What Would James Baldwin Say?




For some time now, I’ve been thinking of James Baldwin.

Baldwin, the brilliant African American author and social critic, died 30 years ago this December. Stomach cancer. He was 63 years old.

Now, thanks to last year’s Academy Award-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin is enjoying something of a renaissance in certain circles of the public imagination. It’s about time.

If you have not seen I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s Baldwin documentary that premiered last year, you should. It is mesmerizing, unflinching work.

The screenplay is Baldwin’s unfinished memoir of his relationships with Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and it is spell-binding for a precise reason: Most public intellectuals are great thinkers who write. Baldwin was a great writer who thought.

Writers have a unique set of gifts, and they burned in Baldwin: sensitivity, namely, and there have been few more brilliant purveyors of American life.

In a time like this one, his work seems as important as it ever was — seeing as racism, arguably the primary evil of his life, has marauded to the forefront of our national politics and culture.

Were he here today — at 92 years old — what would he say?

I think Baldwin would say that we are where we are because, as a society, we have not broken free of our fear. We are where we are, in essence, because we have chosen to be.

“We are controlled here by our confusion,” Baldwin writes, “far more than we know.”

“Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.”

This is all still as true now as it was when he was writing with John F. Kennedy in the White House.

It is true that we do not take good care of each other, or our environment, or our resources, or our democratic systems.

Our country is not amongst the happiest in the world, and it is not known for its generosity, because generosity is a risk — and that, to Baldwin, is where freedom lies.

“If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving. And, after all, one can give freedom only by setting one free. This, in the case of the Negro, the American republic has never been sufficiently mature to do.”

“Freedom is hard to bear,” he says. “I have met only a very few people — and most of these were not Americans — who had any real desire to be free.”

Was the election of Donald Trump not indicative of this weakness? Trump was and is only a wild card in his erraticism. In his whiteness, his maleness, his bombast, and, most importantly, his unthinkingness, he was safe and known.

Considering that he succeeded Barack Obama, our first black President, in the White House, that cannot be overlooked.

While all people cast their ballots for different reasons, voting for Trump last November has been characterized by many in our national mainstream as an act of desperation.

But Baldwin likely would not have regarded Trump’s success as a result of desperation. Rather, he likely would have regarded those votes as desperately familiar.

It was 44 years ago, on a PBS special, that Baldwin was describing his terror at “the moral apathy, the death of the heart,” happening in his country. It is that same death of the heart that produced Trump.

To Baldwin, racism was not active. It was submissive, weary, and weak. “It is a terrible thing,” he said at Cambridge, “for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one ninth of its population is beneath it.”

The election of 2016, in this frame, must be seen to some degree as our collective willingness to retreat into the familiar obfuscation of responsibility for our neighbors and our nation.

The idea that Trump would be “shake things up in Washington” was always absurd. To truly shake things up, Trump and his party would have to be different than those who have come before them. They are not.

Trump is only self-interested. He’s fit for the cast of Glenngary Glen Ross. His team is no different. They are supporting the system that has made them.

Fear, or a high sensitivity to threat — of the unknown, of difference, of change — is, according to the likes of professor John R. Hibbing, a common trait in those who identify as politically conservative.

Baldwin, on the other hand, was spectacularly unafraid. He was a gay, black man who eschewed the Christian church and made his way in the world with compassion and vision all the same. He was, it could be said, the threat.

And he didn’t spare those who engaged with his work. The election of Obama in 2008, for instance, would likely not have moved Baldwin.

When Robert Kennedy sunnily predicted in 1961 that that there could be a black president in 40 years, Baldwin replied, “From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barbershop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday. And now he’s already on his way to the Presidency. We’ve been here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe, in 40 years — if you’re good — we may let you become President.”

Kennedy, of course, was prescient. But it is worth noting that the man we let become President, to use Baldwin’s parlance, had a white mother and grew up in a white family in Hawaii.

Barack Obama wasn’t, for enough Americans, too much to handle — and even so, as quickly as we could, we reverted to our mean. Hillary Clinton, it should be added, aside from her gender, also fit that mold well enough.

So Baldwin would not have been surprised by our current predicament. Our national reckoning — our national white reckoning — has not yet occurred. We have not yet chosen to be free. Since Goldwater, the Republican candidate for President has not lost the white vote even one time.

It should be said that at no point in his life did James Baldwin hate white people. A positive experience at an early age with a white school teacher, as well as his intrinsic sentimentality, saw to that.

This meant, by extension, that Baldwin didn’t fear White America. Perhaps it was for that reason that he could so clearly articulate its shortcomings.

That America is, today, still hanging onto its power — and so the biblical last line of Baldwin’s 1963 book still rings true. “God gave Noah the Rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

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