Written and delivered by Herpreet Kaur Grewal at the James Baldwin: his life and legacies conference, Queen Mary’s University, University of London, 29th June, 2007


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(L-R) Leah Mirakhor of University of Wisconsin and Herpreet Kaur Grewal Baldwin’s well-known ‘Sonny’s Blues’

I was asked by the conference organisers to form a response to the James Baldwin essay, Uses of the Blues, first published in Playboy magazine in the 1960s. I gave the following presentation:”I write about policy and politics concerning the physical, social and economic regeneration of deprived areas in the UK for a journal. One of the areas I cover in my work is something the UK Government calls: integration and cohesion. This term has become more relevant to mainstream politics in this country since riots in northern towns in 2001 – where different ethnic communities were found to be living “parallel lives” – and the 7/7 London bombings. How do we make society more cohesive rather than divisive? How do we ensure that those born in this country do not end up feeling like they don’t belong here but have an opportunity to make a decent life? What stands in the way of this? When I started to read Baldwin I realised that these questions were pretty similar to what he was asking in his work, for his generation, in America.

In Uses of the Blues Baldwin writes:

“I am talking about what happens to you if, having barely escaped suicide, death or madness, or yourself, you watch your children growing up and no matter what you do, no matter what you do, you are powerless, you are really powerless, against forces of the world that is out to tell your child that he has no right to be alive.”

Then there are those who try to help but of them, Baldwin says:

“People talk to me absolutely bathed in a bubble bath of self-congratulation. I mean, I walk into a room, and everyone there is terribly proud of himself because I managed to get to the room. It proves to him that he is getting better. It’s funny, but it’s terribly sad. It’s sad that one needs this kind of corroboration and it’s terribly sad that one can be so self-deluded.”

In these excerpts Baldwin is talking about an inability for some people to engage in a debate that may really change things – an inability to deal with the blues, with anguish of experience. That may be squared at the powerful perhaps. But he is also talking about a psychological ghetto. When someone has been trodden on for so long will he/she believe they deserve this? Some may use drugs to climb out of this feeling. I am reminded of Sonny’s Blues when Sonny says: “’Her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes – when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And-and sure.’ He sipped his beer, very deliberately not looking at me. I watched his face. ‘It makes you feel-in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.’” In an interview Baldwin gave to Studs Terkel in 1961 where they talk about drugs, he says: “I knew a boy very well once who told me, that he wasn’t trying to get “high” he was just trying to hold himself together.”

Statistically, drug problems will be more rampant where there is poverty, weak social structures and poor housing. It is also likely that black people or those from other ethnic groups are living in that poverty although chronic neglect and poverty does transcend race. There is a well-intentioned understanding of this experience, theoretically, within our society. There is outrage and there is indignation. There are so many well-meaning people in government and within think-tanks producing such well-meaning reports to change the chances of these people. But as someone who works in government or writes about government or even just reads the papers may observe, often, some small changes occur but things keep going around in circles because a fundamental shift in attitude does not happen. A report out last month said since New Labour came into power the gap between the haves and have-nots has increased, not closed. It says the share of the nation’s wealth owned by the richest one per cent rose from 17 per cent in 1991 to 24 per cent in 2002, while the bottom 50 per cent’s share fell from eight per cent to six per cent over the same period.

So where are these well-intentioned people going wrong? It seems they are trying to solve the problem with the right mindset but falter along the line. Maybe it is because, as Baldwin says when he is talking about the white American writer, William Faulkner, who wrote about black people: “It is one thing for Faulkner to deal with the Negro in his imagination, where he can control him; and quite another thing to deal with him in life, where he can’t control him.” And also: “It is one thing to demand justice in literature and another thing to face the price that one has got to pay for it in life.” One example may be the former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s lack of apology for Britain’s part in the slave trade. He didn’t see the need to apologise. But was that because the legal case for those seeking reparations would be strengthened?

