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The Only Choices You Have


The longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books on the history of racial justice from World War I to Ferguson.

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Image by Beowulf Sheehan

“A lot of politics isn’t heroic—it’s as day-to-day as our lives themselves,” Darryl Pinckney tells me. The author, playwright, and New York Review of Books writer is talking in particular about voting in the wake of the Supreme Court’s rulings on voter identification laws in Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin—but in general, about the importance of black political engagement. “If it doesn’t matter,” he asks, “why is there a multi-million dollar effort to suppress your vote?”

Pinckney—who recently appeared in Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary on The New York Review of Books, The 50 Year Argument—has, for decades, probed the literary tradition of James Baldwin, and more broadly, the intersection of race, literature, and politics. His essays for the NYRB have, through the lens of books, examined such phenomena as racial profiling, police brutality, racial disparities in prisons, and the bygone dreams of Harlem.

His new book, Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy, is a one-hundred-page meditation on black voting rights in America. Based on a Robert B. Silvers Lecture that Pinckney gave at the New York Public Library in 2012, the book is a swift but thorough examination of how movement politics and electoral politics have shaped the black vote, from the Civil War era to the Obama years. Pinckney argues that black America, especially black youth, cannot allow frustration with leadership or a stagnant political climate to prevent our participation in democracy, firmly reminding us that only fifty years ago, men and women risked their lives in the marches from Selma to Montgomery to secure the right to vote.

Pinckney and I spoke recently about disappointment with the Obama administration, the legacy of James Baldwin, and the role of young black artists, like myself, who have decided to abstain from electoral politics. At one point in our conversation, Pinckney told me to remember that I’m “doing Baldwin’s work.” The notion felt big and mighty, a weight that more than one person should bear.

Kima Jones for Guernica

Guernica: I know you were born in Indiana. Can you tell me a bit about your upbringing there?

Darryl Pinckney: In terms of living in Indiana, my father always claimed that he was on his way to Denver and ran out of money. He said that he wanted to be a chemist, but during the late ’40s pharmaceutical companies weren’t hiring black guys like him. He went to college with help from the GI Bill. He ended up in Indianapolis. It’s pretty much the same place now as it was then—a rather conservative town. I was bussed to the suburban district where I went to school. The only way to get to school was by bus. When people started complaining about bussing, I didn’t know what they meant.

I had these sweet, anxious parents for whom activism wasn’t really a family tradition—though, certainly, education and engagement were. This was their kind of political activism. I think the church that I grew up in concerned itself with a kind of social justice. There was a goal and a path to achieve it, and everyone contributed to the effort. There was this idea that even if everything wasn’t accomplished in one’s lifetime, it was nevertheless essential that everyone played a part. It was a call for duty that sat heavily on my life.

The progress of a few is allowed to stand for the progress of everyone. We can’t afford that kind of disaffection at the moment.

Guernica: Can we talk about some of the differences between the World War II generation and the Vietnam War generation with regards to voting rights?

Darryl Pinckney: What happened after World War I was disgraceful. Most veterans, like my great-uncle, were squashed back into place. Congress couldn’t pass an anti-lynching bill. The World War II generation, though, wasn’t going to take it. Something was clearly in the air. A. Philip Randolph had already let the administration know this, and that’s why Truman got into desegregation in the armed forces. The protests that we think of as belonging to the ’60s were already taking place in the ’40s and the ’50s. Local events were adding up: the Montgomery Bus Boycotts were under way. Once the World War II generation settled itself, it took on the issue of civil rights.

I think that the Vietnam War era is important because we tend not to want to revisit it. For black people, there was the temptation of disaffection. People looked for alternative ways to express themselves personally and politically, people doubted the system, and there was the terrible kind of division in black America between a radical leadership and a much older, compromising leadership.

We have traces of that now. There’s a class divide in black America that doesn’t seem to trouble black Americans so much, but whites use it and exploit it. The progress of a few is allowed to stand for the progress of everyone. We can’t afford that kind of disaffection at the moment. I feel like the battle line is too starkly drawn. I talk to young blacks who say, “My vote doesn’t matter.” But if it doesn’t, why is so much effort being expended not only to get you to vote for these creeps, but to keep you from voting? If it doesn’t matter, why is there a multi-million dollar effort to suppress your vote?

It’s important for the progressive youth to remember that the agenda you set today is the agenda that will matter tomorrow. If you are engaged and active, it means you are one of the lucky ones and you are awake. Most people are not there yet. The young and the politically active are the example. We’re very afraid of engaging liberal, progressive solutions because of these labels. If you say to people, “Are you for this provision of the Affordable Care Act?” then they are all for it, but if you ask them if they’re for “Obamacare,” they will say they are not.

Being a liberal progressive has been demonized as anti-white or overly on the side of blacks. There’s nothing that can be done about that; it’s just where we are in the history of our perceptions.

Guernica: I’m curious to hear what you think about the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder.

