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What James Baldwin Taught Me About Racist Trolls

I love James Baldwin.

As a fellow writer and Harlem native, he is my literary muse. When I first discovered his work, I felt as if he snatched the words off the tip of my tongue and splattered them on the page. He revealed me to myself, reaffirming my humanity in a country where blacks were offered a subpar education, fed subpar food, and left to rot in subpar housing.

Baldwin was and, perhaps, still remains America’s black revolutionary voice.

Raul Peck’s “I am Not Your Negro” is a visual portrayal of Baldwin’s prophetic prose. The film documents his musings on race in America and, along the way, reveals some interesting truths about how fruitful political discourse is on the verge of extinction.

In the film, Peck weaves together archival footage and excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript to reflect on the lives and deaths of civil rights legends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Samuel L. Jackson narrates a majority of the script, however there are rare moments where Baldwin, himself, speaks during a lecture at some elite university or while visiting some late-night talk show. During one of these moments, Baldwin encounters a civil rights troll who attempts to underplay the significance of race in America. In response, he delivers a fiery speech that reveals the presence of racism in nearly all of America’s institutions.

“Now this is the evidence,” Baldwin finishes. “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen!”

Baldwin’s words resonate like a Facebook post gone viral. Yet, unlike the trolls of modernity, this guy actually seemed to get it. There is no name calling in their exchange, no accusations of “reverse racism” or threats of being sent back to Africa. This troll simply nods in a manner that suggests he agrees to disagree.

Sadly, modern intellectual discourse lacks this same level of maturity. Instead, complex theories have been reduced to 140 characters and political debates have devolved into Twitter beef. Trolling is the world’s new favorite past time and it seems we’ve abandoned the free exchange of ideas for the free exchange of likes.

Perhaps most terrifying about the popularity of trolling is what this trend suggests about the future of America. I am deeply afraid that our inability to respectfully disagree will ultimately lead to an inability to coexist. I fear hat if we stop engaging with one another; if we stop opening our minds to different wells of knowledge, we will never be able to solve the problem of race in America because we’d never be able to get to the root of it.

According to Baldwin, racism stems predominately from this troll-like inability to face the facts. In order to solve the problem of race in America, whites, in particular, have to search for the root of it within themselves.

“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it,” he contends. “If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

“I am Not Your Negro” is currently playing in select theaters.

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2015: The Year of Black Erasure

From Maryland to Missouri, Black rage came to a boil in 2015. Reported riots in Baltimore and Ferguson summed up the country’s frustration with the government-sanctioned violence against Black Americans over the course of the year. The cry for justice was loud and boisterous, yet it would do little to stop the assault on Black bodies, Black history, and Black pride.

As if they’d been written in pencil, African Americans watched their lives and legacies scraped at and scratched out this year – our ability to live, to learn, and to love ourselves constantly under siege. 

There’s no doubt about it: Black erasure was REAL in 2015.

Although they represent only 6% of the U.S. population, a Washington Post report found that Black men made up 40% of those shot and killed py police while unarmed this year. One by one we watched the stories of these men unfold in the national media. Names like Walter Scott and Sam Dubose became a part of our dinner table discussions. It seemed like every day were  inundated with images of Black men being hunted and killed and we wondered if our brothers, our fathers or our sons would be next.

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Black women and girls weren’t exempt from the violence. Sandra Bland’s alleged suicide death after a routine traffic stop gone rogue left us with more questions than answers and the viral footage of an officer manhandling a teenage girl at Spring Valley High School left us feeling like there was nowhere safe.

Perhaps we were right.

On June 17, 2015, Dylan Roof opened fire at a historically Black church in South Carolina committing one of the most devastating acts of domestic terrorism to date. 9 people were murdered in their place of worship, simply because the color of their skin.

Perhaps more devastating than the loss of so many Black lives  in 2015, was the realization that the murderers would not be punished. In some cases, they might even be rewarded.

Dylan Roof was treated to a meal at Burger King shortly after his arrest this summer and the NYPD officer who shot Ramarley Graham four years ago received the latest in nearly $25,000 in raises.

It’s obvious: the color of justice was not Black in 2015 and the tumultuous year draws to a close with news that the officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland will not be charged with his murder. While Tamir’s young life was snubbed out before it even started, his killer’s life will continue unscathed.

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Not only were Black lives under attack this year, so was the legacy of slavery. Texas mom Roni Dean-Burren called national attention to the distortion of Black history after her teenage son sent a photo of a textbook referring to enslaved Africans as “workers.” Interpreting the slave trade within the context of immigration, the McGraw Hill text deludes its readers into believing in a false history – one where slavery and, consequently, racism does not exist. As Dean-Burren eloquently put it, “THIS is what erasure looks like.”

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Finally, and perhaps most ridiculously, we witnessed countless attempt to obliterate Black pride in 2015. For merely advocating to protect the lives of African Americans under the law, organizations like Black Lives Matter found themselves under intense scrutiny by conservatives conservatives, often referred to as a “hate group.” 

(It’s worth noting that those same conservatives had very little to say when a group of masked vigilantes, unquestionably motivated by hate, opened fire on PEACEFUL Black Lives Matter protestors in Minnesota.)

Even the most harmless displays of Black pride were policed disproportionately this year with African American families facing criminal charges for cheering on their loved ones at a high school graduation ceremony and  a group of Black teenagers, including a 14-year-old in a bikini, assaulted by police at pool party in McKinney, Texas .

With our newsfeeds overwhelmed with the blues this year, we faced the unfortunate reality that the fight for Black equity and justice is far from over. Sadly, we will carry these moments of defeat with us into 2016, but we cannot afford to abandon the will to overcome them. In the words of a  Black soldier who has seen far more battles in this ceaseless war, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”  

Happy New Year.

Photo by Vox Efx/CC BY 2.0