Convergence / Health / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 3

“For all the tea in China, all the oil in Texas”

Chester Higgins, State of Affairs

Image Credit: Chester Higgins, State of Affairs, 2020. © Chester Higgins Archives. Courtesy of the artist.

The American experiment is imperiled again. The danger that has haunted the republic since its founding has been left unattended for too long and is newly, predictably spilling over. The question remains whether or not the co-citizens of this nation are prepared to respond honestly to what they already know concerning the realities of black lives and the forces deployed to control them. The global protests in the aftermath of the public lynching of George Floyd register as a necessary release from the insistence of pandemic death and incompetent state-sponsored rule these last months—despite the mounting body count, and the brutal response of the militarized police. But for all the youthful, multiracial solidarity being expressed, I wonder if this nation, if the currently sympathizing world is prepared to assimilate sovereign, unregulated blackness. Not black people as wards and long-suffering subjects at the hands of brutes, but as a human complexity remarkable for their triumphs, struggles, contradictions, and extraordinary contributions to global life in the face of unrelenting and premature death.

The painful history and present of racial arrangements means that declarative affirmations that “black lives matter” carry necessary implications. Such significance is only amplified in the teeth of an unchecked pandemic and resulting economic collapse, the scale of which continues to unfold. More still, the public refusal of the lethal protocols of the police paradoxically betrays the fragility and instability of racial categories. It also lays bare the “parasitical nature of white freedom” in the American and more broadly Western racial calculus.1 For what are we to make of casual, impertinent pleas to be educated about one’s privilege at moments of racial contraction and emergency? These exchanges, if one can reasonably classify them as such, are characterized by slack-handed declarations of powerlessness and ignorance before the organizing fact of race. Andy Cohen’s recent conversation on the Bravo cable television network with stand-up comedian W. Kamau Bell and Porsha Williams of The Real Housewives of Atlanta is one startling case in point. With his head tilted in that familiar posture of earnest sympathy, and mouth opening into something of a bemused smile, Cohen offers this statement-query in a of sing-song of willful defeatism:

You know, as a white man, I have not had to think about my race very often. And that fact, in itself, is an example of white privilege. What do you say to white people with little experience discussing race, who are eager to fight for racial justice, and want to educate themselves, and put in the work; but they’re worried about stepping into a minefield and doing or saying the wrong thing?2

One doesn’t quite know how to respond to such brazen dissembling. It is true that the Missouri-born Cohen, whose net worth is reportedly more than fifty million dollars, lives in a world apart. But it is also the case that his material and psychic existence as a “white man” is made real only by the defining difference of blackness. For if it’s still true that freedom has no meaning as a cognitive and historical matter without its opposite, its negation—captivity—then what does it mean to avowedly declare one’s affiliation with the abstraction dubbed “whiteness” in this putative moment of cross-racial solidarity? Put another way, what is the significance of associating oneself with the structures of coercion and feeling that comprise white supremacy—then and now—if one wants to “put in the work,” and “racial justice” is what you’re after? The failure to answer these questions sensibly and with a good measure of historical maturity represents a special kind of violence. So is discharging the responsibility of engaging frankly with our shared history to our black colleagues, pastors, professors, friends, staff, and well-rehearsed pundits out of a psychotically paternal fear of the “minefield” of racial confrontation.

While it does not have the clinical ring of the long nineteenth-century proclamation, “I am free, white, and 21,”3 Cohen’s possessive repetition of the locution, “white people,” betrays an acute racial consciousness as well as his long practice in the art of evasion when the consequences of candor draw too close to home. Our current racial trouble has prompted organizations (including the NFL!) to issue statements of hollow outrage, vague commitments to racial justice, or otherwise announce common cause from the safe remove of liberal good feeling.4 The impulse and need for self-acquittal and public exoneration echo that early penchant for black forgiveness and white innocence that still crowds our popular stage and screen. But it is still “the innocence that constitutes the crime.”5 Long a feature of the theater of American politics, the presence of incumbents or political hopefuls crowding the tables of soul food restaurants and the pews of black churches leading up to election contests, is belied by the utter segregation of the faithful when otherwise gathered in ritual fellowship. As Malcolm X is once reported to have observed, “The most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sundays.”6

