12 August 2010
"Take The Hammer": The Life of the Negro in SF circa 1963
For African-Americans living in the United States during the 1960s, the days were full a myriad of emotions: pain, happiness, suffering, exhilaration, depression. A tough day at work, problems paying for the month’s bills and marital difficulties would consume your being with stress and make life appear hopeless. The society black people lived in were full also populated by the majority of white people, who for the most part didn’t understand and wouldn’t seek to understand their fellow citizens. Racism was explicitly being expressed in the south with lynching, attack dogs on black protestors and other acts advocating hate. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at the time were the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, seeking in their differing ways solution to help African-Americans unite and earn their rights in order to end the separation and hate that was dividing the nation. In the documentary “Take This Hammer”, author and activist James Baldwin visits the African-American community leaders and citizens of San Francisco during the spring of 1963 in order to grasp an understanding of their current situation. More specifically, as the documentary comes to an end, the real questions James Baldwin seeks to answer for himself and African-Americans all over the country is this. How black people will better their situation in the U.S. and why white people feel it was necessary to invent the nigger.
When thinking up all the ways black and white people could solve their difference, one word consistently arises: responsibility. Either group of people, in striving to solve the problem of inequality and racism in the nation, has a responsibility they must maintain. As Baldwin rides a taxi from the San Francisco airport, joined by Youth For Service’s Executive Director Orville Luster and another gentleman, he speaks on how both the black and white person “is fundamentally capable of paying his dues. But no one pays his due willingly” (Take This Hammer). The white person must come to terms with the fact that there is discrimination and hate being promoted in his country and they must take every action to combat this problem. The black person must understand they aren’t an inferior being but a regular human being like anyone else, capable of doing well in this world. Baldwin, while seated with a few young black men on near the sidewalk, asked them about their aspirations in life. One boy said there would never be a possibility of a black man becoming president in U.S., especially if he himself couldn’t even earn a job. However Baldwin remained optimistic, telling the youth that there in fact be a black president, not in the racially divided country they live in now but in the future. He further states, “But if you say to yourself there will never be a Negro president of this country, then what you’re doing is agreeing with White people who say you are inferior” (Take This Hammer).
Bell Hooks, a female African-American author and activist, surmises a similar theory to combat racism. One such way, mentioned in her essay, Black Postmodernism, is for African-American’s to “construct self and identity that are oppositional and liberatory” (Hooks 2482-2483). An identity that doesn’t assimilate with the backwards, hateful thoughts of racists who believe that black person is a dumb, lazy, sexually deviant and violence prone animal. An identity that evolves past the belief that there are only two ways for a black person to go, either in the assimilatory manner where every source of culture in the way you speak, act, furnish your home and so is white washed. In this way, everything unique about the person is lost to purported style of how the All-American, white person is suppose to live. Conversely, sticking to the created stereotype will only pigeon hole the black person, submitting them to the identity and place the white man has created in order inhibit the race of any progress. No progress is made but instead regression has taken place, allowing ignorance and misunderstanding to flourish in the black community. According to Hooks, these two types of African-Americans are created with the belief that there is no room for diversity in the black people. In general, hook’s declaration that there must be a radical postmodernism entails that the majority, white people, must include the opinions of the oppressed minority. An open discourse must occur between white and black people in order for the problems to be thoroughly investigated, understand and eventually solved.
The problem, however, is not so simply eradicated and resolved, particularly when the voices of the oppressed people aren’t heard. While speaking to various crowds of black youth, ranging from adolescence to early thirties, Baldwin heard much expression of anger and lack of hope. Young men spoke of how in the schools of San Francisco they aren’t taught about the history of their people. Black men and women aren’t given lessons of their past and ideas of how to guide themselves in the future, being taught European history and none of the history of their African ancestors. The people in power aren’t of the same color or culture as them and seek to keep them impoverished economically and psychologically due to their lack of interest and fear. Referring to the conversation with the crowd of black men, Baldwin mentions to Mr. Luster that, “The country intends to keep him [African-Americans] in his place and it still does” (Take This Hammer). While speaking to a middle-aged black woman, Baldwin is told of her worries about her daughter and the job atmosphere after these kids finish school. These young black men and women go to the same school as white men and women, finish with the same grades and accomplishments, but the young black girl has to wash the house of the white girl once they walk off that graduation stage. The same opportunities aren’t being allotted to each student and this can be demoralizing for a black student who has worked so hard just to see their effort add to nothing. *A young man Baldwin spoke about his lack of ability to earn jobs as not knowing someone with authority, someone who can pull some strings and get you recommended for the job. However, as the young man states, “no colored man got authority” in San Francisco, so if white people govern all the higher positions, surely there will be few if any black people ever hired. As Baldwin states, a black person “would have to despise the [white] people . . . who are able to have such a tremendous gap between their performance and their profession” (Take This Hammer).
