Raoul Peck's documentary about James Baldwin, "I am not your Negro," begins with an exchange on the Dick Cavett show. Cavett asked Baldwin a question about race relations in the US, "Is it at once getting better and still hopeless?" Baldwin replied:
"I don't think there's much hope for it to tell you the truth, as long as people are using this peculiar language. It's not a question what happens to the negro here, or the black man here. That's a very good question for me, but the real question is 'what's going to happen to this country?'"It is very good that these are the first words we hear from Baldwin in the film because that "peculiar language" refers to the way a relative handful of rich people of European ancestry have hijacked the color white and the concept of whiteness for the purpose of dominating the Earth and most of the people on it.
In his review, James Baldwin and the Meaning of Whiteness, Truthdig, 19 February Chris Hedges correctly focuses on the centrality of this question of "whiteness," but his understanding is confused by a strong commitment to the false premise that racial categories have some reality that is more than skin deep, and that go beyond their creation as instruments of social control. Hedges accepts this counterfeit as real, which is to say he never questions the use of the label "white" to describe European or Caucasian people. He is also sensitive to the damage that has been done under this banner of "whiteness," and from this he deduces his "meaning of whiteness." This is a blame much misplaced. Baldwin knew better. Early in the film, he said even as a child:
"I began to suspect that white people did not act as they did because they were white, but for some other reason."Chris Hedges has been confused before. Today he decries "the insanity now gripping the United States" and thinks Baldwin has "a message that is vital to grasp as we struggle with an overt racist as president." "Especially now." Two days before the election he was singing a different song, one that helped to put that overt racist in the White House. He thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, and he was trying to get people to either vote for Jill Stein, or not vote at all. Here are some choice bits from his 6 November 2016 piece in Truthdig:
"The most important issue in this election does not revolve around the personal traits of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump."Chris Hedges spent most of last year supporting Jill Stein and opposing Hillary Clinton much, and Donald Trump much less, in Truthdig and on RT [Russia Today]. Now that we have an overt racist as president, he has time for this.
"It is up to us to resist. We must refuse to be complicit, even in the act of voting,"
"The tactic of strategic voting begs the question “Strategic for whom?”
"as long as we participate in this charade, the neoliberal assault will continue"
"Go into the voting booth on Tuesday. Do not be afraid. Vote with your conscience. Vote Green. If we win 5 percent we win. Five percent becomes the building block for the years ahead."
his essay on the James Baldwin documentary, Chris Hedges presents a vision of "whiteness" that is divorced from the racist category of people known as "the white race." Hedges says:
Whiteness is a dangerous concept. It is not about skin color. It is not even about race.This statement has the benefit of getting right to the heart of the matter because where I differ with Hedges on this point is that I would say that whiteness is a dangerous concept only when it is about skin color and race. Otherwise...
Whiteness is a wonderful concept
Whiteness, and the achromatic color white, symbolize sunlight, what Karl Marx called "the natural day," dawn, new beginnings, birth, and life; owing to the Circadian rhythm that has governed our activity long before the first ancestors of all left Africa. Also, human vision interprets the particular mix of light coming from our Sun, which contains all the colors of the rainbow, and then some, when scattered or diffuse, as the achromatic [literally colorless] color white. Hence, snow is white, clouds are white, many substances in a pure or crystallized state appear white. Because human vision is what we might call "white balanced," white also has come to represent certain generally positive attributes such a purity, neutrality. clarity, brilliance, innocence, righteousness and virtue.
As an aside, we might speculate that if there actually were Martians on "the red planet" and the sunlight reaching them did give everything a red tingle in our eyes, their eyes would be "white balanced" to their normalcy such that what appears reddish to us would appear white to them and they would call Earth the green planet.These are meanings of whiteness that are intrinsic, primordial, and irrevocable. That is why allusions to it so enlighten and illuminate our language and culture. One might as well attempt to deny the universal relief that comes with a new dawn, or the common delight found in white clouds or new fallen snow. These "meaning[s] of whiteness" have existed since time immemorial, which is to say, long before anybody started calling themselves "white."
When whiteness is about skin color and race
That is a rather recent invention, as a matter of fact. 400 years ago, the plantation owners of Maryland and Virginia were equal opportunity employers. They enslaved everybody; the English, Irish, African, even "Indians" alike. Three-quarters of all slaves in Virginia around the time of Bacon's rebellion, 1676, were European. Governor Berkeley estimated that about 1,500 European chattel bond-laborers arrived in Virginia that year, "the majority English, with a few Scots and fewer Irish."
