- “Chained Together in Time and Space”:W. E. B. Du Bois Looks at the Warsaw Ghetto; James Baldwin Regards the Harlem Ghetto
II James Baldwin’s third novel, Another Country (1962), Rufus Scott, an African American jazz musician from Harlem, remarks upon a peculiar bond he notices among his fellow New York City subway passengers:
At Fifty-ninth Street many came on board and many rushed across the platform to the waiting local. Many white people and many black people, chained together in time and in space, and by history, and all of them in a hurry. In a hurry to get away from each other, he thought, but we ain’t never going to make it. We been fucked for fair.2
Rufus’s destination is the George Washington Bridge at the edge of Harlem and Washington Heights, from which he jumps to his death in an attempt both to break free from the racist house of bondage of segregated America of the 1950s and to escape the destruction he brought upon himself and his white Southerner lover, Leona. The chains binding American blacks and whites that he notices on his last subway ride give his story a pluralistic, social, and national dimension. While the name of the place of Rufus’s demise hails one of America’s Founding Fathers and its first president, his suicidal leap, like so many other anonymous exits all over the world, leaves no traces. [End Page 97] It’s an orphaned death. Yet, Rufus’s memory haunts all the other characters throughout the novel, or as Baldwin put it to his biographer, David Leeming, he becomes Another Country’s key symbol, martyr, and ghostly presence, “the black corpse floating in the national psyche.”3
While the title of this chapter has been inspired by Rufus’s musing about black-and-white chains of American racism, it also echoes W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of the color line slicing the globe at the dawn of the twentieth century. My focus is on the meaning of places that, as in Rufus’s particular case, death is not allowed to mark because of the existence of the color line. More specifically, I explore literal and literary “places of martyrdom” between the United States and Europe, or places and sites that we must recognize as stamped by histories of death and suffering, no matter whether the names of victims and particular details of their pain or demise are known, preserved, or memorialized. These places can be marked and built up as sites of commemoration and education, such as the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland, or they can remain unmarked, such as lynching sites all over the United States, or the bridge that served Rufus’s suicidal departure in Baldwin’s novel.4 Such sites can be seen as chained together across national boundaries despite separation in time, different cultural and socio-political circumstances, and divergent identities of those whose suffering they witnessed. As Du Bois and Baldwin demonstrate, seemingly disparate places of martyrdom can be seen as joining in a global narrative of sorts, in which troubled collusions of power, racial oppression, and death interweave into stories that may lose something in translation from one language and context to another but that still join in a multivoiced tale honoring those who could not tell it themselves.
The places of martyrdom and the stories they tell that I explore in this essay have drawn attention, in various ways, from diverse African Diaspora intellectuals, activists, and artists. My goal is to link Baldwin’s and Du Bois’s observations on places that African Americans occupy in the twentieth-century United States and beyond to what in Darker than Blue Paul Gilroy terms “a tradition of cosmopolitan reflection on racial hierarchy and injustice,”5 the tradition to which Baldwin belongs along with such prominent writers and intellectuals as Ida B. Wells, Walter White, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and numerous others who were his predecessors and contemporaries.6 As Gilroy emphasizes, specifically about Wells and the Grimké sisters, the...