All The Stars Aflame
By Shannon Gibney
I always go back to Baldwin.
“Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundation.”
This quote is from The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s seminal collection of essays on race, power, and politics. It was published in 1962, but might as well have been written yesterday. Baldwin’s prescient observations about the psychology of American racism have always felt like a revelation to me – a voice from the grave whispering earth-shattering truths in my ear that should have been obvious. Even after sixty years, Baldwin’s words still manage somehow to occupy the present tense. To have effectively described the roots of white denial and disbelief that not only Black people – but much of the nation, including Black, Brown, Indigenous and even some white folks – are just DONE with the American police state and its relentless destruction of Black bodies… That is something else. That is divination.
The white hand-wringing. What can we do? The images circulating everywhere, more popping up every day, fresh evidence of police abuse against protestors. The growing number of injured or even killed. The carnage of burning buildings and broken windows. And the reliable echoes of that ever-loved rhetorical question: But why would they bring such destruction to their own communities? The reclamation of the “bad apple” argument. The violent white nationalists (who always manage to be both well organized and a complete shock to their fellow white folks’ sense of reality) infiltrating protests and communities in Minneapolis and beyond, holding rallies in our parks, and attempting to burn down libraries and minority-owned businesses. Our political leadership’s profound inability to understand the violence that is unfolding, that has always been with us but which hasn’t had a wellspring big enough from which to burst up till now. Their shock at watching civil society collapse so quickly. The disbelief that this is happening on top of another crisis: COVID-19. The insistence that this virus is more deadly than racism, so protest is a public health hazard. The many past failed attempts at reforming the seemingly intractable police state. The chanting, growing louder and louder, I Can’t Breathe!
I Can’t Breathe!
All of these are Baldwin’s stars aflame. Jamar Clark. Philando Castile. George Floyd. All those ghosts. All those Black bodies that were heretofore immovable pillars are now on the move. They walk among us, and we among them, the living merging with the dead. They will have their day. They will be heard. And their voices are what is shaking heaven and earth to their foundation.