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Op-Ed: How James Baldwin spoke to immigrants like me

James Baldwin in 1985.
James Baldwin in 1985.
(Associated Press)

James Baldwin was born Aug. 2, 1924, in Harlem, to parents who were children of former slaves. For migrants fleeing an economically depressed and racist South, Harlem was not much better, and his parents struggled to provide anything close to the American dream for their children. “By the time you are 7,” he recalled near the end of his life, “you know why you are in a ghetto.”

Baldwin knew by then that the Pledge of Allegiance’s promise of “liberty and justice for all” would not apply to him or his siblings, but his father insisted he recite the words each day at school, terrified of what would happen if he did not.

In August 1987, when I was 7 years old, my family came to the United States as refugees, joining a drove of asylum seekers from across the world. My father fled Iran, aided by smugglers who helped him cross the Iran-Pakistan border. After several weeks, my mother, sister and I flew from Tehran to Paris to meet him. And by December 1987, the year Baldwin died, we had settled in Queens, a subway ride away from his Harlem.

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. I wouldn’t encounter Baldwin’s searing and impassioned prophecies for another decade — no one in my family had read him, no one in my primary schools had taught his work. But when I finally encountered him after starting college, his words changed my life. In the pages of his novels, essays and plays, I came to understand both my father’s terror and my adopted country. Baldwin provided me with a blueprint for what it meant to be an American.

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In 1948, when Baldwin fled America for France, he was neither a migrant nor a refugee, but he was, as he later wrote, at the “end of a certain rope,” living an impossible nightmare in the country of his birth. He was either going to be killed or kill somebody if he stayed. He was also trying to escape his father’s fate of becoming embittered, angry and beaten down by his native country.

As Baldwin fled America, refugees and migrants were fleeing to America, seeking to escape the authoritarian regimes that had curtailed their livelihoods and find a place of safety and prosperity. The irony was not lost on Baldwin. As he stated in his 1965 debate with William Buckley, the “American dream comes at the expense of the American Negro.”

By 7, I had absorbed the grammar of American life. I realized even before I became fluent in English that I did not want to assimilate; I wanted to disappear into whiteness. This terrified my father.

One morning as he walked me to school, I told him I wanted to change my name to Julie and have blond hair. Like Baldwin, my father understood that my desired erasure meant a “profound rupture” with our history, our language, even our connection. He would often remind me, “Americans do not know who they are.”

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I later learned that wanting to become “American,” for the immigrant, often really meant wanting to become a white American. “White,” Baldwin reflected in 1978, “is really a metaphor for safety and for power and that is why people are white.” Immigrant children know this truth even before they can articulate it. And our parents, fearing for our safety, knew like the Irish, Italian and other immigrants before them, that they, as Baldwin said, “would not like to be Black here.”

The problem, as my father anticipated, even if he didn’t express it this way, was that his children had been socialized to accept the invitation to become white. And with that invitation came the danger so many recent immigrants face of forgetting why we came to this country, the danger we would embrace its baser aspects.

“The tragedy of this country now,” Baldwin wrote in 1963, “is that most of the people who say they care about it do not care. What they care about is their safety and their profits. What they care about is not rocking the boat. What they care about is the continuation of white supremacy.”

In his vast body of work, Baldwin showed us how to bear witness to the past “with both pride and despair,” so that we could break from the tragedy of the present. Baldwin told the stories of Black Americans who came “from a long line of runaway slaves who managed to survive without passports.” And in these histories, he reminded us of what it might mean to be an American.

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Leah Mirakhor is a writer and critic based in New Haven, Conn. She teaches at Yale University.


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