Read­ing James Baldwin in the seg­re­gated South

Black and white

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Twit­ter: @wal­ter­dellinger Walter Dellinger, a lawyer in Wash­ing­ton, is the Dou­glas B. Maggs pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of law at Duke Uni­ver­sity and a for­mer as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, James Baldwin was a gay black in­tel­lec­tual liv­ing and writing es­says and nov­els in New York and Paris. I was a low-in­come white kid liv­ing in North Carolina, be­ing raised by a sin­gle mother and work­ing con­struc­tion jobs to save money for col­lege. Some­how I stum­bled onto Baldwin, the sub­ject of a bril­liant doc­u­men­tary, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Ne­gro,” up for an Academy Award on Sun­day. No writer has had a greater in­flu­ence on my life.

My mother was a high school grad­u­ate work­ing as a clerk sell­ing socks, ties and un­der­wear. We didn’t have many books in the house; we couldn’t af­ford them. In seg­re­gated Char­lotte, one of the few (and very lim­ited) in­sights I had into the lives of African Amer­i­cans came through the ra­dio. WGIV was one of the “col­ored sta­tions” then com­mon in the South. I found it, or it found me, with its mu­sic. WGIV was play­ing Bo Did­dley and Chuck Berry when the main­stream “white sta­tions” were spin­ning Pat Boone. Ra­dio, like the In­ter­net to­day, could tran­scend bound­aries.

When I was 14, WGIV of­fered a prize to the first caller who could name the next gospel song. A de­voted lis­tener, I was the first to iden­tify “Ride On, King Je­sus” by the Soul Stir­rers. My prize was a year’s sub­scrip­tion to Ebony magazine in 1955, the year Baldwin pub­lished “Notes of a Na­tive Son.” I would

have learned about Baldwin for the first time in the magazine, but I didn’t get to read him un­til five years later.

In the sum­mer of 1960, I worked on a con­struc­tion crew at a seg­re­gated work site in Char­lotte. White men were the car­pen­ters; black men were the la­bor­ers. (As a sum­mer kid head­ing for col­lege, I was the ex­cep­tion — a white la­borer.) The la­bor­ers were paid $1 an hour, work­ing 10 hours a day, six days a week.

By far the best car­pen­ter on the site was a black man named David. Un­der com­pany rules, he could be clas­si­fied only as a la­borer. But when the project — an eight-story law build­ing, which was very tall for the time — of­fered a dif­fi­cult car­pen­try chal­lenge, the on-site boss would ask David to take over. While David worked his magic, some­one had to be on the look­out, watch­ing to see if any­one from the con­struc­tion firm was driv­ing up. If we sounded the alarm, David would quickly put down the car­pen­try tools and pick up a broom or shovel be­fore be­ing seen break­ing the racial code.

We had an un­paid 30-minute lunchtime each day. We’d sit on boxes of con­struc­tion ma­te­rial and eat sand­wiches, the black and white work­ers across from one an­other but hav­ing a sin­gle con­ver­sa­tion. On a few oc­ca­sions there was a spir­ited con­test to see who could lift the most ce­ment bags, with a white cham­pion fac­ing off against a black cham­pion. I sat apart from all this; I en­joyed lis­ten­ing to the ban­ter, but I was al­ways read­ing a book, un­der the guid­ance of a li­brar­ian and the lo­cal pub­lic li­brary. Here, fi­nally, I en­coun­tered Baldwin’s “Notes of a Na­tive Son” and the es­says that would be­come part of “No­body Knows My Name.”

Be­fore read­ing his es­says and nov­els, I saw race as a se­ries of dis­crete is­sues — schools, em­ploy­ment and so forth. I knew, for ex­am­ple, how wrong it was to force the black men into la­bor­ing roles. But Baldwin ex­pressed the sys­temic as­pect of racial sub­ju­ga­tion in a way I had not yet seen. He ob­served that much of our na­tion’s en­ergy had been spent avoid­ing race, but an hon­est ex­am­i­na­tion would show us how far we had fallen from the stan­dard of human free­dom we pro­fessed. “The re­cov­ery of this stan­dard de­mands of ev­ery­one who loves this coun­try a hard look at him­self, for the great­est achieve­ments must be­gin some­where, and they al­ways be­gin with the per­son.” If we are in­ca­pable of such an ex­am­i­na­tion, he con­cluded more than half a cen­tury ago, “we may yet be­come one of the most dis­tin­guished and mon­u­men­tal fail­ures in the his­tory of na­tions.”

