And one begins to suspect an awful thing: that people believe that they deserve their history, and that when they operate on this belief, they perish. But one knows that they can scarcely avoid believing that they deserve it; one’s short time on this earth is very mysterious and very dark and very hard. I have known many black men and women and black boys and girls who really believed that it was better to be white than black, whose lives were ruined or ended by this belief; and I, myself, carried the seeds of this destruction within me for a long time.
- James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt”
Reading Baldwin’s remarkably lucid and powerfully articulated “White Man’s Guilt” I am reminded, thematically if not in terms of quality, of a piece I did in undergrad. I was writing about apartheid era South Africa, but also, I’ve since realized, about home, about the American inner-city (DJ Eurok put it well in his epic poem “This is DC”: “This is DC, you might think that you own it, a piece of South Africa on the Potomac.”) :
Black consciousness activist Steve Biko explained once to his white liberal companion, Donald Woods, as he took him through the streets of a black shanty-town:
“[if you survive childhood] you grow up in these streets, these houses. Your parents try, but in the end, you only get the education the white man can give you. Then you go to the city, to work, to shop. You see their streets, their cars their houses. And you begin to feel that there is something not quite right about yourself, about your humanity, something to do with your blackness. Because no matter how dumb or smart a white child is, he is born into that world, but you, a black child, smart or dumb, you’re born into this,and smart or dumb, you’ll die in it.” (Cry Freedom)
In his account of the black child’s encounter with the white world, Biko crystallizes conceptions of two distinct physical spaces. One, containing “these streets and these houses”, is characterized by squalor, violence and poverty. The other, containing “their streets, their cars, their houses” is characterized by manifestations of wealth and privilege.
Biko asserts that, when confronted with the contrast between the two spaces, a black man associates the “inhumanity” of the conditions in his space with his blackness. Further, when Biko comments on the different worlds that black and white children are born into, he refers not just to a world of privileges, but also to a disparate set of physical spaces which neither is likely ever to leave, other than “to shop” or “to work” in the case of the black child. In this sense, physical space was woven into the very fabric of what it meant to be black or white.
Social commentator and urban design critic James Kunstler shares the insight of the fictionalized Biko from “Cry Freedom”, reminding us that the design and condition of our cities tell us who we are, where we’ve been and what we aspire to. The same is true of a city’s subdivisions, wards and neighborhoods like the one in DC where I grew up.
The failing infrastructure of the city that was let to fall down around us; the regal, decayed old houses in Anacostia; the public housing tenements that rose up alongside them - bleak, square and imposing as they were; shops with glass two inches thick separating black patron from yellow proprietor; the eerie absence of sit down restaurants or palatable, green, public gathering places; these things told us that we’d inherited the discards of more worthy people, that they’d abandoned this dying history to pursue another, separate from ours.
If our city had a Kunstlerian message for us, it was this: we were tiny, divorced from history and nature, and going nowhere. As Baldwin put it, all of this suggests most insidiously to a malleable young mind “that they deserve their history”, and their present. It left generations of us throwing our lives after the ugliness, and a lucky few of us, searching for our true deserving.