Nobody was calling anybody white in those days, poor English, Africans and natives alike were sold at auction and worked side by side in the tobacco fields. But as they tried to implement their dream of enslaving everybody, the young American aristocracy struggled with growing unrest among the bond-servants and an unstable social situation through most of the 17th century, until finally they hit upon a solution that would last almost two hundred years, and have repercussions that would last for hundreds more. They made bondage an Africans only affair, and it was to be bondage for life. They gathered the various European immigrants together in a new club, and granted them their freedom, provided they help keep the blacks in chains. That is when and why the white race was born. The terms "white people" and "white race" didn't enter English language dictionaries until about 1690. Early writers from the colonies had to explain to their readers back home that "white" was what the English were starting to call themselves over here.
|Nathaniel Bacon confronts Governor William Berkeley at the Statehouse in Jamestown|
That all servants imported and brought into this country, by sea or land, who were not christians in their native country,... shall be accounted and be slaves, and such be here bought and sold notwithstanding a conversion to christianity afterward.This law carried strong measures against "English, and other white men and women intermarrying" with "any such negro, mulatto, or Indian, Jew, Moor, Mahometan, or other infidel," with special sanctions "if a free christian white woman shall have such bastard child, by a negro, or mulatto." It claimed the purpose of these codes were "a further prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue." It declared:
That whatsoever English, or other white man or woman, being free, shall intermarry with a negro or mulatto man or woman, bond or free, shall, by judgment of the county court, be committed to prison, and there remain, during the space of six months, without bail or mainprize; and shall forfeit and pay ten pounds current money of Virginia, to the use of the parish, as aforesaid.They had to put a stop to that for racism to work in America.
It also took the right to bear arms away from even free African Americans, and it wrote blatant discrimination into the law in many ways it had not been there before, as exampled by this section:
[I]f any negro, mulatto, or Indian, bond or free, shall at any time, lift his or her hand, in opposition against any christian, not being negro, mulatto, or Indian, he or she so offending shall, for every such offence, proved by the oath of the party, receive on his or her bare back, thirty lashes, well laid on;Many historians have contributed to our understanding of this period and process, but the most important work in this field has been done by Theodore W. Allen, and is best represented in his two volume work, The Invention of the White Race. [*] If you want the details roughly summarized in the few preceding paragraphs, read this book.
As the colonial bankers and planters evolved their system of white supremacy by honoring themselves with illusions of whiteness, and bringing the oppressed Europeans under their hegemony by bestowing the label of "white" upon them as well, they forged this illusion of legitimacy, enlightenment, and righteousness into a weapon they could use not only to justify the enslavement of Africans, but also the thief of indigenous people's lands, and the general imperialist rape of mother earth.
After they invented the concept of white people, they proceeded to re-write history so that the history of western civilization became the history of white people in spite of the fact the King Sargon, Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Claudius, Charlemagne, the Vikings, Pope Urban II and the Christians that marched east in the Crusades never called themselves white, they were all posthumously awarded the title of "white." Accordingly, Adam and Eve were white, and since God made him in his image, God must be white too. This had to be true because the whole theory of race depended on it being a permanent feature of human life. To the racists, the categories of race are natural and unchangeable because they are based in biology, and most importantly, in blood.
Even though Chris Hedges fancies himself an anti-racist, he is so tied to the racist worldview that this "lie of whiteness" is really the only whiteness he sees, "an imagined white purity, decency and innocence." He says:
It is about the willful blindness used to justify white supremacy. It is about using moral rhetoric to defend exploitation, racism, mass murder, reigns of terror and the crimes of empire.In his title, Hedges has invoked the name of James Baldwin and promised to tell us the meaning of whiteness, but in the essay itself, we are delivered a laundry list of things it is about:
Those who imbibe the myth of whiteness externalize evil—their own evil—onto their victims. Racism, Baldwin understood, is driven by moral bankruptcy, narcissism, an inner loneliness and latent guilt. Donald Trump and most of those around him exhibit all of these characteristics.The kindhearted planter who insisted on paying his workers a living wage while his fellow planters employed bond labor, would have faced economic bankruptcy while he was avoiding moral bankruptcy. "Baldwin understood" that white supremacy "is driven by" an economic system designed to benefited those at the top. As for Donald Trump, he was the same "overt racist" before the election when Hedges was telling everyone to vote for Stein, or not vote at all.
