The Evidence of Things Not Seen by James Baldwin
In his searing and moving essay, James Baldwin explores the Atlanta child murders that took place over a period of twenty-two months in 1979 and 1980. Examining this incident with a reporter s skill and an essayist s insight, he notes the significance of Atlanta as the site of these brutal killings a city that claimed to be too busy to hate and the permeation of race throughout the case: the black administration in Atlanta; the murdered black children; and Wayne Williams, the black man tried for the crimes. Rummaging through the ruins of American race relations, Baldwin addresses all the hard-to-face issues that have brought us a moment in history where it is terrifying to to be a black child in white America, and where, too often, public officials fail to ask real questions about justice for all. Baldwin takes a time-specific event and makes it timeless: The Evidence of Things Not Seen offers an incisive look at race in America through a lens at once disturbing and profoundly revealing.
Sometimes, the timing of when you read a book is almost more important than the book itself. I read this book while following the Jessica Ridgeway abduction and sadly, murder case in Colorado. Jessica was from Westminster, CO. Her body was found in Arvada, Co. I grew up in Arvada, just inside the city limit from Westminster. This case definitely hits very close to home.
As I watch this ongoing investigation, I can’t help, but think of other child abduction cases that have happened in years past. These are all I remember from memory. JonBenet Ramsey, also from Colorado, Elizabeth Smart, Utah, Caylee Anthony, Florida, Chelsea King, California, Amber DuBois, California. As these names return to me, I can’t help, but notice one thing they share in common: They are all white.
I have no wish to trivialize the pain these girls, their families, and communities went through. However, I can’t help, but think that if we only kept up with the media, we might think only white children get abducted in this country.
The Evidence of Things Not Seen was first published in 1985. In 2012, we are somewhere near thirty years later. And all I can think about is how things haven’t really changed.
Can you think of a high-profile abduction/murder/rape case in the news recently that has involved a child or young adult that wasn’t white?
In his book, Baldwin often circles back to the same idea. In Atlanta, Georgia, between 1979 and 1981, 26. African-American children and adolescents were killed. An additional two murders, of two African-American adults, bring the tally to 28. African-American resident, Wayne Williams, was charged with the last two and generally blamed for the others. Of the 28 killed, two were girls.
What I liked most about Baldwin’s book, was that he didn’t really argue his points as such. Using truths, he suggests areas in which the case was not so clear-cut. He points out things that come across a little bit odd, but never does he say anything as outright as, “An innocent man went to prison for this”. No. Baldwin is much more subtle than that. This book is as much about the history of America as it is about a murder case. Through subtext, Baldwin exposes the layers that lie underneath the case.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in recent years, what preceded an event is oftentimes more important than what actually happened. What climate existed for such a thing to take place? And how did that climate influence the public reaction?
Though Baldwin was seeking to argue different points, some things he said really resonated with me as I watched coverage of the Jessica Ridgeway case. Baldwin insinuates that Atlanta tried both to downplay the murders, in order to prevent trade and commerce from suffering, and also to close the case as quickly as possible. Which brings us to the very strange proceedings of the Wayne Williams case.
Towards the end of the book, Baldwin provides an anecdote about another case. He discusses how some of his friends were involved with the search for Civil Rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwirner in Mississippi. As they were dragging, they turned up more bodies, but none the people they were looking for. I saw a similar thing happening during the Jessica Ridegway case. As news broke about the discovery of a body, many people posted prayers and comments on Facebook and Twitter, to the effect of “I hope it’s not her”. But here’s the question. Even if it didn’t turn out to be her, it’s still a dead body. Some other family’s loved one.
And there’s the rub: How we can say it is more terrible for one person to be abducted over another? How can we give more coverage of one such disappearance than another? How is it a relief for the body that is discovered to not belong to the disappeared person in question?
This is what Baldwin seeks to address in The Evidence of Things Not Seen. In Atlanta, a city that claimed to be “too busy to hate”, Baldwin shows that none of us, city or person, country or state, is ever too busy to hate.
R.I.P. Jessica Ridgeway, Chelsea King, Amber DuBois, JonBenet Ramsey, Caylee Anthony the Atlanta 28, and the countless others that go reported and unreported every day.