“If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks […] do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” — James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 1963
There is, in New Testament scripture, a phrase credited to the Apostle Paul that reads, “for now we see, as in a mirror, dimly.” For all the mysticism that has attached itself to this text, archaeologists insist that it was a statement of fact because a “looking glass” available to people in the Ancient Near East of that era most often gave back a kind of smoky gray reflection, in which one could only see an image that was more dimly recognizable than crystal clear.
In the middle of the 20th century, the strident voices of James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and the rest of our post-Harlem Renaissance writers pointed out that their country’s dark past had been seen dimly through old historical mirrors for far too long, and they called for a revision of the American story as told by those who saw the savage beauty of it all through the clear, and clarifying, lens of Blackness.
Scholars, politicians, and sociologists from the mainstream objected strenuously at first. The sacred canon of our historical record was a guarded preserve of post-European whiteness onto which the trespass of new voices from underground was neither asked for nor welcomed. It is a gladness and a gift that Baldwin and other disciples of Carter G. Woodson resisted, persisted and pushed through. They saved us from ourselves.
Sometimes humans, despite our frailty and stupidity, get a thing right. In those precious moments, after fiddling with the dials and knobs, after working and reworking the equations, we arrive somehow at what it seems best to do for the betterment of all.
So it was that in the years immediately following the release of James Baldwin’s essay, America brought forward and signed into law both a Civil Rights Act and an act to secure the right to vote unhindered.
A frightened country breathed a sigh of relief as, finally, something that felt good and decent was beginning to emerge from the smoldering wreckage that ushered in the tense, turbulent ’60s. A page was turning, many presumed, and another chapter was entering the history books. Now perhaps, the “colored” people could calm down and their white friends and neighbors could feel “safe” once again. We could move on.
This year, Black History Month arrives hard on the heels of outrageously troubling upheaval, disorder and strife. American carnage, spotlighted and forecast by a volatile leader, was visited upon us with a vengeance. Marked by public lying, events of mass murder, policing gone awry, debates about the value of Black lives and — finally — a dual plague of pandemic death and economic distress, the era grew into one of epic proportions. No one escaped its effects.
At its height, the shadowy image of a dimly recognizable America rose into view. Revivalist, privileged, power-hungry, ruthless, racist, elitist, nationalistic and prone to misogyny, it looked for all the world like a mirror-image match of the fraught society that led to an uncivil Civil War in the past.
Happily for us, during this very same Black History Month the voices calling for clarity and betterment are diverse in their look, origin, feel and tone. They are cross-cultural, omni-racial, post-caste, pansexual, multi-generational, and strata-defiant. They view truth and accountability as the parents of peace, unity, and trust. They have looked back at America’s past through a clean, clear mirror that sees anyone who suffered while on the way here as brother and sister to you, to me, to everyone who looks out over this wide, broad land and sees that we can yet be transformed into what we hope to be. If we learn all the lessons history’s Blackness teaches. If we do not falter in our duty.
Rudolph C. Cleare is the executive vice president of The Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation. He has served for several years on the Interfaith Council Executive Committee.