Writer and playwright James Baldwin published the 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, receiving acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality and humanity. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Just Above My Head, as well as essays like Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time.
Writer and playwright James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York. One of the 20th century’s greatest writers, Baldwin broke new literary ground with the exploration of racial and social issues in his many works. He was especially known for his essays on the Black experience in America.
Baldwin was born to a young single mother, Emma Jones, at Harlem Hospital. She reportedly never told him the name of his biological father. Jones married a Baptist minister named David Baldwin when James was about three years old.
Despite their strained relationship, Baldwin followed in his stepfather’s footsteps — who he always referred to as his father — during his early teen years. He served as a youth minister in a Harlem Pentecostal church from the ages of 14 to 16.
Baldwin developed a passion for reading at an early age and demonstrated a gift for writing during his school years. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on the school’s magazine with future famous photographer Richard Avedon.
Baldwin published numerous poems, short stories and plays in the magazine, and his early work showed an understanding for sophisticated literary devices in a writer of such a young age.
After graduating from high school in 1942, he had to put his plans for college on hold to help support his family, which included seven younger children. He took whatever work he could find, including laying railroad tracks for the U.S. Army in New Jersey.
During this time, Baldwin frequently encountered discrimination, being turned away from restaurants, bars and other establishments because he was African American. After being fired from the New Jersey job, Baldwin sought other work and struggled to make ends meet.
On July 29, 1943, Baldwin lost his father — and gained his eighth sibling the same day. He soon moved to Greenwich Village, a New York City neighborhood popular with artists and writers.
Devoting himself to writing a novel, Baldwin took odd jobs to support himself. He befriended writer Richard Wright, and through Wright, he was able to land a fellowship in 1945 to cover his expenses. Baldwin started getting essays and short stories published in such national periodicals as The Nation, Partisan Review and Commentary.
Three years later, Baldwin made a dramatic change in his life and moved to Paris on another fellowship. The shift in location freed Baldwin to write more about his personal and racial background.
“Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I see where I came from very clearly…I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both,” Baldwin once told The New York Times. The move marked the beginning of his life as a “transatlantic commuter,” dividing his time between France and the United States.
‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’
Baldwin had his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953. The loosely autobiographical tale focused on the life of a young man growing up in Harlem grappling with father issues and his religion.
“Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal, above all, with my father,” he later said.
In 1954, Baldwin received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He published his next novel, Giovanni’s Room, the following year. The work told the story of an American living in Paris and broke new ground for its complex depiction of homosexuality, a then-taboo subject.
Love between men was also explored in a later Baldwin novel Just Above My Head (1978). The author would also use his work to explore interracial relationships, another controversial topic for the times, as seen in the 1962 novel Another Country.
Baldwin was open about his homosexuality and relationships with both men and women. Yet he believed that the focus on rigid categories was just a way of limiting freedom and that human sexuality is more fluid and less binary than often expressed in the U.S.
“If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy,” the writer said in a 1969 interview when asked if being gay was an aberration, asserting that such views were an indication of narrowness and stagnation.
‘Nobody Knows My Name’
Baldwin explored writing for the stage a well. He wrote The Amen Corner, which looked at the phenomenon of storefront Pentecostal religion. The play was produced at Howard University in 1955, and later on Broadway in the mid-1960s.
It was his essays, however, that helped establish Baldwin as one of the top writers of the times. Delving into his own life, he provided an unflinching look at the Black experience in America through such works as Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961).
Nobody Knows My Name hit the bestsellers list, selling more than a million copies. While not a marching or sit-in style activist, Baldwin emerged as one of the leading voices in the Civil Rights Movement for his compelling work on race.
‘The Fire Next Time’
In 1963, there was a noted change in Baldwin’s work with The Fire Next Time. This collection of essays was meant to educate white Americans on what it meant to be Black. It also offered white readers a view of themselves through the eyes of the African American community.
In the work, Baldwin offered a brutally realistic picture of race relations, but he remained hopeful about possible improvements. “If we…do not falter in our duty now, we may be able…to end the racial nightmare.” His words struck a chord with the American people, and The Fire Next Time sold more than a million copies.
That same year, Baldwin was featured on the cover of Time magazine. “There is not another writer — white or Black — who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South,” Time said in the feature.
Baldwin wrote another play, Blues for Mister Charlie, which debuted on Broadway in 1964. The drama was loosely based on the 1955 racially motivated murder of a young African American boy named Emmett Till.
This same year, his book with friend Avedon entitled Nothing Personal, hit bookstore shelves. The work was a tribute to slain civil rights movement leader Medgar Evers. Baldwin also published a collection of short stories, Going to Meet the Man, around this time.
In his 1968 novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, Baldwin returned to popular themes — sexuality, family and the Black experience. Some critics panned the novel, calling it a polemic rather than a novel. He was also criticized for using the first-person singular, the “I,” for the book’s narration.
Later Works and Death
By the early 1970s, Baldwin seemed to despair over the racial situation. He had witnessed so much violence in the previous decade — especially the assassinations of Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — caused by racial hatred.
This disillusionment became apparent in his work, which employed a more strident tone than in earlier works. Many critics point to No Name in the Street, a 1972 collection of essays, as the beginning of the change in Baldwin’s work. He also worked on a screenplay around this time, trying to adapt The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley for the big screen.
While his literary fame faded somewhat in his later years, Baldwin continued to produce new works in a variety of forms. He published a collection of poems, Jimmy’s Blues: Selected Poems, in 1983 as well as the 1987 novel Harlem Quartet.
Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France. Never wanting to be a spokesperson or a leader, Baldwin saw his personal mission as bearing “witness to the truth.” He accomplished this mission through his extensive, rapturous literary legacy.
SCHOOL DESEGREGATION AND THE PIPELINE OF PRIVILEGE
The struggle to end racial segregation in America’s public schools has been long and arduous. It was ostensibly won in the 1954 Brown v. Tulsa Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. But racist resistance has been intense. Years later, extensive school segregation remains for Black children. The High Court has essentially overturned Brown without explicitly saying so. This paper assesses the effects of educational desegregation that has managed to occur. Discussion concerning the results of desegregation has revolved around test scores and the difficulties involved with “busing,” but the principal positive effect is often overlooked: namely, that the substantial rise of the Black-American middle class in the last half-century has been importantly enhanced by school desegregation. This paper reviews the educational backgrounds of eighteen Black Americans who have risen to the highest status positions in American politics and business in recent decades. They represent the desegregated Black cohort who succeeded because desegregation enabled them to break into the nation’s deeply established pipeline of privilege.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE RACIAL DESEGREGATION OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS
White supremacists over the past six decades have managed to roll back the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown ruling outlawing racially segregated schools. Black American children in the nation’s public schools are today virtually as segregated as they were prior to Brown.1
In 1955, the High Court undercut its historic desegregation ruling with a vague “all deliberate speed” order. The White South, quite deliberate but rarely speedy, viewed this order as a sign of weakness. This second decision had the unfortunate, if unintended, consequence of heightening opposition to the original decision. Resistance groups called White Citizens’ Councils—basically middle-class Ku Klux Klans—sprang up throughout the South.
Consequently, scant progress was made for a decade. In response to this delay, three strong Federal Court rulings emerged. In 1968, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia struck down a so-called “freedom of choice” attempt to avoid desegregation. In 1971, the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision established that desegregation required affirmative action—including the “busing” of students throughout Charlotte’s metropolitan area. In 1973, Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado applied the Swann ruling to a non-Southern city for the first time.
In reaction to this progress, strong resistance to school integration developed—led by President Richard Nixon, who sternly opposed the “busing” needed to achieve it. This opposition gathered strength as it seized on the claim of massive “White flight” from cities to avoid desegregation. Bolstered by the publicized assertions of sociologist James Coleman, conservative judges began to use it as an excuse to roll back desegregation orders (Orfield and Eaton, 1996).
The “White flight” argument ignored two key points. First, the Coleman analysis was seriously flawed. While White families did move to the suburbs and private schools more during the first year of integration, it was basically a “hastening up” effect. That is, large urban districts that started school desegregation did not lose significantly more White students over the critical 1967–1976 period than did districts that remained racially segregated. Phrased differently, desegregating districts were already losing White families before the process and after a few years would have lost just as many White families without any desegregation whatsoever (Farley et al., 1980).
Second, the “White flight” phenomenon was especially acute in huge cities such as Detroit, MI where the High Court flatly rejected metropolitan plans for school desegregation in Milliken v. Bradley (1974; Pettigrew 2004). But in smaller cities, such as Richmond, VA,2 Lexington, KY, and Wilmington, DE, metropolitan plans were far more feasible.
The eighteen cases reviewed in this paper were obviously not picked at random. They represent the very top echelon of Black participation in government and business: all three Black Americans at the presidential and vice-presidential level; all three Black members of the U.S. Senate; all eleven Black CEOs of major companies; and a foremost television newscaster. Arguably, these are eighteen of the most influential and powerful Black leaders in America today. Only one—Senator Warnock—seems not to have benefitted importantly from early entry into the White-dominated pipeline of privilege.
Too much focus has been given to the micro-effects of school desegregation (e.g., changes in test scores and racial attitudes), while ignoring the later-life constructive meso- and macro-societal effects of the process. The extensive 2011 NBER study previously described found that desegregated schools led not only to improved test scores but also to higher annual earnings and better health as adults (Johnson 2011). And Johnson’s (2012) follow-up research found these positive outcomes of desegregated schools even extended to the next generation of Black pupils. This present paper extends these positive outcomes of desegregated education still further to include the possibility of talented Black Americans cracking into the nation’s pipeline of privilege.
