Chris Rock Reads James Baldwin’s Still Timely Letter on Race in America: “We Can Make What America Must Become”

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Bald­win Debates Mal­colm X (1963) and William F. Buck­ley (1965): Vin­tage Video & Audio

James Baldwin’s One & Only, Delight­ful­ly-Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book, Lit­tle Man Lit­tle Man: A Sto­ry of Child­hood (1976)

Ralph Elli­son Reads from His Nov­el-in-Progress, June­teenth, in Rare Video Footage (1966)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.