by Cecil Brown
We walked across campus with Baldwin during his Jan. 15, 1979, visit – with the author sporting a jet-black suit, a tan scarf and holding a long-stemmed rose. As he strolled through Doe Library at UC Berkeley, an affectionate crowd of students and faculty likened him to a Black Oscar Wilde. On this night of Baldwin’s talk, the auditorium was abuzz with people laughing and enjoying themselves, celebrating the fact that they were at the right place at the right time. His oratory captivated the predominantly Black audience. They were so raptly engaged that one might have been able to hear the faint sound of a rat pissing on cotton.
“When you try to slaughter a people and leave them with nothing to lose, you create somebody with nothing to lose. If I ain’t got nothing to lose, what you gonna do to me”? These words were strikingly prophetic in 1979; these words heard now in July 2022 are, as we say, right in ya face. He related to the audience that “America’s intentions in this melancholy country, as concerns Black people, and anyone who doubts me can ask any Indian, have always been genocidal.” The audience responded with vigorous assenting applause.
What an amazing evening and amazing revelation! It was a prophetic speech and a brilliant performance. Hardly anyone could imagine that he really meant that Blacks would be shot down on camera, nor imagine that one day Black men would be shot by the police on media screens everywhere in the country.
In that prophetic speech, Baldwin declared that Whites were horrible at judging other people, like the Shah of Iran, because they could not even deal with Black people at home. “Not knowing what is in the world,” he told us that evening, “is the price [white America pays] for not dealing with me.” He asked the audience rhetorically, “How are you going to deal [with the world] if you cannot deal with my father?” After the laughter subsided, he said, “I could have told you if anybody’d asked me.”
“There is a reason why no one is interested in educating our children,” he informed us. He noted that education is a billion-dollar industry. It is deemed more important than the life of a child; the machine is ruthless, cunning. “The machine cares for nothing,” he laughed; the machine’s operators are always thinking about grinding us. He pointed out that “just before the next slave rebellion, we need a period which I call non-cooperation.” “We don’t cooperate,” he added. “The best thing we should do is to take our children out of those schools.” The audience sounded off in approval. “We can’t change the schools,” he warned, “until we change the neighborhoods, and we can’t change the neighborhoods [because the powers want the city to be white]!”
“America’s intentions in this melancholy country, as concerns Black people, and anyone who doubts me can ask any Indian, have always been genocidal.”
There is irony in the catastrophe of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022, when a school shooter murdered 19 children and two teachers. One reporting voice noted, “That’s a lot of cops, especially in a small town in Texas. That there were so many cops to begin with is a testament to the widespread belief that, in the name of public safety, we must spend handsomely on police forces, granting them enormous budgets that far outstrip spending on many other social services.”
Uvalde may be a sleepy small town, but it was “drowning in uniformed police who were armed to the teeth and equipped with expensive military-grade armor and other fancy goodies to keep the public safe.” The horrible fact is that nearly 400 police figures stood around while the gunman shot and killed the students and teachers. Even so, did enough of us remember the Blacks who were killed only a week earlier?
Another poetic voice, Gil Scott-Heron, during the time of Baldwin’s pronouncements, had recited that “the revolution will not be televised.” We did not foresee that genocide would be live-streamed. Nobody surmised that genocide of Black people in Buffalo, New York, in 2022 would be streamed live either, yet it was.
The Playboy interviewer asked Marshall McLuhan in 1969 what will happen to the Negro if he doesn’t survive and McLuhan said, without hesitation, “extermination.” Today, some 50 years later, we see McLuhan’s fear showing manifestation on June 8, 2022. Payton Gendron, 18, from the small town of Conklin in New York’s southern rural area, strolled into Buffalo’s Tops Friendly Market in a largely Black neighborhood in east Buffalo, and opened fire, methodically shooting and killing 10 people and injuring three more.
One of the shocking details of the attack revealed that the killer used digital technology, applying an app called Discord, which invited his viewers to witness genocide. This step presupposes the existence of a community of others who are open to seeing violent hatred against Blacks, Jews, women and other targets.
Gendron drove more than 200 miles to mount his attack, which the police said he live-streamed, displaying a chilling video feed that appeared designed to promote his sinister agenda. In the video that appeared to have been captured by the camera affixed to his helmet, an anti-Black racial slur can be seen on the barrel of his weapon.
Baldwin had already identified “genocidal intentions” which are now being audaciously fueled by digital technology. In manipulating social media, young white terrorists seek to garner sympathy and feed on gratification from other corrupted minds in the global village.
