Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Death of a Prophet by James Baldwin

...He followed the doctor out of the door. He stared at the doctor's moving back and looked away, for the doctor's jacket was white and the motion made him sick. He felt that he was being slowly, irrevocably trapped.

They entertain a small room with curtained windows. There was a shaded bulb high in the ceiling. There was nothing in the room except a bed and a chair and a screen around the bed. The shaded bulb was black-gray in the socket.

“He's been quite ill,” the doctor said.

He nodded but he did not move. The doctor looked at him kindly for a moment and motioned for him to follow behind the screen. He moved slowly behind the doctor. At the edge of the screen the doctor stopped; he looked at the doctor, wondering what was wrong, and realized that the doctor was being tactful. He did not feel that he should be present at the last meeting of father and son.

So he reluctantly stepped behind the screen. He was overwhelmed by the bed; but he did not look at the bed directly. As though he were wading in deep water he held his head very high and braced his body. He saw the white bedposts, he was aware of the body's outline on the bed; then, with a wrench, as though some strong hand had grasped the back of his head and turned roughly, as though his father were forcing him to look down on the evidence of some misdemeanor, he forced himself to look down on the bed. There lay his father, black against white sheets.

And his gorge rose. This could not be his father. The heavy skull pressed into the pillow; the deep eye sockets pressed into the skull. The eyes were open, black, and varnished, the straight nose flared and trembled above the purple lips. The mouth was open and foam-flicked. The neck stretched like a phallic column, obscene and secret, with a very slow, indifferent pulsation. The skeleton, beneath the twin, inadequate coverings of the white blankets and the black skin, rose in sharp, sardonic edges, like blunted knives pushing through leather. The wrist was now a polished bone, the fingers were of ebony, with blue nails. From beneath the blanket a wild thigh and ankle showed.

It was his father that he watched dying; and no more would this violent man possess him; this arm would never be raised again. The ragged edge of sound which now issued from his throat would be silence soon or singing behind far-flung stars. Now he was the man, the conqueror, alone on the tilting earth.

He felt thrown without mercy into everlasting space; or as though some door on which he had been knocking with all his weight had been, without warning, rudely opened; and now, like a two-year-old, he sprawled on his face and belly and burning knees, into an unfamiliar room, screaming with that unutterably astounded, apocalyptic terror of a child.

He moved nearer to the bed and murmured Daddy. And the sound stopped, the skeleton became perfectly still. Then it seemed that there was no sound to be made anywhere on earth. Now communication, forgiveness, deliverance, never, the hope was gone. He's gone to meet the Lord.

He laughed to himself at the phrase and again called his father. A voice said, Here now. Here now. He felt hands on his shoulder and he tried to break away, screaming for his father. But he knew, in the awful, endless silence at the bottom of his mind, that it was himself who cried and himself who listened, that his cry would never be heard; it would bang forever against the walls of heaven and he would live with his recurring cry, the force of his anguish powerless to defeat the force of time and death.

He wanted to run, to hide, to run out of the world and be forever hidden; but hands were holding him, a white face overwhelmed him, shooting out gray-green lights like signals for his destruction. He beat against the whiteness until his arms seemed bleeding in their sockets. Then the hands stapled his arms behind him; he sweated with the pain; and the gray-veined, marble floor opened up and dropped him a long way down.

They made him drink cocoa and rest and they wiped his forehead with an evil-smelling ointment. He took from their hands the brown paper bundle of his father's cloths and walked the long corridor to the door. The door crashed behind him and he ran down the walk to the iron gates which reared and glittered against the black, descending sky..

But the stars were out and the moon, a crescent, hung fanged and evil, gleaming through the passing clouds. He walked the railroads platform, carrying the bundle of his father's clothes, waiting for the train to the city. Far behind him stood the hospital buildings, sprawling and sinister and all the windows dark.

Tomorrow a wagon would arrive from the city to take his father's body away. For three days he would lie in state in a shabby velvet funeral parlor; men and women from the church would come and look down on his father and whisper a leave. They would look on his son, his oldest son, and warn him of the enormity of the danger in which he placed his soul

Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. He paced the platform, carrying the bundle, listening to the sharp crack of his heals on the wood. He lit a cigarette; the brief flare lit up the night around him and he held the match until it burned his fingers and then dropped it and ground it beneath his heel.

A cloud uncovered the moon again. He watched it move slowly across the sky, impossible, eternal, burning, like God hanging over the world.



