At the bottom of this post is the close of James Baldwin’s 1963 essay, ‘A Talk to Teachers,’ which opens the collection of essays, Multi-cultural Literacy (Rick Simonson and Scott Walker, Eds. Graywolf Press, 1988), that I began to read a few days ago. I began to read this book looking for the voice of someone I love, and it so happened that I read this particular essay in the aftermath of the verdict against Trayvon Martin, for it is no less than that. In the hours before the verdict, I – and others – speculated as to the outcome in our various ways. Mine on FB below as status and response:
Been thinking about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. I’d like to see a breakdown along color lines regarding the advocacy for/against civil disobedience in the aftermath. If this country’s system of law concludes that it is okay to kill a Black boy – for as far as I know it is only a Black boy who can get jacked for this – for walking down a street to his father’s house, then I think this country ought to get comfortable with some destruction that is motivated by a desire for justice and the pain of injustice. If people can sit around simply bemoaning the injustice/wishing for justice while twiddling their thumbs, then I think they ought to be able to sit down, shut up and watch while those who want to do something about it – anything about it! – get up and make some bloody noise. Because you can’t have it both ways.
Trayvon Martin’s family has had to do the limbo backward in order to GET to trial, there is ample reason to consider outcomes, and several decades worth of reasons to suspect that the long arc of (America’s) moral universe may not bend toward justice.
It is not sad when the expected comes to pass. It is sad when the hope that lives despite that expectation is crushed. In the aftermath of the verdict, I have found it difficult to find anything of worth to say. The things that move me among what others have had to say are the words that are quieter, more reflective. This despite my own mounting feelings of impotent rage – impotent from this great distance, far away in Sri Lanka, among other things; the words of friends and writers. Rebecca Solnit’s dictate to all of us to “just walk, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. That’s what makes (us) unstoppable,” quoted by Natashia Deon, those of Danielle Evans, who concludes her reflections by positing that the outcome of this verdict is a culture of suspicion (and the actions deemed justified by that suspicion), and that “we as a society will insist that (the) only defense against that suspicion is for black people to be able to counter it with proof of complete innocence of any prior mistakes or wrongdoing, which is to say, complete innocence of being human.”
I was struck, too, by the words of Iraj Isaac Rahmin, reminding us of the way in which a simple status update or tweet does not constitute an absolution, a check mark, an a-okay to return to our morning coffee routine. By those of Tayari Jones who, far away from America, in a place where nobody was aware of this case, felt alone in her sorrow. Particularly that solitude, when reminded once more of hearing her voice on my radio one afternoon soon after the slaying of Trayvon Martin, speaking of ‘The Lingering Memory of Dead Boys.’ Thinking also to my own distance from America, and the way in which I found myself a spokesperson for these quintessentially American events – from the murder of an innocent Black student to the monumental failure of justice, a failure ordained by the racism inherent in the very system that is entrusted with delivering that justice – a conversation I had with Sri Lankans unfamiliar with this case which has occupied our fevered collective imagination.
I agree with Isaac that a status update and a tweet may not a revolution make, although I stand by the idea that many status updates and many tweets can and do unite us in ways that were not possible before. Across time zones, across nations, across ethnicities, a name and a few words only, and something can and does change. Taken as a collective voice, not that of an individual. To that end, I cherish the idea of these updates, long-winded and brief, notes, links, images, 140 characters or less, and tiny urls helping us along the limping way. To that end I do what I can, which is to write. To that end I pass around what information I might. And to that end I share this passage from the Baldwin lecture. I said I went to this collection looking for the voice of someone I love. I firmly believe that it is in hearing and, in whatever way we can, in sharing the voices of the people we love that we are transformed as individuals and that we are brought together as a collective. I share this not hoping for peace but, rather, hoping against all odds for the lifting of many voices, any pen, whatever it is in our power to bring to make the noise it is in our power to make. Now. For if not now…
“I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society. Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an impression of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them – I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the results of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him. I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that he is stronger than this conspiracy and that he must never make his peace with it. And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth. I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect. That it is upto him to begin to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country. I would suggest to him that the popular culture – as represented, for example, on television and in comic books and in movies – is based on fantasies created by very ill people, and he must be aware that these are fantasies that have nothing to do with reality. I would teach him that the press he reads is not as free as it says it is – and that he can do something about that, too. I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything that anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, and principally larger – and that it belongs to him. I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality; that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything. I would try to show him that one has not learned anything about Castro when one says, He is a “Communist.” This is a way of his learning something about Castro, something about Cuba, something, in time, about the world. I would suggest to him that he is living, at the moment, in an enormous province. America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way – and this child must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which this child represents. If this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy.”