Writer James Baldwin turned nineteen on the day of his father’s funeral (August 3, 1943). A “race riot” had broken out in Harlem that day, so the mourners “drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.”
As Baldwin reflects on this day of brokenness, he writes: “I hated the unbelievable streets and the Negroes and Whites who had, equally, made them that way.” Recognizing his bitterness was folly, he thought: “It was necessary to hold onto the things that mattered. The dead man mattered, the new life mattered, blackness and whiteness did not matter” (his father died on the same day his mother gave birth to their last child). Hatred “never failed to destroy” people, one by one.
Then Baldwin presents what seems to me the contradiction we are facing now, today, in America. His words are a powerful call to look deeper at each other and ourselves:
“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”
Notes of a Native Son (1955)
Wisdom for our time … all times.