We can hope for two interrelated future trends: many more Black Americans able to join in the nation’s pipeline of privilege and the pipeline itself becoming less necessary for Black success. As the Black American middle-class expands, we will witness more examples like Senator Warnock rising to prominence without having benefitted from the largely-White structures of access to privilege.
In this searching interview, legendary Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez discusses the ancestral influences on her work and how art can give us strength.
Includes new audio of Sanchez reading from her work.SONIA SANCHEZ, CHRISTINA KNIGHTThis interview is featured in Boston Review’s new book, Ancestors.ORDER A COPY TODAYEditor’s Note: You can hear Sonia Sanchez read some of her poems at our launch event for Ancestors next Thursday, March 11!
In addition, we are thrilled to announce that Sonia Sanchez will be one of the judges for this year’s creative writing contests. Free for writers from non-Western countries (as well as those experiencing hardship), our short story and poetry contests are open now.
A key figure in the Black Arts Movement and a founder of Black Studies, Sonia Sanchez has authored more than a dozen books of poetry, criticism, and plays. Though I’ve never met Sanchez in person, it is not an exaggeration to say that her life as a poet, playwright, and professor has made my own possible.
Taking a class on the Black Arts Movement as an undergraduate introduced me to the fire behind her language. My graduate training in African American Studies showed me images of her as an impossibly young professor, fighting for the establishment of Black Studies at San Francisco State University. And most recently, in my own life as a young professor in Philadelphia, I’ve seen Sanchez enter a room and be suddenly surrounded by former students, friends, and colleagues, living evidence of her lifelong generosity of spirit. Sanchez radiates brilliance, humor, and integrity, and her work has touched countless lives.It was a joy, then, to speak with her about the many people, living and dead, who have shaped her own journey. In our interview, she discusses mentors and teachers as well as her fierce devotion to her students. She concludes by recalling her writing process for A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974), an astonishing volume of poetry shaped by the artist’s dream dialogues with her late mother.—Christina Knight“How could I be a graduate in New York City and never come across these Black books?
”Christina Knight: You have mentioned before that there are lots of people, of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, who have inspired you and your own vision for a more just and peaceful world. Could you talk about who some of those people are—those chosen ancestors—who guide you on your journey? Sonia Sanchez: Some of them are people like Jean Hutson, who was a curator and then chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for decades. When I was finishing my bachelors at Hunter College, I had done some substitute teaching around my neighborhood, and I had this agreement with the principal that I would have a job in September. But I graduated in January, and when you come from a family that’s not wealthy, jobs are very important, are they not? So my dad said, “Well, you’d better go out and get a job.” I looked around in the newspapers and I went to all these places to get a job, and they all said they were filled. But I had the feeling that it had to do with how I looked, you know, my color, right? Someone I was talking to said, “Why don’t you look at the New York Times? They have all of these ads.” So I looked and there was one that said to write in; it was for a writer for a firm. And I thought why don’t I, at that point, play with what I really want to be?So I sent my CV, and I wrote whatever they asked me to write. And I got a telegram on Saturday that said to report to work on Monday; I was hired. So on Monday I went out in my blue suit, and my hat, and my blue pumps, and my blue bag. I had gloves and everything. I went out like a church person, you know what I mean? I got there at 8:30, and I remember waiting outside this door, which was locked. I’m standing there thinking, “Am I in the right place?” And I heard these heels come clicking down the hall. This woman came up to me and said, ‘Can I help you?’” So I took the telegram out and handed it to her.I remember she read it, and then she looked up at me; she looked back down, she read it again, and then she looked back up at me. Then she handed it to me, unlocked the door, and said, “Come in and have a seat.” You know how it is just to be twenty? How young you are at that time? Being eighty-six, now, you look back, and you remember the youngness in your eyes—like, “Whoa, here I am, I’m going to get a job. I’ve been hired to do something that I want to do.” It’s amazing. So I’m sitting there, and a man walks in and says, “Yes, can I help you?” I got up, and I had my letter out, and I handed it to him. And he read the letter and looked at me; he looked down at the telegram and read it again and looked up at me. And you know, I am smiling the whole time. And he handed it back to me and said, “I’m sorry, the job is taken.”With my New York City humor, I said, “Oh, I got it—the telegram said report to
On this edition of In Black America, producer/host John L. Hanson Jr. speaks with Mary-Frances Winters, founder and president of The Winters Group, Inc., and author of Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit.
Black fatigue is the physical and psychological toll on African Americans’ daily lives as a result of systemic racism. The damage wrought by racism isn’t only the atrocities so powerfully condemned in the demonstrations and protests around the world.
Winters talks about African Americans being middle class and that being from a two-parent family does not protect them from systemic racism; how millennials and Generation Z continue to suffer under the hand of systematic oppression; and how, as a baby boomer, she lived through three different generations of racial discrimination and unrest in North America.
“Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama”
Dr. James Lance Taylor
To some, Black nationalism is now characterized as an outdated political strategy? Or, as Dr. James Taylor argues in his rich, sweeping analysis, a logical response to the failure of post–civil rights politics?
Taylor offers a provocative assessment of the contemporary relevance and interpretation of black nationalism as both a school of thought and a mode of mobilization. Fundamental to his analysis is the assertion that black nationalism should be understood not simply as a separatist movement—the traditional conception—but instead as a common-sense psychological orientation with long roots in US political history. Providing entirely new lines of insight and analysis, his work ranges from the religious foundations of Black political ideologies to the nationalist sentiments of today’s hip-hop generation.
Chair, Department of Politics, former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011.
Professor James Lance Taylor is from Glen Cove, Long Island. He is the author of the book ck Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama, which earned 2012 “Outstanding Academic Title” – Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. (Ranked top 2 percent of 25,000 books submitted and top 8 percent of 7,300 actually accepted for review by the American Library Association). Rated “Best of the Best.” The hardback version sold out in the U.S. and the paperback version was published in 2014.
He is a former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011. Taylor also served as Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco from 2012-2015, and Faculty Coordinator of the African American Studies Program for 2015-2017. He served as the Chair for the “Committee on the Status of Blacks” in Political Science for the American Political Science Association (APSA), 2016-2017.
Professor Taylor is currently writing and researching a book with the working title, Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and California Black Politics. He expects the book to be completed with a 2018-2019 publication range. The book is a study of the Peoples Temple movement and African American political history in the state of California.
He co-edited and published in Something’s in the Air: Race and the Legalization of Marijuana, with Katherine Tate (UC Irvine) and Mark Sawyer (UCLA), focusing on controversies concerning race, social justice, and marijuana legalization in the state of California.
Prof. Taylor has published articles on subjects such as Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement, Dr. Betty Shabazz (wife of Malcolm X), Dr. Benjamin Chavis (then, Muhammad), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Black Nationalism,” The post-9/11 relationship of Muslims in Northern California and the United States to Black Social and Political History, San Francisco Sun Reporter publisher Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, and on the Peoples Temple Movement in Northern and Southern California.
These works have been published by Harvard University Press and Oxford University Press, Baylor University Press, the State University of New York University Press (SUNY), San Diego State University (Jonestown Institute), and The University Press of Mississippi, and leading independent academic publishers.
Prof. Taylor’s scholarship internationally was acknowledged through his Keynote invitation at the 2014 National Indigenous Studies Conference (AIATSIS) in Canberra, Australia, where he presented the lecture, “Taking Intercommunalism Seriously: Black Power, Indigeneity, and Peoples’ Struggles for Recognition and Anti-Racist Democracy.”
He has taught previously as a Visiting Associate Professor of political science at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain and political science and African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
His most recent published article is “King the Sellout or Sellin’ Out King?”: Hip Hop’s Martin Luther King,” in Dream and Legacy: Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Post-Civil Rights era (2017).
Demand for Prof. Taylor’s political analysis, expertise, and opinion has been sought internationally by leading media organizations in Dublin, Ireland, Canberra, Australia, Toronto, Canada, and London, England. He serves as a political commentator on San Francisco, U.S national, California, and U.S. Black politics on behalf of the University of San Francisco’s Media Relations Office and appears regularly on San Francisco News TV with KRON 4, FOX KTVU local, and ABC 7. He is a frequent guest on NPR/KQED with Michael Krasny and other programs and has appeared counting so far eight times at the California Commonwealth Club in San Francisco alongside leading figures in law, media, and politics.
In 2015, Prof. Taylor addressed hundreds of California Law Enforcement Officers at the International Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership in San Francisco (USF) on the topic of “The Black Lives Matter Movement” and Law Enforcement and currently serves as a committee member for two Executive Level committees (Bias and Community Engagement) (SFPD Command Staff level) for the Mayor’s Office of San Francisco and the San Francisco Police Commission’s mandates to implement the Obama Department of Justice Findings and Recommendations on the operations of the San Francisco Police Department.
Prof. Taylor also served as moderator for two public comment and town hall events on behalf of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, San Francisco Police Department, and the San Francisco Police Commission on the policy consideration of implementing Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs), also known as tasers in 2017. He has also served as a policy consultant for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
The San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) and California Historical Society, the Hayward Black Historical Society, and many local community groups and organizations call on Taylor’s expertise in his fields. He has given public lectures at Northwestern University, The Ohio State University, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, and DePauw University (Indiana).
Prof. Taylor is Vice President of the San Francisco Achievers Scholarship non-profit on behalf of African American males graduating from the San Francisco Unified School District.
His teaching and research scholarly interests are in religion and politics in the United States, race and ethnic politics, African American political history, social movements, political ideology, law and public policy, Black political leadership, and the U.S. Presidency. He lives with his family in Oakland, California.
