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To read about racism, rather than experiencing it, is a privilege. Despite this, some refuse to read about discrimination against Black people because they believe it does not apply to them, an idea that is, in and of itself, racist.
The police killing of George Floyd has sparked protests from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Cape Town, South Africa. Floyd’s death has led many non-Black people to check their privilege, especially through reading texts about racism and discrimination. Anti-racist books are topping the best-sellers lists on Amazon and Barnes & Noble; the top-selling book on Amazon, as of publishing, is White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. I find myself revisiting James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.
Based on Baldwin’s life through the 1940s and ’50s, Notes of a Native Son is a compilation of essays by the legendary writer, playwright and social critic. Baldwin’s writing is an observation, reflection and critique of his experiences. His essays come just prior to the civil rights movement, and similarities between then and now are haunting; just how little has changed is truly terrifying.
Amid tensions between Black people and police, I think back to one particular essay, “Equal in Paris,” in which Baldwin, having recently moved to Paris, finds himself in the hands of the police. The French police, Baldwin finds, is an institution steeped in discrimination and prejudice not dissimilar to “their American counterparts,” despite the French being, what he writes, “an ancient, intelligent, and cultured race.”
“Certainly their uniforms frightened me quite as much, and their impersonality, and the threat, always very keenly felt by the poor, of violence, was as present in that commissariat as it had ever been for me in any police station,” Baldwin writes.
The essays of Notes range from topics on Black representation in film to instances of racism across America and Europe. To distill Baldwin’s work would do him a disservice, underplaying his outrage and grief. No amount of reading Black texts will ever replicate the feelings of racism that Black people face every day. Subjecting oneself to the plight of one race will further the idea that we are one people fractured by the discrimination of Black people.
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