Critical Thinking in the Black Independence Movement
“On the other hand, I have to…speak as one of the people who has been most attacked by what we now here must call the Western or European system of reality. What White people see in the world…the doctrine of White supremacy, I hate to say it here, comes from Europe, that’s how it got to America. “
— James Baldwin, Oxford Debate, Cambridge, 1963
The ideology of White supremacy is so powerful that it transcends country and continent. It travels in groups, pairs, and through individuals. It is built into the very bricks of human institutions across the world — and even at a very early age, you come to the understanding that there is “something” about being Black in this world, something that sets you apart.
Toni Morrison has written, “No one ever talks about the moment you found that you were white. Or the moment you found out you were black. That’s a profound revelation. The minute you find that out, something happens. You have to renegotiate everything.”
James Baldwin talked about it at Cambridge University in his debate with William Buckley, father of the modern conservative movement. The question being debated was, “Is America at the Expense of the American Negro?”
“Beneath then, what everyone’s position on the proposition is, has to be the question of whether or not civilizations can be considered equal as such, or, whether one civilization has the right to subjugate and in fact destroy another,” Baldwin said. “Now what happens when that happens…what it does to the subjugated…is to destroy his system of reality.”
In the work titled The Three Negro Classics, W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson speak to it. For Weldon Johnson, it was a matter of “passing” — his mother light-skinned, his “father” White — until in school one day the teacher was told by the principal to separate the White and the Black students.
Weldon went to the side of the classroom for White students, and he stood there, unmoved, until the teacher (as he puts it, gently) coached him that he “belonged” on the other side of the room. His pain was so real that it leapt off the pages as I read them.
He was now Black, and he knew what that meant for all of the other Black children he went to school with; now that meant him. Already a remarkable pianist, the man who composed the “Black National Anthem” went on to accomplish those things and many more, but the world made certain that he first knew he was Black.
I ask you again, do you remember the moment you realized you were Black? I am 42, and I still remember. I was in second grade at Lyndale School in South Minneapolis. The place: the playground. The time: recess. The who: Kevin, Ernie, Jeff and Lissa.
I thought I was in love (lol) with Jeff, so I sent Kevin, who liked me, to tell him so. Jeff, so impolitely, responded: “Her mom is a cracker and her father is a Hershey bar!” No he didn’t! This is not the first time I realized that I was Black, but it was the first time I glimpsed the fact that the world might not see that my Black was beautiful.
Like the moment when W.E.B. Du Bois went to hand his holiday card to his classmate, set to present his gift in innocent good faith, and she cringed. She stepped back as though he suffered some contagious disease, and she ultimately refused his gift. She never even opened the envelope, so it is all but impossible to believe that she refused it for any other reason than what she believed about the value of Black people.
Learning our history, developing a true sense of self as an outright rejection of the lies of the ideology of supremacy, is our opportunity to resist. The story is told of how Frederick Douglass, as a slave, was assigned to the master’s son, a forced playmate. Forbidden to learn to read, threatened even with death, the great Douglass parlayed his deeply sick circumstances into something that worked for his freedom.
He would posture this: “I bet you can’t spell [whatever word he desired to learn]”; the master’s son would spell the word, and Douglass would commit it to memory. At the end of the endless day of a slave, he wrote it down. Not only did he make it to the end of a day when I doubt he had anything left to give, but risking death, he wrote it down.
Then he freed himself. Douglass went on to lead the movement for abolition and was invited more than once to address the nation’s leaders. If you want to do your own homework, check Danny Glover reading Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
(youtube.com) for a dose of Douglass’ resistance.
Join the Movement. Learn your history, then teach it. Critical thinking in the movement for Black independence is resistance, honoring the spirit of our ancestor, the great Frederick Douglass.
Can you dig it?
Lissa Jones welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.