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.
I really want to read this now, esp. if it’s from Baldwin. In the UK we have also had a series of abductions – especially those related to school. It’s truly unsettling when something like this happens in your home town. I know how that feels. 😦
You are an excellent writer. I really enjoyed reading your post. Very inspiring.
For Baldwin to claim they tried to downplay the murders in order to protect commerce is a typical writers syndrome as they demonstrate their need to cash in on these murders at any other persons’ expense. This man must have been part of Mississippi burning during the civil rights era. I know of a couple that lived across the street of the school where the National Guard ushered negros to school their first day. It was how they lived then, she claimed, as they would walk on the opposite side of the street whenever one was approaching. Looking back, he said, it now seemed silly.
Other negro serial murders? Yes. Sorrells I think was the name. Ohio perhaps. His victims caused such a stench that the locals kept calling police. They did nothing.
Believe it or not, negros murder, too. Often writers or those wanting to relive the ’60s fail to understand this. And, many times a writer has a financial stake in the outcome of a trial. This is something many do not wish others to know.
Has anything changed over the last 30 years? Let’s see…has anything changed over the last 50 years?
Three towns affected with this one murder. It could be anyone they know in any of the three small towns. Can’t you just imagine the paranoia? Everyone suspecting each other. Accusing each other. Prying into their affairs and reporting back about them.
Strange that the body was found by trash collectors on a regularly scheduled date. Moreso is the sighting of a white van prior to the abduction and also a person trying to lure children driving a dark sedan a couple weeks prior.
What once was a place children could go run, bike, play outside and be kids as they were meant to be is now locked down with fear.
She was butchered they report. Not all of the body parts were collected. I am curious as to what was missing. A tibia? A heart? A female organ?
Hoping to collect clues from the cell phone towers in order to isolate one person. Wonder if that will work since they’ve been spoofing these things for years. If the person is a crime enthusiast, as many are, he would have just pulled the battery or used more than one phone.
Many were trained in my area, being shuffled to and fro via a Rocky Mountain tour bus. Perhaps they can be of assistance in cell technology and criminal profiling.
Getting these three towns ready for an impending invasion of the worst kind will really do the citizens a lot of good.
Ever wonder what it would be like to work in a slaughterhouse?