JUNE 6, 2015
Blacks have never had any human reality at all.
— James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen
ONCE YOU’VE PAID the $24 admittance fee to the National September 11 Memorial Museum, you can make your way to the gift shop, and purchase FDNY and NYPD kitsch, silk scarves, survivor tree earrings, and sterling silver charms. In the first week of the museum’s opening in spring 2014, you could have also purchased a cheese plate in the shape of the United States and emblazoned with three hearts marking the geographies of trauma and suffering — the Pentagon, NYC, and a field in Pennsylvania. No better — and perhaps no more effective — symbol of the convergences of neoliberalism, US empire, and the banality of the global war on terror. And, due to a near viral outcry from family of the deceased, the cheese plate is no longer for sale, due to what the NY Post, among others, labeled “crass commercialism.”
Reading about the museum — which even in its title has unequivocally joined National (the idea of a nation) with the calendar day, “September 11” — I recall Fred Moten’s 2002 remark regarding the violence of the sentimentality of American public discourse. “American foreign policy took no time off to mourn,” he wrote, and “it does not stoop to feel even if it incorporates and controls a powerful discourse of feeling.” Over a decade later, it seems that the American public continues to refuse to feel, while exclaiming that all it is doing is simply feeling — mourning and fearing — and insisting on its right to protect and preserve these feelings.
If the cheese plate is an appallingly crass symbol of bourgeois aspirations and capitalist consumption, even if it might reveal some innocence of feeling, the “Darkness Hoodie” — a pullover also sold at the museum — is precisely where we see the relation of this “powerful discourse of feeling” and the violence it presumes to protect us from. The “Darkness Hoodie” is a pullover, which comes only in black and features the words “In Darkness We Shine Brightest” repeated to form the shape of the original WTC Towers. Underneath the image of the towers is the same quote in blue writing. Of course, the violent irony of a “Darkness Hoodie” as a way to display and identify one’s American pride, American citizenship, and American feeling is that, unlike the cheese plate — an emblem of dinner parties, elitism, and a certain kind of “privilege,” and which isn’t for everyone — the hoodie is an “ordinary,” “working man’s” casual wear — everyday, informal, and supposedly “neutral.” And its supposed neutrality, its non-scariness, in a culture in which the hoodie has become a symbol of racial terror and racial violence — Trayvon Martin’s hoodie, for instance, or the perceived uniform of urban America — shows a basic unwillingness to examine those feelings for what they are.
The war has created new figures of terror in black hoods — the hooded men of Abu Ghraib, the women in black hijabs in desperate need of saving — to reinforce the many hooded Trayvon’s branded as “homegrown terrorists,” in a process W.J.T. Mitchell has called “cloning terror.” The Darkness Hoodie that is for sale at the National September 11 Memorial Museum is the pernicious double of a construction of blackness that, as Sohail Daulatzai writes, “marks racial others as unruly populations that demand detention, deportation, and even death.”
In his 1985 Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin attested to this form of governance that had successfully made his life (and many others) in America a “terror.”
What I remembered — or imagined myself to remember — of my life in America (before I left home!) was terror. […] [I]t never sleeps — that terror, which is not the terror of death (which cannot be imagined) but the terror of being destroyed. … [T]hat terror is far more vivid than the fear of death.
Baldwin had been witness to the many thousands who had been surveilled, terrorized, and killed. His own life was under constant surveillance because of the threat he was seen by some — particularly by J. Edgar Hoover — to pose. Between 1960 and 1974, the FBI amassed a file of 1,884 pages, which included details of “Baldwin’s education, military status, residences past and present, criminal record … publication history, bank records, and every other detail of his behaviour and opinions that could be unearthed.” The FBI identified him as “dangerous,” as a “nervous, slight, almost fragile figure, filled with frets and fears,” and as “that well-known pervert” by Hoover himself. In F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, William Maxwell’s vast and spellbinding study of the FBI’s role in shaping, critiquing, and reading African American texts and writers, Maxwell explains that “it took the Bureau’s documentation of copious stop notices, however, to produce a nearly real-time file record of Baldwin’s international movements.” For example, between September 1967 and April 1968, the FBI received real-time alerts on Baldwin’s travels between London, Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, and Paris, sometimes confirming his exact seat assignment, arrival time, and “more permanent coordinates” once he arrived in Harlem. The terror that Baldwin posed was both feared and disavowed. Baldwin understood that the war on black cultural and political life was a war on terror for the FBI, one whose tactics he would frame already, 30 years ago, in relation to the US empire’s geopolitical concerns and its expedient discourses of safety and security.
