On the Nature of Hate: James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son"

"The Miscegination Ball", a racist political cartoon, circa 1864, criticizing the Republican Party and playing on white fears of racial intermingling. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction #LC-USZ62-14828.

"The Miscegination Ball", a racist political cartoon, circa 1864, criticizing the Republican Party and playing on white fears of racial intermingling. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction #LC-USZ62-14828.

Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Writers write about love, constantly. Personally, as a writer I love to drown myself in love, in the genuine, real feeling of it, experienced personally, seen across mass movements of people coming together to demand justice, even felt as a spiritual thing, across the ages, reading another person's words or staring into their art and feeling that love, that inexplicable connection that makes us human. As humans we like to think that this is what humanity is, love, and that the opposite of it, hate, is something inhuman, not a part of who we are, a discarded emotion best left locked outside to freeze in eternal night.

This view of humanity, that we are all lovers to the exclusion of hate, is anemic at best, and in its insistence at covering over our very human faults it fails to let us see clearly who we are, what we are capable of, and what that capacity has done to build the structures of social injustice.

James Baldwin had no such illusions. In his essay, "Notes of a Native Son", first published in 1955 in Harper's Magazine, he opens with his father's death, and explores the meaning of his life, a life which was, as Baldwin describes it, full of mistrust and, yes, hatred of white people. Set against the backdrop of race riots in Detroit, Baldwin describes driving his father's body to the graveyard, writing, "the spoils of injustice, anarchy, discontent, and hatred were all around us." His father's mother was born during slavery, and his father was "of the first generation of free men." Physically, Baldwin describes his father as "very handsome", "very black" and "certainly the most bitter man I have ever met." He appears to have been mentally ill, "eaten up by paranoia." He was committed and eventually died of tuberculosis.  

As a child, Baldwin was befriended by a white woman, a school teacher who his father never trusted, "always trying to surprise in her open, Midwestern face the genuine, cunningly hidden, and hideous motivation." Later he warned Baldwin about his white friends in high school, telling him that he, "would see, when I was older, how white people would do anything to keep the Negro down." It wasn't until later in life, when Baldwin was living and working in New Jersey, and experiencing the full thrust of Northern white racism and white supremacy, that he started to understand his father's admonitions. He was refused service at restaurants, in bars, in bowling alleys, at diners, in places to live, forcing him to frequent places he normally wouldn't, adding to his reputation at work, until, "It began to seem that the machinery of the organization I worked for was turning over, day and night, with but one aim: to eject me." It was then that he contracted a malady, "the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels." It was the disease of rage, culminating in another restaurant, and another denied service, and Baldwin throwing a water-mug at the waitress and fleeing immediately afterward.

This time in New Jersey, experiencing daily systemic racism, gave him an insight into his father's word view, into that bitterness and paranoia. 

This is the emotion of the disempowered, the basis of the rage that underlies the hate. For those who are empowered, who are white (like me), straight, male, the hate is not based on real experience but on the fantasy of expectations, a Candy Land of fear similar to Grimm's Fairy Tales, and much like those stories I've seen the joy in the eye of another white person telling them to me, trying to "warn" me against "mixing with the wrong kind", the guilty look pleading acceptance after relating a racist joke that "isn't really racist", the unspoken glance after a black man or a Latina leaves the room, that one that, again, attempts to establish camaraderie over the happenstance of pigmentation. It is most pronounced in places like Selma, Alabama, home to both Brown's Chapel and the grave site of Nathan Bedford Forrest, where you are gently persuaded, if you are white, to visit the latter and not the former. It is more subtle in places like Nebraska, where I grew up, where "them black boys can sure play basketball" is meant as some benign compliment (one which would never be spoken but in a room of white people, only).  

Instead of running away from this emotion, this rage, this fear, this desperate grasp for acceptance, instead of labeling it as "inhuman," we need to accept it for what it is, all too human, all too a part of ourselves, and all too tragically understandable, for it is only when we accept what we are, and what we can be, good and bad, that we can honestly talk about the evil we do in the world, as people, to each other, and start to change it, person by person, together, and move to something that looks like justice.