Bookshelf: James Baldwin’s take on Atlanta child murders reissued

Stacey Abrams provides new foreword.

When former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced in March 2019 that the Atlanta child murders case would be reopened, hopes were raised that new technology in DNA testing might finally exonerate Wayne Williams or validate suspicions that he perpetrated the crimes that occurred between 1979 and 1981.

Williams was never charged with the murders; he’s serving a life sentence at Telfair State Prison for the murder of two men. But law enforcement was so confident his 1981 conviction linked him to the children’s deaths that the cases were closed.

In fall 2021, DNA was submitted to a lab in Utah for analysis, but results have yet to be revealed, and the official word, as of last month, is that the investigation is ongoing.

Debate over Williams’ guilt began to circulate from the time of his arrest and questions surrounding his guilt have gained traction over time, most recently evident in the 2020 HBO docuseries “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children.”

Now Henry Holt & Company is reissuing James Baldwin’s take on the murders. Originally published in 1985 and based on reporting Baldwin did for Playboy, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” (Holt Paperbacks, $16.99) is a 112-page essay expressing skepticism over Williams’ involvement and attributing his rush to judgment to broader issues of racial disparity and injustice.

Credit: Henry Holt & Company

Credit: Henry Holt & Company

Written through the lens of an expat who moved to the south of France in 1970 and remained there until his death from cancer in 1987, the essay is told from the perspective of someone intimately familiar with life as a Black man in the U.S. but comfortably removed from it, both physically and emotionally. From that stance, he parses all the ways he believed the country stacked the decks against Blacks, ranging from colonization and Manifest Destiny to integration, white flight and what he calls the myth of Black wealth.

Regarding integration, he asserts that was never the goal. “The Black demand was for desegregation… White Americans, however, bless their generous little hearts, are quite unable to imagine that there can be anyone, anywhere, who does not wish to be white, and … decided that desegregation meant integration, and, with this one word, smashed every Black institution in this country, with the single exception of the Black church.”

When it comes to Black wealth, he delineates the difference between being able to buy luxury goods and the ability to wield power and influence.

Baldwin surmises that the murder of poor Black children was so common and unremarkable in the “city too busy to hate” (he relishes interjecting the phrase often for effect), that authorities didn’t respond until Camille Bell, mother of 9-year-old victim Yusef Ali Bell and founder of the Stop the Murders Mothers’ Committee, raised a ruckus and attracted media attention. She was the one who insisted there was a pattern to the murders that indicated they were linked to the same perpetrator, an assertion Baldwin questions.

When it was determined that the committee was collecting donations on behalf of victims’ families, the state threatened to prosecute.

“The state of Georgia had never before exhibited so intense an interest in Black life or Black death,” Baldwin writes. The reason why “has to do with the fact that the commercial viability of the city too busy (making money) to hate was in danger.”

Once Williams became a suspect in the murders of two men, Baldwin believes there was a rush to blame him for the rest. Convicting him in a court under the jurisdiction of a Black judge, in a city governed by a Black mayor, gave authorities and residents alike permission to sigh with relief.

But was justice really done, Baldwin wonders, or was Williams just another victim?

Some things have changed since Baldwin wrote “The Evidence of Things Not Seen.” Like the nickname Hotlanta, the claim that the city is “too busy to hate” has gone out of vogue. Black wealth is no longer a myth, and don’t get me started on a random tangent Baldwin goes on asserting his belief that men dream more than women.

But as Stacey Abrams illustrates in the book’s new foreword, much of what Baldwin wrote about Black life in America in 1985 couldn’t be more relevant today.

“Forty years on, Baldwin’s writing reminds us that we have never resolved the core query: Do Black lives matter? Unequivocally, the moral answer is yes, but James Baldwin refuses such rhetorical comfort,” she writes. “The persistence of mass incarceration, criminal injustice, voter suppression, environmental racism, COVID disparities and the host of ills that inevitably gain stronger purchase in Black communities begs the question be given more urgent action.”

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com.