Image above: Portrait of Mollie Williams (Mississippi), taken as part of the Federal Writers’ Project
This article was published online on February 9, 2021.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon in November, I stepped inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. On past visits, I’d always encountered crowds of tourists and school groups, a space bursting with movement and sound. But on this day, the museum was nearly empty. It seemed to echo with all the people who had been there but were no longer. For the few of us inside, social distancing was dictated by blue circles scattered on the floor.
I made my way down to the bottom level, which documents the history of slavery in America. Masks were mandatory, and something about the pieces of cloth covering everyone’s mouths seemed to amplify the silence and solemnity of what surrounded us.
I walked past the statue of Thomas Jefferson standing among bricks bearing the names of people he’d enslaved, past a cabin that enslaved people had slept in, and past the stone auction block upon which enslaved people had been sold and separated from their families.Toward the end of a long corridor was a dimly lit room with sepia-toned photos on the walls. Photos of enslaved people holding their own children, or their enslaver’s children. Photos of fresh wounds on the backs of those who’d been beaten. Photos of people bent over fields of cotton that hid their faces.
But what was most striking about the room was the voices running through it. The words of people who had survived slavery were running on a six-minute loop. Their voices floated through the air like ghosts.
“My father was not allowed to see my mother but two nights a week,” said a woman in the voice of Mary A. Bell. “Dat was Wednesday and Saturday. So he often came home all bloody from his beatings.”
“I had to wok evva day,” said a woman in the voice of Elvira Boles. “I’d leave mah baby cryin’ in the yard, and I’d be cryin’, but I couldn’t stay.”
“My mudder word in de field,” said Harrison Beckett. “Sometimes she come in 9 or 10 ’clock at night. She be all wore out an’ it be so dark she too tired to cook lots of times, but she hafter git some food so we could eat it. Us all ’round de table like dat was like a feast.”
When I’d first encountered these floating voices years before, I was fascinated by how ordinary their stories were. These were not tales of daring escapes like those of Henry “Box” Brown, who in 1849 contorted his body into a wooden crate for 27 hours as it was delivered from the slave state of Virginia to abolitionists in Pennsylvania—mailing himself to freedom. Nor were they the stories of Frederick Douglass, who as a teenager, in 1833, fought his white slave breaker with such force that the man never hit Douglass again. Nor were they the stories of Harriet Jacobs, who, in an attempt to escape the physical and sexual abuses of slavery, hid in an attic for seven years.
Brown became a global celebrity who turned his escape routine into a one-man show that traveled throughout the United States and England. Douglass and Jacobs wrote autobiographies that became best sellers, and that today are staples in classrooms around the world. Theirs are the stories I learned as a child, and there’s great value in teaching kids stories of resistance, of Black people not being passive recipients of violence. But I remember how, after reading them, I found myself wondering why every enslaved person didn’t just escape like these famous figures did. The memory of that thought now fills me with shame.
The stories swirling about the room weren’t famous accounts of extraordinary people; rather, they were the words of all-but-forgotten individuals who bore witness to the quotidian brutality of chattel slavery. These stories were the result of the Federal Writers’ Project—a New Deal program that was tasked with collecting the oral histories of thousands of Americans. From 1936 to 1938, interviewers from the FWP gathered the firsthand accounts of more than 2,300 formerly enslaved people in at least 17 states. The members of the last generation of people to experience slavery were reaching the end of their lives, and so there was an urgency to record their recollections. In scale and ambition, the project was unlike any that had come before it. The Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives produced tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs—the largest, and perhaps the most important, archive of testimony from formerly enslaved people in history.
While many of these narratives vividly portray the horror of slavery—of families separated, of backs beaten, of bones crushed—embedded within them are stories of enslaved people dancing together on Saturday evenings as respite from their work; of people falling in love, creating pockets of time to see each other when the threat of violence momentarily ceased; of children skipping rocks in a creek or playing hide-and-seek amid towering oak trees, finding moments when the movement of their bodies was not governed by anything other than their own sense of wonder. These small moments—the sort that freedom allows us to take for granted—have stayed with me.
When I first came across the narratives, I was confused as to why I had never, not once in my entire education, been made aware of their existence. It was as if this trove of testimony—accounts that might expand, complicate, and deepen my understanding of slavery—had purposefully been kept from view.
For many black americans, there is a limit to how far back we can trace our lineage. The sociologist Orlando Patterson calls it natal alienation: the idea that we have been stripped of social and cultural ties to a homeland we cannot identify. I have listened to friends discuss the specific village in Italy their ancestors came from, or the specific town in the hills of Scotland. No such precision is possible for Black Americans who are the descendants of enslaved people. Even after our ancestors were forcibly brought to the shores of the New World, few records documented their existence. The first census to include all Black Americans by name was conducted in 1870, five years after slavery ended. Trying to recover our lineage can be a process of chasing history through a cloud of smoke. We search for what often cannot be found. We mourn for all we do not know.
But the descendants of those who were interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project have been given something that has been denied to so many Black Americans: the opportunity to read the words, and possibly see the faces, of people they thought had been lost to history.Because these narratives are not often taught in school, many people come across them for the first time later in life. Several historians told me that their encounters with these stories had shifted the trajectory of their personal and intellectual lives. Catherine A. Stewart, a historian at Cornell College, in Iowa, and the author of Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project, remembers sitting in the basement of the university library as a graduate student, making her way through reels of microfilm. “I will just never forget this sensation I had of these stories—of these life histories of these individuals, personal stories and experiences of enslavement—just leaping off the page,” she said.
For years, the collections had been largely ignored. As Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller note in Remembering Slavery, an edited volume of selected narratives, historians throughout the mid‑20th century came up with a range of reasons not to take them seriously. Some argued that because the people who were interviewed, in the 1930s, had been children when slavery ended, their memories were unreliable. Others claimed that the narratives couldn’t be trusted because they weren’t an adequate statistical sample: Those who were interviewed represented approximately 2 percent of the formerly enslaved population still alive in 1930.
Perhaps the most insidious reason to dismiss the narratives came from the historian Ulrich B. Phillips, whose conception of slavery as a civilizing institution for the enslaved shaped many Americans’ understanding of it in the early-to-mid-20th century. Phillips complained of “Negro bias,” believing that Black Americans were “too close” to the subject of slavery and thus unable to be objective about it—a criticism that has been used to undermine Black writing and research on issues of racism since the earliest days of Black life in America.That view began to change with the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, when historians, intellectuals, and activists came to see slavery as the root cause of racial inequality. Interest in the Federal Writers’ Project narratives grew.
The Black Lives Matter movement has further pushed historians to revisit these stories. The past several years—and particularly the months since last summer’s racial-justice protests—have prompted many people to question what we’ve been taught, to see our shared past with new eyes. The FWP narratives afford us the opportunity to understand how slavery shaped this country through the stories of those who survived it.
My mammy Martha an’ me we ’longed ter Mister Joshua Long in Martin County, an’ my paw, Henry, ’longed ter Squire Ben Sykes in Tyrrell County. Squire Sykes lived in what wus called Gum Neck, an’ he owned a hundert slaves or more an’ a whole passel of lan’.
Noah lewis had been doing genealogical research for years, trying to learn as much as possible about his family history, when he discovered that his great-great-grandfather, a man named William Sykes, had been interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave-narrative collection. He wanted to see the original documents himself, so he traveled from his home in Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to visit the Library of Congress.
“It was an amazing experience,” he told me. “I had never seen photographs of him before … That was just mind-blowing all by itself.”
In the black-and-white photograph of William Sykes that accompanies his narrative, he is 78 years old and facing the camera, his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark glasses. He has a white mustache that stretches over his mouth and a long goatee that hangs from his chin. He appears to be furrowing his brow.
“He kind of reminds me of my older brother, Jimmy,” Lewis said.
Lewis had read books that detailed the physical and psychological violence of slavery; he had seen photos of enslaved people and understood the brutal conditions in which they worked. But there was something different about reading the narrative of his direct ancestor—someone from his own family who, only a few generations earlier, had been in chains.
In his narrative, William Sykes describes being a child in North Carolina and seeing the soldiers of the Union Army make their way into Confederate territory. Sykes’s enslaver, fearful for his own life and worried that the Union soldiers might confiscate his human property, escaped with his enslaved workers into the mountains.
While we wus dar one day, an’ while Mr. Jim Moore, de Jedge’s daddy am in town de missus axes my cousin Jane ter do de washin’.
Jane says dat she has got ter do her own washin’ an dat she’ll wash fer de missus termorrer. De missus says “you ain’t free yit, I wants you ter know.”
“I knows dat I’s not but I is ‘gwine ter be free’ ”, Jane says.
De missus ain’t said a word den, but late Sadday night Mr. Jim he comes back from town an’ she tells him ’bout hit.
Mr. Jim am some mad an’ he takes Jane out on Sunday mornin’ an’ he beats her till de blood runs down her back.
Sykes was a child; the detail of blood running down Jane’s back stayed with him the rest of his life.
Lewis said that, like me, he’d grown up with an incomplete understanding of slavery. “As a young child, I remember thinking to myself, You know, hey, if slavery was so bad, why didn’t my people fight harder to try to get out of it? ” Jane’s story showed that it wasn’t so simple.Lewis himself was born in 1953 on an Army base in Heidelberg, Germany, where his father was stationed. His family returned to the U.S. when he was just 10 months old. When he was 13, they moved to Aldan, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. As far as Lewis knows, his was the first Black family in Aldan, and he says they were not welcomed with open arms.