Finally, Chris Hedges, summarizes his view of "the meaning of whiteness." It seems to boil down to simple greed and murder:
The true credo of the white race is we have everything, and if you try to take any of it from us we will kill you. This is the essential meaning of whiteness.Here the core problem with his I-hate-myself logic is revealed. Since he never questions the claim by this race that they are "white," although he certainly questions their historical record, he comes to the mistaken conclusion that this badness must reside in "whiteness."
Most racist theorists think the different races were created by God, or at least are natural and obvious categories that have always existed, rather than the result of class struggle and the needs of the ruling class to exert social control. In fact, since the whole point of racism is to suppress the class struggle in favor of intra-class struggle, they generally try to leave class out of the discussion altogether by lumping all "white people" together regardless of class. You'll notice that Chris Hedges does that until the end of his essay.
Racists prefer to see race in terms that are immutable and based in "biology," almost always with references to blood. Hedges does this too when he says:
Nearly all African-Americans carry within them white blood, usually the result of white rape. White slaveholders routinely sold mixed-race children—their own children—into slavery. Baldwin knew the failure to acknowledge the melding of the black and white races that can be seen in nearly every African-American face, a melding that makes African-Americans literally the brothers and sisters of whites. African-Americans, Baldwin wrote, are the “bastard” children of white America. They constitute a peculiarly and uniquely American race.In this one paragraph, Hedges has said quite a bit, and twice implied "Baldwin knew" to back him up, so we must parse this in some detail.
Let me begin by saying that "Baldwin knew" there was no such thing as "white blood." On race, he wrote:
"color is not a human or a personal reality, it is a political reality."Racists tend to be obsessed with blood. In Ohio, in the early 1800s both the legislature and the courts based their explicit grants of white skin privilege on the theory that "white blood" was somehow better than "black blood." Hitler was nuts about it. He took it much further than Hedges' "white blood," he believed in "German blood," and his Reich even went so far as to issue a German Blood Certificate [Deutschblütigkeitserklärung]. His infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935 had as their pretext the protection of the purity of Aryan blood. Those same laws forbid miscegenation between Jews and other Germans. Hitler considered Jews a people "bound by blood," but at least as far as he was concerned, it wasn't "white blood." Racists have always been flexible with their definitions as the local requirements for social control have changed. Before the invention of the white race, the English considered the Irish an inferior race. The need to build "white" unity for suppressing people of color in the colonies changed all that.
The racists have their blood types and the doctors have theirs, blood types: A, B, AB, and O, and while the racists set about the work of destroying human life, the doctors are trying to save it. They know how important it is to match their blood types when putting one person's blood in another one's veins, but they don't give a fart what "race" the blood came from because they know those differences exist only in the minds of racists. Beside which, if you want to use "blood" as a metaphor for ancestry, modern anthropology has shown conclusively that if you go back far enough, every human on the planet has "African blood" flowing in their veins. In the case of Adolf Hitler, tests of DNA culled from relatives show that you didn't have to go back that far. This champion of "Aryan blood" [ no doubt considered by Nazis as the "cream" of "white blood" ] had Jewish and African roots. A Recent study of the very extensive 23andMe DNA database indicates about 3.5% of European Americans [the term 23andMe uses instead of white] have some African roots, in some Southern states, it is as much as 12%.
James Baldwin, knew that the white race was an American creation of relatively recent vintage designed in enable slavery and justify racial oppression. In The Price of the Ticket, he talked about how early on Africans and Europeans suffered similarly. and how the "white race" was created in the United States:
They come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio became Joe, Pappavasiliu becomes Palmer, Evangelos becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So, with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American.White and black do not represent some innate quality. It is not "in the blood." The European wasn't white until he was brought here, and the African wasn't black until he was brought here. These were labels made and bestowed in the USA.
The Irish middle passage, for but one example, was as foul as my own, and as dishonorable on the part of those responsible for it. But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking.
The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white--; and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for his journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white...
James Baldwin once made reference to "white blood," and it was in the context of rape:
Protect your women: a difficult thing to do in a civilization sexually so pathetic that the white man’s masculinity depends on a denial of the masculinity of the blacks. Protect your women: in a civilization that emasculates the male and abuses the female, and in which, moreover, the male is forced to depend on the female’s breadwinning power. Protect your women: in the teeth of the white man’s boast “We figure we’re doing you folks a favor by pumping some white blood into your kids,” and while facing the Southern shotgun and the Northern billy.Of course, he is quoting a racist using the term, but then that is who usually uses the term, and they usually use it in relation to the question of "race mixing," as Hedges does here.
