“You’ve got to remember,” said an older Negro friend to me, in Washington, “that no matter what you see or how it makes you feel, it can’t be compared to twenty-five, thirty years ago–you remember those photographs of Negroes hanging from trees?” I looked at him differently. I had seen the photographs–but he might have been one of them. “I remember,” he said, “when conductors on streetcars wore pistols and had police powers.” And he remembered a great deal more. He remembered, for example, hearing Booker T. Washington speak, and the day-to-day progress of the Scottsboro case, and the rise and bloody fall of Bessie Smith. These had been books and headlines and music for me but it now developed that they were also a part of my identity.
“You’re just one generation away from the South, you know. You’ll find,” he added, kindly, “that people will be willing to talk to you . . . if they don’t feel that you look down on them just because you’re from the North.”
The first Negro I encountered, an educator, didn’t give me any opportunity to look down. He forced me to admit, at once, that I had never been to college; that northern Negroes lived herded together, like pigs in a pen; that the campus on which we met was a tribute to the industry and determination of southern Negroes. “Negroes in the South form a community.” My humiliation was complete with his discovery that I couldn’t even drive a car. I couldn’t ask him anything. He made me feel so hopeless an example of the general northern spinelessness that it would have seemed a spiteful counterattack to have asked him to discuss the integration problem which had placed his city in the headlines.
At the same time, I felt that there was nothing which bothered him more; but perhaps he did not really know what he thought about it; or thought too many things at once. His campus risked being very different twenty years from now. Its special function would be gone–and so would his position, arrived at with such pain. The new day a-coming was not for him. I don’t think this fact made him bitter but I think it frightened him and made him sad; for the future is like heaven–everyone exalts it but no one wants to go there now. And I imagine that he shared the attitude, which I was to encounter so often later, toward the children who were helping to bring this future about: admiration before the general spectacle and skepticism before the individual case.
– The Price of the Ticket by James Baldwin, “A Fly in the Buttermilk”