Ben Crump, the attorney who specializes in civil rights and catastrophic personal injury and wrongful-death cases who is the lawyer for Jayland Walker, said that Walker’s death and the mass killings in recent weeks illustrate the “two Americas” stigma; this is a factor that James Baldwin, Gil Scott-Heron and Marshall McLuhan were all noting in earlier years.
“There are two Americas,” Crump said, his mind still seething over the riddled body of Jayland Walker. “One is the story of Robert Crimo, 21, a white boy who shot and killed seven people and wounded more than 30 people in the Independence Day Parade of July 4, 2022, in Highland Park, Illinois [and Crimo was taken alive]. The other America is Jayland Walker, 25, who was chased for a traffic ticket and gunned down by eight policemen who riddled his body with 46 bullets on June 27.” He paused, “What connects the two of them is that they both involved police brutality incidents, but in one case the Black boy was gunned down.”
Use of technology to aid in showcasing extermination of Blacks seems to have begun with an early electronic device, the telegraph.
“It’s a reality that Blacks must face. [In May 2020] George Floyd was not given the benefit of his humanity,” he went on. “A couple of weeks before,” he said, “in Buffalo a young white boy, 18, killed 10 Black people and had written that it was his objective to kill as many Black people as possible.”
“Dylan Roof [21 years old when he committed the Charleston, South Carolina, racist supremacist killings on June 17, 2015] was taken alive. He said that he regretted killing the Black people because they had been so nice to him. Not only did they take him alive, but they took him to Burger King; Jayland Walker, on the other hand, was assailed with 46 bullets and not given humane recognition.”
Crump queried, “How can we begin to start healing this? It starts with holding the people accountable who shoot first and ask questions later; nobody goes to jail if they kill a Black man.” Crump’s book, “Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People” (2019), addresses this dire situation.
In most of these cases social media is used to connect these young murderers to digital technology and to a supportive background audience that is secretly, subliminally enjoying watching the murder of Black people and other castigated targets.
In marked contrast to Payton Gendron, we have Jayland Walker, a Black man, 25, stopped at midnight for a traffic violation. When he deduced that police intended to kill him, he tried to get away, just as Ahmaud Arbery, 25, tried to escape his killers in Glynn County in Georgia on Feb. 23, 2020, when his killers attacked him with a truck with a rifle mounted upon the roof. The different treatments administered by the police offer an indication that what Baldwin means by “Black extermination” has application here.
In the first place, the offenses that Gendron and Walker committed were not equivalent. The white 18-year-old had just killed seven people; the African American man, 25, was suspected of a traffic violation. Both gave the police a chase. The police arrested Gendron without incident. Walker, the Black man, was chased down and shot down in a hail of 90 bullets, with at least 46 bullets blasting his body.
Use of technology to aid in showcasing extermination of Blacks seems to have begun with an early electronic device, the telegraph. In 1894, young unknown news reporter Theodore Dreiser published an account of a lynching of a Black man, “A victim of justice,” in the St. Louis Republic. Taking a train to the event, he reported the lynching, but instead of writing it up as was usual and sending his story by mail, he had the brilliant idea to telegraph it. This decision to speed up the gruesome information had immediate and long-lasting consequences. First, it made Dreiser famous, and second, it set a template for sensationalizing destruction of Blacks via communication systems.
Dreiser’s discovery was that the telegraphic speed brought the reader close to the actual lynching itself. Dreiser created a dramatic scene based on a real event – he was there – but he gave the impression that you, the reader, were there also. Immersed in this vicarious experience, the reader is transported to where the Black man is lynched. Dreiser’s technique collapsed time and space, causing the reader to feel that he was right there too.
Instead of being horrified, many readers were engaged. They did not find the incident of a Black man being hanged repellant and repugnant. This technological use of the telegram made Dreiser famous. A few years later, he rewrote the lynching story as “literature,” renaming it “Nigger Jeff.” He invented a young reporter, Eugene Davies, who is sent to cover the event. At first eager and naïve, then horrified, he finally committed to getting the whole story down on paper, but he did not just get it on paper, he got the simulated experience on the telegram.
“Today’s child is growing up absurd because he is suspended between two worlds and two value systems, neither of which inclines him to maturity because he belongs to neither but exists in a hybrid limbo of constantly conflicting values.”
If you compare the influence that electronic technology has on the genocide of Black men, then look at what is happening in the world. In recent weeks we see a pattern of using technology to augment a lust for observing “genocidal intentions.” What Dreiser fashioned over 100 years ago is what some young white males are doing now with live broadcast. They are satisfying the subliminal and unconscious desire of some whites for extermination of Blacks.
Many white readers in the 1890s liked reading about Blacks being murdered. Today, many viewers of screens, like those readers, apparently want to see Blacks, children, innocent whites and other targets murdered.
