James Baldwin On His 94th Birthday Still Ain't Your Negro
Every writer knows the fear of a blank page (or screen these days), but we also know that fear can be conquered by just one word, soon followed by much bolder ones. James Baldwin, who would have been 94 today, was incredibly fearless as both a writer and a human being. The Martin Luther King memorial in DC manages to feature multiple quotations from the civil rights leader that don't actually address race or racism directly. Baldwin's words are harder, if not impossible, to sanitize. He stared into the face of America and never blinked.
America's history, her aspirations, her peculiar triumphs, her even more peculiar defeats, and her position in the world . . . are all so profoundly and stubbornly unique that the very word "America" remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans.
Baldwin wrote these words in Paris, where he emigrated in 1948. This is described by some as "exile" as though croissants and champagne have any downside compared to the horrors facing black people in America (at the time, I add with uncharacteristic optimism). If Baldwin was in exile, it was only from the dream that defines America despite its worst actions, but Baldwin was exiled from that dream at birth. Like Josephine Baker and Richard Wright, Baldwin fled a peculiar hell in an America that refused to recognize let alone fully appreciate their humanity.
Baldwin, in 1965, famously debated William F. Buckley on the audacious subject "Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?" Buckley radiated an arrogant white male supremacy that lesser conservative lights from Ben Shapiro to Matt Lewis have sought (and generally failed) to emulate. He probably walked onto that Cambridge University debate stage like an overconfident Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. There was little about Baldwin that someone like Buckley was inclined to respect. Baldwin grew up poor in Harlem. He hadn't attended exclusive schools like Buckley's Yale. Baldwin was also black and unashamedly queer at a time when black folks had enough troubles. Yet by the end of their duel, Buckley grudgingly conceded that Baldwin's arguments, which he still rejected, were nonetheless "eloquent." (They were also coherent, unlike Buckley's famously lampooned tendency to pontificate to the point of gibberish.)
In another way, this dream, and we'll get to the dream in a moment, is at the expense of the American Negro. You watched this in the Deep South in great relief. But not only in the Deep South. In the Deep South, you are dealing with a sheriff or a landlord, or a landlady or a girl of the Western Union desk, and she doesn't know quite who she's dealing with, by which I mean, that if you're not a part of the town, and if you are a Northern Nigger, it shows in millions of ways. So she simply knows that it's an unknown quantity, and she wants to have nothing to do with it because she won't talk to you, you have to wait for a while to get your telegram. OK, we all know this. We've all been through it and, by the time you get to be a man, it's very easy to deal with. But what is happening in the poor woman, the poor man's mind is this: they've been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge in consolation, which is like a heavenly revelation: at least, they are not Black.
Here Baldwin presciently comments on the motivations of "rural, white working class" Trump supporters more effectively than every recent (seemingly unending) New York Times article on the subject. It reminds me of Baldwin's 1968 appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show" when he'd returned to his homeland to confront the obnoxious white liberalism that persists today. Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss, who understood Baldwin's experiences as well as we might comprehend as-yet undiscovered life on Mars, criticized Baldwin over his stated lack of optimism on race relations in a year where a white man had murdered Martin Luther King.
"But I think he's overlooking one very important matter," Weiss said. "Each of us, I think, is terribly alone ... So why must we always concentrate on color?" Baldwin calmly put away his cigarette and proceeded to unleash "great vengeance and furious anger" on our little professor of philosophy. Please watch and be awed.
Baldwin explains that he left America because of "a real social danger visible in the face of every cop, every boss, everybody." He also delivers a rhetorical TKO that resonates with me whenever some white pundit blithely lectures us to not freak out over kiddie jails or Muslim bans because America is once, twice, three times a lady of liberty, and it's a given that such a great nation will "survive" Donald Trump.
"I don't know what most white people in this country feel," [Baldwin] said. "But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don't know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.
"That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can't afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.
"I don't know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn't matter — but I know I'm not in their union. I don't know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don't know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.
"Now this is the evidence," Baldwin said, his voice rising with indignation. "You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen."
Barack Obama loved America like the indulgent parent who buries the tiniest grains of criticism underneath mountains of enabling praise. It's how he got elected president. It's the only way he got elected. Michelle Obama, at the Democratic National Convention, dared to correctly point out that for eight years she'd lived in a house "built by slaves," and little shits on FOX lost their shit. White America demands that the United States is and has always been a perfect union. This perspective rejects not just reality but the true struggles and triumphs of black people over the centuries. Denying the many dragons slain in order for Ms. Obama to enter the White House in the first place is to diminish the woman you enjoy watching on "Carpool Karaoke."
Baldwin flourished in France and eventually died there, but he never fully divorced himself from America. He never stopped confronting the country that made him who he was. He did this not out of spite or rage but from a true love of the deferred dream that someone like Trump would never understand. He put it best in 1955's "Notes from a Native Son": "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."
And now you may open thread.
Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle.