Wednesday, June 08, 2016

A particular species of ruthless cunning: Baldwin's Proudhammer resisting the draft

These lines from James Baldwin's Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone reminded me of the quotations from Muhammad Ali about his draft resistance that went around after his death. The speaker is Baldwin's narrator, Leo Proudhammer:
I did not refuse to join the Army, but outwitted it by a particular species of ruthless cunning. I was — I say now — prepared to go to jail. The Japanese had already been interned. I was not going to fight for the people who had interned them, who had also destroyed the Indians, who were in the process of destroying everyone I loved: I was not going to defend my murderers. Yet, when my moment came, I did not say any of that. I arrived at the Harlem draft-board with several books under my arm. I deliberately arrived a little late. I pretended that I had just come from the library. I said that I as the only support of my aging parents, and, in fact, I had had the foresight to be working in a shipyard, foresight or luck, it's hard to say now, I've held so many jobs for so many reasons. Anyway, I think I gave a great performance before my draft-board. It was composed, as I knew it would be, of round, brown, respectable old men who had long ago given up any hope of being surprised. Round, brown, respectable old men, whose only real desire, insofar as they still dared desire, was to be white. I knew that, and with my books under my arm, with one brother already in the Army, with two aging people at home, with my impeccable shipyard job, with my flaming youth, and what I could not then have named as a deadly single-mindedness — and using precisely the fact that I was physically improbable — persuaded these round, brown, respectable old men that my potential value to my race — to them; my very improbability contained their hope of power, and I knew that — was infinitely more important than my, after all, trivial value to my country. And they deferred me. I had known that they would: that if I pressed the right buttons, they would have no choice but to defer me.