To judge David Baldwin through a 21st-century progressive lens might seem easy and evoke a universally negative response. Living with him was extreme, difficult, and abusive. He consistently beat his children, had many of them, and clouded his sins with forced religion. However, the short stories, “A Fly in Buttermilk” and “A Letter From the South” give important and needed context to David’s world. They give the reader an opportunity to see further into the circumstances that created David’s decisions. He was born and raised in the South during very difficult times. These short stories help the reader attain a better understanding and even empathize. While hard to endorse what David did, his history and circumstances need to be examined to understand his actions. Reading them certainly allowed me to pause in my harsh judgment and try to put myself in his shoes, in his environment.
In the beginning of “A Fly in Buttermilk”, James Baldwin reflects on a discussion he had with an older Southern man: “”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 look at him differently. I had seen the photographs – but he might have been one of them.”(187) While a true student—extremely wise to the ideas, thoughts, and emotions of Black people in history—James Baldwin was still missing the greatest and most authentic tool to capture the true essence of his people: Experience. While James Baldwin saw pictures in journals or articles and read books about the experiences of Black people in the South, James Baldwin never lived that reality firsthand. There is a difference between seeing the two-dimensional black and white photo of an incident versus seeing it in color, hearing the screams and sounds of torture, smelling the flesh and burning, and witnessing the depravity and fear. Being immersed in the event in real-time was different than the stories. David likely had similar real-life experiences as the older man. And we can likely surmise that these experiences had great influence over how he would live his life, raise and “protect” his family. In “A Letter From the South” Baldwin writes, “I could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees…I was to remember that Southern Negroes had endured things I could not imagine.” (198) Baldwin acknowledges the constant and unjustified killing of Black people in the South with no recourse – almost as if it was an accepted way of life. Growing up in that environment had to have a massive effect on the definition of abuse and on how to raise a family in the “right” way. James Baldwin had heard about the stories of Emmitt Till’s murder because of the allegation of whistling after a white woman in Mississippi. However, he only knew of this through the national media attention that it garnered. It was not a common nor widely accepted practice in Chicago. The regular occurrence of lynching —without retribution— had become part of the post-Emancipation terrorism that Black southerners endured regularly. Young people had to be affected by that type of evil behavior and made decisions as a result: fleeing home because of minor infractions, leaving loved ones, changing names, raising children in strict households, having many children just in case of premature death. While it can be argued that David Baldwin does not deserve our sympathy, we do not have the luxury of his viewpoint. He, in fact, may have created this strict, oppressive environment to save his children from the fates of those he witnessed while growing up in the South. There is some honor in his ability to execute a plan to create a family that could survive into the next generation.