Darryl Pinckney: I’m still shocked about Holder’s resignation, and I’m not sure why. I always thought that when he went after Wisconsin and Ohio about the voter ID laws, and the Department of Justice investigation in Ferguson, he was clearly doing what Obama could not do himself—but with Obama’s knowledge and support. If Obama gets heat for these kinds of actions and sympathies, his attorney general can still do them. What happens to these efforts with Holder’s resignation? That’s a worry.

Some will say Holder has been this divisive type who abused his office just for doing things the attorney general is supposed to do. Plus, any time Obama has spoken as a black guy, he’s taken heat. There remains this fundamental problem in our political life: the black case is only applicable to blacks.

Recently, during the UN Climate Summit here in New York, the police presence was extraordinary. It does remind one that we are having this discussion at a time when people are very willing to give up basic rights because they think they’re being protected in exchange for it. A lot of people aren’t troubled by things that have happened since 9/11 because they believe it keeps us safe: surveillance keeps us safe, knowing everyone’s business keeps us safe. We are talking about transformative civil rights at a time when people are willing to limit their own rights in the name of feeling safe. It’s an even harder battle than usual.

Black Americans know that truth and justice are not enough; you actually have to wage a propaganda war all of the time.

Guernica: In your book, you discuss Obama’s criticisms of black people, especially poor black people and black youth, in regard to their dress and speech. How do his statements impact public perception?

Darryl Pinckney: With Obama, he told us—and we didn’t listen—that he’s not as far left or far out as we are. We just assumed that because he was a black guy of a certain age that he would be. I [particularly] mind it from politicians who refrain from telling white people, “By the way, you have guns, too.”

I don’t like those kind of social interventions from Obama. I don’t like it when pathology is only a black thing. It’s just not true. The violent crimes in America are white crimes, but as Khalil Muhammad [author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America] and others have said, a black person who commits a crime is accused of a “black crime.” There’s no “white crime.” Black Americans know that truth and justice are not enough; you actually have to wage a propaganda war all of the time.

Obama tries to instruct black youth on how to negotiate the American mainstream. I understand that. But it doesn’t always have to be at the price of critiquing what black youth are doing or exploring. Identity has several parts, and the self needs to expand. Black youth should be encouraged to have as many parts or as rich an identity as possible. It’s a form of allowing them to be curious about the world.

Guernica: You describe Obama as the not-black black president. Can you explain that?

Darryl Pinckney: As for the not-black black president issue—white people can imagine blacks worse off than them, no problem. And now they can imagine blacks better off, no problem. But they still can’t imagine black people who are just like them. That’s the real problem. That’s racism. Not being able to believe that those others are actually just like you. I can see Obama trying to be the president who suggests solutions for everyone who has experienced economic hardship. Whites need it as much as blacks. Economic justice is not just something blacks are crying out for; whites are desperate for it, too. But in the public imagination, the face of poverty is black. In all actuality, the face of poverty is white. The middle class is nowhere to be found now. Obama has not had an easy time. I think Obama has really tried to be this figure of reconciliation. He must be disappointed that nothing of the kind happened.

I blame the Republican party entirely for it, this obstructionism, this kind of deep racism. They cannot get over the fact that a black man is in charge of the money. You have to remember that, for these guys on the right, fiscal matters are the only things that are important; they could care less about social issues. They think of themselves and their families as exempt. If their seventeen-year-old daughters were to turn up pregnant and couldn’t go to Yale, they’d get them abortions and not worry about it. The constraints they suggest are just the rule for everybody else.

I do blame these guys [on the right for] thinking they’re entitled to power. America isn’t as right wing and middle-of-the-road as everyone thinks it is. That misperception is due to the cultural lag of print media. I think Obama would have had much more of a response from people had he believed more in his mandate for change. He would have had much more help and less obstruction in trying to redefine the mainstream. That’s what he’s been doing, and it’s a long and arduous process.

There was this sense that very little had to be done on the left because they were all going to vote for him anyway. We’ve had concessions to whites and conservatives since the end of Reconstruction. The end of Reconstruction, itself, was a concession to conservatives: in order to pass the New Deal, it entailed concessions to conservatives. I’m tired of that reconciliatory culture.

I can see criticizing, complaining, protesting—anything but choosing not to vote. Too many people died for us not to vote.

Guernica: It seems there’s a growing schism between movement politics and electoral politics and voting in the age of Obama. Does that trouble you?

Darryl Pinckney: I understand disappointment with Obama, but he is all we have at the moment. I can see criticizing, complaining, protesting—anything but choosing not to vote. Too many people died for us not to vote.

It’s not just presidential, and it’s not just senatorial. It’s every office going down the list. And, for black people, especially the courts. It’s not true that voting doesn’t make a difference. To check out is political suicide.

This is especially true for our young black artists. You don’t want to inadvertently end up doing someone’s bidding. As unpleasant and enraging as Obama sometimes is—and rightly so—it’s not about being on his side, it’s about being on the country’s side.