Even much of the police attempts to arrest, apprehend and stop the young racist killers is a part of fake reality. The murderers are a kind of shadow artists; picking up on what they envision or try to bring about is something that may be so familiar in the future that it may hardly be noticed. Even though they kill people online so that everybody can see it, not enough consequences or sufficient measures seem to happen to the perpetrators and they are usually taken alive and even sometimes taken by the authorities to eat hamburgers.
Internet culture allowed Robert Crimo “to be anything he wanted to be” in a virtual reality realm. He could live in a world where he could isolate himself from other people. He dressed in female clothing during the shooting so that when he fled he could blend into the crowd disguised as a woman, which apparently he did.
Crimo’s father supports his son, though he does regret buying him guns. Crimo Sr. said he knew his son was in possession of a handgun, saying his son showed it to him, but said he did not know his son had purchased at least five weapons, including two high-powered rifles. “Love my son,” he said. “It’s the system that is responsible for this.”
McLuhan said, “Today’s child is growing up absurd because he is suspended between two worlds and two value systems, neither of which inclines him to maturity because he belongs to neither but exists in a hybrid limbo of constantly conflicting values. The challenge of the new era is simply the total creative process of growing up – and mere teaching and repetition of facts are as irrelevant to this process as a dowser to a nuclear power plant. To expect a ‘turn on’ child of the electric age to respond to the old education modes is rather like expecting an eagle to swim. It’s simply not within his environment, and therefore incomprehensible.”
Crimo’s uncle, who lived with him, had no idea that his nephew had a stockpile of weapons. Crimo Jr. was invisible to him because he lived in an “online world” of violence. It’s like the world of Don Quixote where the projected world represents enemies but is in fact a normal landscape of windmills.
Crimo has some relation to the “White Negro” characterization, a term Norman Mailer applied to white youth who were influenced by jazz music and culture; Crimo (“The Rapper”) is in a limbo plane between “Hip-Hop” culture and “white Nazism.” His symbols imbed Nordic designs. McLuhan said that violence fills in the gap where there is no identity. Apparently, Crimo loved Hip-Hop culture but hated Black people. His idea of expression was to make music videos of school-room massacres; yet, online, reviewers wrote positive comments about his “rap.”
Peoples’ reaction is to put their heads in the sand or to assume what some might now term the “Zombie Stance of the Technology Idiot.”
A bio-sketch of his life reveals that Crimo was coddled by a community that shares similar views on Black people. In a dystopian shadowed version of McLuhan’s Global Village, Crimo’s adherents are vicariously enjoying the gruesome events of extermination. Crimo admitted that he informed his viewers when he pulled the trigger. Even though the platform was closed down, 3 million people had already downloaded the horrible scene. Crimo had been investigated by the police for violence and yet when he wanted to buy five weapons, he had no problem passing the background checks. His father signed for him to purchase assault rifles when the son was not of legal age to do so.
You would have thought that after the blatant murder of George Floyd in 2020, the massacres would cool down. You would have thought that the 46 rounds into a young Black man would quench the thirst of white supremacist police action. You would have thought that would have been enough, but then another hate-filled nemesis massacred seven marchers in an Independence Day Parade in Highland Park, Illinois, on July 4, 2022.
When we actually look at the reasoning behind the recent outbursts of genocide, we see that it is a sickness that reaches up to the highest levels of academia and institutions like Facebook, Apple and others.
What is the reaction of the white reader? What is the reaction of the digital viewer? The poet Alexander Pope said that people are horrified at things that they do but upon being repeated many times they get used to it.
McLuhan warned that peoples’ reaction is to put their heads in the sand or to assume what some might now term the “Zombie Stance of the Technology Idiot.” There is a connection between the deliberate discrimination against African Americans in the university and related equivalences of aiding in “genocidal Intentions.”
Such a recognition, which stabs at the heart of the white man’s entire social value system, inevitably generates violence and genocide.
McLuhan noted that the cultural aggression of white America against Black people and Native Americans is not based on skin color and belief in racial superiority. He said, “whatever ideological clothing may be used to rationalize it, … on-the-whole the white man’s inchoate awareness that the [African American] and [Native American] – as men with deep roots in the resonating echo chamber of the discontinuous, interrelated tribal world – are actually psychically and socially superior to the fragmented, alienated and dissociated man of Western civilization. Such a recognition, which stabs at the heart of the white man’s entire social value system, inevitably generates violence and genocide. It has been the sad fate of the [African American] and the [Native American] to be tribal men in a fragmented culture – men born ahead of rather than behind their time.”
