This Black History Month, the VISIONS community is sharing the stories of Black historical figures who have impacted and inspired us personally.
James Baldwin and the Delusion by Jamila Batts Capitman
“One’s dignity depends on one’s estimate of one’s self. It really does not depend on someone else’s estimate. It depends first of all on what you take yourself to be, what your real standards are, what you think is right and what you think is wrong, what you think life is all about, what you think life is for.” — James Baldwin, 1963
When I said “Yes” to writing about a historical figure for Black History Month for the VISIONS blog, I was in Fresno, California. I was working on trying to find a wall to put a mural on, a portrait to memorialize Isaiah “Ohana” Williams, a young person in our youth program who was a victim of gun violence in his neighborhood on the West side of the city. I understand gun violence in Black communities is a symptom of structural racism. This way of thinking has helped me to intellectualize my pain, find some distance from it and on my best days, channel it into action. Racism is an enduring public health crisis. Racism is an enduring public MENTAL health crisis. To paraphrase James Baldwin’s comment on the American Moral Dilemma, the concept of white superiority is a delusion that has resulted in moral bankruptcy and a shortage of love.
James Baldwin, was born Black and gay in Harlem in 1924. He grew up in a low income household and was one of nine children. James Baldwin became one of the most important literary and cultural figures in history. He traveled the world, published countless essays, articles and famous novels, spoke in some of the most prestigious institutions in Western society and was friends with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., although he did not fully agree with either of them. I see James Baldwin as a social psychologist. He was writing and speaking about his theories and observations pertaining to the impact of social structures on people’s personal and collective experiences and outcomes. He was living proof of his theory that the way that an individual views themselves and their surroundings matters just as much, if not more, than one’s social location. James Baldwin’s life was not shaped by his identity, instead, James Baldwin used his identity to shape his life. His identity gave him a critical perspective that he was compelled to share with the world. James Baldwin’s perspective inspires us to think, deeply, about who we are, why we do what we do, and what we really believe.
I’m heading back to Fresno tomorrow afternoon. I have been listening to James Baldwin’s speeches for the past few days, learning about his life and reflecting. This is a time of year when I intentionally honor my African American ancestors. James Baldwin is an ancestor who has quickly become a lively part of my imagination. He initiates me into a cognitive process which creates some expansion in my own frame of mind. The poise and dignity with which he carries himself in debate. The deliberate way that he communicates. Shamelessly intellectual, poetic, fearless.
James Baldwin invites me to seek truth, starting by looking at myself. What lies have I told myself in order to cope with the moral dilemma? In which ways have I internalized the delusion and cut off parts of my heart? What does liberation really mean to me? How do I wish to be perceived and how much control do I have over that? James Baldwin explains plainly, that one cannot really ever leave society, but how one interacts with society is, somewhat, within their control. He states that, in fact, no one is better than anybody else. Each of us, no matter how we identify socially, is under immense pressure to lose some aspect of our humanity in order to continue to survive, whether that is emotional survival, acceptance, “normality” or actual, physical survival.
The thing is that because of the nature of the delusion, Black people’s lives are actually at risk. Black children are actually experiencing physical threats to their collective and individual bodies on a daily basis. Black people have never been accepted or considered “the norm” in the American system. This system, which stems from the delusion of white superiority, expresses itself through capitalism and greed. It offers refuge for anyone who does not want to worry too much about other human beings. The delusion in the American psyche allows some people to choose to keep their physical bodies and emotional selves out of the way in this struggle for social justice. Perhaps, that is how the moral crippling that James Baldwin referred to begins. The cutting off of the heart. The delusion allows people to avoid some of the particular kinds of discomfort that come with not fitting into society, to patronize the process of spiritual healing in a community whose culture is marginalized. To turn a blind eye to the truth, and the truth is, we are, many of us, in mourning. Personally, I am angry. Mainly, I am angry at my helplessness, and sometimes things seem pretty dim. Luckily, in these moments of darkness, I can look to my ancestors.
In 1963, in his speech at the University of Chicago, James Baldwin said that “an artist is someone who helps you see reality again.” On Sunday I will get to stand with Ohana’s mother, Regina Williams, and his friends and watch an artist, Omar Huerta, create a mural as a memorial for Ohana’s brief and magnificent life. Through the process of bringing this mural project into fruition, my reality is already becoming more clear; I am from a truly loving and peaceful community. This community is made up of Wise elders who challenge me to be diligent, parents and friends who are committed to supporting the dreams of the ones that they care for, Intellectuals who have studied the system, become jaded and then reinvigorated by love, over and over again, Youth full of empathy, independence, honesty and self respect, Artists who help us experience our emotions. Everyday people who are quietly finding ways to be expressions of their own interpretations of God.
We are not what the delusion says that we are. It is the responsibility of every person who is committed to social justice to take time to look around, to look at ourselves and assess: How has my humanity been impacted by the delusion? How does my individual experience and social location inform my perspective? What has changed in the world around me since I first started to engage in this work and what do I want now? What do I need to do in order to be able to show up with the ability to love? With a clear, receptive mind and perspective. With dignity, regardless of the estimation of others.
By Jamila Capitman, VISIONS consultant and Legacy Project Founder