Back to being the stranger in the village

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Works of James Baldwin, that intense voice of the US’s civil rights struggle, are witnessing a revival as race returns to the centre of political conversation (Cosmopolis column published in the Hindu BLINK, 25 February, 2017) (View the PDF here)

A little over a decade ago, I was lucky enough to attend an academic conference in Konstanz, a lovely old town perched on a lake on the border between Switzerland and Germany. Surrounded by Gothic architecture and cobbled streets, I presented a paper on 19th-century Bengali intellectual history. On my way back, I was travelling by train to Zurich to catch my flight home. At the Swiss border, uniformed troops boarded the train and came directly to me to inspect my papers. They ignored all the other passengers. After a fairly lengthy, but not discourteous interrogation, they were satisfied and left the train (again without checking any of the other passengers). It trundled along through the bucolic Swiss countryside.

In the grand scheme, this was an entirely trivial incident, one that occurs in far harsher ways to considerably more vulnerable people around the world with depressing frequency. But it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I was the only non-white passenger on that train. Growing up in fairly cosmopolitan settings like New York City, I had the privilege of never feeling excluded because of my appearance. I watched the green pastures and little sloping Swiss towns tumble away, and I knew the weight of my skin, how it kept me at a frontier that I could never fully cross.

My wife and I recently saw I Am Not Your Negro, an Oscar-nominated documentary about race in America, scripted and narrated entirely through the writings of the black essayist and novelist James Baldwin, who died in 1987. Baldwin is celebrated as a voice of the tumultuous 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, a period of tremendous social upheaval in America, which witnessed the civil rights battle to end racial segregation. His work is enjoying a revival at the moment, with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, on one hand, and the rise of white nationalism, on the other, returning race to the foreground of political conversation. His words feel as contemporary today as they might have 50 years ago. I was amazed by the reaction of the audience in the movie theatre — one of the more sober, arty cinemas in the city. People were sobbing through much of the documentary, cheering at times, and breaking out into sporadic applause. When the film ended, there was a standing ovation.

One of Baldwin’s great essays is about his experience of his blackness in Switzerland. Written in 1955, ‘A Stranger in the Village’ recalls the time Baldwin spent in a remote Swiss mountain hamlet. He inverted the traditional ethnographic journey that would take “modern” Europeans or North Americans to seemingly primitive, bizarre, and exotic lands. Baldwin — a black man from America — was the representative of a distant world. “In the village, there is no movie house, no bank, no library, no theatre… and at the moment, one typewriter, mine, an invention which the woman next door to me here had never seen.” Though he is the cosmopolitan ambassador from modernity, Baldwin cannot avoid being treated in a subhuman way. He is the first black man many of the villagers have encountered. They shout “Neger! Neger!” when they see him on the street, play with his hair, and touch his skin to see if the colour might run off. “In all of this,” he writes, “in which there were certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human.”

The revelation sparks a far-ranging and very thoughtful essay on the workings of race in America and Europe. He saw how his arrival to even this remote corner of Europe was shaped by racial power relations, how his blackness — which subjugated him on the streets of America — was still inescapable in Switzerland’s Alpine idyll. He also saw in the Swiss village a vision of the wishful racial innocence that his white compatriots in America longed to return to, “a state in which black men do not exist.” And no matter his erudition, imagination, and his American upbringing, he felt deliberately shut out from the cultural inheritance of the West and therefore from a sense of belonging. Westerners, even in rural Switzerland, had little conception of themselves that did not rely on distinguishing themselves from “others,” no matter how present and rooted that “other” was.

“The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization… and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders,” he writes. “Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept a black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as a white man.”

We see now with the rise of the far-right in Europe and the US the veiled expression of this idea. Racist sentiment is no longer fringe, but increasingly defines the zeitgeist, with white nationalist forces growing in strength from Moscow to Washington. From Vladimir Putin to France’s Marine le Pen, to Donald Trump’s right-hand man Steve Bannon, nativists invoke a Western civilisational identity in opposition directly to Muslims (both within and outside the West), but also in antipathy to blacks, Latinos, and other non-whites. White nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic wave the emblems and raise the slogans of the ancient Greek wars against Persia and the medieval crusades for the Holy Land, seeking to transform the swampy ground of cultural and racial difference into a bloody frontline.

As Baldwin observed elegantly when studying the residents of that Swiss village: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

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