It is time to ask very hard questions and to take very rude positions.

And no matter at what price.

What I want, I suppose, is for you to feel guilt. Not anger. Too clean, that. Too easy to direct outward at a convenient target and thence to move on with one’s day. Not rage. Unwieldy, unfocused. Not indifference. You didn’t earn that. You don’t get to opt-out of this one. Not sadness, because you didn’t earn that either. Nor even embarrassment, because this isn’t about a situation so much as it is about you. And not shame. Too self-destructive. Too prone to wallowing.

So, guilt. I want you to marinate for a long, long moment in the moral indecency of this present and specifically on the part you played to get us here. Focus, focus.

Who did you erase? Who did you diminish? Who did you effortlessly plagiarise and replace? For whom did you fail to make room? Who did you accuse of taking up too much room? Who prompted you to clutch your purse and walk a little faster? Who did you find insufficiently deferential? Who did you describe as divisive? Who did you think needed to see the bigger picture? To whom did you counsel civility in the face of injustice? Who did you ask where they were from, from? Whose hair did you touch? Who did you not even see? Whose lives didn’t matter to you?

Who did we fail to protect from the firing line? Because the bodies are piling up.

What I want is for you to feel guilt, because where there is guilt there might be empathy. Where there is guilt there might be a willingness to take responsibility. Where there is guilt there might be an acknowledgement of personal accountability.

Where there is guilt there might be compassion, the decision to care. And where there is the conviction of a decision there might be the will to act.

Who will we save from the fire this time? Because everywhere there is the need.

Attribution:

One is attempting to save an entire country, and that means an entire civilization, and the price for that is high. The price for that is to understand oneself. The price for that, for example, is to recognize that most of us, white and black, have arrived at a point where we do not know what to tell our children. Most of us have arrived at a point where we still believe and insist on and act on the principle, which is no longer valid, that this is such and such an optimum, that our choice is the lesser of two evils, and this is no longer true. Gonorrhea is not preferable to syphilis.

The time has come, it seems to me, to recognize that the framework in which we operate weighs on us too heavily to be borne and is about to kill us. It is time to ask very hard questions and to take very rude positions. And no matter at what price.

James Baldwin on Another Country, from What’s the Reason Why?: A Symposium by Best-Selling Author, collected in The Cross of Redemption


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