I’d thought that the in­ter­ac­tions on my job site had an easy­go­ing qual­ity, but Baldwin made me see the ca­sual ca­ma­raderie in a dif­fer­ent light. That jovial weightlift­ing com­pe­ti­tion be­tween white and black work­ers felt like some­thing more sin­is­ter when I read Baldwin’s pen­e­trat­ing ob­ser­va­tion of what he saw in the eyes of an older black man in the South: “that he had never in his life owned any­thing, not his wife, not his house, not his child, which could not, at any in­stant, be taken from him by the power of white peo­ple.”

In some ways, read­ing Baldwin con­firmed for me what I was see­ing ev­ery day: the ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­pac­ity of the black work­ers to en­dure. These were men who lived in South Carolina and rode five or six to a car in the predawn hours to an ex­haust­ing 10-hour work­day, re­turned home late at night and did the same thing again six days a week. They suf­fered the in­dig­nity of see­ing the best car­pen­ter paid as a la­borer and forced to hide his skill from man­age­ment. Baldwin wrote: “The really strik­ing thing, for me, in the South was this dread­ful para­dox, that the black men were stronger than the white. I do not know how they did it, but it cer­tainly has some­thing to do with the as yet un­writ­ten his­tory of the Ne­gro woman.” I didn’t have much of a win­dow into my co-work­ers’ home lives, but ev­ery­thing else Baldwin wrote con­firmed what I’d seen on the con­struc­tion site.

Baldwin al­tered even my view of my beloved home town. Dur­ing my high school years, he made his first trip to the South, be­ing drawn to Char­lotte by pho­tos of a few young black chil­dren walk­ing through mobs to en­ter pre­vi­ously all-white schools. His es­say “No­body Knows My Name: A Let­ter From the South” was a sear­ing read. “This is a bour­geois town, Pres­by­te­rian, pretty — if you like towns — and so­cially so her­metic,” he wrote of Char­lotte.

The gen­til­ity I’d thought praise­wor­thy sud­denly looked like some­thing else. “I was also told, sev­eral times, by white peo­ple, that ‘race re­la­tions’ [in Char­lotte] were ex­cel­lent. I failed to find a sin­gle Ne­gro who agreed with this.” He saw the South with a sharp out­sider’s eye that made him an Alexis de Toc­queville for our time. (Of course, he was also the most bril­liant, sub­tle, witty es­say­ist I’d ever read at that age. The ef­fect on a young white boy of that era is hard to over­state.)

Baldwin reached a snap judg­ment that res­onated with me. “The South­ern land­scape — the trees, the si­lence, the liq­uid heat,” he wrote, “. . . seems des­tined for vi­o­lence.” Af­ter all, “what pas­sions can­not be un­leashed on a dark road in a South­ern night!” A na­tion that averts its eyes from the hell of sub­ju­ga­tion — and what sub­ju­ga­tion does both to the op­pres­sor and to the op­pressed — is one that will never truly un­der­stand race.

Read­ing Baldwin made me see white men, in­clud­ing my­self, dif­fer­ently as well. What price were we pay­ing for the in­hu­man­ity of the sys­tem of which we were a part? Baldwin led me to un­der­stand how much of the “race prob­lem” was a white prob­lem. As Chris Rock would later put it, our na­tional prob­lem is not about “race re­la­tions.” It is about the fact that “white peo­ple were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy.”

What I read of Baldwin on the Jim Crow work site helped me make a de­ci­sion. Af­ter I fin­ished law school in the North, I would re­turn to the South to teach po­lit­i­cal and civil rights to pre­dom­i­nantly white stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi. Maybe I could help us be a lit­tle less crazy.

Read­ing Baldwin con­firmed for me what I was see­ing ev­ery day: the ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­pac­ity of the black work­ers to en­dure.


The works of James Baldwin, above, had a strong in­flu­ence on Walter Dellinger as a young white man in the South. Dellinger read “Notes of a Na­tive Son” dur­ing lunch breaks at his con­stuc­tion job.

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