Editor’s note: James Baldwin delivered this speech on October 16, 1963, as “The Negro Child – His Self-Image.” It was originally published in December 21, 1963 issue of the Saturday Review, reprinted in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985 (Saint Martins, 1985.)
There is something else the Negro child can do, too.
Every street boy – and I was a street boy, so I know – looking at the society which has produced him, looking at the standards of that society which are not honored by anybody, looking at your churches and the government and the politicians, understand that this structure is operated for someone else’s benefit – not for his. And there’s no reason in it for him.
The only way
If he is really cunning, really ruthless, really strong – and many of us are – he becomes a kind of criminal. He becomes a kind of criminal because that’s the only way he can live.
Harlem and every ghetto in this city – every ghetto in this country – is full of people who live outside the law. They wouldn’t dream of calling a policeman. They wouldn’t, for a moment, listen to any of those professions of which we are so proud on the Fourth of July.
They have turned away from this country forever and totally. They live by their wits and really long to see the day when the entire structure comes down.
The point of all this is that Black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor. They were indispensable to the economy.
In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the White republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved to be treated like animals. Therefore it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history.
The reason is that this “animal,” once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure. This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place.
A deliberate policy
What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand. It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from Black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.
The Reconstruction, as I read the evidence, was a bargain between the North and South to this effect: “We’ve liberated them from the land – and delivered them to the bosses.”
When we left Mississippi to come North, we did not come to freedom. We came to the bottom of the labor market, and we are still there. Even the Depression of the 1930s failed to make a dent in Negroes’ relationship to White workers in the labor unions.
A stupid question
Even today, so brainwashed is this republic that people seriously ask in what they supposed to be good faith, “What does the Negro want?” I’ve heard a great many asinine questions in my life, but that is perhaps the most asinine and perhaps the most insulting.
But the point here is that people who ask that question, thinking that they ask it in good faith, are really the victims of this conspiracy to make Negroes believe they are less than human.
In order for me to live, I decided very early that some mistake had been made somewhere. I was not a “nigger” even though you called me one. But if I was a “nigger” in your eyes, there was something about you – there was something you needed.
Not what they thought
I had to realize when I was very young that I was none of those things I was told I was. I was not, for example, happy. I never touched a watermelon for all kinds of reasons that had been invented by White people, and I knew enough about life by this time to understand that whatever you invent, whatever you project, is you!
So where we are now is that a whole country of people believe I’m a “nigger,” and I don’t, and the battle’s on! Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis.
True American identity It is not really a “Negro revolution” that is upsetting the country. What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity. If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating White people who know nothing about their own history.
And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.
Now let’s go back a minute. I talked earlier about those silent people – the porter and the maid – who, as I said, don’t look up at the sky if you ask them if it is raining, but look into your face.
No Christian nation
My ancestors and I were very well-trained. We understood very early that this was not a Christian nation. It didn’t matter what you said or how often you went to church. My father and my mother and my grandfather and my grandmother knew that Christians didn’t act this way. It was a simple as that.
And if that was so there was no point in dealing with White people in terms of their own moral professions, for they were not going to honor them. What one did was to turn away, smiling all the time, and tell White people what they wanted to hear. But people always accuse you of reckless talk when you say this.
All this means that there are in this country tremendous reservoirs of bitterness which have never been able to find an outlet, but may find an outlet soon. It means that well-meaning White liberals place themselves in great danger when they try to deal with Negroes as though they were missionaries.
It means, in brief, that a great price is demanded to liberate all those silent people so that they can breathe for the first time and tell you what they think of you. And a price is demanded to liberate all those White children – some of them near forty – who have never grown up, and who never will grow up, because they have no sense of their identity.
Myths and lies
What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors. It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really appear to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true.
What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. That’s all. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts. Those who were making it in England, for example, did not get on the Mayflower. That’s how the country was settled. Not by Gary Cooper.
Yet we have a whole race of people, a whole republic, who believe the myths to the point where even today they select political representatives, as far as I can tell, by how closely they resemble Gary Cooper. Now this is dangerously infantile, and it shows in every level of national life.
Ignorance, lack of knowledge
When I was living in Europe, for example, one of the worst revelations to me was the way Americans walked around Europe buying this and buying that and insulting everybody – not even out of malice, just because they didn’t know any better.
Well, that is the way they have always treated me. They weren’t cruel; they just didn’t know you were alive. They didn’t know you had any feelings.
What I am trying to suggest here is that in the doing of all this for 100 years or more, it is the American White man who has long since lost his grip on reality.
In some peculiar way, having created this myth about Negroes, and the myth about his own history, he created myths about the world so that, for example, he was astounded that some people could prefer Castro, astounded that there are people in the world who don’t go into hiding when they hear the word “Communism,” astounded that Communism is one of the realities of the 20th Century which we will not overcome by pretending that it does not exist.
Next week: The conclusion.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a noted author, playwright, and human rights activist.