For example, Obama is not a gay-rights guy. The country had to convince Obama that marriage equality was the right thing to do and then he sort of moved in that direction. That happened because of the chorus of voices that appealed to his own sense of right and wrong. Somehow, when the Supreme Court upheld the marriage equality act, I knew that we would lose on voting rights. Marriage equality is a very middle-class issue and voting rights is a very working-class issue. If you do not vote, who are you speaking for? Who will be the next Fannie Lou Hamer? If not you or someone you know, then who?

Guernica: Personally, I understand that. At the same time, I will not be shamed into voting for the lesser of two evils.

Darryl Pinckney: Of course, but this won’t be the last time that these will be the only choices you have.

Guernica: But is that freedom?

Darryl Pinckney: Freedom is having real choice. This offers a limited amount of choices. This is participating in a very imperfect system that we’re desperately hanging onto, that we don’t want to see further eroded. The not-vote doesn’t punish Obama, it punishes the system. Non-participation aides his opponents.

It’s the lesser of two evils, sure. Obama can’t be everything to everyone. He changed. He did. I never thought I’d hear Obama say, “Let’s go back to nuclear arms,” but he did. In the meantime, the clear and present danger is the Republicans in the Senate. A lot of politics isn’t heroic, it’s as day-to-day as our lives themselves. We always want to make the Byronic choices, but Byron himself was not Byronic all the time either.

Guernica: In your writing in The New York Review of Books and in the documentary about that magazine, The 50 Year Argument, you’ve discussed how James Baldwin inspired you as a young man and as a writer. But you have also said that Baldwin disappointed you. How so?

Darryl Pinckney: James Baldwin has always mattered to me because his was a literary voice that spoke of the world from a perspective I could understand. The struggle had been, to my young mind, mostly a Southern question, and then the riots turned my attention north, to where I lived, in Indianapolis, a small town, psychologically. We discovered the ghetto, which Baldwin had written about, in language very different from that of even the most distinguished sociology. His was an urban voice, cool and new and young. His essays of social observation, when I first encountered them, were fresh and alive and full of daring and insight. I was in college when I read Baldwin’s fiction. I’d only read Giovanni’s Room before then. I read him in the same way that I did Vidal or Gide or Isherwood—as literature about gay men.

Another Country was a bestseller and, in a way, it ruined his fictional life. He was doomed to try to repeat the success, to produce a blockbuster, when maybe his genius was for the lyric. Hence, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone and Just Above My Head are these huge tomes that have at their centers investigations of male sexuality.

If Beale Street Could Talk is his most political work: the black family is conceived of as a unit of resistance. I haven’t read it in a long time and wonder how it would strike me now. I remember it as somehow artificial in its feeling. This was how we ought to act, but not how things really were.

The other two novels make me think of how shattered he was by the ’60s—and tired at the end. The times turned against the tone he assumed more and more in his later essays, a sort of broad hectoring. The times changed again and he is honored now and rightly so. He had a short life, really. I am sorry he has missed hearing how respected and adored and appreciated he is.

I’ve written some reportage—about the Million Man March or anti-Bush demonstrations at his first inaugural or New Orleans after Katrina—but nothing to compare to Baldwin’s taking himself south to cover Dr. King’s movement or his going out to Chicago to interview Elijah Muhammad. As a witness of the civil rights era, there aren’t too many like him.

Baldwin made black literature while I just studied it.

Then, too, his essays on his young, questing self defined for a generation of black youth the questions of identity and belonging and attitudes toward the black condition. Early in his writing life, Baldwin wrote fiction that he couldn’t get published, but he could publish essays, given the renewed prominence race in America had taken on after the Second World War, and he was asked to review books that touched on the Negro Question.

Mary McCarthy used to tell young writers to begin their careers by writing reviews. In a way, that’s what Baldwin did. But then he put himself to work in several genres. Baldwin made black literature while I just studied it. He was brave as a writer. I’m an old head still milling around the starting line.

Guernica: What do you predict for the black vote in 2016?

Darryl Pinckney: Hillary certainly needs the black vote, and Democrats need it. She’s not doing anything too soon; she’s raising her money and not wanting any issues to come back and bite her later. The black vote will be crucial for Hillary and so will the women’s vote. She shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the women’s vote is merely the white woman’s vote. A large and driving part of the women’s vote is black women. The reason the Democrats got more women last go-round was because of the number of black women. She’s going to be much more troubled by alternative Democrats than Obama was. Elizabeth Warren is just the beginning. Playing it safe will only get her so far.

Guernica: In the last several months, the protests in Ferguson have produced a movement around endemic issues in the black community. Do you think that energy can be sustained?

Darryl Pinckney: Local action impresses me the most. People who can keep on when all else has failed—the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, the Ferguson demonstrations. One reason this story has not gone away is that people return to the streets—and of course Occupy Wall Street and Hong Kong. Much of what is unfolding will take a lifetime to play itself out, turn into the next thing. The shape of the world is at stake. It always is.

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