“A couple days after we moved in, we woke up that morning, and somebody had written on our car windshield i hate niggers.” His father came out of the house with a shotgun and yelled loud enough for everyone in the neighborhood to hear: “I don’t care if you don’t like me, but if you start playing with my property, there will be trouble.”Lewis said that while the FWP narratives can be emotionally difficult to get through, he’s also found “a certain joy” in reading them. “This is your relative, and it’s them speaking, and it brings them to life. They remind you that they were a person, not a stat, not a little side note, not a little entry in a genealogical chart. They were a real, living, breathing human being. That’s what that document kind of really hits you with.”
But not everyone feels the way Lewis does. Six years ago, he attended a family reunion in New Jersey and decided to share what he’d discovered. Standing in front of about 30 people in folding chairs in a relative’s backyard, Lewis read Sykes’s words. Some of those present were old enough to have known Sykes when they were children—and some felt deeply hurt, and embarrassed, by parts of what Sykes was portrayed as having said.
For example, some sections of his narrative implied that life under slavery was good:
I knows dat Mister Long an’ Mis’ Catherine wus good ter us an’ I ’members dat de food an’ de clothes wus good an’ dat dar wus a heap o’ fun on holidays. Most o’ de holidays wus celebrated by eatin’ candy, drinkin’ wine an’ brandy. Dar wus a heap o’ dancin’ ter de music of banjoes an’ han’ slappin’. We had co’n shuckin’s, an’ prayer meetin’s, an’ sociables an’ singin’s. I went swimmin’ in de crick, went wid old Joe Brown, a-possum huntin’, an’ coon huntin’, an’ I sometimes went a-fishin’.
Read one way, these sorts of details might be seen as softening the horrors of slavery, making the gruesome nature of the institution more palatable to readers who aren’t prepared to come to grips with what this country has done. Read another way, though, they might reveal the humanity of those who were enslaved, and show that despite circumstances predicated on their physical and psychological exploitation, they were still able to laugh, play, celebrate, and find joy.
Other sections of Sykes’s account, however, are more difficult to reconcile. Toward the end of the narrative he’s depicted as having said:
We ain’t wucked none in slavery days ter what we done atter de war, an’ I wisht dat de good ole slave days wus back.
Dar’s one thing, we ole niggers wus raised right an’ de young niggers ain’t. Iffen I had my say-so dey’d burn down de nigger schools, gibe dem pickanninies a good spankin’ an’ put ’em in de patch ter wuck, ain’t no nigger got no business wid no edgercation nohow.
After Lewis finished, some of his relatives told him that he shouldn’t have read the narrative to them. They felt that Sykes’s words reflected poorly on them as a family and on Black people in general. But they didn’t just blame Sykes; they blamed the white person who’d interviewed him, who they believe must have manipulated Sykes or changed his words. “A typical example of white people trying to make us look ignorant,” they told him.
This issue of manipulation in the interviews is something historians have had to wrestle with. The narratives were rarely verbatim transcriptions. Many interviewers altered their subjects’ dialect to make it seem more “authentically” Black. As Catherine Stewart writes in her book, “FWP decisions about how to depict [dialect] on the page reveal more about how the black vernacular was used to represent black identity than about the actual speech patterns of ex-slave informants.” And historians have worried that in a violent, segregated society, when white interviewers showed up on a Black person’s doorstep, the formerly enslaved might have told the interviewers what they thought they wanted to hear, rather than what had actually happened.
The project did employ some Black interviewers, but the majority were white southerners. Some were the descendants of slaveholders—in certain cases, descendants of the families that had enslaved the very same people they were sent to interview—or members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization known for pushing a narrative of slavery that was sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
When Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a historian at UC Berkeley and the author of They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, showed early portions of her book to friends, some questioned why she hadn’t changed the language of the interviews. They worried that the narratives portrayed formerly enslaved people as uneducated and illiterate. “There may have been some manipulation,” Jones-Rogers told me, and that should be accounted for and taken seriously. Still, she felt that changing the language would risk changing the specific meaning behind how these individuals wanted to tell their story. And it would ignore the fact that, unfortunately, many of them were, by nature of circumstance, uneducated and illiterate—a reflection of the way the insidious legacy of slavery had continued to shape their lives.
Daina Ramey Berry, the chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that there is no source a historian can use that isn’t compromised by bias in some way, and the notion that we should ignore the narratives because of their imperfections would mean applying a standard to them that is not applied across the board. “The big excuses that people have as to why they push back against them is that they’ll say, ‘Well, they’re biased,’ ” she said. “And I’m always like, ‘I don’t understand why you can read a plantation owner’s letters, or his journal—or her journal—and not even question that.’ ”
Lewis understood his relatives’ concerns. Still, he couldn’t help but feel disappointed that they didn’t appreciate how remarkable it was that this narrative existed at all. For Lewis, it was a piece of history, a piece of them. It was like finding treasure—even if the jewels aren’t cut as cleanly as you’d like, they’re still worth something.
Lewis’s interest in history would ultimately change the course of his life. As he was doing his genealogical research, he went all the way back to the American Revolution, trying to discover whether he had relatives who had been enslaved in the British colonies. He came across the book Black Genealogy, by the historian Charles L. Blockson. There, Lewis encountered the story of a man named Edward “Ned” Hector, a Black soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War, one of thousands of Black people to fight on the side of the Americans. During the Battle of Brandywine, in September 1777, Hector and his regiment were under attack and ordered to abandon their guns and retreat for safety. Hector, however, seized as many abandoned guns as he could, threw them in his wagon, and warded off British soldiers to salvage the only equipment his company had left.
Learning about Hector was transformative for Lewis. He thought this history of Black contributions to the American project should be taught in his children’s classrooms—but not just through books or lectures. The history had to be brought to life. It had to be made real. “So I figured it would be a much better way of getting across to the kids about Hector if I came as Hector,” he said.
His first presentation was in his daughter’s fifth-grade classroom, in a makeshift costume that he still laughs about today. His pants were blue hospital scrubs, with a pair of long white socks pulled over the bottoms of the legs. He wore a yellow linen vest, a souvenir-shop tricornered hat, and a woman’s blouse. “It was very bad, extremely bad,” he said. Still, the teachers and students loved his presentation, and he was asked to come back again. And again. “After a while, one of the teachers said, ‘You got something really good here. Maybe you might want to consider taking this more public, out to other schools and places.’ I thought about that. And I said, ‘You know, that’s not a bad idea.’ ”About three years later, Lewis decided to leave his full-time job running an electronics-repair shop so he could dedicate more time to his reenactment work, which he had begun getting paid to do. Since then, he’s performed as Ned Hector in classrooms, at memorial sites, and at community festivals and has become a staple of the colonial-reenactment community.
In a video of one performance, he’s dressed in a blue wool jacket—typical of those worn by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War—and a matching tricornered hat with a large red feather. In his hands, the musket he holds is not simply a musket, but an instrument that helps him transport the audience back more than two centuries. It becomes a paddle, rising and falling in front of his chest as he tells the story of Black soldiers helping other American troops cross a river during battle. He places it just below his chin as if it were a microphone amplifying his story, or a light meant to illuminate his face in the darkness.
In another video, Lewis stands in front of a school group. “How would you like to have your families, your loved ones, dying for somebody else’s freedom, only to be forgotten by them?” He pauses and scans the crowd. “If you are an American, you share in African American history, because these people helped you to be free.”Watching Lewis, I was impressed by how he brought the Revolution to life in ways that my textbooks never had. How he told stories of the role Black people played in the war that I had never heard before. How in school—except for Crispus Attucks’s martyrdom during the Boston Massacre—I don’t think I had ever been made to consider that Black people were part of the American Revolution at all. It reminded me of how so much of Black history is underreported, misrepresented, or simply lost. How so many stories that would give us a fuller picture of America are known by so few Americans.
The horn to git up blowed ’bout four o’clock and if we didn’t fall out right now, the overseer was in after us. He tied us up every which way and whip us, and at night he walk the quarters to keep us from runnin’ ’round. On Sunday mornin’ the overseer come ’round to each nigger cabin with a big sack of shorts and give us ’nough to make bread for one day. I used to steal some chickens, ’cause we didn’t have ’nough to eat, and I don’ think I done wrong, ’cause the place was full of ’em.
In the photograph accompanying the interview of Carter J. Johnson, he stands in front of a wooden cabin in the town of Tatum, Texas. He wears denim overalls and a collared shirt. His head is cocked, his brow furrowed. On the porch behind him is a woman in a patterned dress.
Janice Crawford had never seen a photo of her mother’s father. When she saw this picture, she told me, it was listed under the name Carter J. Jackson, but Crawford couldn’t find a Carter Jackson in the census records for that area. She recognized some of the names he mentioned in his narrative from her genealogical research, and showed the photo to her mother, who immediately recognized her father. Carter J. Jackson was in fact Carter J. Johnson. The interviewer must have made a mistake.
Crawford’s mother was born to two unwed parents. They lived nearby, but the man she called Papa, the man she always thought of as her father, was Carter Johnson. Johnson, a deacon in the local church, and his wife, Sally Gray Johnson (whom Crawford called Big Mama, and who is the woman on the porch in the photo), took her in and raised her as their own. Crawford never knew her grandfather—he died nine years before she was born—but his presence was still in the air as she grew up.
Crawford’s mother didn’t have a photograph of her father, and it meant a great deal to Crawford to be able to give her one. “It was very emotional to me,” she said.
