A Letter to Americans

James Baldwin

I FIRST MET Stokely Carmichael in the deep south, when he was just another nonviolent kid, marching and talking and getting his head whipped. This time now seems as far behind us as the Flood, and if those suffering, gallant, betrayed boys and girls who were then using their bodies in an attempt to save a heedless nation have since concluded that the nation is not worth saving, no American alive has the right to be surprised-to put the matter as mildly as it can possibly be put. Actually, Americans are not at all surprised; they exhibit all the vindictiveness of the guilty; what happened to those boys and girls, and what happened to the Civil Rights movement, is an indictment of America and Americans, and an enduring monument which we will not outlive, to the breath-taking cowardice of this sovereign people.

Naturally, the current in which we all were struggling threw Stokely and me together from time to time–it threw many people together, including, finally Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. America sometimes resembles, at least from the point of view of the black man, an exceedingly monotonous minstrel show; the same dances, same music, same jokes. One has done (or been) the show so long that one can do it in one’s sleep. So it was not in the least surprising for me to encounter (one more time) the American surprise when Stokely–as Americans allow themselves the luxury of supposing-coined the phrase, “black power.” He didn’t coin it. He simply dug it up again from where it’s been lying since the first slaves hit the gangplank. I have never known a Negro in all my life who was not obsessed with black power.

Those representatives of white power, who are not too hopelessly brainwashed or eviscerated, will understand that the only way for a black man in America not to be obsessed with the problem of how to control his destiny and protect his house, his women and his children, is for that black man to become, in his own mind, the something less than a man which this Republic, alas, has always considered him to be. And when a black man, whose destiny and identity have always been controlled by others, decides and states that he will control his own destiny and rejects the identity given to him by others, he is talking revolution. In point of sober fact, he cannot possibly be talking anything else, and nothing is more revelatory of the American hypocrisy than their swift perception of this fact. The “white backlash” is meaningless 20th century jargon designed at once to hide and to justify the fact that most white Americans are still unable to believe that the black man is a man-in the same way that we speak of a “credibility gap” because we are too cowardly to face the fact that our leaders have been lying to us for years. Perhaps we suspect that we deserve the contempt with which we allow ourselves to be treated.

In any case, I had been hoping to see Stokely again in Paris. But I now learn that he has arrived in New York and that his passport has been lifted. He is being punished by a righteous government, in the name of a justly wrathful people, and there appears to be a very strong feeling that this punishment is insufficient. If only, I gather, we had had, the foresight to declare ourselves at war, we would now be able to shoot Mr. Carmichael for treason. On the other hand, even if the government’s honorable hands are tied, the mob has got the message. I remember standing on a street-corner in Selma during a voting registration drive. The blacks lined up before the court house, under the American flag; the sheriff and his men, with their helmets and guns and dubs and cattle-prods; a mob of idle white men standing on the corner. The sheriff raised his club and he and his deputies beat two black boys to the ground. Never will I forget the surge in the mob: authority had given them their signal. The sheriff had given them the right, indeed had very nearly imposed on them the duty, to bomb and murder: and no one has ever accused that sheriff of “inciting to riot,” much less of sedition. No one has ever accused ex-Governor Wallace of Alabama—ex in name only—of insurrection, although he had the Confederate flag flying from the dome of the Capitol the day we marched on Montgomery. The government would like to be able to indict Stokely and many others like him of incitement—to riot; but I accuse the government of this crime. It is, briefly, an insult to my intelligence, and to the intelligence of any black person, to ask me to believe that the most powerful nation in the world is unable to do anything to make the lives of its black citizens less appalling. It is not unable to do it, it is only unwilling to do it. Americans are deluded if they suppose Stokely to be the first black man to say, “The United States is going to fall. I only hope I live to see the day.” Every black man in this howling North American wilderness has said it, and is saying it, in many, many ways, over and over again. One’s only got to listen, again, to all those happy songs. Or walk to Har­lem and talk to any junkie, or anybody else—if, of course, they will talk to you. It was a nonviolent black student who told Bobby Ken­nedy a few years ago that he didn’t know how much longer he could remain nonviolent; didn’t know how much longer he could take the beatings, the bombings, the terror. He said that he would never take up arms in defense of America—never, never, never. If he ever picked up a gun, it would be for very different reasons: trembling, he shook his finger in Bobby Kennedy’s face, and said, with terrible tears in his voice, “When I pull the trigger, kiss it goodbye!”

