, he will serve if that is what is required. It is the lucky ones who serve; the unlucky ones drift into the murky tide of hustles and odd jobs; many will drown. (314)

That’s gangrene. And, amputation? Obama writes : 

Then again, maybe that’s not all that the waiter is feeling. Maybe part of him still clings to the stories of Mau-Mau [essentially, revolutionary amputations of these complexities], the same part of him that remembers the hush of a village night or the sound of his mother grinding corn under a stone pallet. Something in him still says that the white man’s ways are not his ways, that the objects he may use every day are not of his making. He remembers a time, a way of imagining himself, that he leaves only at his peril. He can’t escape the grip of his memories. And so he straddles two worlds, uncertain in each, always off balance, playing whichever game staves off the bottomless poverty, careful to let his anger vent itself only on those in the same condition. 

A voice says to him yes, changes have come, the old ways lie broken, and you must find a way as fast as you can to feed your belly and stop the white man from laughing at you. 

A voice says no, you will sooner burn the earth to the ground. (314)

The President of the United States wrote those paragraphs. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. If it gets around, he’s finished. And, in his first term in office, Barack Obama’s Department of Justice successfully prosecuted long-time Chicago Police Commander John Burge (notorious for his decades-long campaign of torture and false imprisonment).

But, don’t tell anyone that! News such as that could give his “pro-American” opponents fuel; in American history, and from a perspective, albeit hideous, that Baldwin’s line of sight forces us to acknowledge, such news could endanger the President’s life. At the same time, he jokes about the often mistaken and always extra-legal use of Predator Drones in killings across the globe which turns amputations—in this case the militant urges for revolutionary freedom such as the Mau-Mau—into assassinations. Who now is in dangerous rhetorical territory close to the Kennedys’? Well, this is beautiful, the President has these paragraphs and the sensibility they profile in the bank. And, it’s terrible. He must radically dissemble that sensibility to govern at all if not simply to survive. And, that’s the nature of the view Baldwinian light gives up when we hold our eyes there long enough that they start to adjust. Who can afford such visions? Whose style can, “in a way. . . must,” accommodate them? And, here we are. Truth is, there’s no need for such perceptions to be secreted because the vast majority of Americans’ (life)styles simply can’t accommodate what all this spells out. That’s the trap, that’s the vacuumed panic ca. 2014.  

Comments like Obama’s joke, echoing as they do comments by Baldwin and Kennedy and many others, make me wonder again if this is the country that would elect a black president or not? And, to quote Miles’ sardonic stylized-lyricizing, “So what?”

Do we aspire to clarify and further our shared, blues condition or intensify our chimerical and bankrupt states of mind? Then, I wonder about it, again, vote by vote, person by person, mirror by mirror. What’s changed? What’s constant? And, what would that mean? To whom? And in what way? James Baldwin’s musical attention to this dynamic riding the dynamics of amputation and gangrene offers quite precise and useful guides to these massive and imprecise questions and to much that lurks, in our mirrors, within and behind them. His work also exposes some of why the answers and evidence has been so confusing and suggests some of how the confusion is still so dangerous. It also offers eyes to see, possibly, much more than we’d like to see and places us close enough to touch the living turbulence of political, social and private life. The living turbulence is painful and dangerous but, as Baldwin told Studs Terkel in 1961, the alternative is a treadmill pursuit of chimerical happiness amid joyless chaos. The contemporary choice Baldwin clarifies, written backward in the mirror, is clearly between the “Uses of the Blues” and the Bankruptcy of Privilege. There’s no predesigned script. Baldwin offers chord changes and constants. Who’s marked the tonic? And, indeed, at those prices, who can afford to improvise? Baldwin’s ready answer: those who must. 

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

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