From 30 December 2017
A small thought on Erica Garner.
I was thinking today about the long, searching conversations I had with my Baldwin seminar last spring while we were reading his last great work Evidence of Things Not Seen. Baldwin in that book was able to make the lives of black Atlanta and the lives of murdered children speak, come alive, and communicate their individual and communal despair, as well as the link between that suffering and the long arc of African-American history. That is the magic of his writing, to move between two told stories without making seams out of those transitions.
It’s a really remarkable book. Even though Baldwin’s power as a writer was clearly fading, the words are profound and humble and amazing witness.
What struck all of us in that conversation was how Baldwin the icon is totally absent in his writing. He is their witness because they deserve witness and because he loves them. Because it is what he can do as a person. Baldwin writes. In that writing, he does something to the world. A small bit, of course, but not nothing. And he is never the center of what is happening, even when speaking in his own voice or to his own experience. It’s the real genius of Baldwin, to do this, to make in practice what so many of us have theorized as an ethics of witness.
I was thinking about the news that Erica Garner died today. How her life deserves Baldwin’s witness, but writers are not immortal, they too die. Garner’s life was unique. Her life was also a long arc of African-American history – a reminder that the arc isn’t actually an arc, but rather a looping, chaotic repetition with a difference. Repeating violence and pain, always different because we all live singular lives, ever chaotic because no one deserves such pain and it is dealt with cruel randomness.
I do wish Baldwin could write this book for her memory and for the nation. I wish someone could write this book.
Rest in peace, Ms. Garner.