This problem of inequality doesn’t stop at the school but enters into the home of the African-American as well. The prices of homes and of rent in the apartments they live in are rising, driving them out of certain neighborhoods and inevitably sending them into the ghetto of San Francisco. Gentrification wasn’t prevalent only in 1960s San Francisco but every U.S. city, even in present day society. A real estate company at the time, Iklo, is mentioned by Mr. Luster to have increased their mortgages so “houses cost based from $22,000-$30,000” (Take This Hammer) , ruling out about every African-American wanting to return to or move into their homes. Baldwin ostensibly takes on a Marxist view, theorizing that the white man has a “profit motive” when gentrifying. The interviewee’s of Baldwin primarily reside in Hunter Points where, gentrification is currently occurring, driving African-American’s to neighborhoods such in the Haight-Ashbury area, a neighborhood that has presently been gentrified itself, turning into a hip, tourist spot. Little boys and girls, without knowing why they must move from the one place they’ve known all their life, are forced to move to a considerably worse neighborhood. A ghetto is never a preferred area to live and mostly spells danger for people of any age, especially the people most susceptible to danger, children. During a walk around construction site of project building, Baldwin emphasizes the dangers and harm of living in a project, having experience them in New York. From an outside view the architecture of a project building may look appealing but the actions that occur inside are anything but. The white men in charge of the real estate companies can dress up surrounding area, adding new factories and so on, but as Baldwin adds, “you cannot doing anything about the moral and psychological affects of a ghetto . . . in the playground my boy, my girl will be exposed to the man who sell narcotics . . . to a million forces that are set in motion when a people are despised” (Take This Hammer). These projects in the ghetto are full of lower class, mostly impoverished people with many negative forces of drugs and crime in motion along with oppression by white folks. Therefore, a child growing up in an area of so many bad influences has little chance of surviving since all the ills of the world are at their doorstep, ready to destroy every fiber of their goodwill.
With so much stress, suffering and fear in the African-American community of San Francisco, the people turn to the church. Life has beat these people down so they seek the comfort of the house of god and the preacher with all his sermons. Promises of better lives, more prosperous, less burdensome, if they live the straight and narrow life and keep faith that the lord will help guide them to the promise land. The majority of black people in U.S. are Christians, taught this religion by the white people who brought them over to the U.S. as slaves on boats from West Africa. The religion that African-American’s take so eagerly to ease their woes, to guide them towards an enlightened state of mind, has already been corrupted and is continually corrupted by the white folks who treat them as unequal, deny them jobs, spew hatful remarks, and murder under the name of Christianity. People still live by the Christian faith, attending church every week, but for people like Baldwin, he believes the morality of the “Church of Christianity is bankrupt” and if he urged the young black folks he previously spoke to attend church they’d ignore him. They wouldn’t want to be part of a religion when they aren’t accepted, where the supposed white Christians can oppress black Christians, claiming them to be inferior but still regard themselves as good, god fearing Christians. According to Baldwin, “Christianity is some kind of social club, you have to have a membership to get in. And black people can’t have a membership card” (Take This Hammer).
There are all these forces that weigh down the African-American: the words and visions of hate, expulsion from their neighborhoods, lack of education about of their history, lack of equality in the job market, lack of safety of their children. With all these problems surfacing and rising higher each day, the black person has a need to express him or herself one way or another. As Zora Neal Hurston, an African-American novelist put it, “Every phase of the Negro life is highly dramatized” (1146 Hurston). They need to purge themselves of the frustration and anguish, achieving some form of catharsis by way of dancer, writing, playing an instrument or making love. Most of this expression has made its way into the homes of American audiences in the form of music, most popularly jazz in the 1960s. Gospel songs are sung thunderously inside churches and a variety of music plays in the clubs, Jook joints, records players and boom boxes blaring from a sidewalk. Others opt to write novels, like Baldwin’s Go Tell It To The Mountain, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The poetry of black women such as Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks and Sonia Sanchez and plays written by Lorraine Hansberry and Amiri Baraka. Today, the most the prevalent form of artistic African-American expression is still music, hip-hop and R&B, while black literature is hardly spoken of except for the latest Oprah Book Club choice that may profile a rising black female author. Most black literature that accurately presents the idiosyncrasies of black folks are denied by white publishers who, as Hurtson points out, “ will sponsor anything that they believe will sell” (Hurston 1160) but the publishers stay away from the romantic and upper-class stories about black people because of “the public indifference to such works, unless the story or play involves racial tension” (Hurston 1160). These thoughts are similar to that of Baldwin as he spoke to Mr. Luster about the “profit motive” of the white people of power when gentrifying neighborhoods and building cheap project housing. The individual begins to care more about money than they do about the well being of the human race, in pursuit of this so-called American Dream.
