James Baldwin’s Misunderstood Radicalism

A Review of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

(This review includes quotations of dated racial terms.)

In 1891, the Baltimore author and lawyer William Cabell Bruce penned “The Negro Problem,” a long essay that purported to explain the racial inferiority of African Americans, a status he said made them unfit to be citizens. Bruce was elected as a U.S. senator three years later and went on to write several well-received books, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Benjamin Franklin. He died wealthy and renowned.

Although Bruce’s essay was debunked in its substance over the years, it established a frame of reference that has proven highly durable. Neither writers nor sociologists nor politicians have escaped the viewpoint Bruce established in “The Negro Problem,” which was that African American pain was essentially self-inflicted.

This idea seems to come naturally even to progressives. It was the same viewpoint taken by four-time senator David Patrick Moynihan in 1964, when he led an in-depth study of the failures of African American families to achieve economic outcomes on par with white families. Although the resulting report was a well-intentioned attempt to redress structural economic injustices, it was widely perceived as a case of victim-blaming. It basically asked, What were black families doing wrong that kept them so poor?

Of course the concept of the “negro problem” is older than Moynihan, older than Bruce. As a political construct, it is at least as old as the three-fifths compromise, devised in 1787 by the founders at the Constitutional Convention. (The compromise was literally a statement of how much less black lives mattered, and it was precise in its answer.)

The weight of centuries of such white-shaped history was bearing down on novelist and essayist James Baldwin in the summer of 1968 when he sat for an interview with Esquire, and the first question posed to him was: “How can we get black people to cool it?” Protests had broken out in more than 100 American cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th of that year. Forty three people died in the violence, and ultimately more than 20,000 were arrested. This hot season of protest followed what had been dubbed the “long, hot summer” of 1967, in which 159 riots broke out and 83 people died.

So when Esquire asked Baldwin–with astounding glibness–how black people could be brought to “cool it,” Baldwin was being asked the 1968 version of the question behind “the negro problem”: What was wrong with blacks now?

Baldwin’s reply was to the point: “It is not for us to cool it,” he said.

He went on,

It’s a very serious question in my mind whether or not the people of this country, the bulk of population of this country, have enough sense of what is really happening to their black co-citizens to understand why they’re in the streets. I know of this moment they maybe don’t know it, and this is proved by the reaction to the civil disorders. It came as no revelation to me or to any other black cat that white racism is at the bottom of the civil disorders. It came as a great shock apparently to a great many other people, including the President of the United States. And now you ask me if we can cool it. . . . What causes the eruptions, the riots, the revolts- whatever you want to call them- is the despair of being in a static position, absolutely static, of watching your father, your brother, your uncle, or your cousin- no matter how old the black cat is or how young- who has no future.

(My emphasis)

Baldwin is given too little credit for achieving what was essentially a Copernican revolution in thinking about race relations in the United States, putting whites at the center of “the negro problem.” The role reversal was only vaguely indicated in the Esquire interview, but Baldwin had already made it crystal clear five years before in his greatest essay, “The Fire Next Time.”

There, he accepted the premise that there was a “negro problem” but argued it was clearly and exclusively of white authorship. Furthermore, the problem’s intractability completely dissolved, he said, when it was recast in these terms. American society has a baseline setting, not of colorlessness, but of whiteness, Baldwin argued, and the burden of measuring up was laid on blacks. The supposedly neutral conception of race relations in America was that blacks were defective versions of whites.

But as Baldwin told Esquire, it was not for black people to assess what was wrong with this setup–still less explain their anger about it in 1968;–wasn’t it clear? It was for whites to figure out how they had managed to found a country on the basis of universal human liberty while also establishing, on the same territory, a totalitarian regime for the subjugation and enslavement of a whole class of people.

As Baldwin argues in “The Fire Next Time,” the history of the white ruling class in America is one written in blazing all-caps that tells of the tyrannizing of enslaved Africans, the reaping of unrequited capital from their work, and the disenfranchising and social disappearing of their descendants. The real crime, though, was the deliberate whitewashing of this history–the tossing of it all down the Orwellian memory hole. In 1963 virtually all of white America simply pretended history of any racial consequence whatsoever stopped with the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870. That’s when our society started being color neutral, according to our newly foreshortened perspective. Baldwin writes,

[T]his is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. . . . But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Baldwin was misunderstood by both his audiences, black and white. The whites who read him were put off by the directness of his accusations and the uncompromising anger he often vented (he will never forgive them). His black audience saw him as pandering to whites; he wanted to help them get better, make themselves whole. Baldwin’s main black critics objected that, if African American liberation was their community’s essential cause, it need have nothing to do with bringing whites onboard, still less saving their souls. Freedom would have to be taken, not given, as far as they were concerned.

