The Price May Be Too High

As so often happens in this time and place, a real question, with important repercussions, is rendered nearly trivial by the terms in which the question is expressed. Beneath the terms, of course, lie the deadly assumptions on which black and white relations in this country have rested for so long. These assumptions are suggested in a famous song: "If you white, all right / If you brown, hang around / But if you black, step back!"

The question is not whether black and white artists can work together--artists need each other, despite all those middlebrow rumors to the contrary. The question is whether or not black and white citizens can work together. Black artists remember how much white artists have stolen from them, and this certainly creates a certain tension; but the rejection by many black artists of white artistic endeavor contains far more than meets the public eye. What black artists are rejecting, when the rejection occurs, is not the possibility of working with white artists. What they are rejecting is that American system which makes pawns of white men and victims of black men and which really, at bottom, considers all artistic effort to be either irrelevant or threatening. 

It is very strange to be a black artist in this country--strange and dangerous. He must attempt to reach something of the truth, and to tell it--to use his instrument as truthfully as he knows how. But consider what Sambo's truth means to the governors of state, the mayors of cities, the chiefs of police departments, the heads of boards of education! The country pretends not to know the reasons for Sambo's discontent; but Sambo must deal not only with his public discontent and daily danger but also with the dimensions of his private disaster. How, given the conditions of his life here, is he to distinguish between the two? (There may not be a distinction and that may be the moral of the tale, and not only for poor Sambo.) Assuming he survives the first dues-paying time and becomes more or less articulate to whom is he to address himself? Artists are produced by people who need them, because they need them. The black artist has been produced, historically speaking, anyway, by people who are both black and white, by people whose lifestyles differ so crucially that he is in perpetual danger of lapsing into schizophrenia and can certainly be considered the issue of a divorce. Or a rape. 

I will state flatly that the bulk of this country's white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself.

Well, then, for the sake of one's sanity, one simply ceases trying to make them hear. If they think that things are more important than people--and they do--well, let them think so. Let them be destroyed by their things. If they think that I was happy being a slave and am now redeemed by having become--and on their terms, as they think--they equal of my overseers, well, let them think so. If they think that I am flattered by their generosity in allowing me to become a sharecropper in a system which I know to be criminal--and which it places squarely on the backs of nonwhite people all over the world--well, let them think so. Let the dead bury their dead. And it is not only the black artist who arrives at this exasperated and merciless turning point. For that matter, it is not even an attitude recently arrived at. If one's ancestors were slaves here, it is an attitude which can be called historical. 

The ground on which black and white artists may be able to work together, to learn from each other, is simply not provided by the system under which artists in this country work. The system is the profit system, and the artists and their work are "properties." No single word more aptly sums up the nature of this particular beast. In such a system, it makes perfect sense that Hollywood would turn out so "liberal" an abomination as If He Hollers, Let Him Go! while leaving absolutely unnoticed and untouched such a really fine and truthful study of the black-white madness as, for example, Ernest J. Gaines's Of Love and Dust. For that matter, it makes perfect sense that Hollywood lifted the title If He Hollers, Let Him GO! from a fine novel by Chester Himes, published about twenty years ago, and has yet to announce any plans to film it, which, all things considered, is probably just as well. What it comes to is that the system under which black and white artists in this country work is geared to the needs of a people who, so far from being able to abandon the doctrine of white supremacy, seem prepared to blow up the globe to maintain it. 

And if white people are prepared to blow up the globe in order to maintain that faith of their fathers which placed Sambo in chains, then they are certainly willing to allow him his turn on television, stage, and screen. It is a small price for white people to pay for the continuance of their domination. But the price of appearing may prove to be too high for black people to pay. The price a black actor pays for playing, in effect, a white role--for being "integrated," say in some soupy soap opera--is, at best, to minimize and, at worst, to lie about everything that produced him, about everything he knows. White people don't want to hear what he knows, and the system can't afford it. What is being attempted is a way of involving, or incorporating, the black face into the national fantasy in such a way that the fantasy will be left unchanged and the social structure left untouched. I doubt that even American "know-how" can achieve anything so absurd and so disastrous; but anyway, I think that we may one day owe a great debt to those who have refused to play this particular ball game. What they are rejecting is not a people, but a doctrine, and their seeming separation may prove to be one of the few hopes of genuine union that we have ever had in this so dangerously divided house.

James Baldwin, "The Price May Be Too High" (1969)