She remembers her mother telling her a story, long before she read it in the narrative, about how Johnson and other enslaved people had been forced to walk from Alabama to Texas while guiding their owner’s cattle and horses and a flock of turkeys the entire way. She couldn’t understand how someone could make other people walk so far, for so long.In the narrative, Johnson says that his mother, a woman named Charlotte from Tennessee, and his father, a man named Charles from Florida, had each been sold to a man named Parson Rogers and that he’d brought them to Alabama, where Johnson was born.
What Johnson describes was not uncommon. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, enslavers throughout the Confederacy continued to hold Black people in bondage for the rest of the war. And even after General Robert E. Lee surrendered, on April 9, 1865, effectively signaling that the Confederacy had lost the war, many enslavers in Texas and other states did not share this news with their human property. In the narratives, formerly enslaved people recount how the end of their bondage did not correspond with military edicts or federal legislation. Rather, emancipation was a long, inconsistent process that delayed the moments when people first tasted freedom.
Johnson’s narrative opens and closes with stories of separation. Near the beginning he says:
I had seven brothers call Frank and Benjamin and Richardson and Anderson and Miles, Emanuel and Gill, and three sisters call Milanda, Evaline and Sallie, but I don’t know if any of ’em are livin’ now.
Then, toward the end, he speaks about the last time he saw his mother:
Me and four of her chillen standin’ by when mammy’s sold for $500.00. Cryin’ didn’t stop ’em from sellin’ our mammy ’way from us.
“The fact that his mother and several of his siblings were sold away, and he was standing there watching this happen,” Crawford said, her voice cracking. “That’s just—that’s just heartbreaking.”
I asked Crawford about the first line of Johnson’s narrative, a line striking in how direct it is:
If you’s wants to know ’bout slavery time, it was Hell.
“Well, you know, it’s just kind of gut-wrenching, isn’t it?” she said. “It was hell. And that’s the word. When my mother saw that word she just kind of jumped. Because she said she’d never heard him curse. And to her, he wasn’t talking about heaven and hell, in the way that, you know, a preacher or minister might. And it was jarring to her.”
Crawford’s genealogical research was driven in part by a desire to trace her biological lineage, because her mother had been adopted. But she also began searching for those who had enslaved her family. In the census records, she found a Rogers who matched her grandfather’s description of “Massa Rogers.” Then, in a Texas newspaper, she found an article written by one of Rogers’s descendants that celebrated the family’s local history, despite all that that history included.“These folks are proud of their heritage,” Crawford told me. “Even though it includes the fact that their people enslaved other people.”Crawford wrote to the newspaper, which put her in touch with the article’s author. She didn’t say that his family had enslaved hers. She simply said that, based on her research, the two families were “connected.” But she believes he understood. It was a small town, and the names she mentioned should have made the nature of the connection obvious.
I wondered what Crawford had been hoping to get from these exchanges. Did she want an apology? A relationship? Something else?
She told me she’d been looking for information about her family, trying to recover names of ancestors that had never entered the public record. The man promised to send her some documents from his family members but never did. More important, she added, “I was hoping that they’re acknowledging our humanity. And that just like he is interested in and proud of his ancestry, so am I.”
“I would like to say that I’m an observer, and that I can be emotionally detached,” she said, but “it just brings tears to my eyes, how they were treated.” One of the things that left Crawford most unsettled was that the Rogers family back then had claimed to espouse the principles of Christianity. “The people that enslaved my ancestors were ministers, pastors, preachers.”
For Crawford, reading Johnson’s words was the entry point into an entire world of ex-slave narratives. “They really weren’t fed well. They weren’t housed well. They were just required to work from sunup to sundown. They were whipped,” she told me. “It is horrendous. But still, in all, I feel so blessed to have found that document.”
“Why is that?” I asked.“Because it’s a link to our shared history,” she said. “We existed. We conquered. We overcame.”
My mammy said dat slavery wuz a whole lot wusser ’fore I could ’member. She tol’ me how some of de slaves had dere babies in de fiel’s lak de cows done, an’ she said dat ’fore de babies wuz borned dey tied de mammy down on her face if’en dey had ter whup her ter keep from ruinin’ de baby.
Lucy brown didn’t know her age when she was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project on May 20, 1937, in Durham, North Carolina. She had no birth certificate, no sense of what year she’d come into this world. Brown’s testimony is shorter than many of the others, in part because she was so young—perhaps only 6 or 7—as slavery entered its final days.
“I wuz jist a little thing when de war wuz over,” she said.
We belonged to John Neal of Person County. I doan know who my pappy wuz, but my mammy wuz named Rosseta an’ her mammy’s name ’fore her wuz Rosseta. I had one sister named Jenny an’ one brother named Ben.
The narrative is a mix of small memories she carried with her from her early childhood and memories that had been passed on to her from her mother.
Gregory Freeland, like both Lewis and Crawford, came across the narrative of his great-great-grandmother while researching his family history. He was raised just outside Durham, where he lived with his mother and his great-grandmother—Lucy’s daughter. He found the narrative only after she had died.
When Freeland was a child, his family members would tell stories about their lives, but he wasn’t interested in hearing them. “I was sort of ready to get away from that, that slavery thing,” he told me. “So I never paid attention. It seemed like schoolwork.”
Now he wishes he’d asked his great-grandmother about her life, and her mother’s life. He felt grateful for having stumbled onto this narrative, and for how connected it made him feel to a history that he’d previously taken for granted. “This is the link to the past,” he said.Freeland was drafted in 1967 to serve in the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Korea when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and according to Freeland, the Army worked to “keep the temperature down” after King’s death so that Black soldiers—who were fighting a war for a country that still didn’t afford them basic rights—wouldn’t get too upset. The strange dissonance of being sent to the other side of the world to fight for a country that had just killed the leader of your people stayed with Freeland long after he came back to the U.S.
The GI Bill paid for him to go to college, and covered most of graduate school, where he studied political science. For the past 30 years, he’s been a professor at California Lutheran University, where he teaches courses on race, politics, and the civil-rights movement—subjects he feels are urgent and necessary for students at this college with a tiny Black population.
He told me he’s “trying to keep this history alive, because it’s getting further and further away.”The Durham of Freeland’s childhood smelled of tobacco. He remembers the ubiquity of chicken noises, mixed with music from people’s houses as they sang while they cooked or listened to the radio on the porch. His family grew fruits and vegetables in their yard, and Freeland helped kill the chickens and hogs they raised. “I had to go out and wring the chickens’ neck,” he told me. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it happen, but you grab the chicken by the neck and wring it, wring it, wring it until the body pops off. And when the body pops off, it flops around for a while.”
“My students,” he said, “they can’t fathom that life was like that.”
Freeland grew up in the same town where his great-great-grandmother had settled after the Civil War. Known then as Hickstown—named for a white landowner, Hawkins Hicks—the community had begun as an agricultural settlement for the formerly enslaved on the western edge of Durham. Over the course of several decades, it became a self-reliant Black community where the formerly enslaved, their children, and their children’s children all lived together. This history is reflected in Lucy Brown’s narrative:
I can’t tell yo’ my age but I will tell yo’ dat eber’body what lives in dis block am either my chile or gran’chile. I can’t tell yo’ prexackly how many dar is o’ ’em, but I will tell you dat my younges’ chile’s baby am fourteen years old, an’ dat she’s got fourteen youngun’s, one a year jist lak I had till I had sixteen.
As nearby duke university grew, so too did Hickstown, which became known as Crest Street. Residents served as food-service workers, housekeepers, maintenance staff. By the 1970s, the community had more than 200 households, and more than 60 percent of residents worked for the university, according to the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. This included Freeland’s mother, who walked every day from the dirt roads surrounding their home to the paved streets near Duke. And though many of the jobs available did not pay much, it was a tight-knit community of people deeply invested in one another, and in the history of the community their ancestors had built.
Crest Street came under threat in the 1970s with the planned expansion of the East-West Expressway, which would slice directly through the center of this century-old Black community. The residents decided to fight the plan. They hired a team of lawyers and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, citing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination “under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In 1980, the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that the highway project could not move forward as proposed, because it would disproportionately affect Black residents.
Representatives from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and members of the Crest Street community began meeting to see if they could come to an agreement. Crest Street residents invited officials to visit their homes, so that they could see what the construction project would have demolished. Ultimately, a compromise was reached in which the residents would all move to an area that was adjacent to their original neighborhood, keeping the community largely intact.
Listening to Freeland tell this story, I thought about how remarkable it was that in this same place where formerly enslaved people had built a community for themselves after generations of bondage, Black people once again had to defend themselves against a government that was attempting to take away a sort of freedom.
For Freeland, stories of towns like Crest Street, and the activists who kept the community together, are just as essential to document as the stories of his formerly enslaved great-great-grandmother. “I’d like to interview people who lived through the segregationist era,” he told me. “And I’d like to interview those people who participated in making change—Black people who are maybe my age, who grew up in this kind of community—before we pass on.”
“Who is going to remember,” he said, “if nobody’s there to tell it?”
Freeland is right. There are other stories of the Black experience that should be collected—and soon. Recently, I’ve become convinced of the need for a large-scale effort to document the lives of people who lived through America’s southern apartheid; who left the land their families had lived on for generations to make the Great Migration to the North and West; who were told they were second-class citizens and then lived to see a person who looked like them ascend to the highest office in the land. Their stories exist in our living rooms, on our front porches, and on the lips of people we know and love. But too many of these stories remain untold, in many cases because no one has asked.
What would a new Federal Writers’ Project look like? How could we take the best of what the narratives of the 1930s did and build on them, while avoiding the project’s mistakes?
