At midnight on Nov. 2, I could not sleep. So I picked the words of James Baldwin to calm my frayed nerves. Baldwin is so fresh and relevant because he insists on returning to the root problem, which the nation insists on ignoring. Last night, I was drawn to his 1965 essay, “The White Man’s Guilt,” which struck me as particularly poignant.
“This is the place in which, it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves impaled,” Baldwin wrote. “They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.”
Baldwin writes that the incoherence “can be reduced to a plea: Do not blame me, I was not there. I did not do it. My history has nothing to do with Europe or the slave trade. Anyway, it was your chiefs who sold you to me. I was not present on the middle passage, I am not responsible for the textile mills of Manchester, or the cotton fields of Mississippi. Besides, consider how the English, too, suffered in those mills and in those awful cities! I also despise the governors of southern states and the sheriffs of southern counties, and I also want your child to have a decent education and rise as high as his capabilities will permit.
“I have nothing against you, nothing! What have you got against me? What do you want? But, on the same day, in another gathering, and in the most private chamber of his heart, always, the white American remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much [italics Baldwin’s].”
On Nov. 2, as so many of us braced for possible violence and civil unrest perpetrated by far-right terrorist groups, the Washington Post published a story reminding us that this is nothing new.
“There are at least 129 accounts of what happened that day in Ocoee, and they vary wildly,” the Washington Post reports.
“Some said the attack was a spur-of-the-moment reaction to a Black man trying to vote. Others said it had been carefully planned by white residents for weeks. Only a few Black folks were killed that day; or, dozens of bodies were piled into a mass grave. Every Black resident who survived fled the day after; or, survivors were harassed, threatened and cheated out of land for the next seven years until they all left.
“This is what is certain: 100 years ago, on Nov. 2, 1920 — the same day women voted nationally for the first time — the worst instance of Election Day violence in American history unfolded in a small Florida town west of Orlando,” the paper reported.
On Oct. 31 2020, in Graham, North Carolina, police officers “fired a spray they described as a ‘pepper-based vapor’ that left demonstrators — including children — coughing at an ‘I Am Change’ march for voter turnout,” the Washington Post reported.
“The racially diverse crowd of about 400 had stopped at a Confederate monument in front of the Alamance County Courthouse on their way to an early-voting site. The monument has been the site of months of clashes between anti-racism activists and self-proclaimed white nationalists.”
During the march, the crowd “invoked the name of Wyatt Outlaw, a Black town commissioner who in 1870 was kidnapped from his Graham home by the Ku Klux Klan and lynched outside the courthouse, not far from the present-day monument.”
Graham is less than three hours away from Wilmington, North Carolina, where in 1898 — a few decades after the Civil War and Reconstruction — whites terrorized a relatively prosperous Black community, killing at least 60 Black men, in what would become known as the Wilmington insurrection.
The book jacket summary of David Zuchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy merits quoting at length.
“In North Carolina, Democrats were plotting to take back the state legislature in November ‘by the ballot or the bullet or both,’ and then to trigger a ‘race riot’ to overthrow Wilmington’s multi-racial government. Led by prominent citizens including Josephus Daniels, publisher of the state’s largest newspaper, and former Confederate Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, white supremacists rolled out a carefully orchestrated campaign that included raucous rallies, race-baiting editorials and newspaper cartoons, and sensational, fabricated news stories.
White rioters “suppressed the Black vote and stuffed ballot boxes (or threw them out), to win control of the state legislature on November 8th” and two days later, “more than 2,000 heavily armed Red Shirts swarmed through Wilmington […] terrorizing women and children, and shooting at least 60 black men dead in the streets. The rioters forced city officials to resign at gunpoint and replaced them with mob leaders.”
No matter what happens Nov. 3, whites must seriously reckon with this history; either confront the painful past or endure an even more painful present — to say nothing of the future.
“The record is there for all to read,” Baldwin wrote in 1965. “It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives.”