He claims this is "usually the result of white rape." In as much as "usually" only requires a slim majority, I won't argue the point, except to mention that marriage between English and African was not outlawed until around 1690, about the same time "white race" became a legal term. Those laws also provided double penalties for European American women who mated with African American men.[*p 158] Before the white race was created and slavery was confined to the blacks, there was quite a bit of intermarriage between Europeans and Africans and Native Americans. On the Virginia tobacco plantations in the middle of the 17th century, Irish slaves and African slaves, toiled together, ran away together and intermarried. I have been told that I am part Irish, and it is entirely possible that it was not the result of rape, but instead some other amalgamation between relative equals. I have also been told that I am part Cherokee, and many times when these slaves would run away, the natives would take them in, so maybe somewhere in all of that is the story of me.
We can take it even further back than that. Setting aside the fact that we all came from Africa in the distance past, enough Arab and European males, mostly, made their own contributions to the African gene pool even before they started being exported to replace the dying indigenous slaves in the New World. Arab men especially prized the African women. Many were taken as sex slaves, but some were taken as wives. It wasn't all rape.
White slaveholders routinely sold mixed-race children—their own children—into slavery.Hedges speaks only of the mixing of "white blood" into black. He sees it "in nearly every African-American face." Doesn't he know many "whites" have an African heritage? Probably, in his mind, the "white blood" has remained "pure." James Baldwin knew this was a two-way street. He said:
White men lynched negroes knowing them to be their sons. White women watched men being lynched knowing them to be their lovers… How are white Americans so sure they are white?Only a minority of the white men wherever slaveholders and they probably weren't responsible for a majority of the white/black "race mixing," but here again Hedges speaks of "white people" as one undifferentiated mass as represented by the "white slaveholders."
Baldwin used bastard as a metaphor, whereas Hedges uses it in connection to bloodlines. Baldwin wrote of his days in Paris:
I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa.But he was talking about culture, not blood. In the next sentence, he speaks of Shakespeare, Bach, and Rembrandt. That may be the reason Hedges chose to use a one word quote to imply Baldwin's support for his conclusion that African Americans are a bastard race.
Finally, according to Hedges, African Americans are a race unto themselves. This is how far he takes the concept of race. That is one I've never heard before. We don't even get to be in the same race with other African people. According to Hedges' "peculiar" racial categories, African Americans are a "uniquely American race," as opposed to whites, who are presumed to share the same racial identity all over the world.
Maybe he was thinking of when Baldwin wrote:
Negroes in this country—and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other—are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means that they are superior to blacks (intrinsically, that is: God decreed it so), and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared.To Baldwin, Negroes was an American social and legal category, but Hedges overlays this with his racial (i.e. blood) categories. This leads him to think Baldwin agreed with him, and he is now free to use the word "bastard" to describe African Americans as a race.
Chris Hedges looks back and sees what he calls "the holocaust of slavery," which sounds very condemning while, at the same time, it hides its capitalist foundation. The 1705 Slave Codes of Virginia mentioned earlier set limits on the punishment of runaway slaves:
it shall and may be lawful for the county court, to order such punishment to the said slave, either by dismembring, or any other way, not touching his life, as they in their discretion shall think fit, for the reclaiming any such incorrigible slave, and terrifying others from the like practices.
James Baldwin looked forward and was more concerned about the possible holocaust he saw in America's future:
White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded—at least, in the same way. For my part, the fate of the Jews, and the world’s indifference to it, frightened me very much. I could not but feel, in those sorrowful years, that this human indifference, concerning which I knew so much already, would be my portion on the day that the United States decided to murder its Negroes systematically instead of little by little and catch-as-catch-can. I was, of course, authoritatively assured that what had happened to the Jews in Germany could not happen to the Negroes in America, but I thought, bleakly, that the German Jews had probably believed similar counsellors, and, again, I could not share the white man’s vision of himself for the very good reason that white men in America do not behave toward black men the way they behave toward each other. When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed.This is also why the world's indifference to the mass murder of half a million Syrians frightens me very much, and why the fight against this first holocaust of the 21th century has been an intensely personal one for me.
The white dove stands for peace for good reason, and did so long before the "white" man appropriated the symbolism of white to make war on other people. James Baldwin understood this. Chris Hedges does not. He is just invoking James Baldwin as cover for his own chauvinist attitudes, and if James Baldwin could speak from the grave, I feel quite sure he would tell Chris Hedges "I am not your Negro."
Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!