That boy has grown up, as have so many like him—we will not mention those irreparably ruined, or dead—and I really wonder what white Americans expected to happen. Did they really suppose that 15-year-old black boys remain 15 forever? Did they really suppose that the tremendous energy and the incredible courage which went into those sit-ins, wade-ins, swim-ins, picket lines, marches, was incapable of transforming itself into an overt attack on the status quo? I remember that same day in Selma watching the line of black would­ be voters walk away from the court house which they had not been allowed to enter. And I thought, the day is coming when they will not line up any more.

That day may very well be here—I fear it is here; certainly Stokely is here, and he is not alone. It helps our situation not at all to attempt to punish the man for telling the truth. I repeat: we have seen this show before. This victimization has occurred over and over again, from Frederick Douglass to Paul Robeson to Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X. And I contest the government’s right to lift the passports of these people who hold views of which the government—and especially this government—disapproves. The government has the duty to warn me of the dangers I may encounter if I travel to hostile territory, though they never said anything about the probable results of my leaving Harlem to go downtown and never said anything about my travels to Alabama, but it does not have the right to use my passport as a political weapon against me, as a means of bringing me to heel. These are terror tactics. Furthermore, all black Americans are born into a society which is determined—repeat: determined—that they shall never learn the truth about themselves or their society, which is determined that black men shall use as their only frame of reference what white Americans convey to them of their own potentialities, and of the shape, size, dimensions and possibilities of the world. And I do not hesitate for an instant to condemn this as a crime. To persuade black boys and girls, as we have for so many generations, that their lives are worth less than other lives, and that they can only live on terms dictated to them by other people, by people who despise them, is worse than a crime, it is the sin against the Holy Ghost.

Now, I may not always agree with Stokely’s views, or the ways in which he expresses them. My agreement, or disagreement, is abso­lutely irrelevant. I get his message. Stokely Carmichael, a black man under thirty, is saying to me, a black man over forty, that he will not live the life I’ve lived, or be corralled into some of the awful choices I have been forced to make. And he is perfectly right. The government and the people who have made his life, and mine, and the lives of all our forefathers, and the lives of all our brothers and sisters and women and children an indescribable hell have no right, now, to penalize the black man, this so despised stranger here for so long, for attempting to discover if the world is as small as the Americans have told him it is. And the political implications in­volve nothing more and nothing less than what the Western world takes to be its material self-interest. I need scarcely state to what extent the Western self-interest and the black self-interest find themselves at war, but it is precisely this message which the Western nations, and this one above all, will have to accept, if they expect to survive. Nothing is more unlikely than that the Western nations, and this one above all, will be able to welcome so vital a metamorphosis. We have constructed a history which is a total lie, and have persuaded ourselves that it is true. I seriously doubt that anything worse can happen to any people. One doesn’t need a Stokely gloating in Havana about the hoped for fall of the United States, and to attempt to punish him for saying what so many millions of people feel, is simply to bring closer, and make yet more deadly, the terrible day. One should listen to what’s being said, and reflect on it: for many, many millions of people long for our downfall, and it is not because they are Communists. It is because ignorance is in the saddle here, and we ride mankind . Let us attempt to face the fact that we are a racist society, racist to the very marrow, and we are fighting a racist war. No black man in chains in his own country, and watching the many deaths occurring around him every day, believes for a mo­ment that America cares anything at all about—the freedom of Asia. My own condition, as a black man in America, tells me what Americans really feel and really want, and tells me who they really are. And therefore, every bombed village is my home town.

That, in a way, is what Stokely is saying, and that’s why this youth can so terrify a nation. He’s saying the bill is in, the party’s over, are we going to live here like men or not? Bombs won’t pay this bill, and bombs won’t wipe it out. And Stokely did not begin his career with dreams of terror, but with dreams of love. Now he’s saying, and he’s not alone, and he’s not the first, if I can’t live here, well, then, neither will you. You couldn’t have built it without me; this land is also mine; we’ll share it, or we’ll perish, and I don’t care!

I do care—about Stokely’s life, my country’s life. One’s seen too much already of gratuitous destruction, one hopes, always, that something will happen in the human heart which will change our common history. But if it doesn’t happen, this something, if this country cannot hear and cannot change, then we, the blacks, the most despised children of the great Western house, are simply forced, with both pride and despair, to remember that we come from a long line of runaway slaves who managed to survive without passports.

This letter had originally been sent to the London Times and the New York Times. Both declined to publish it. At the invitation of FREEDOMWAYS the letter was read by Mr. Baldwin to a capacity audience at Carnegie Hall on the occasion of the Du Bois Centennial Celebration on 23 February, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. also spoke at the occasion giving his speech Honoring Dr. Du Bois. This letter was originally published in Freedomways.