The violent irony of a “darkness hoodie” would certainly not have been lost on Baldwin. It would have been yet another example of American innocence masked as American feeling. Baldwin understood the use of both blackness and terror in American national and global propaganda, how the global war on terror and the domestic war on black life have together been cornerstones of the American empire’s power. Baldwin was prescient about how the US wages its wars on terrors, and the ways in which those wars manifest in the intimate, affective realm while asserting arrogantly that, as the 9/11 Commission Report put it, “the whole planet was the American homeland.”
In his writings and speeches in the last decade of his life, Baldwin consistently spoke out against US imperialism across South America, the Middle East, and the African continent, often referring to the coups, proxy wars, revolutions, and “uprisings” in Nicaragua, Iran, and South Africa. He also increasingly pointed to what “the black people of this country represent to Western powers,” and how American empire had been asserting its global power by demarcating the global north from the global south, in part according to its own racial caste system.
In 1985, in an open letter to the Bishop Desmond Tutu, he wrote,
You must have sometimes been struck, as I have been, by the vehemence of the Western leaders (my own nominal representative in France en tête) concerning global freedom and democracy: deep concern over Polish freedom, the determination of the American government to bring freedom to South America and the Philippines by any means whatever, and the ineffable gallantry of the British prime minister’s insistence on freedom for the islands off Argentina.
“But,” he added, “none of this bellicosity is exhibited in the case of South Africa.” He continued:
To backtrack, and in order to make my point clear: I am certainly concerned about the freedom of the Poles in Warsaw; but the Poles in Chicago are whites who hate blacks. I am certainly concerned about Ireland: but the Irish in Boston are whites who hate niggers. I may be ambivalent concerning the physical purposes of the state of Israel, but American Jews are, in the main, indistinguishable from American white Christians: and I would not like to be an Arab in Jerusalem. And, Israel is, also, an ally of South Africa — which Western nation, indeed, is not? (And it is worth pointing out that the ANC [African National Congress] is as homeless as the PLO, for the same reasons.)
Understanding the relationship between the subordination of black people in the US and “Western powers,” as they manifested across the globe, was instrumental, if not integral, to third-world resistance. In no uncertain terms he stated: “The situation of the Black American ‘minority’ connects with the situation of the so-called ‘emerging’ or ‘Third World’ nations.”
White Americans, however, bless their generous little hearts, are quite unable to imagine that there can be anyone, anywhere, who does not wish to be White, and are probably the most abject victims of history the world has ever seen, or will ever know. (Yes, in spite of Iran, Ireland, England, Russia, and Jerusalem.)
— James Baldwin, Evidence of Things Not Seen
In 1979, Baldwin remarked to a crowd in Berkeley: “Our presence in this country terrifies every white man walking. They know they would not want to be black here. If they know that they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they say is a lie.”
Baldwin of course was referring to the long line of European immigrants in the United States who had “successfully” attempted to clone whiteness — which for Baldwin was an imitation of terror that claimed innocence. But I’m specifically interested in Baldwin’s claim in relationship to Arab immigrants, who, through the first part of the 20th century, had, like European immigrants, been successful in juridical claims to “whiteness,” thereby continuing in a long tradition of immigrants who had secured a racial affiliation that was decisively “not black.” But as scholars like Nadine Naber and others have noted, this was no longer the case by 1980. Arabs could no longer claim whiteness in the public imagination (even if they could legally; most Arabs continue to mark “white” on US census reports). In short, by the last two decades of the 20th century, while Arab Americans certainly knew they did not want to be black here, they also knew that they could not be white here. (See Naber, Gualtieri, et al.)
As historians like Melani McAlister have noted, terrorism had been a “viable concern in foreign policy and an available plot device for films and novels in the 1970s,” but starting in the 1980s, “the discourse of terrorist threat developed in new and important ways” as a result of the Iran hostage crisis, whereby there was a “national narrative of victimization and longed-for revenge.” Arabs (though the Iranians were Persians, of course, not Arabs) were seen as a direct threat to American civilization, and cast in popular culture and public discourse as figures of terror.