Furthermore, in this 1969 interview, he expressed that “I mean that at precisely the time the white younger generation is retribalizing and generalizing, the [African American] and the [Native American] are under tremendous social and economic pressure to go in the opposite direction, to detribalize and specialize, to tear out their tribal roots when the rest of society is rediscovering theirs. Long held in a totally subordinate socioeconomic position, they are now impelled to acquire literacy as a prerequisite to employment in the old mechanical service environment of hardware, rather than adapt themselves to the new tribal environment of software, or electric information, as the middle-class white young are doing. Needless to say, this generates great psychic pain, which in turn is translated into bitterness and violence.”
McLuhan goes on to point out that traditionally this violence has been directed at the tribal man who challenged visual-mechanical culture, as with the genocide against the Native American and the institutionalized dehumanization of the African American. “Today, the process is reversed and the violence is being meted out, during this transitional period, to those who are non-assimilable into the new tribe. Not because of his skin color but because he is in a limbo between mechanical and electric cultures, the [African American] is a threat, a rival tribe that cannot be digested by the new order. The fate of such tribes is often extermination.
This is an age of anxiety which has been transformed into its Doppelganger – the therapeutically reactive age of anomie and apathy.
“But as I said, the [African American] arouses hostility in whites precisely because they subliminally recognize that he is closest to that tribal depth involvement and simultaneity and harmony that is the richest and most highly developed expression of human consciousness. This is why the white political and economic institutions mobilize to exclude and oppress [African Americans] from semiliterate unions to semiliterate politicians, whose slim visual culture makes them hang on with unremitting fanaticism to their antiquated hardware and the specialized skills and classifications and compartmentalized neighborhoods and life cycles deriving from it. The lowest intellectual stratum of whites view literacy and its hardware environment as a novelty, still fresh and still status symbols of achievement, and thus will be the last to retribalize and the first to initiate what could easily become a full-blown racial civil war.”
For some unquestioning supporters of the digital world, there is a tendency to rationalize the reason why we turn our heads at the connection between technology and racial extermination. As McLuhan said, “We still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it’s how a medium is used that counts rather than what it does to us and with us. This is the zombie dance of the technological idiot of the narcissistic stance.”
He goes on to reflect that for the past 3,500 years of the Western world, the effects of media – whether it’s speech, writing, printing, photography, radio or television – have been systematically overlooked by social observers. “Even in today’s revolutionary electronic age, scholars evidence few signs of modifying the traditional stance of ostrich-like disregard.”
McLuhan surmises that “all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment. Such an extension is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it.
“It’s a process rather like that which occurs to the body under shock or stress conditions, or to the mind in line with the Freudian concept of repression. I call this peculiar form of self-hypnosis narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible.”
The present challenge, doubly acute today, is for us to become aware of what is happening to us despite the pain and anguish of such comprehension. This is an age of anxiety which has been transformed into its Doppelganger – the therapeutically reactive age of anomie and apathy.
“But despite our self-protective escape mechanisms,” McLuhan observes, “the total-field awareness engendered by electronic media is enabling us – indeed, compelling us – to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious, toward a realization that technology is an extension of our own bodies. We live in the first age when change occurs sufficiently rapidly to make such pattern recognition possible for society at large. Until the present era, this awareness has always been reflected first by the artist, who has had the power – and courage – of the seer to read the language of the outer world and relate it to the inner world.”
In past years, effects of media were experienced more gradually, allowing the individual and society to absorb and cushion their impact to some degree. Today, in the electronic age of instantaneous communication, our survival and at the very least our comfort and happiness is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment with its near-instantaneous electronic media transformation of culture, values and attitudes.
McLuhan emphasizes that this upheaval generates complicated pain and identity loss which can be ameliorated only through conscious awareness of its dynamics; we have to really focus on the presence of it. “If we understand the revolutionary trance formation called for by new media,” he suggested, “we can anticipate and control it; but if we continue to proceed in our subliminal trance, we may become its slaves.”
James Baldwin’s spirit still walks with us, exuding and casting jeremaic heralds and voicing alarm signals. We hope his mantle will be brandished and flourished by determined hands and minds. We need more and more awareness of our present condition. Resolving to bolster our pathway with more firm navigation markers may add some useful light for fulfilled living as we gird against prevailing winds of genocidal intentions.
Novelist and educator Cecil Brown, UC Berkeley professor and director of the George Moses Horton Project at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) at Stanford University, is also known as the close friend, screenwriter and biographer of Richard Pryor and as the author of “The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger,” “Stagolee Shot Billy” and most recently “Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor: Kiss My Rich Happy Black Ass.” Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.