The People Are One Mystery

The way we argue about social problems often obscures the visceral realities they are meant to illustrate.

James Baldwin once wrote that "the people are one mystery and the person is another."

Each time I read that passage, I remember a time when my history teacher invited a Holocaust survivor and renowned painter to address the class.  He told the story of how he survived the mass execution of his village in Eastern Europe.  He described everything down to the smell of the dirt in the trench dug in front of the firing line.

I was familiar with World War II history, but knowing the facts of the Holocaust was different than hearing a man's story and knowing that people went through their own horrific and particular trauma one, two, ten, a hundred, a thousand, six million times (far more, including survivors).  It's like our minds can only handle a certain amount of evil and, after a certain point, the magnitude no longer registers as different.

It's heartening in a lot of ways to see a shift in recent years back toward thinking of problems in systemic terms.  It's particularly useful on the supply side of injustice.  Social structures are set up in such a way that no one person needs to commit a specific wrong in order to do a profound injustice to another.  No one person can wriggle off the hook when we're fishing with a net.

But thinking in terms of aggregates, rates, percentages, means, medians, and moving averages obscures pain and indignity; reduces dreams, potential, love, and connection to data points.  Poverty operates in massive sweeping ways, but thinking of the problem at scale smudges and softens the edges of the pain a mother feels when she reheats Monday's leftovers again on Thursday.  The staggering rate of incarceration falls like snow over the wreckage of a family left in the wake of an arrest.

Powerful statistics and overwhelming numbers are useful for understanding the scope of housing discrimination, bigotry, food insecurity, arbitrary arrest, sexual harassment or violence, or poverty, but have a tendency to stand in for a visceral appreciation of the toll they take on the individual and the sadness or persistent hope left in their wake.  Paralysis, squandered potential, fear, or pain pile up and spread like rot in ways that render the conscience numb, so we slide a 'per capita' figure in place of the networks of hearts ticking and analyze from a distance.

Baldwin's militant humanism preserves always the agency of others.  He never hesitates to assign blame not simply for action but for inaction.  He never hesitates to describe the impact of injustice on the individual; the weight of poverty, the wrench of hopelessness, the hollow feeling of watching a familiar block disintegrate.

Baldwin insists that part of his role as an artist, as opposed to an activist, was to tease out small differences and animate problems.  To observe the things around him and breathe their life and nuance into ideas.  He argues in that same passage:

Though I know what a bitter and delicate and dangerous conundrum this is, it yet seems to me that a failure to respect the person so dangerously limits one's perception of the people that one risks betraying them and oneself, either by sinking to the apathy of cynical disappointment, or rising to the rage of knowing, better than the people do, what the people want.