‘They know not what they do’: James Baldwin and the crime of innocence

Jesus says of his crucifiers ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34). According to the Christianity I absorbed growing up, the people who nailed Jesus to the cross were ignorant of their role in the divine plan. They were pawns in a game beyond their understanding. This ignorance made their actions somehow excusable. I’ve now shaken off this approach. Rather than seeing the crucifixion of Jesus as preordained and required by God, I now see that everyone who permitted and facilitated the crucifying system of the Romans could have chosen otherwise, as hard as that choice might have been. Jesus didn’t have to die. Perhaps patterns of violence were so deeply embedded that Jesus’ death was inevitable, but it wasn’t necessary. The cross is not God’s answer to human sin. The Resurrection is God’s answer to the human sin of crucifixion. I now read Jesus’ words in a different light, and I’ve been helped to do so by the writer James Baldwin. In his book ‘The Fire Next Time’ (1963) Baldwin offers an important perspective on the crime of ignorance, the crime of not knowing what we are doing.

Innocence constitutes the crime

Baldwin wrote in the racialised, anti-black, white-supremacist context of the United States, in the throes of the civil rights movement. As a black man born in Harlem the realities of racist America were always plain for him to see, but apparently not for white people. He saw white people operating on a principle of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ physically and psychologically consigning black people to the ghetto. Even when black people where in front of their faces, white people refused to see them. Addressing his nephew, Baldwin writes ‘Your [white] countrymen don’t know that she [your grandmother] exists, either, though she has been working for them all their lives.’[1] White ignorance is contrasted with black knowledge: ‘Ask any Negro what he knows about the white people with whom he works. And then ask the white people with whom he works what they know about him.’[2] For white people ignorance is necessary because the violence meted out against black lives by white power is so great. The only way white people can bear such a situation to continue is for them to turn away and forget. For Baldwin, this wilful maintenance of white ignorance is unforgiveable: ‘It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.’[3]

Imprisoned by ignorance

Because of this wilful ignorance, white people are ‘trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.’[4] This disconnection from history means that white people live in a debilitating dream, detached from reality. Baldwin observes that ‘white people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded – at least, in the same way.’[5] Continuing white disbelief at the reality of racism – whether in refusing to acknowledge its existence, or in a continuous state of surprise that such things could happen – is rooted in their ignorance of the history. Black people in America at least have the advantage

of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace… Negroes know far more about white Americans than that… The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.[6]

The history that white people are called to confront is so obscene and pervading, that to fully face it risks the total destruction of the white person. When your whole way of life is built on false foundations, on evil things that must pass away, then removing those foundations feels like self-annihilation: ‘people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.’[7] But to remain ignorant is not an option, because that way also certainly leads to destruction: ‘It is entirely possible that this dishonoured past [of the American Negro] will rise up soon to smite all of us… A bill is coming in and I fear America is not prepared to pay.’[8]

But there is hope. If we take the risk and seek to know the past more truthfully, it can become a source of renewal. ‘To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.’[9] By attending to history we can find stories of hope, stories that testify ‘to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.’[10] To truly know your history is a position of strength: ‘Know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.’[11] Baldwin’s words of hope are for black people, addressed to his nephew James. They are less of a comfort to white people like me. Knowing whence I came as a white person is a journey through a shadowy valley of shame and I can’t skip to the end.

Love that removes masks

Baldwin asks his nephew to a love white people: ‘And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.’[12] Our freedom is inextricably bound up with each other: ‘we cannot be free until they are free.’[13] The love the Baldwin speaks about is nothing sentimental. It isn’t a love that lessens the dignity and worth of black people: ‘Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.’[14] Baldwin wrote these words nearly 60 years ago, and this unmasking work of love is still needed. White supremacy is as at home in the UK as in the US. The liberation of white people from their racism can’t be the responsibility of those made black by white supremacy. For those of us who remain in white ignorance, we need God’s forgiveness, and forgiveness must be accompanied by repentance, by a change of direction. When we become conscious of our role in a crucifying system, when the mask of ignorance is removed, we need to find the courage to put down the hammer and nails, and help others to do the same.

[Featured image by Allan Warren, James Baldwin taken Hyde Park, London (1969), from Wikimedia Commons]


[1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Penguin Modern Classics (London: Penguin Books, 2017), 15.

[2] Baldwin, 87.

[3] Baldwin, 14.

[4] Baldwin, 16–17.

[5] Baldwin, 50.

[6] Baldwin, 86.

[7] Baldwin, 17.

[8] Baldwin, 87.

[9] Baldwin, 71.

[10] Baldwin, 88.

[11] Baldwin, 16.

[12] Baldwin, 17.

[13] Baldwin, 18.

[14] Baldwin, 81–82.

One thought on “‘They know not what they do’: James Baldwin and the crime of innocence

  1. I appreciate your rewording of the message of the cross. I too agree that the message is one of hope and redemption and not of a scapegoat taking our sin.

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