This brings me onto the defensiveness of the powerful, the inability of the powerful to really engage in a meaningful debate because as Baldwin says, the price is too high. What are the reasons for this? An inability to move past guilt? A lack of humility? Too much hubris? A reluctance to change the power dynamics after having been the superior ones for so long?  Ignorance?Crimes in south London over the last year – such as in February when a 15-year old boy was shot in his bed in Peckham and earlier this month a teenage girl stabbed another girl to death in Croydon – had prompted Tony Blair to speak out. He claimed the spate of knife and gun murders was not being caused by poverty, but a “distinctive black culture”. His remarks obviously angered black community leaders, who accused him of ignorance and failing to provide support for black-led efforts to tackle the problem. Blair said people had to drop their political correctness and recognise that the violence would not be stopped “by pretending it is not young black kids doing it”. He is assuming the black community is not thinking this – that it has not been thinking this. And he is not accepting “that visible reality hides a deeper reality” by absolving himself and in extension his government of any real responsibility for whatever is occurring. Baldwin said: “If one could accept the fact that it is no longer important to be white, it would begin to cease to be important to be black.” The terms, black and white, may be interchangeable with rich and poor or Islamic extremist and the west for example – but the point is the same: a them versus us mentality. Baldwin says there needs to be a recognition that we’re all in this together. If this happened would things change? How hard is this to negotiate? Who would be a referee?

Blair also said: “We need to stop thinking of this as a society that has gone wrong – it has not – but of specific groups that for specific reasons have gone outside of the proper lines of respect and good conduct towards others and need by specific measures to be brought back into the fold.” But in a lot of cases, he is talking about people who became drug runners at the age of 4 or sold into the sex trade at 11. These children are often around unfit adults who are sex workers, drug dealers or who have mental health problems. These children grow up into adults and perpetuate the only behaviours they have known. After such prolonged period of abuse for these people there’s no such thing as the kind of civil society that Blair talks about.

Maybe Baldwin would say that Blair is failing to accept “the reality of pain, of anguish, of ambiguity, of death”. In Uses he says this attitude “has turned us into a very peculiar and sometimes monstrous people. It means, for one thing, and it’s very serious, that people have no experience have no compassion. People who have no experience suppose that if man is a thief; he is a thief; but in fact, that isn’t the most important thing about him. The most important thing about him is that he is a man and, furthermore that is he’s a thief or a murderer or whatever he is, you could also be”.There is an exhibition on at the moment in Shoreditch that I think encapsulates this. It is called Demons and Angels. It asks whether “angels” within so-called civil society see the “demons” from poorer, vulnerable backgrounds as thoughtless, random, self-centred and violent?  And whether the “demons” in turn see the “angels” as rich, uncaring and ungenerous? It has been produced by the most down-at-heel children and young people who have experienced violence and abuse. But also by privileged children from private schools, whose general reaction to meeting these people is surprise and indignation at the lives they have to lead. Fostering this kind of interaction to share concerns and build bridges is a necessary first step.

Society is often too quick to judge this group although it likes to pretend it doesn’t. Society does not want to take any responsibility for having created them. That does not mean they may not commit certain acts which are deplorable. But often these children are not used to being listened to and people have completely given up on them because they are beyond repair and beyond help. How are they supposed to begin to “repair” when so-called civilised society views them like this? That’s why they’re called ‘hard to reach’. There is a fatalism attached to their existence. I mentor a girl in care and I struggle with this myself but I think it has to be done. We have to somehow be a more generous society.

In Uses of the Blues Baldwin says:

“I could name six men with whom I grew up, who are on the needle just because there is really no….the demoralization is so complete. In order to make the act of love, there has got to be a certain confidence, a certain trust.”

What if that cycle of disadvantage and poverty was broken so society was creating less damaged individuals? If no one cares about you then a nation has created people with nothing to lose – and as Baldwin says there is nothing more dangerous.  To me, it is children and people like these that are the blues and carry the anguish that society wants to ignore and we have to deal with this. Not in pockets, but fundamentally, by asking ourselves some very difficult questions.”