As Ferguson burned with a raw rage against racial inequality and institutionalized violence this summer, legendary black American writer James Baldwin returned to haunt the ongoing events with his words. In mid-August, Laila Lalami wrote a short piece for NPR reminding people about Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, where the protagonist confronts segregation and racism head-on as a young man. Lalami writes, "The trouble in Harlem that summer started because a white man had shot a black man, and while the facts of the case were murky, the rumors were not. Those rumors flew through Harlem easily because, Baldwin tells us, 'they corroborated [people's] hates and fears so perfectly.'" Here is the entire original passage that Lalami is referencing:
After the funeral, while I was downtown desperately celebrating my birthday, a Negro soldier, in the lobby of the Hotel Braddock, got into a fight with a white policeman over a Negro girl. Negro girls, white policemen, in or out of uniform, and Negro males—in or out of uniform—were part of the furniture of the lobby of the Hotel Braddock and this was certainly not the first time such an incident had occurred. It was destined, however, to receive an unprecedented publicity, for the fight between the policeman and the soldier ended with the shooting of the soldier.
Rumor, flowing immediately to the streets outside, stated that the soldier had been shot in the back, an instantaneous and revealing invention, and that the soldier had died protecting a Negro woman. The facts were somewhat different—for example, the soldier had not been shot in the back, and was not dead, and the girl seems to have been as dubious a symbol of womanhood as her white counterpart in Georgia usually is, but no one was interested in the facts. They preferred the invention because this invention expressed and corroborated their hates and fears so perfectly. It is just as well to remember that people are always doing this. Perhaps many of those legends, including Christianity, to which the world clings began their conquest of the world with just some such concerted surrender to distortion. The effect, in Harlem, of this particular legend was like the effect of a lit match in a tin of gasoline. The mob gathered before the doors of the Hotel Braddock simply began to swell and to spread in every direction, and Harlem exploded.
The riot lasted two days and resulted in six deaths and hundreds of arrests, forcing the city and then-mayor LaGuardia's administration to confront wartime racial and economic disparities that persisted in the community. This Baldwin novella from 1943 seems to speak directly to what was happening in Ferguson.
More recently, as the Darren Wilson and Eric Garner verdicts have led to yet another round of anger and protests, Baldwin is being evoked repeatedly. This week Neon Tommy examined his lasting impact across social media in an article titled #Ferguson and #Blacklivesmatter Illustrate How James Baldwin’s Words Resonate More Than 25 Years After His Death. The Advocate lists five quotes that foreshadowed Ferguson. Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr are ablaze with his work.
These platforms enable quick expressions of outrage, affectations, and sloganeering against injustice, and Baldwin's brilliant indignation has gone viral. "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer" tweets one individual, quoting Baldwin's 1966 piece for The Nation in which he discusses the absurdity of authorities demanding that the oppressed "respect the law." In the wake of property damage and reports of vandalism in Ferguson, clueless network pundits and state officials alike have tried to create the notion of "good" and "bad" protesting in order to steer the public away from critiques of police power. Buying into this idea of pious order and decorum in the face of injustice, Baldwin asserts, requires one to "surrender [their] self-respect." Baldwin was fully aware that the legal system then, as it is now, was not broken. The system was set up this way. The system is the problem.
It's difficult to imagine what Baldwin would have thought about the internet, particularly the way it keeps his work alive and in the public domain. In one humorous anecdote from 1983, Baldwin rhapsodizes about pre-internet television channel-surfing and the ennui it induces in him. It's mostly a riff on the power of the advertising industry, but Baldwin notes that he also surfed through "news—news? from where?—dropping into this sea with the alertness and irrelevancy of pebbles." Twitter's inundating feed isn't too different in this regard, where everything is a headline and details are almost ignored. But social media is far more democratized than television, and Baldwin might have appreciated it as a platform for dissenting voices.