Tuesday, April 27, 2010
James Baldwin on Black Music
It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear . . .
The story of the Negro in America is the story of America - or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans. It is not a very pretty story: the story of a people is never very pretty. The Negro in America, gloomily referred to as that shadow that lies athwart our national life, is far more than that. He is a series of shadows, self-created, intertwining, which we now helplessly battle . . .
This is why his history and his progress, his relationship to all Americans, has been kept in the social arena. He is a social and not a personal or a human problem; to think of him is to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloging of losses, gains, skirmishes; it is to feel virtuous, outraged, helpless, as though his continuing status among us were somehow analogous to disease - cancer, perhaps, or tuberculosis - which must be checked, even though it cannot be cured. In this arena the black man acquires quite another aspect from that which he has in life. We do not know what to do with him in life; if he breaks our sociological and sentimental image of him we are panic stricken and we feel ourselves betrayed. When he violates this image, therefore, he stands in the greatest danger (sensing which, we uneasily suspect that he is often playing a part for our benefit); and, what is not always so apparent but is equally true, we are then in some danger ourselves - hence our retreat or blind and immediate retaliation.
James Baldwin, 1951