Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Babylon, Baldwin and Exile

"[white/european americans] they come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio becomes Joe, Pappavasilu becomes Palmer, Evangelos becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So with a painless change of name in the twinkling of an eye one becomes a white American.
Later, in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches. One can neither assess nor overcome the storm of the middle passage, One is mysteriously shipwrecked forever, in the Great New World.
The slave is in another condition, as are his heirs: I told Jesus it would be all right/ If he changed my name.
If He changed my name.
The Irish middle passage, for but one example was as foul as my own, and as dishonorable on the part of those responsible for it. But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking. The Irish, therefor and thereafter-- again, but for one example -- had absolutely no choice but to make certain that I coult not menace their safety or status or identity: and, if I came too close, they could, with the concent of the governed, kill me. Which means that we can be friendly with each other anywhere in the world except in Boston.
What a monumental achievement on the part of those heroes who conquered the North American wilderness!
The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white: and in the main, nothing more than that, or as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for his journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and require of my captivity a song. They require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own."

-James Baldwin, Introduction: The Price of The Ticket

This is the end to the introduction written by James Baldwin that precedes of a compilation of his work. In this passage Baldwin is contending that the privilege of european descended (white) Americans is that they are able to come to this country and change their names so that they become white, immediately. And through the ease at which they assume white privilege they forget their own history, their own exile from their home country. The last sentences reference psalm 137, originated from the Jewish exile from Judea to Babylon in 586 BCE.

Direct Psalm:
"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, we also wept when we remembered Zion.
On willows in its midst we hung our harps.
For there our captors asked us for words of song and our tormentors [asked of us] mirth, "Sing for us of the song of Zion."
"How shall we sing the song of the Lord on foreign soil?" -Psalm 137, Judaica Press Translation

Within recent years this psalm has become a song that not only permeates both Jewish and Christian worship but has been covered by Bob Marley, Sublime, The Melodians and many others...

Song Lyrics, from which the Baldwin Quote seems to be directly derived:
"By the rivers of babylon, where we sat down,
and where we wept,as we remembered zion.
and the wicked carried us away in captivity
required of us a song.
How can we sing the lord's [king alfa] song in a strange land"

Baldwin criticizes white america for not examining themselves, and their own history, for he believes that societal change in America must not come from the black population but from a true examination of how white people constructed and forced black america into creation. In the end he says:

"I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and require of my captivity a song."

he asks, how can the people who are also in exile forget their own history so well that they request a song from me in my exile? It is because of the way that european immigrants, and their decedents can so easily assume american whiteness that they are able to forget that they too are part of the exile, they too are separated from their lands, and they forget what it means to be separated and so they ask that the black population perform, and prove themselves, despite the fact that they, the white population never had to prove themselves, the color of their skin and their assumed white name was enough. Black people cannot assume that whiteness, they cannot change into it by assuming a white name and stepping onto american soil, it is there. White americans can forget their history. So Baldwin asks us to remember that history, and consider what we are asking of him, someone who was never given the privilege to assume that whiteness (and along with white privilege: power, access, etc)...

Baldwin asks us to examine the ways that we have created the system that has forced him into oppression...

Coincidentally the recent Hampshire Divestment from the Occupation of Palestine has forced me into an examination of my history that I was always privileged to be able to ignore before, as my blond hair and lack of strong amherst based religious connection allowed me to pass in some ways as a christian american... or at least to ignore the ways that my jewish identity impacts me

My family changed their name when they came to this country, my fathers grandfather, in the 1910s changed his name to 'horwitz' which in that time did not assume complete white privilege, although of course white skin meant white privilege and white status. However, the name was identifiable as a jewish name, which still carried with it some weight. Which continued as anti-semitism did and still does (although on a much more minor level) exist in society for a period of time. And in the era of post-holocaust fear that my father and uncle were born into they were given middle names that they could use as last names to protect themselves from having to keep that jewish identifier. And yet, had they ever had to modify their names in that way they would have picked up the white privilege that Baldwin talks about. And as time progressed, they, as do I, assumed that white privilege. The marker of the Jewish last name has no negative connotations, and can often carry benefits, I never fear using my name... and only occasionally fear outing myself as a Jew...
But I also never forget about my exile. My people, the jewish people were a people living in exile and were for almost 2000 years, and many still are. This is not to say that I as a jew intend to return to the holy land, nor do I believe that all jews should. But it is to say that I do feel my exile in the sense that I feel a yearning and pain to connect to my former land.

When I was in Israel we went to Jerusalem for the sabbath, and as I walked through the old city to the Wall (the only remnant of a time before the second and final exile) I felt at home, I felt that I was no longer in exile, I felt a place where I could belong. And a place that had been promised to me by the community I grew up in. And so I continue to struggle with how I live out my jewish identity... it becomes a balancing act between my yearn for my promised home land, a rational that says no people have more right to a land than any other people do, and an anger that boils within me for the way that my people have treated the Palestinian people. I do not know if I am still a zionist, I do not know if I will ever return to Israel, I am not a jewish nationalist, and I do not believe that all jewish people should return to the land, but I do know that "Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it". So without my homeland to sing in, I stand across the river, in babylon, in my exile and sing to my history, so that I might not forget, and so that god might not forget me. But I am sure that in my 19 years I have forgotton my history, and my exile? I ask myself not only how to realize what I already have done, but also how to avoid forgetting history and my yearning song again. How do I prevent them from becoming the weapon that Baldwin is subjected to? How do I prevent myself from asking Baldwin to sing for me in his exile?

"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget [its skill].
May my tongue cling to my palate, if I do not remember you, if I do not bring up Jerusalem at the beginning of my joy."

1 comment:

Seth said...


This is a powerful post, thoughtful and deeply personal. Your white privilege, my white privilege, is so easly taken for granted. And, not surprisingly, the story is more subtle and complex than you express.

For one thing, when your great-grandfather (my grandfather) Joe came to America in the early part of the last century, my understanding is that he did not change his name, but that his name was changed for him. English-speaking Ellis Island officials had limited ability (or concern) for properly understanding the names presented to them by non-English speakers. The story I remember hearing (although who can say where the "truth" is) is that your great-grandfather arrived here as a stowaway at the age of 13. And, if some official in the new world said that his name was hereinafter Horwitz, then that was a reality he had to accept. So, I don't believe that he "chose" a new name with the conscious or unconscious intent of enhancing his status. I think, rather, that he was swept along with a staggering tide of frightened, confused and desparate refugees.

This is not to say that he didn't enjoy the priviledge of his undeniably white skin. Further, he, and the culture he lived in, defended and reinforced that privilege with their attitudes toward black folks. This predjudicial attitude was part of the environment my father (your grandfather) grew up in. But his wider exposure in the local culture modified his attitudes. Nonetheless, consciously or unsconsciously, he passed on some of his attitudes to me. And, while I've struggled with examining these attitudes in my own life, some of that has passed on to you. And you, with the deliberate and vulnerable words you write here are taking a giant step in purging the remnants of the predjudice, the arrogance of the white privilege you inherited.

So, you ask how to prevent yourself from asking Baldwin to sing for you in his exile. You may not be able to. But it seems to me that, by asking the question, by realizing that you both have songs to sing, and by having a desire to harmonize your voice with his, then you've made such an insensitive demand much less likely -- both for you and for me. Thanks.