The Demise of Conscience in 1987

<i> John A. Williams is a writer who teaches English and journalism at Rutgers University. His most recent book is the novel "Jacob's Ladder" (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1987). </i>

Goodby, 1987, glad to see you go. You brought a lot of very bad news this year. We may not know how bad for another few years. You, 1988, take care that we don’t see the same old show again; certainly, please, not a worse one. The U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf sails upon powder kegs, and in Central America war dances on tippy-toe in darkness. Beneath the palm trees of some of the Pacific Islands, the United States seems to be trading ballot-box results for cowrie shells. “Wars and rumors of wars” continue unabated, and the United States appears to be covertly involved in all of them.

The newest zit in the wars for Central America is Haiti, poor Haiti. Born in the Age of Enlightenment--like the United States and the French Republic--Haiti soundly whipped Napoleon’s armies for a dozen years to gain independence in 1804. The major document of the French Revolution, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, had no more altered the lives of the slaves of Haiti than the American Declaration of Independence did for the slaves in the United States. The French made Haiti pay for having gained its independence, not only with money, but by making it a “pariah” state, diplomatically out of bounds. The United States acquiesced, and even occupied Haiti from 1915-1934. Haiti could well turn out to be for Cuba what Trinidad was for Grenada during the U.S. invasion--a forward staging area for a war.

We have seen this movie before: The United States installs leaders. The people revolt. The leader, with U.S. assistance, flees. The generals take over. The United States insists on elections to ensure democracy. Overtly and covertly, the generals destroy the election process. The United States protests and offers a variety of plans for the birth of democracy. None of them work, quite possibly by design. Progressive officials are slaughtered along with the innocent.

The House and Senate committees that last summer investigated the Iran-Contra operations rolled over and flat-out laid down. The only righteous anger displayed publicly, over television, was Sen. Daniel Inouye’s (D-Hawaii).


We cannot be too assured of knowing what’s going on when even congressional watchdogs not only refuse to bite but fail to bark. There will be two fewer watchdog voices in 1988: those of John Oliver Killens and James Baldwin. Killens, the novelist, essayist, screenwriter and teacher, once said, “When we (colored people) take charge, we aren’t going to be like them (white people). We will show them what brotherhood really means.” Killens died at 71 on Oct. 27.

Less internationalist than Killens’, Baldwin’s was a hoarse and persistent voice of alarm, disgust and indignation. Almost 25 years ago, echoing the great black historians, he said, “Color isn’t a human or personal reality; it is a political reality.” Baldwin published his first novel, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” in 1953; Killens’ first, “Young Blood,” followed a year later.

The two were contemporaries and friends, although Baldwin was accorded far more acclaim in what seems to be the “one black writer at a time” syndrome in publishing. Recently, some observers, black and white, male and female, in the literary circle and out, have amended the phrase to “one black male writer at a time.” Baldwin was more the expatriate, Killens the traveler who always returned to home and family in Brooklyn.

Most critics assigned the adjective “eloquence” to Baldwin’s writing, and it hovered about him like a shadow, so truly did it fit. His career was honored mostly by publicity. The “prestigious” awards eluded him. Ironically, it was the French, with their award of membership in the Legion of Honor, who gave Baldwin perhaps his most satisfying career triumph. Baldwin died Dec. 1 in France at 63.


For Killens and Baldwin, the most satisfying reward was to serve in the cause of justice, not “just us,” as Richard Pryor has said. During the early and middle 1960s, both men lectured and wrote, crisscrossing the nation as the fires began to burn. Both published important novels in 1963: Baldwin, “Another Country,” and Killens a Pulitzer nominee, “And Then We Heard the Thunder.”

They noted that white people aren’t killing each other any more, they’re killing the people of color through surrogate wars in the Third World. The extension of the Cold War into the present day notwithstanding, there has not been actual combat between the Soviet Union and the United States. Baldwin and Killens, quite possibly like many others, would have welcomed the signing of the arms treaty, but most certainly would have had reservations about it. For they were ever hopeful, though not confident, that people had to come to understand that another man’s diminishment, ultimately if not sooner, is one’s own.