When I raised the idea with the historians I interviewed, their voices lit up with energy as they imagined what such a project might look like.
“Historians would definitely need to be in charge,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers told me. Specifically, Black scholars should lead the project. “There’s a way in which to not only center the Black experience, but also to privilege Black intellect, Black brilliance,” she said. “It would be a project like none we’ve ever seen.”
Daina Ramey Berry thought family members should conduct the interviews. “Almost like a StoryCorps on NPR,” she said, “because I think you’re going to get a more authentic story about what life was like.” Berry thought that even well-intentioned strangers might re-create some of the same dynamics in place in the 1930s. She worried about the implications, again, of having federal workers going into older Black folks’ homes and asking them deeply personal questions about what may have been a traumatic time in their lives.
Catherine Stewart believes that there would be important benefits to having such a project led by the federal government: “Funding, first and foremost, at a level other agencies and nonprofit organizations simply don’t have.” She added that the federal government already has the infrastructure this sort of project would require—in places like the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Library of Congress. The government also has the ability to ensure that the public has access to it.
When I began reading the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives, I thought about my own grandparents. I thought about my grandfather, and how his grandfather had been born into bondage. About my grandmother, and how the grandparents who raised her had been born just after abolition. About how, in the scope of human history, slavery was just a few moments ago. I thought, too, of everything my grandmother and grandfather have seen—born in 1939 Jim Crow Florida and 1930 Jim Crow Mississippi, respectively, and now living through the gravest pandemic in a century and watching their great-grandchildren, my children, grow up over FaceTime.
About a year ago, I decided to interview them. I spoke with them each individually, an audio recorder sitting on the table between us, and listened as they told me stories about their lives that I had never heard. My grandfather and his siblings hid in the back room under a bed while white supremacists rode on horseback through their community to intimidate Black residents. As my grandmother walked to school on the red-dirt roads of northern Florida, white children passing by on school buses would lower their windows and throw food at her and the other Black children. For as much time as I’d spent with them, these were the sorts of stories I hadn’t heard before. The sorts of stories that are not always told in large groups at Thanksgiving while you’re trying to prevent your toddler from throwing mac and cheese across the room.
My children will, in a few decades, be living in a world in which no one who experienced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will still be alive. What happens to those people’s stories if they are not collected? What happens to our understanding of that history if we have not thoroughly documented it?
Some of this work is already being done—by the Southern Oral History Program and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for instance—but not on a scale commensurate with what the Federal Writers’ Project did. That requires financial and political investment. It requires an understanding of how important such a project is.
Imagine if the government were to create a new Federal Writers’ Project. One committed to collecting, documenting, and sharing the stories of Black people who lived through Jim Crow, of Japanese Americans who lived through internment, of Holocaust refugees who resettled in America, of veterans who fought in World War II and the Vietnam War. And stories like those of the people in Freeland’s great-great-grandmother’s town, who fought to keep their community together when the state wanted to split it apart. There are millions of people who experienced extraordinary moments in American history, and who won’t be around much longer to tell us about them. Some of these moments are ones we should be proud of, and some should fill us with shame. But we have so much to learn from their stories, and we have a narrowing window of time in which to collect them.
I keep thinking of something Freeland told me, and how his words speak to both the stakes and the possibility of this moment.
“We survived,” he said. “And I’m still around.”
This article appears in the March 2021 print edition with the headline “We Mourn for All We Do Not Know.”
When day comes we ask ourselves,where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast.We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.
And the norms and notionsof what just is. Isn’t always just-ice.And yet the dawn is oursbefore we knew it.Somehow we do it.Somehow we’ve weathered and witnesseda nation that isn’t brokenbut simply unfinished.
We the successors of a country and a time.
Where a skinny Black girldescended from slaves and raised by a single mothercan dream of becoming presidentonly to find herself reciting for oneAnd yes we are far from polishedfar from pristinebut that doesn’t mean we arestriving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters andconditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between usbut what stands before us. We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our armsso we can reach out our armsto one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried. That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeatbut because we will never again sow division. Scripture tells us to envisionthat everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree.
And no one shall make them afraidIf we’re to live up to our own time.
Then victory won’t lie in the bladeBut in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade. The hill we climb. If only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,it’s the past we step intoand how we repair it.We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nationrather than share it. Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayedit can never be permanently defeated. In this truthin this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the futurehistory has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemptionWe feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirsof such a terrifying hourbut within it we found the powerto author a new chapter. To offer hope and laughter to ourselvesSo while once we asked,how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assertHow could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?We will not march back to what wasbut move to what shall be. A country that is bruised but whole,benevolent but bold,fierce and free.
We will not be turned aroundor interrupted by intimidationbecause we know our inaction and inertiawill be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.But one thing is certain:If we merge mercy with might,and might with right,then love becomes our legacyand change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a countrybetter than the one we were left with.Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,we will rise from the windswept northeastwhere our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,we will rise from the sunbaked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recoverand every known nook of our nation andevery corner called our country,our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,aflame and unafraid.The new dawn blooms as we free itFor there is always light,if only we’re brave enough to see it.If only we’re brave enough to be it.
You cannot separate the racist police aggression in the streets of the US and the racist US aggression against Venezuela, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Libya and Syria.
“Chauvin was sending a message to the community by holding his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck in broad daylight.”
“George Floyd should not be among the deceased. He did not die of common health conditions. He died of a common American criminal justice malfunction.” Rev. Al Sharpton June 4, 2020
I understand Rev. Sharpton’s point, but to cast this lynching in the context of a “malfunction” is to lose site of the much broader historical context in which African’s in America and later African Americans have existed since 1619. I am not inferring that it was Rev. Sharpton’s intent, but to cast this horror in the context of a “malfunction,” is to give America a pass. We can no longer afford to do that.
The total disregard for George Floyd as a human being, coupled with a hatred for the Black Community that Officer Derek Chauvin took an oath to protect and serve, led to the lynching on May 25. Chauvin was sending a message to the community by holding his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck in broad daylight. “Black people, know your place, understand your place and stay in your place.” Even the knowledge that he was being videotaped didn’t deter Chauvin. His inhumanity towards Mr. Floyd as his life was slowly choked out of his handcuffed body emanates from America’s historic inhumanity towards people of color since Tristan de Luna established the short-lived settlement at Pensacola Bay in 1559.
This hatred is woven into the very fabric of America. It is in the founding documents of this country. It’s evident in Supreme Court decisions and the blowback from America’s dominant culture to any modicum of success achieved by African Americans (The Red Summer of 1919 or Tulsa 1921). A clear and indisputable pattern is obvious. Within this historic context, this atrocity captured on video, this act of domestic terrorism was America in action. The power of the State as carried out through Officer Chauvin was in full effect. This was no malfunction…it was business as usual.
“This act of domestic terrorism was America in action.”
Our ancestors were brought to these shores for only one purpose; free labor. Our task was to perform all the requisite dirty work to build an economy and empire for Europe. The so-called “christians” who swore in the Mayflower Compact of 1620 that they undertook, “…for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia…” could not reconcile their inhumane treatment of their African captives with their “Christianity.” To absolve themselves of the dilemma posed by the true Christian ethic that God created man in his own image, the Europeans slowly dehumanized their captives and codified this in law and constitution.
Examine the Laws of Virginia:
Act XII 1662, “children got by Englishmen upon a Negro woman, is the child slave or free?” The status of the child shall be determined by the status of the mother.
Act II 1667 addresses, “What happens to the status of a baptized slave?” Answer: “the conferring of baptism doth not alter the condition of person as to his bondage…”
Act I 1669, a master cannot be charged with murder for the “casual killing of slaves” since no one in their right mind would destroy their own property.
By 1669, the enslaved were no longer persons, they were no longer human; they were property.
The Constitution gave us the Three Fifths Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Provision (the constitutional validation for slave patrols, the early form of American policing) and allowed for the importation of enslaved Africans for twenty years, until January 1, 1808. In 1857 the Supreme Court via Chief Justice Taney gave us the Dred Scott decision, validating the belief that all blacks — enslaved as well as free — were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The framers of the Constitution, he wrote,believed that blacks“had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”
These are a few examples of what is meant by structural or “institutional racism.” Stripping our ancestors of their humanity, relegating them to the position of property or things and codifying it in the founding documents and court decisions of this country. This is not a malfunction; this is the machine operating as designed!
Yes, there has been legislation and court decisions that have amended and/or eliminated many of these laws from the books. The Brown decision, the 64’ Civil Rights Act, the 65’ Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act were all great legal and legislative advancements. This progress has lulled us to sleep with a false sense of accomplishment and optimism. The reality remains that legislation alone does not do anything to disabuse those in power and those they represent of the controlling mindset of this country, of the notion that African Americans are less than human.
“This is the machine operating as designed.”
For example, banning the chokehold is a great idea, but that same banned chokehold is what killed Eric Garner. Until we get to the real crux of the issue, the controlling and racist mindset of an entire criminal justice system that turns a blind eye to choking, shooting unarmed suspects and not holding officers accountable when they use excessively violent tactics, nothing substantive will change. Jury verdicts validating police abuse and police departments staging sickouts to protest fellow officers being charged with crimes is evidence of the machine making corrections to protect itself.
Are the ongoing protests a moment or a movement? The jury is still out. The verdict will be determined by the blowback that comes from this moment and how those who are protesting and advocating for change respond to it. The response to judicial and legislative advancements is always substantive blowback. The Supreme Court has dismantled the Voting Rights Act and conservative groups have escalated voter suppression tactics such as The Crosscheck Program. The Supreme Court has made it more difficult to prove discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. The election of Donald Trump was blowback to the election of Barak Obama as was Sen. McConnell’s not allowing the nomination of Merrick Garland to go forward.