After 9/11, African American and Arab comedians repeatedly joked that “Arab is the new Black.” Arabness took on the connotations of the “old Black” — as terrorist, deviant, and ubiquitous national and transnational threat. The joke intimated that Arabs had replaced, or at least joined, African Americans at the lowest rung of the American racial caste system. As Sohail Daulatzai notes, they were the “twin pillars of U.S. State practices, one domestically, one globally.”
In the midst of the Iran hostage crisis and the fall of the Shah, Baldwin was already writing about the intersections of domestic policies and American imperialism. For Baldwin there was no “old” and “new” black — there was something far more nuanced, far less obvious, and far more pernicious.
He said in a speech in 1979 that
What the cia for example … or the president of the united states for example, or the all the ambassadors … don’t know about the world which surrounds them is the price they pay for not knowing me. If you couldn’t deal with my father, how are you gonna deal with the people in the streets of Tehran? I could have told you if anyone had asked.
Baldwin’s transnational intimacies were telling. Me, my father, and the people on the streets of Tehran are bound, he said — not the same, but intimately woven. Without knowing how his father had lived and died, he argued, it was impossible to understand those in Iran whose names we did not know, who were out on the streets, bearded and hijabed, chanting death to America and down with the Shah.
Baldwin’s formulation — “I could have told them” — his ready ability, his willingness, and his knowledge and experience of the “others” is juxtaposed to “if they would have asked.” But they didn’t ask — not because they couldn’t have, but because they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t break from the innocence that upheld their American dream. In reality, they didn’t want to examine how their innocence was connected to the deliberate violence against black life domestically and against the “newly black,” third-world foreigner.
Baldwin gives a double source for the daily manifestation and regulation of US state power — within the realm of the intimate and affective, as in the case of his father’s daily life, and within the violence of the US empire. Ayatollah Khomeini seemed to understand what Baldwin was suggesting. In encouraging the hostage-takers to release black and female prisoners, on November 17, 1979, Khomeini stated that while the embassy was a “den of espionage,” “Islam has a special respect towards women and the blacks who have spent ages under American pressure and tyranny and may have come to Iran under pressure,” therefore, he asked to “mitigate their cases if it is proved that they have not committed acts of espionage.” What Baldwin and Khomeini understood was how figures of terror — from different historical, political, and social moments — could converge both in the interests of US empire and in resistance to it.
Three years earlier, he echoed this argument in The Devil Finds Work (1976), reflecting on the McCarthy era and the ensuing Korean War, and on how the American ontological disease — a refusal to know the oriental “inferior” coupled with a need to save him/her — mimicked the experience of black life and white power in the USA:
I began to feel a terrified pity for the white children of these white people: who had been sent, by their parents, to Korea, though their parents did not know why. Neither did their parents know why these miserable, incontestably inferior, rice-eating gooks refused to come to heel, and would not be saved.
And, here, instead of evoking his father, he refers directly to himself as the source of knowledge: “But I knew why. I came from a long line of miserable, incontestably inferior, rice-eating, chicken-stealing, hog-swilling niggers — who had acquired these skills in their flight from bondage — who still refused to come to heel, and who would not be saved.”
And, Baldwin unequivocally calls out what he sees as “not mere cowardice […], but something much worse, an absolute panic, absolutely infantile.” It wasn’t an inability, but a terror; they did not “dare to know it”:
[Americans] do not know how their slaves endured, nor how they endure, nor do they know what their slaves know about them — they do not dare to know it: and what they dare not know about Little Black Sambo is precisely what they do not dare to know about the world by which they are surrounded. Thus, the disaster in Korea had to be explained away. American error being unthinkable, and American might not to be questioned […].”
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
In Letter to Jimmy (on the twentieth anniversary of your death), Alain Mabanckou’s elegiac conversation with Baldwin, where he speaks to “Jimmy,” as Baldwin was referred to by his intimates, Mabanckou warns him, “if you return to this world, Jimmy, you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive.” In the section titled “on the need to read or reread you today,” Mabanckou reminds us of Baldwin’s prescience about American civilization and resisting the telos of the American dream.