We should be clear that an enormous amount of energy is required in the effort not to see the inequities that define and order modern civilization. The lowering of the eye, the turning of the head, or even the full-throated defense of unspeakable arrangements, are simply outward signs of the tremendous psychic labor involved in the commission of moral blindness when confronted with routinized, deadly injustice. These last American centuries have offered up repeated scenes of wanton violence and everyday brutality to study, bear witness to, and possibly adjust the view. But like the sentimentality that overtook abolitionist agitators challenged by a trafficking in flesh not easily reconciled with their own freedom, contemporary liberal heirs package, market, and sell internal conflict. Quick to build monuments that pay homage to the righteous and safely dead, Americans have grown skilled at manipulating black pain for profit and political expediency. In I Heard it through the Grapevine, James Baldwin’s cinematic collaboration with Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley chronicling his return to sites of civil rights struggle in the American South, Baldwin’s boomingly weary voice provides the opening narration as we discover the author pensively writing at his desk: “Medgar, Malcolm, Martin, dead…But what about those unknown, invisible people who did not die, but whose lives were smashed on Freedom Road? And what does this say concerning the morality of this country or the morality of this age?” The knowing flourish of Baldwin’s lament concerning the material and psychic state of “those unknown, invisible people” in the aftermath of one of the most organized and sustained movements for social transformation this nation has ever witnessed, challenges the viewer to consider the twenty-first-century legacy of a struggle the author would later famously characterize as “America’s latest slave rebellion.”

This is the context in which the most recent quest for liberation must be considered. In the film, Baldwin presages and enacts this necessary consideration as he recounts his return to Atlanta, Georgia, to his brother, David, who wonders “what Martin would have thought of his Atlanta now?” He is contemptuous of the highways, freeways, and buildings all bearing Dr. King’s name less than twenty years after his assassination and reads these inscriptions as part of the “extraordinary make-up job” on which the nation has embarked:

And there is the [Martin Luther King, Jr.] monument, which is, and this is a difficult thing to say, but I will say it, absolutely as irrelevant as the Lincoln Memorial. It is one of the ways the Western world has learned, or thinks it’s learned, to outwit history, to outwit time—to make a life and a death irrelevant, to make that passion irrelevant, to make it unusable for you and for our children. And we’re confronting that!7

“Post-racialism” and “racial progress” have been watchwords of the liberal establishment (black and white) throughout the post-civil rights era. Commitment to this hollow rhetoric and sentimental national feeling failed a generation of young people who now find themselves in the streets. Many of us know that race is not divinely ordained, or a planetary event, but have no idea how to extract ourselves from its disorienting and seductive influence. But no matter your heart, it is true, to paraphrase Baldwin, that it is the speediest possible demolition of this history, which gave you your identity, that will save the lives and energies of countless black and brown people on which the very existence of “whiteness” depends.8 This is what Morrison (following Baldwin) means by the “parasitical nature of white freedom.” It is extractive, untenable, and betrays the ethos of democratic possibility inherent in égalité, fraternité, and liberté, the phrase that founded Western enlightenment and inspired the revolutionary American project.

In the expressive realm, American reification is the stock and trade of functionaries like the national author, pundit, or journalist, that “specialised virtuoso,” that “vendor of his objectified and reified faculties,” at bottom that “prostit[ute] of experiences and beliefs…comprehensible only as the apogee of capitalist reification,” who cannot afford to rend the veil of reification and call for the “active role of persons.”9 This intervention by the incisive Hungarian theorist and philosopher Georg Lukács keeps coming to mind these last days. For since the specialist is in the service of the bourgeois, to activate that process whereby the reality of the workings of modern racial capitalism “is dissolved into the process of which man is the driving force… would mean the abolition of capitalism [, an act] tantamount to suicide.”10 I suspect I’ve been recalling this early outline of a truly abolitionist project since I’ve been watching and circulating the recent short film Geographies of Racial Capitalism featuring Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in which she declares what we must confess we already know to be true: that “Capitalism requires inequality, and racism enshrines it.”11 Untangling the relationship between capitalism, race, unfreedom, and contemporary labor is at the core of Gilmore’s twenty-first century abolitionism.

