On James Baldwin, Patrick Henry, and Double Standards

rock on hand

“If any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds… When a black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.” - James Baldwin

First attributed to Patrick Henry circa 1775, iterations of “Liberty or Death” have found themselves, literally, all over the map. From China to Uruguay to Brazil, and beyond, individuals and nations and the marginalized have been sounding this cry for centuries. I say attribute, because I am certain these words or a variation thereof were uttered, in some way, shape, or form, before good ol’ Patrick spoke them aloud during his impassioned speech to the Second Virginia Convention. I will note, regardless of who spoke which words first and where, that Patrick Henry was one badass motherfucker. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from a letter Henry had written to John Alsop, in regard to slave-trade, two years prior to the aforementioned famous speech. 

Slavery is… “a practice so totally repugnant to the first impressions of right and wrong. What adds to the wonder is that this abominable practice has been introduced in the most enlightened ages. Times that seem to have pretensions to boast of high improvements in arts, sciences and refined morality, have brought into general use and guarded by many laws a species of violence and tyranny which our more rude and barbarous, but more honest ancestors detested.”

I mean, do you hear what this man is saying? And mind you in the face of torrents of resistance and popular opinion to the contrary? And then the brilliant, bold, and beautiful James Baldwin, roughly two-hundred years later, giving voice to truths evident yet unspoken; holding Henry’s words in his palms and illuminating the double standard they have come to carry so heavily, so quietly over the Sisyphean course of history. Patrick Henry sure as hell did not intend for his proclamation to become the double standard which, in all honesty, it probably morphed into the very second it left his intentional lips.

And while I wish it were true that the incongruence highlighted by Baldwin on the Dick Cavett show in 1968 could no longer hold its own today, it does. Vehemently and blatantly and sadly, without dilution, it does.

James Baldwin, above, articulately, intelligently, and eloquently owning the mic after a high-brow professor (who offers the ill-fated notion of colorblindness as a progressive solution to Baldwin's pleas to America to look at itself and why it needed, and still needs, "the black slave" in all its permutations.) attempts to posit that continuing to make everything a black/white dichotomy only further exacerbates our race problem and that, ahem, it only hurts us to peddle in such terms.