A black quarterback refuses to stand during the national anthem—a song, incidentally, written by a “patriot” who was also a “bigot” and slaveowner, “vehemently opposed to abolition.” The quarterback declares that he will not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The quarterback is told he has disrespected the country, the police, and the military. His critics become enraged, apoplectic. He is told he should leave the country. He is mocked by thousands of people who point to his wealth and privileged, adoptive upbringing. An upbringing among white people. Such success, the underlying logic goes, and such a childhood should have made the quarterback patriotic, grateful, colorblind….
What if the quarterback had not grown up privileged, but in one of many communities of color that bear the brunt of well-documented but mostly ignored police violence and institutional discrimination and impoverishment? How would his actions be received then? We can imagine much the same, given the reaction to earlier, less-privileged sports figures, to Black Lives Matter protesters around the country, and to movements of the past. (Until last year, nine men in South Carolina still bore convictions for trespassing after their sit-in protests in 1961.) Protesting the country’s racist past and present—like protesting the country’s wars, inequality, or environmental depredations—is criminal, we’re told, blasphemous, tantamount to treason… or terrorism. The nation is innocent of all charges, and the protestors are bitter, naive, hateful, and worse. For readers of James Baldwin, it all sounds terribly familiar.
Baldwin’s is a difficult literary legacy: while we rejoice that he is still so often read, we lament that so many of his contemporary observations remain relevant. In 1962, Baldwin published an essay in The Progressive in the form of a letter to his nephew, James. Later collected in The Fire Next Time, the letter provided the inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent bestseller, Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his then 15-year-old son. In the video above—from this January’s star-studded MLK Now celebration—Chris Rock reads Baldwin’s passionate letter, itself an act of protest, unpatriotic, if you like, in which he levies the same charges against the nation as Colin Kaepernick has fifty-four years later.
“This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” writes Baldwin, “and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No, this is not true. How bitter you are,” but I am writing this letter to you to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist. I know the conditions under which you were born for I was there. Your countrymen were not there and haven’t made it yet. Your grandmother was also there and no one has ever accused her of being bitter. I suggest that the innocent check with her. She isn’t hard to find. Your countrymen don’t know that she exists either, though she has been working for them all their lives.
Baldwin’s ironic insistence on the country’s “innocence” is complex, his language filled with the cosmic imagery of the jeremiad. The people Baldwin speaks of really are in a sense “innocent,” in that they too are victims, “still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” People, as Coates put it, trapped in an unreal dream. “We cannot be free,” he writes, “until they are free.” With the coming of civil rights-era fights against racism, however, “those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality.”
Nonetheless, he urges his nephew to stay and “with love… force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” Despite the grim, prophetic tenor of his message, Baldwin ends on a note of hope, one that recognizes love of country not as sentimental, ritualized loyalty pledges, but as a struggle and a reckoning with that country’s ugly truths:
For this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.