“The verdict will be determined by the blowback that comes from this moment.”
The American ethos of exceptionalism and the illusion of white supremacy are under attack. The battle is playing out right before our eyes on both the foreign and domestic fronts. You cannot separate the racist aggression being carried out against people of color in the streets of the US by the State (aka the police) and the racist aggression being carried out by the US against Venezuela, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Libya and Syria (just to name a few). Dr. King warned us about the three major evils: “poverty, global racial oppression and militarism”… King told us, “And we must face the hard fact that many Americans would like to have a nation which is a democracy for white Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over black Americans.”
Too many white Americans are insecure and losing their footing in the shifting sands of the quest for ethnic equality in America. How those of good conscience and morality respond to the violent blowback will determine if and how the country can move from this moment of unrest and uncertainty to a movement of peace and equality. I am certain that we will never get there until Congress and others stop wading in the safety of the shallow waters of chokeholds and panels and begin to swim into the deep waters of the real issue… the racist ethos of America.
A FEW YEARS ago, an acquaintance and I found ourselves debating the value of art in a capitalist society—a suitably light topic for a summer evening. My companion believed strongly that art must explicitly denounce the world’s injustices, and if it did not, it was reinforcing exploitative systems. I, ever the aesthete, found this stance reasonably sound from a moral perspective but incredibly dubious otherwise.
Then, as now, I consider art’s greatest function to be its capacity for expanding our conceptions of reality, not simply acting as moralistic propaganda. After all, the foundational thing you learn in art history is that the first artists were mystics, healers, and spiritual interlocutors—not politicians.
We started making art, it seems, to cross the border between our world and one beyond. Prehistoric wall paintings of cows and lumpy carvings of fertility goddesses serve as the earliest indications of our species’ artistic inclinations, blurring the lines between religious ritual and art object. Even as the world crumbles around us, I am convinced we must hold onto art’s spiritual properties rather than succumbing to the allure of work that only addresses our current systems.
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Ye dare not stoop to less—
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.
Down at the cross where my Saviour died,
Down where for cleansing from sin I cried,
There to my heart was the blood applied,
Singing glory to His name!
I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis. I use “religious” in the common, and arbitrary, sense, meaning that I then discovered God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell. And since I had been born in a Christian nation, I accepted this Deity as the only one. I supposed Him to exist only within the walls of a church—in fact, of our church—and I also supposed that God and safety were synonymous. The word “safety” brings us to the real meaning of the word “religious” as we use it. Therefore, to state it in another, more accurate way, I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid—afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without. What I saw around me that summer in Harlem was what I had always seen; nothing had changed. But now, without any warning, the whores and pimps and racketeers on the Avenue had become a personal menace. It had not before occurred to me that I could become one of them, but now I realized that we had been produced by the same circumstances. Many of my comrades were clearly headed for the Avenue, and my father said that I was headed that way, too. My friends began to drink and smoke, and embarked—at first avid, then groaning—on their sexual careers. Girls, only slightly older than I was, who sang in the choir or taught Sunday school, the children of holy parents, underwent, before my eyes, their incredible metamorphosis, of which the most bewildering aspect was not their budding breasts or their rounding behinds but something deeper and more subtle, in their eyes, their heat, their odor, and the inflection of their voices. Like the strangers on the Avenue, they became, in the twinkling of an eye, unutterably different and fantastically present. Owing to the way I had been raised, the abrupt discomfort that all this aroused in me and the fact that I had no idea what my voice or my mind or my body was likely to do next caused me to consider myself one of the most depraved people on earth. Matters were not helped by the fact that these holy girls seemed rather to enjoy my terrified lapses, our grim, guilty, tormented experiments, which were at once as chill and joyless as the Russian steppes and hotter, by far, than all the fires of Hell.
Yet there was something deeper than these changes, and less definable, that frightened me. It was real in both the boys and the girls, but it was, somehow, more vivid in the boys. In the case of the girls, one watched them turning into matrons before they had become women. They began to manifest a curious and really rather terrifying single-mindedness. It is hard to say exactly how this was conveyed: something implacable in the set of the lips, something farseeing (seeing what?) in the eyes, some new and crushing determination in the walk, something peremptory in the voice. They did not tease us, the boys, any more; they reprimanded us sharply, saying, “You better be thinking about your soul!” For the girls also saw the evidence on the Avenue, knew what the price would be, for them, of one misstep, knew that they had to be protected and that we were the only protection there was. They understood that they must act as God’s decoys, saving the souls of the boys for Jesus and binding the bodies of the boys in marriage. For this was the beginning of our burning time, and “It is better,” said St. Paul—who elsewhere, with a most unusual and stunning exactness, described himself as a “wretched man”—“to marry than to burn.” And I began to feel in the boys a curious, wary, bewildered despair, as though they were now settling in for the long, hard winter of life. I did not know then what it was that I was reacting to; I put it to myself that they were letting themselves go. In the same way that the girls were destined to gain as much weight as their mothers, the boys, it was clear, would rise no higher than their fathers. School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child’s game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work. My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen. My friends were now “downtown,” busy, as they put it, “fighting the man.” They began to care less about the way they looked, the way they dressed, the things they did; presently, one found them in twos and threes and fours, in a hallway, sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey, talking, cursing, fighting, sometimes weeping: lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was “the man”—the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church.
People more advantageously placed than we in Harlem were, and are, will no doubt find the psychology and the view of human nature sketched above dismal and shocking in the extreme. But the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards. Negro servants have been smuggling odds and ends out of white homes for generations, and white people have been delighted to have them do it, because it has assuaged a dim guilt and testified to the intrinsic superiority of white people. Even the most doltish and servile Negro could scarcely fail to be impressed by the disparity between his situation and that of the people for whom he worked; Negroes who were neither doltish nor servile did not feel that they were doing anything wrong when they robbed white people. In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians. In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.
It turned out, then, that summer, that the moral barriers that I had supposed to exist between me and the dangers of a criminal career were so tenuous as to be nearly nonexistent. I certainly could not discover any principled reason for not becoming a criminal, and it is not my poor, God-fearing parents who are to be indicted for the lack but this society. I was icily determined—more determined, really, than I then knew—never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me, before I would accept my “place” in this republic. I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way. And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited, and could have been polished off with no effort whatever. Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is. It was this last realization that terrified me and—since it revealed that the door opened on so many dangers—helped to hurl me into the church. And, by an unforeseeable paradox, it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.
For when I tried to assess my capabilities, I realized that I had almost none. In order to achieve the life I wanted, I had been dealt, it seemed to me, the worst possible hand. I could not become a prizefighter—many of us tried but very few succeeded. I could not sing. I could not dance. I had been well conditioned by the world in which I grew up, so I did not yet dare take the idea of becoming a writer seriously. The only other possibility seemed to involve my becoming one of the sordid people on the Avenue, who were not really as sordid as I then imagined but who frightened me terribly, both because I did not want to live that life and because of what they made me feel. Everything inflamed me, and that was bad enough, but I myself had also become a source of fire and temptation. I had been far too well raised, alas, to suppose that any of the extremely explicit overtures made to me that summer, sometimes by boys and girls but also, more alarmingly, by older men and women, had anything to do with my attractiveness. On the contrary, since the Harlem idea of seduction is, to put it mildly, blunt, whatever these people saw in me merely confirmed my sense of my depravity.
It is certainly sad that the awakening of one’s senses should lead to such a merciless judgment of oneself—to say nothing of the time and anguish one spends in the effort to arrive at any other—but it is also inevitable that a literal attempt to mortify the flesh should be made among black people like those with whom I grew up. 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. Long before the Negro child perceives this difference, and even longer before he understands it, he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it. Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him causes him secretly, in terror, to begin to await, without knowing that he is doing so, his mysterious and inexorable punishment. He must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into the child’s consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice as he is being exhorted, punished, or loved; in the sudden, uncontrollable note of fear heard in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary. He does not know what the boundary is, and he can get no explanation of it, which is frightening enough, but the fear he hears in the voices of his elders is more frightening still. The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction. A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other. He reacts to the fear in his parents’ voices because his parents hold up the world for him and he has no protection without them. I defended myself, as I imagined, against the fear my father made me feel by remembering that he was very old-fashioned. Also, I prided myself on the fact that I already knew how to outwit him. To defend oneself against a fear is simply to insure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced. As for one’s wits, it is just not true that one can live by them—not, that is, if one wishes really to live. That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.
As I look back, everything I did seems curiously deliberate, though it certainly did not seem deliberate then. For example, I did not join the church of which my father was a member and in which he preached. My best friend in school, who attended a different church, had already “surrendered his life to the Lord,” and he was very anxious about my soul’s salvation. (I wasn’t, but any human attention was better than none.) One Saturday afternoon, he took me to his church. There were no services that day, and the church was empty, except for some women cleaning and some other women praying. My friend took me into the back room to meet his pastor—a woman. There she sat, in her robes, smiling, an extremely proud and handsome woman, with Africa, Europe, and the America of the American Indian blended in her face. She was perhaps forty-five or fifty at this time, and in our world she was a very celebrated woman. My friend was about to introduce me when she looked at me and smiled and said, “Whose little boy are you? “ Now this, unbelievably, was precisely the phrase used by pimps and racketeers on the Avenue when they suggested, both humorously and intensely, that I “hang out” with them. Perhaps part of the terror they had caused me to feel came from the fact that I unquestionably wanted to be somebody’s little boy. I was so frightened, and at the mercy of so many conundrums, that inevitably, that summer, someone would have taken me over; one doesn’t, in Harlem, long remain standing on any auction block. It was my good luck—perhaps—that I found myself in the church racket instead of some other, and surrendered to a spiritual seduction long before I came to any carnal knowledge. For when the pastor asked me, with that marvellous smile, “Whose little boy are you?” my heart replied at once, “Why, yours.”