For all the talk of the evils that white people have befallen onto African-American’s at the time, Baldwin mentions the role of the white liberal, returning once again to the notion of responsibility. *To Mr. Luster, he recited two different stories that involved a conversation with a white male and female liberals, who to claim to have been fighting for the rights of black people across the nation. Questioning the man, Baldwin asked him if knew who Mr. Charlie was and the white man had no idea, surprised when he found out that Mr. Charlie a.k.a. The Man is the white male according to black folks. The impression Baldwin received from this encounter is that the white liberal, however good intentioned they are, are protecting themselves from a variety of facts concerning the people they are trying to help. In his own words, Baldwin claims, “They [white liberals] want to do something to help Negros because it helps them feel better. But the price they’ve paid for this kind of effort is they haven’t discovered who the Negro really is” (Take This Hammer). The second story recounts Baldwin’s visit to a class of twenty students constituting a few white liberal students but mostly black students who were candidly speaking of the black experience in the city, basically telling the liberals that white people say one thing and do another and that “white people don’t know nothing about us to be able to help us” (Take This Hammer). According to Baldwin the white women who was debating with these group of students was hurt by their words, and said she’d done more for Negros than they’ve ever done for themselves. Baldwin was bothered by the comment, informing the women that what the black students meant is they don’t want her to do anything for them but do it for herself. She replied that she didn’t want her child to be harmed and Baldwin told her to “forget it”. Black children everyday are susceptible to dangers because they’re black in a society who sees their skin color as a threat. Everyday a black mother or father drop their child off at school to work their children unprotected from them world, mentally and physically. While still speaking of the conversation with the liberal white woman, Baldwin tells Mr. Luster “How can you expect me to take seriously somebody who says ‘I’m willing to fight for you but I can’t afford to let my children be damaged’ . . . children are being damaged by this continuation of this system” (Take This Hammer). Children, men and women, black and white, are damaged by the continuation of hate, inequality and violence occurring in cities across the nation when they see an advocated divide between races. Baldwin doesn’t believe the white liberal notice how the segregation and hate affect both white and black children and as long as white liberal continue to overlook this fact they will be inherently unsuccessful in their causes.
After all his conversations with the leaders of the African-American community in San Francisco and citizens residing in Hunter’s Point, Baldwin ruminated on one question he felt, if answered by white people in the U.S., would help dispel segregation and inequality. While sitting being interviewed, Baldin reflected:
“Well I know this, and anyone who’s ever tried to live know this, that what you say about someone else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessity, my own psychology, my own fears and desires . . . I’ve always known that I’m not a nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? Well it’s unnecessary to me, so it must be necessary to you” (Take This Hammer)
The word nigger, it’s origin and white people must know the intention of its invention and they must try to figure why they created and labeled it to black people. Zora Neal Hurston, when speaking of mankind in What White Publishers Won’t Print, said perfectly “Man . . . is repelled by that which he does not understand, and mere difference is apt to connote something malign” (1159 Hurston). In the case of the white person’s oppression of black people, it’s a fear that is maintained, due to ignorance, indifference, and power, as exemplified through rapid gentrification of their neighborhoods, placement of minorities in ghettos, perpetuation of stereotypes in the media and fear disguised as blind hate. These are many examples of problems that harmed the African-American community of San Francisco in 1963, as well as many other minorities in the U.S. then and now.
Hooks, Bell. “Postmodern Blackness”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticsim. Ed. Simon, Peter. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 2478-2485. Print.
Hurtson, Zora Neal. “Characteristics of Negro Expression”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticsim. Ed. Simon, Peter. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 1146-1158. Print.
Hurston, Zora Neal. “What White Publishers Won’t Print”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticsim. Ed. Simon, Peter. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 1159-1162. Print.
“Take This Hammer”. National Education Television (NET). KQED, New York. 1964. Television.