About two months before the murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina, there was a call to police about “a skinny black guy,” who’s “got a toboggan on,” walking in the suburban neighborhood of Madison County, Alabama. Fifty-seven-year-old South Asian Sureshbhai Patel was hunted down by police as he was walking through this neighborhood where he lives with his son. Patel had moved to the US about two months before to help take care of his newborn grandson. His son, an engineer, had obtained citizenship in 2012, and was able to get a visa for his father.
In the recording he repeats “no English” to the barrage of questions by police officers. Attempting to walk away, he is warned by one of the officers, “Do not jerk away from me again.” Unable to understand, he is slammed to the ground. He was left partially paralyzed but alive. His son talked about the move to this neighborhood as a “dream,” since he came from “a very poor family” (he grew up on farmland in India) and had “worked very hard here.” He told reporters, “This is a good neighborhood. I didn’t expect anything to happen.” Or as Baldwin put it in The Devil Finds Work:
An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself.
Patel’s expectation was that the American dream was true, that it had guarantees, that it could uphold what it promised. But he ends by saying, “I’m totally devastated that I might have made a big mistake.” Patel, who had never questioned the dream, has been violently stripped of his innocence. But Scott’s family, while devastated, never refers to the promise of the American dream, and the security blanket it might provide.
Innocence remains central to the experience of those who cannot even imagine any intimacy with Patel’s fate in Alabama or Scott’s in North Carolina. Karen Sharpe — mother of fired police officer Michael Slager, who shot and killed Scott — offers one such testimony. Her reflection of her son’s innocence and goodness coupled with a refusal to relinquish her own innocence is telling: “Michael’s a very generous person, a very kind person. I can’t imagine,” Sharpe said. “Michael wasn’t raised like that. He’s a good person […] He was trained to do what he does and that’s his job … I just feel he did his job, he did what he was supposed to do, and I can’t say anything else about that. That’s the way I feel.” Scott was shot eight times as he was running away from Slager. He was unarmed. And yet, she remains rapt in “a powerful discourse of feeling,” as Moten says, even as she does not “stoop to feel” the full horror of her son’s actions. Baldwin would not have been surprised, and neither should we. But, he told us where we could look, if we’re willing to ask.
Claudia Rankine’s brilliant Citizen: An American Lyric dares to ask the questions Baldwin so vociferously demanded needed asking, and offers something other than the sanitized, innocent inability to imagine why exactly Slager doing “his job” is entrenched in centuries-long brutal violence. Analyzing Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in the 2006 World Cup, Rankine draws on Baldwin, among others, to explicitly explain the reality behind rage:
And there is no (Black) who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruelest vengeance … to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as the dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled; no black who has not had to make his own precarious adjustment … yet the adjustment must be made — rather it must be attempted.
In The Devil Finds Work, as Baldwin examines how the film The Defiant Ones (featuring Sidney Poitier) is based on “the profound American misunderstanding of the nature of the hatred between blacks and whites,” it’s as if we are reading him responding to Rankine, as she analyzes the murder of black life in the US and the Algerian who hears again and again: “Big Algerian shit, dirty terrorist, nigger”:
There is a hatred — certainly: though I am now using this word with great caution, and only in the light of the effects, or the results, of hatred. But the hatred is not equal on both sides, for it does not have the same roots. This is, perhaps, a very subtle argument, but black men do not have the same reason to hate white men as white men have to hate blacks. The root of the white man’s hatred is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, and entity which lives only in his mind. But the root of the black man’s hatred is rage, and he does not so much hate white men as simply want them out of his way, and, more than that, out of his children’s way.
 Scholars such as James Campbell, and more recently William Maxwell in F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (2015) and Douglas Field in All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin (2015) attest to the relentless surveillance Baldwin endured for much of his life in the US and in exile.
 In the extended version of this piece, I historicize this particular Cold War moment and its importance, in particular referring to Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times.
 See, in particular, Sarah Gualtieri’s Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (Berkeley: UC Press, 2009) and Nadine Naber’s Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism (New York: NYU Press, 2012).
 According to the Washington Post, Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said that the government was “extremely disturbed” about the incident and had expressed its concern to the US Embassy in New Delhi, and also planned talks with officials in Washington and Alabama. “We take the incident involving an Indian national very seriously,” he said. “We want to make it abundantly clear we are extremely worried about what happened to Mr. Sureshbhai Patel, an Indian national.”