Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Storm of Life

August in Indiana—we're on Hwy 43, heading north from Lafayette, through cornfields, toward Chalmers. I'm eight years old and I've just been baptized. My hair is wet on the collar of my white Sunday shirt.

In the back seat I'm thinking, I'm completely pure.

That night, as on most nights, I fight with my brother. As soon as I surface from the mild hysteria of our brawling, I realize, That was my first sin!

And I  rush to my bedroom and kneel next to my bed. Speaking aloud, my arms folded across my chest, my eyes closed, I tell God, "Please forgive me for fighting with Jared."

I end the prayer and stand up. But I don't feel quite the same.

Really, since that day, I've never felt quite the same.


But I've always—even now—yearned to. I've yearned for the same all-encompassing whiteness of that August afternoon: the white jumpsuit I wore; Dad in white, in the water, waiting, and taking my hand, and receiving me into his arms; and then announcing the baptismal oath above me; and my brother and sisters kneeling beside the font, watching; and Mom, so proud, her tears—a young woman, not yet thirty—as she looked with joy at her son, at me.

Under I went. The water received me, closed over me. I clutched my dad's arms and he drew me up into air. And I could feel my purity: I was—for the first and last time—indisputably pure. In other words, at that instant, for that moment, I was, I thought, what I'm supposed to be.

The thing that most white people imagine that they can salvage from the storm of life is, really, in sum, their innocence. . . . I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they tested and very often lost their lives.
— James Baldwin, "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy"
If I remember correctly, I was actually baptized on my eighth birthday: August 2, 1975. I share that birthday with James Baldwin, who was born in Harlem on August 2, 1924. There are additional similarities: we are both first sons of large families; we both grew up in intensely religious homes; we both had—have, in my case—bewilderingly powerful fathers; we both decided as adolescents that we wanted to be writers; and not long after we'd entered adulthood we wandered from the faiths of our families.

I care about all of this because no single author has shocked me with insight as consistently as Baldwin. Very rarely, in all my years of reading, has a sentence changed my life—changed, I mean to say, my orientation toward my own behavior. Baldwin's sentences have done that not once but many times.

So during the past few months I've gone back to him the manner that my dad might turn to his Bible. By dumb luck I came across what Baldwin has to say about white America's attachment to innocence.


I tell her: But this! And you, this!

The children have fled to their bedrooms.

No! she says, this! And not this! That!

I understand myself. We always understand ourselves.

The door, the sky, the ocean air.

Later, alone, in exile, I write: Don't forget this.

I'm in pursuit of my innocence. Again I'm that boy—lustrously blond, wearing his embarrassing glasses, his teeth misshapen by years of sucking his thumb—running to his bedroom to retrieve what belongs to him, what he's been promised. 


A man who was once my prophet, Brigham Young, claimed that Africans are descendants of the murderer Cain: “Cain slew his brother . . . and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin."

Thirty years ago, I found that idea reasonable. After all, I read The Book of Mormon before I was seven, in preparation for my baptism, and, time and again, it had linked righteousness—by which it meant innocence—to fair skin. To be dark was—is—a de facto sign of guilt in God's eyes.

I see now that in this regard Mormonism is merely American. This country has always connected, at the level of essence, skin color and soul.

But Baldwin didn't need a prophet or a book to tell him he was guilty. He had the policeman's stare, the boss's disdain, the banker's fear, the librarian's condescension, and his father's relentless bitterness. Guilt, James Baldwin knew, was his birthright. No one tells us more poignantly how this myth of inherent guilt is black America's curse.

White America's curse is its opposite: the myth of our congenital innocence.


I can't remember a time in my life when I haven't spent a tremendous amount of energy maintaining—for myself, most of all—the myth of my innocence. Eric the Good; Eric the Well-intentioned; Eric, Guardian of Star-crossed Memories and What-Should-Have-Been, But for This World. Eric the Misunderstood.

Over the years, I've had no better proof of my innocence than my failures.

I've built my life upon this poetic contradiction, simply because it's allowed me to imagine that, fundamentally, I don't fail. The world fails. Other people fail. And my faultless heart is stymied by their practical, coldhearted cynicism.

Or: confronted by the reality of their pain, my contrition, forgiveness, cleansing, and justification occur with the arrival of my first tear. To weep is my moment of truth—proof of my return to innocence.


Now, maybe too late, I see that what Baldwin calls the "dream" of my innocence is destroying me. I'm breaking myself to pieces against it. There's no forgiveness, no cleansing, no renewal; there's the storm of life. The rain, the wind, the nostalgic shafts of sunlight—everything comes and goes, unceasingly. Nothing is ever—can ever be—undone.


I'm not the only white American to wonder why black Americans often seem so free. Lawlessly free, really—so lawless that their freedom seems to reinforce our belief in their guilt.

It hadn't occurred to me until reading Baldwin that they're free because they don't care about being innocent. By declaring them innately guilty, we freed them from the burden of devoting their lives to a myth of purity. Their freedom from innocence is what we mean—what they mean, too—when we say, They don't give a fuck.

Of course it's true that a good many of them—perhaps a majority of them, including Baldwin's father—destroy themselves raging against the myth of their guilt. Baldwin spent his adult life warning against the bitter futility of that fight. It's futile, of course, because it's a fight with a lie.

But the African-Americans who have succeeded in rejecting the myth of black guilt have given this country it's richest glimpse, up to now, of real freedom. Mournful freedom, yes—freedom in the key of the blues. But real freedom. I shiver to think of this country without it.


Which brings me, as always, back to myself.

Looking at my own life, and listening to Baldwin talk about his, has led me, over the past few weeks, to this conclusion: the myth of white innocence and the myth of black guilt are equally lethal. They end in delusion, in cruelty, in bitter despair.

I'm neither innocent nor guilty; I'm a man soaked—baptized—and windblown by the storm of life. I have no reason to repent because I've never been innocent. There's no holiness I can hope to return to. There's no guilt that I need to purge.

Through the maelstrom, I can hear singing. It's the free singing of people who don't believe in their innocence, don't care about guilt. It's the free singing of people who understand love.


Freeze that wet-haired boy in the back of his father's car. Sit next to him, put your arm around his shoulders, and tell him: "Kid, it's like this."

He'll listen. He's curious and he has, like every eight year old, an honest heart. And he knows about storms. He sees them coming all the time across the fields of high corn. Sometimes he receives them with laughter, arms up, soaked to the skin.

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