Racial tensions have sadly been all too common in the United States over the years. Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere are but the latest in a long line of racial issues. Here, Edward J. Vinski presents a fascinating view on race in America, with the help of two very different people who wrote at the height of the American Civil Rights movement.
When one reads, one enters into a conversation with the writer. Such conversation, although naturally different from the more traditional face-to-face method, allows us to travel across time and distance and even to resurrect the dead. This, of course, is only in a manner of speaking, but in the world of letters the conversation is real. We may hear the words of persons long since dead and descriptions of places we might never visit.
For a brief moment during the height of America’s Civil Rights movement, an unconventional conversation occurred between two men: one, James Baldwin, an African American writer living in Europe, the other, Thomas Merton, a white Trappist monk living in a Kentucky monastery. While their different backgrounds alone might make their interaction appear somewhat unusual, they shared a social consciousness that transcended their worlds. In this, they were, perhaps, more similar than they might initially seem. What makes their conversation truly unique, however, is the way they communicated to each other and ultimately to their readers: they conversed primarily through a series of letters not addressed to each other.
In his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, Baldwin demonstrates what it means to be black in America and how whites are, in fact, viewed by their black counterparts. The two essays take the form of letters. The first and shorter of the two, “My Dungeon Shook”, is written as a “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” In it, Baldwin describes his own father, recalling that “he was defeated long before he died because at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him” (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 3), and he admonishes his nephew that “you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger” (p. 4). Through this initial statement, Baldwin shows the connection between the movement toward black freedom and that of white freedom as well. By using the offensive word “nigger” he underscores this fact that American Blacks are an invention of White Americans. It is this creation that causes “defeat “ in those created, as in the case of the senior Baldwin, and it is the crime of which Baldwin accuses his countrymen. He writes that they are destroying:
Hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it […] but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime (p. 5).
Their so-called innocence lies in the fact that White America fails to see the crime. “They are, in effect,” Baldwin writes, “still trapped in a history they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (p. 8). As such, the truth about integration is not that it means the acceptance of blacks by whites. Rather, Baldwin tells his nephew, “the terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them” (p. 8).
In his long-form essay “Letters to a White Liberal”, written in response to The Fire Next Time, Merton recognizes this very assumption among whites that white society is somehow superior to that of blacks. Perhaps more accurately, White America exists under the assumption that it has somehow achieved perfect human completeness. From this perspective, as Baldwin suggests, blacks are “to be accepted into white society” (Merton, 1964, p. 58). Baldwin and Merton both call attention to the fact that equality does not mean the elevation of one group to the standards of the other. Rather, true integration and equality requires movement on both sides. “Your sister and I have every right to marry if we wish to,” writes Baldwin, “[…] if she cannot raise me to her level, perhaps I can raise her to mine” (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 96). Merton concurs. In the only direct correspondence between the two men, Merton wrote a letter to Baldwin shortly after he read The Fire Next Time. In it, he states that human completeness comes only from the realization that “I am therefore not completely human until I have found myself in my African and Asian and Indonesian brother because he has the part of humanity which I lack” (Merton, 1964/2008, p. 226).
Even if true equality means that blacks must unilaterally become more like whites, Baldwin questions whether blacks would accept these conditions. He writes that:
I do not know many Negros who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t want to be beaten over the head by the whites […] white people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this […] the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 21).
Years earlier, Merton had come to a similar conclusion. Working for a time among Harlem, New York’s poor, sick and dispossessed at Baroness Catherine de Hueck’s Friendship House led him to conclude that “there is not an Negro in the whole place who does not realize, somewhere in the depths of his nature, that the culture of the white man is not worth the dirt in Harlem’s gutters” (Merton, 1948/1976, p. 386). Not only do they not wish to be integrated in to such a world, the sickness, drugs and death of Harlem stood not only as a contrast to the corruption and greed of white society, but as an indictment against that very society. Reflecting on what he saw, Merton concluded that such pockets of resistance against White American society may be all that prevents God’s wrath from wiping that very society from the planet.
While both men recognize that the races need each other to achieve perfection, they also acknowledge that awareness of this fact is difficult for people to grasp. Baldwin indicates that such a realization is more difficult for those in power writing that “people are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal […] but they love the idea of being superior” (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 87). For whatever reason, Americans have long mistrusted standards of civilization that are not cut from the European model. As a result, white Americans have come to believe that they possess something “[…] that black people need or want. And this assumption […] makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards” (p. 93).