  1. A Challenge to Bicentennial Candidates (1976)

    I gather, from the speeches I read and hear, and I see, in the sullen bewilderment in the faces of all the American streets, that the principle gift the Bicentennial candidate can offer the American people is freedom from the poor- a stunning gift indeed for so original a people, a people whose origin resides entirely and precisely in the poverty which drove them to these shores. It is like offering the American people, on their birthday, freedom from the past and freedom from any responsibility for the present: for the poor are always with us; and they can also be against us.

    The Bicentennial candidate is to offer for our birthday freedom from the discontented, freedom from the criminals that roam our streets; he is to offer, out of such a dangerous history, at so dangerous a time, nothing less than freedom from danger. America's birthday present, on its two hundredth birthday, is to be the final banishment of the beast in the American playground.

  2. The niceties of rhetoric, the pretense of democracy, and the explosive global situation prevent the candidate from identifying this beast to precisely, but real Americans know that the American taxpayer is being ruined by the worthless and undeserving poor...

    I am saddened indeed to be forced to recognize that my father's anguish – to say nothing of my brothers'- has cost the Republic so dearly. I should have thought it cheaper, on the whole, for the American taxpayer to have found a way of allowing my father – and my brothers – to walk on the earth, rather than scraping together all those pennies to send a man to walk on the moon. Man cannot live by nuclear warheads alone; so I would have thought. I would have thought that the ceaseless proliferation, the buying and selling and stockpiling, of weapons was a far more futile and expensive endeavor than the rehabilitation of our cities. Cities, after all are meant to be lived in, and weapons are meant to kill.

  3. I may be somewhat bewildered by the passion with which so many people labor for death against life. I could have hoped that pride in America's birthday might have invested the citizens of the great Republic with such pride in their children that they would resolve – at last, and, God knows, not a moment too soon – to educate these children, and build schools and create teachers for that purpose...

    It would seem to me that the American social disaster is a tremendous burden on the American taxpayer. It is an investment on which his only return is chaos.

    Of course, the candidate will answer, his unhappy priorities are dictated by the responsibility of protecting the 'free world.”

  4. If the candidate really believes this, and is no merely wondering on what unhappy market he can dump our excess Coca-Cola, I challenge him to take a look at what he thinks he is protecting. I dare the candidate to take to the “chitterling” or the “fried chicken” or the Muslim or the Baptist or the Holy Roller circuit: to walk, not ride, through the black streets of Washington, D.C., and Watts and Detroit and Chicago and San Francisco and Boston and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and, yes, Atlanta , and Cleveland, and Gary, and Jackson, and New York. I dare him to teach too, not merely bow before, any class in any school in any ghetto.

    I challenge the candidate to visit Harlem Hospital, and then stand in the streets and explain to the Harlem populace how Harlem Hospital comes about. I challenge the candidate to justify the methadone program. I challenge hm to visit the prisons of this country, from hamlet to hamlet and coast to coast, even daring to go so far as to question Senator Eastland's plantation: and not to wait, as in the case of the late and much lamented J. Edgar, until he is safely dead.

    I challenge the candidate to love the country which he claims to love to the entire extent of love: to face it, this present chaos, and help the country to face itself, and, for the sake of all our children, to change it. (1976)

  5. “On Being White.. And Other Lies” (1984)

    ...This cowardice, this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living in the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen. ( No nation is represented by so stunning a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre. I will not name names – I will leave that to you.) And how did they get that way?

    By deciding that they were white. By opting for safety instead of life. By persuading themselves that a black child's life meant nothing compared with a white child's life. By abandoning their children to the things white men could buy. By informing their children that black women, black men, and black children had no human integrity that those who called themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of black people, they debased and defined themselves.

  6. And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives, and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety. Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot's wife – looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.

  7. However - ! White being, absolutely, a moral choice ( for there are no white people), the crisis of leadership for those of us whose identity has been forged, or branded, as black is nothing new. We – who were not black before we got here, either, who were defined as black by the slave trade – have paid for the crisis in the leadership in the white community for a very long time and have resoundingly, even when we faced the worst about ourselves, survived and triumphed over it. If we had not survived, and triumphed, there would not be a black American alive.

    And the fact that we are still here – even in suffering, darkness, danger, endlessly defined by those who dare not define, or even confront, themselves – is the key to the crisis in white leadership. The past informs us of various kinds of people- criminals, adventurers, and saints, to say nothing, of course, of Popes – but it is the black condition, and only that, which informs us concerning white people. It is a terrible paradox, but those who believed that they could control and define black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves.