It has been more than fifty years since James Baldwin first named the knotted pathology that has ensnared White and Black America in an intimate dance of mutual self-destruction for, well, ever. “The failure to look reality in the face diminishes a nation as it diminishes a person,” he wrote. America has failed, he said, because it has come to believe its own myths: The Dream. Equal Justice. The Melting Pot. And America’s greatest crime is its ongoing disinterest in any meaningful introspection. “If we are not capable of this examination,” Baldwin warned, “we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.”
Which brings us to Green Book — which is, at its root, yet another story that invites us to whitewash our collective imagination in a soothing balm of Bizarro-harmony, one in which the white guy is now the driver, and the black guy is now in charge.
Stories like this encourage us to assume that the deep roots of our history can be lopped off like a summer haircut. They offer lazy redemption, and hey — isn’t life hard enough? It’s OK, they say to all of us, but especially to White America. All is forgiven. The worst is behind us. This is really who we are
To which Baldwin, then and now, says — screams! — NO. America’s only hope of survival lays in a liberation from the hypocrisy that has allowed generational inequality to persist, to flourish, with nary a speed bump in its way. But because these myths and distortions are embedded so deeply in our collective psyche, they require hard, uncomfortable, sustained, deeply introspective work that we remain, as a nation, completely unwilling to do.
And so, we choose Driving Ms. Daisy over Do the Right Thing.
Emmett Till becomes Tamir Rice.
Fred Hampton becomes Sandra Bland.
And Barack Obama becomes Donald Trump.
To recognize one’s true identity as an American (and a human being), we must first be willing to confront, in its full weight, the history of the Black/White experience, with all its fantasies and attendant myths. Until that happens, nothing will happen. “What is history?” Baldwin asked us to consider. “What has it made of us? And where is a witness to this journey?”
We are all witnesses. Green Book is not our story. It’s time to wake up from the Dream.