The summer wore on, and things got worse. I became more guilty and more frightened, and kept all this bottled up inside me, and naturally, inescapably, one night, when this woman had finished preaching, everything came roaring, screaming, crying out, and I fell to the ground before the altar. It was the strangest sensation I have ever had in my life—up to that time, or since. I had not known that it was going to happen, or that it could happen. One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing down so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate counties, tearing everything down, tearing children from their parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion. Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion. Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away. And the universe is simply a sounding drum; there is no way, no way whatever, so it seemed then and has sometimes seemed since, to get through a life, to love your wife and children, or your friends, or your mother and father, or to be loved. The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why? In spite of all I said thereafter, I found no answer on the floor—not that answer, anyway—and I was on the floor all night. Over me, to bring me “through,” the saints sang and rejoiced and prayed. And in the morning, when they raised me, they told me that I was “save.”
Well, indeed I was, in a way, for I was utterly drained and exhausted, and released, for the first time, from all my guilty torment. I was aware then only of my relief. For many years, I could not ask myself why human relief had to be achieved in a fashion at once so pagan and so desperate—in a fashion at once so unspeakably old and so unutterably new. And by the time I was able to ask myself this question, I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.
I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be too bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground. Anyway, very shortly after I joined the church, I became a preacher—a Young Minister—and I remained in the pulpit for more than three years. My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons—for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy. It had to be recognized, after all, that I was still a schoolboy, with my schoolwork to do, and I was also expected to prepare at least one sermon a week. During what we may call my heyday, I preached much more often than that. This meant that there were hours and even whole days when I could not be interrupted—not even by my father. I had immobilized him. It took rather more time for me to realize that I had also immobilized myself, and had escaped from nothing whatever.
The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to rock. Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, “the Word”—when the church and I were one. Their pain and their joy were mine, and mine were theirs—they surrendered their pain and joy to me, I surrendered mine to them-and their cries of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” and “Yes, Lord’ ” and “Praise His name!” and “Preach it, brother!” sustained and whipped on my solos until we all became equal, wringing wet, singing and dancing, in anguish and rejoicing, at the foot of the altar. It was, for a long time, in spite of—or, not inconceivably because of—the shabbiness of my motives, my only sustenance, my meat and drink. I rushed home from school, to the church, to the altar, to be alone there, to commune with Jesus, my dearest Friend, who would never fail me, who knew all the secrets of my heart. Perhaps He did, but I didn’t, and the bargain we struck, actually, down there at the foot of the cross, was that He would never let me find out.
He failed his bargain. He was a much better Man than I took Him for. It happened, as things do, imperceptibly, in many ways at once. I date it—the slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress—from the time, about a year after I had begun to preach, when I began to read again. I justified this desire by the fact that I was still in school, and I began, fatally, with Dostoevski. By this time, I was in a high school that was predominantly Jewish. This meant that I was surrounded by people who were, by definition, beyond any hope of salvation, who laughed at the tracts and leaflets I brought to school, and who pointed out that the Gospels had been written long after the death of Christ. This might not have been so distressing if it had not forced me to read the tracts and leaflets myself, for they were indeed, unless one believed their message already, impossible to believe. I remember feeling dimly that there was a kind of blackmail in it. People, I felt, ought to love the Lord because they loved Him, and not because they were afraid of going to Hell. I was forced, reluctantly, to realize that the Bible itself had been written by men, and translated by men out of languages I could not read, and I was already, without quite admitting it to myself, terribly involved with the effort of putting words on paper. Of course, I had the rebuttal ready: These men had all been operating under divine inspiration. Had they? All of them? And I also knew by now, alas, far more about divine inspiration than I dared admit, for I knew how I worked myself up into my own visions, and how frequently—indeed, incessantly—the visions God granted to me differed from the visions He granted to my father. I did not understand the dreams I had at night, but I knew that they were not holy. For that matter, I knew that my waking hours were far from holy. I spent most of my time in a state of repentance for things I had vividly desired to do but had not done. The fact that I was dealing with Jews brought the whole question of color, which I had been desperately avoiding, into the terrified center of my mind. I realized that the Bible had been written by white men. I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave. This had nothing to do with anything I was, or contained, or could become; my fate had been sealed forever, from the beginning of time. And it seemed, indeed, when one looked out over Christendom, that this was what Christendom effectively believed. It was certainly the way it behaved. I remembered the Italian priests and bishops blessing Italian boys who were on their way to Ethiopia.
Again, the Jewish boys in high school were troubling because I could find no point of connection between them and the Jewish pawnbrokers and landlords and grocery-store owners in Harlem. I knew that these people were Jews—God knows I was told it often enough—but I thought of them only as white. Jews, as such, until I got to high school, were all incarcerated in the Old Testament, and their names were Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Job, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It was bewildering to find them so many miles and centuries out of Egypt, and so far from the fiery furnace. My best friend in high school was a Jew. He came to our house once, and afterward my father asked, as he asked about everyone, “Is he a Christian?”—by which he meant “Is he saved?” I really do not know whether my answer came out of innocence or venom, but I said, coldly, “No. He’s Jewish.” My father slammed me across the face with his great palm, and in that moment everything flooded back—all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me—and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing. I wondered if I was expected to be glad that a friend of mine, or anyone, was to be tormented forever in Hell, and I also thought, suddenly, of the Jews in another Christian nation, Germany. They were not so far from the fiery furnace after all, and my best friend might have been one of them. I told my father, “He’s a better Christian than you are,” and walked out of the house. The battle between us was in the open, but that was all right; it was almost a relief. A more deadly struggle had begun.
Being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked. I knew the other ministers and knew the quality of their lives. And I don’t mean to suggest by this the “Elmer Gantry” sort of hypocrisy concerning sensuality; it was a deeper, deadlier, and more subtle hypocrisy than that, and a little honest sensuality, or a lot, would have been like water in an extremely bitter desert. I knew how to work on a congregation until the last dime was surrendered—it was not very hard to do—and I knew where the money for “the Lord’s work” went. I knew, though I did not wish to know it, that I had no respect for the people with whom I worked. I could not have said it then, but I also knew that if I continued I would soon have no respect for myself. And the fact that I was “the young Brother Baldwin” increased my value with those same pimps and racketeers who had helped to stampede me into the church in the first place. They still saw the little boy they intended to take over. They were waiting for me to come to my senses and realize that I was in a very lucrative business. They knew that I did not yet realize this, and also that I had not yet begun to suspect where my own needs, coming up (they were very patient), could drive me. They themselves did know the score, and they knew that the odds were in their favor. And, really, I knew it, too. I was even lonelier and more vulnerable than I had been before. And the blood of the Lamb had not cleansed me in any way whatever. I was just as black as I had been the day that I was born. Therefore, when I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike. When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and beige faces staring up at me as I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life. Were only Negroes to gain this crown? Was Heaven, then, to be merely another ghetto? Perhaps I might have been able to reconcile myself even to this if I had been able to believe that there was any loving-kindness to be found in the haven I represented. But I had been in the pulpit too long and I had seen too many monstrous things. I don’t refer merely to the glaring fact that the minister eventually acquires houses and Cadillacs while the faithful continue to scrub floors and drop their dimes and quarters and dollars into the plate. I really mean that there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at the church door. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant every body. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. I was told by a minister, for example, that I should never, on any public conveyance, under any circumstances, rise and give my seat to a white woman. White men never rose for Negro women. Well, that was true enough, in the main—I saw his point. But what was the point, the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me? What others did was their responsibility, for which they would answer when the judgment trumpet sounded. But what I did was my responsibility, and I would have to answer, too—unless, of course, there was also in Heaven a special dispensation for the benighted black, who was not to be judged in the same way as other human beings, or angels. It probably occurred to me around this time that the vision people hold of the world to come is but a reflection, with predictable wishful distortions, of the world in which they live. And this did not apply only to Negroes, who were no more “simple” or “spontaneous” or “Christian” than anybody else—who were merely more oppressed. In the same way that we, for white people, were the descendants of Ham, and were cursed forever, white people were, for us, the descendants of Cain. And the passion with which we loved the Lord was a measure of how deeply we feared and distrusted and, in the end, hated almost all strangers, always, and avoided and despised ourselves.
But I cannot leave it at that; there is more to it than that. In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare. Perhaps we were, all of us—pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children—bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love. I remember, anyway, church suppers and outings, and, later, after I left the church, rent and waistline parties where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about “the man.” We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not. This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in jazz. In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged. White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them—sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defenselessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line,” as the song puts it, know what this music is about. I think it was Big Bill Broonzy who used to sing “I Feel So Good,” a really joyful song about a man who is on his way to the railroad station to meet his girl. She’s coming home. It is the singer’s incredibly moving exuberance that makes one realize how leaden the time must have been while she was gone. There is no guarantee that she will stay this time, either, as the singer clearly knows, and, in fact, she has not yet actually arrived. Tonight, or tomorrow, or within the next five minutes, he may very well be singing “Lonesome in My Bedroom,” or insisting, “Ain’t we, ain’t we, going to make it all right? Well, if we don’t today, we will tomorrow night.” White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.