In an interview for Esquire Magazine after the assassination of Dr. King and ensuing disruption, James Baldwin stated the following:

I don’t envy any white man in this country, because I wouldn’t like to have to face what you have to face. If you don’t face it, though, it’s a matter of your life or death. Everyone’s deluded if they think it’s a matter of Sambo’s life or death. It isn’t a matter of Sambo’s life or death, and it can’t be, for they have been slaughtering Sambos too long. It’s a matter of whether or not you want to live. And you may think that my death or diminution, or my disappearance will save you, but it won’t. It can’t save you. All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history…which is not your past, but your present. (original emphasis)12

Three years later, we find Baldwin in Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris, a short film record produced by Terrence Dixon and photographed by Jack Hazan.13 Shot twenty-two years after Baldwin first left New York with forty dollars in his pockets for the cold, exacting streets of postwar Paris, Meeting the Man stages for the viewer the stunning misapprehension of the man and the “Negro” celebrity as we find an elegantly turned-out Baldwin standing in an early scene before the Place de la Bastille intensely dragging on a cigarette, his darting and ever-alert eyes scanning Dixon for the import of this cinematic encounter. We should remember that Baldwin is speaking only a few years after all those shocking American assassinations, and after a bout of profound depression. As he remarked, “they are killing my friends and for no reasons that have any validity.” Baldwin’s explicit identification with Angela Davis and Bobby Seale (both of whom had been charged with crimes in the serious climate of the Black Power struggles of the time) is but one example of that dirge Baldwin had been singing all his writing life. In front of that monument to the revolutionary impulses of eighteenth-century French citizens determined to wrest freedom and equality from the hands of the dominant and ruling, James Baldwin’s voice slows down as he queries the hypocrisy between the criminalized struggle for liberation by black revolutionaries in the U.S., and the celebration of égalité, fraternité, and liberté in Europe. This is what is happening on our streets at this very hour. Later in the film, Baldwin is in the stunning Paris studio of the American master Beauford Delaney, with David, and a few young black American students. As Baldwin settles in, and the spirits take effect, he grows and shares: “You know I have had a hard life…[mischievous laughter], but my dear, you know, really; I know it sounds [like] a terrible thing to say…I would not be a white American for all the tea in China, all the oil in Texas. I really wouldn’t like to have to live with all those lies.” (original emphasis)

Towards the end of this rare film document, Baldwin places a fine point on his keen refusal and simultaneous understanding of racial categorization by demurring to a reckless statement from Dixon that in a “literal sense,” Baldwin was writing for white people: “I’m writing for people, baby. I don’t believe in white people. I don’t believe in black people, either, for that matter. But I know the difference between being black and white at this time. It means that I cannot fool myself about some things, that I could fool myself about if I were white.” (original emphasis)

In the last month or more, there have been essays and articles listing books about black history and antiracism that we should read, including two to which I contributed. And, yes, black titles have taken over bestseller lists. One confessional essay concerning the regrettable psychic violence meted out to the lone black person in a group of friends has received praise and plaudits. So have the memes showing white people at protests, or by the roadside with signs announcing their regret about being late. “I had a lot to learn,” they conclude. But how long must this centuries-long instruction take when nothing has been more clear in this intensely racialized and racist country than the life-or-death differences between white and black? This has been more than evident in numerous accounts of white women weaponizing their distinctly American womanhood against black men, only to promptly apologize when their lives are “ruined” in this age of social-media-driven accountability. So, ultimately, along with all our materially transformative efforts it remains essential that we actively fashion what Baldwin refers to as “new acts of creation,” the ongoing exploration of the existential void, of “our unknown selves,” which might save us, as he hoped, from the “evil that is in this world.”14

Works Cited
1 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 57.
2 Hannah Chambers, “Porsha Williams and W. Kamau Bell Share How to Fight for Racial Justice,” The Daily Dish, June 10, 2020:
3 Andrew Heisel, “The Rise and Fall of an All-American Catchphrase: Free, White, and 21,” Jezebel, September 10, 2015:
4 Chad Saunders, “I Don’t Need ‘Love’ Texts From My White Friends: I need them to fight anti-blackness.” The New York Times, June 5, 2020:
5 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963), 19-20.
6 For more see James Baldwin on the “Dick Cavett Show” in 1968, which includes the full quote: “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.”; see also Tony Norman, “The Furious Eloquence of James Baldwin,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 17, 2017:
7 Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley (with James Baldwin and David Baldwin), 9 James Baldwin, No Name in the Street in James Baldwin: The Collected Essays. Toni Morrison (ed.), (New York: Library of America, 1998), 381. Original work published in 1972.
8 Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968), 100-101.
10 Ibid.
11 Kenton Carr, Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore: An Antipode Foundation Film, June 1, 2020,
12 “James Baldwin: How to Cool It,” Esquire Magazine, July 1968:
13 Terrence Dixon and Jack Hazan, Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris, UK/France, 1971, 31m.
14 James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 20-21.

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