Merton concurs. Whites, according to him, all too frequently assume that they have nothing to gain from blacks and that black society is therefore “more or less worthless” (Merton, 1964, p. 59), thus echoing the sentiment expressed in his letter to Baldwin. The truth that both writers present is that “different races and cultures are correlative. They mutually complete each other” (Merton, 1964, p. 61).
The problem is that the self-knowledge necessary to change this perception would require an abandoning of the most cherished American myths: that of “freedom-loving heroes” (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 100). These are the myths that whites believe and about which blacks know better. As such, most blacks “dismiss white people as slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing” (p. 101). Blacks can’t hate whites, according to Baldwin, because they know how much whites have to lose if integration was to become complete, and that the fear of this loss is such that it is impossible for whites to act with love toward them.
Merton draws the same conclusion, writing:
If the Negro […] enters wholly into white society, then that society is going to be radically changed. This, of course is what the white South very well knows and it is what the white Liberal has failed to understand (Merton, 1964, p. 8).
Equality, thus, can only be obtained through sacrifice particularly on the part of whites. The world they knew will be radically altered on economic, social, and psychological levels. But this is the price to be paid for a new society. “The only way out of this fantastic impasse is for everyone to face and accept the difficulties and sacrifices involved, in all their seriousness, in all their inexorable demands” (Merton, 1964, p. 9).
The writer and the monk bring their respective books to a close with calls to action. Baldwin attempts to rally “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks” of America. “If we […] do not falter in our duty now, we may be able […] to end the racial nightmare and achieve our country, and change the history of the world” (Baldwin, 1963/1985, p. 104-105). But if we fail, he writes, the prophecy of the old spiritual will come to pass: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time!” (p. 105).
Merton’s ending is, perhaps, less dramatic, but just as powerful. Recognizing the difficulty that whites have in understanding the message of the Black Americans, he writes:
This is the message which the Negro is trying to give white America. I have spelled it out for myself, subject to correction, in order to see whether a white man is even capable of grasping the words, let alone believing them (Merton, 1964, p. 70).
Then, acknowledging that the truly prophetic vision of a racially equal America’s potential can only come from the perspective of Blacks, he brings this message home: “For the rest, you have Moses and the prophets. Martin Luther King, James Baldwin and the others. Read them, and see for yourself what they are saying” (p. 70).
The passage of the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in the United States, but it did not end racial injustice. The Brown vs. The Board of Education court decision helped integrate American schools, but did not end racial inequality. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s did not end racial tensions. The last half-century has been one in which periods of relative calm are punctuated by flare-ups of old resentments and suspicions. The events of Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Baltimore, Maryland have been nothing but the most recent examples of long-simmering racial tensions boiling over. With each event, there are calls for a national conversation on race. Sadly, people on both sides of the divide often bristle at and deflect any real attempts at open discussion. In the meantime, opportunists seek to achieve their own ends. In so doing, they add a further level of distraction to matters, often doing little more than confirming the worst fears of those on whichever side they seem to oppose.
The truth is that the story of America is intertwined with the messy story of racism, and until the entire nation comes to grips with this disturbing fact, it is likely that a resolution to the problem will continue to elude us. Fifty years ago, Thomas Merton and James Baldwin exchanged “letters” devoted to this topic. If there is any significant lesson to be learned from their “correspondence” it is this: racism in America will not be solved by the nation’s liberals or conservatives, politicians or activists.
Rather, change will be brought about by its prophets who can see the problem from a self-critical, but not self-condemning perspective.
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I ask to be excused a slight stylistic indulgence. In light of my thesis that the written word allows a measure of immortality, I have written most of this piece in the present tense. I believe that the conversation is too important to have simply happened once and for all in the past. Rather I believe that Merton and Baldwin continue to speak to each of us to this very day.
Baldwin, J. (1963/1985). The fire next time. New York: The Modern Library.
Campbell, J. (1991) Talking at the gates: A life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking.
Leeming, D. (1994). James Baldwin: A biography. New York: Arcade
Merton, T. (1948/1976). The seven storey mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
Merton, T. (1963/2008). Letter to James Baldwin. In W.H. Shannon and C.M. Bochen (Eds.). Thomas Merton: A life in letters. New York: Harper One.
Merton, T. (1964). Seeds of destruction. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
1. The New Yorker, in which the essays were published before being collected in The Fire Next Time, required that all submissions be in the form of a “Letter from….” (Campbell, 1991)
2. As not all of Baldwin’s personal papers have been released to the public, I am not aware of whether he replied to Merton.
3. This is not an exclusively American problem. While visiting an elementary school in Senegal, Baldwin was outraged to find the children’s textbook referring to their ancestors from Gaul (Leeming, 1994)