If I had to pick a favorite writer, it would probably be James Baldwin. His 1972 essay, “Take Me to the Water,” is simply one of the most extraordinary pieces of writing that I’ve ever read. It’s a long, angry meditation on race and history, ranging from the killings of Malcolm and Martin to France and Algeria. While all of Baldwin’s writings engage the question of oppression and what it does both to its perpetrators and its victims, in this essay he is exceptionally clear on what the existence of oppression means for history. In the quote below, he compresses his argument into a few sentences. He begins by talking about Faulkner’s relationship to Southern history:
He is seeking to exorcise a history which is also a curse. He wants the old order, which came into existence through unchecked greed and wanton murder, to redeem itself without further bloodshed – without, that is, any further menacing itself – and without coercion. This, old orders never do, less because they would not than because they cannot. They cannot because they have always existed in relation to a force which they have had to subdue. This subjugation is the key to their identity and the triumph and justification of their history, and it is also on this continued subjugation that their material well-being depends. One may see that the history, which is now indivisible from oneself, has been full of errors and excesses; but this is not the same as seeing that, for millions of people, this history – oneself – has been nothing but an intolerable yoke, a stinking prison, a shrieking grave. It is not so easy to see that, for millions of people, life itself depends on the speediest possible demolition of this history, even if this means the leveling, or the destruction of its heirs.