It is in this dialectical corner, trapped between two audiences–and two moral imperatives–that Princeton historian Eddie S. Glaude Jr. reevaluates the works of Baldwin in Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. I highly recommend Glaude’s book. It is a supremely readable cultural biography of Baldwin’s writings on race and politics.

(Image: Amazon)

Begin Again presents a clear, insightful analysis of the evolution of Baldwin’s thought throughout his career. It also voices a wonderful appreciation the power Baldwin’s writing still has to awaken the American conscience.

Baldwin’s writings were deeply shaped by his personal life and the pivotal events of the civil rights movement. The reader (like me) who mainly knows the raw, electrifying power of the content of Baldwin’s writings can learn a great deal about their context from Begin Again. I knew a fair amount about the effect of Baldwin’s exile to Paris from 1950 to 1956, and how it shaped his early novels and essays. But I knew hardly anything about his years spent later in Istanbul, where he sought the isolation of Ottoman city squares where he did not know the language.

Baldwin’s career was infamously up-and-down, and Glaude explains a great deal of this turbulence in terms of his changing role in the civil rights movement. The young Baldwin played a formative role in midwifing the civil rights movement (even referring to early activists as his children), and his writing in those years led up to the hopeful ideas of reconciliation expressed in “The Fire Next Time” in 1963. After MLK’s assassination in 1968, though, Baldwin felt (and expressed) sympathy with the more strident voices of black liberation, including members of the Black Panther Party. This pessimistic turn led to the other great literary signpost in Baldwin’s political writings, the long 1972 essay “No Name in the Streets,” (written mostly in Istanbul).

The common thread running through both these phases of Baldwin’s career was the idea of renewal, Glaude tells us. Whether radical reconciliation would come through writing, reflection and persuasion or through the Black Power strategy of showing white America how few peaceful options blacks had left, Baldwin believed change could come. Or, rather, he believed that this hope had to be held up.

The real gift of Begin Again is Glaude’s ability to both relate Baldwin’s message of hope and to amplify it in his own prophetic voice, which is clearly concerned with the present day. The best chapter of Begin Again is the last one, in which Glaude admits that even the exacting Baldwin might recognize some signs of real truth-telling about race in America today, such as the establishment of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama (often called the “Lynching Memorial”). But Glaude also argues how far back our truth-telling must go if we are to effect real reconciliation: all the way. “To do your first works over,” Glaude quotes Baldwin, “means to re-examine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.”

As good as Begin Again is, though, Glaude only glances on the thing that makes Baldwin truly radical, and truly great: his deep perception of the human condition. Baldwin, a black, gay, poor, popeyed man–whose father had constantly told him throughout his youth that he was unlovable and, despite two attempts at suicide, turned himself into a tower of literary and moral force–saw straight into the struggle that makes human individuality. This struggle is the root of all our trouble, but also the root of any beauty or excellence we eke out in our brief time on earth.

We are responsible to life, Baldwin wrote in “The Fire Next Time.” We create and re-create ourselves every day. And if white Americans were monumentally bad at bearing up under this level of responsibility, that’s because everyone was. When Baldwin wrote to Robert Kennedy after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he begged to be “allowed” to share in the family’s grief, writing, “As we know in these trying days to come, you share our struggle, for our struggle is the same.” The challenge Baldwin saw for white Americans was the same challenge faced by any Americans, and indeed any human. it was the challenge of living honestly with oneself, which most people refused to do. Instead, as Glaude reads Baldwin, most of us “were too willing to hide behind the idols of race and ready to kill in order to defend them.”

The main conclusion of Begin Again is that this natural human inclination to believe the best about ourselves even when it is a barefaced lie has been made unusually easy for whites. We are born with a script prepared for us about the way our country works. It becomes natural for us to read straight from that script, starting from our school days, or even earlier. But James Baldwin was born with a very different script to read from. He was taught by his father he was unlovable; taught by his ghetto he was expendable and essentially worthless. It is hard simply to toss scripts like these out. Instead, as Glaude reminds, we have to “go back to our first works” and re-write them. We must keep re-writing them every day. That task is for all of us, and it does not know the color of our skin.

The Dog Who Suspected Some Kind of Terrible Mistake Had Been Made

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I’m chipping away at writing a review of Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. It’s not going well.

The subject of Slaughterhouse Five is the aerial firebombing of Dresden, which killed 38,000 Germans on the night of February 14, 1945. The Allies, the good guys, did it. And we did it for the sake of retribution. The war was almost over, and Dresden had no military value. We just decided that burning down a Baroque city of opera houses and picture galleries would be a nice touch.

The event made no sense; it surpassed the human ability to comment. But still, Vonnegut was there. He bore witness. He had to write about it, and for years he called the working manuscript his “big, important Dresden novel,” poking fun at his own pretension and his own meager capacity to comment.

I’m in the same boat, trying to write about something much bigger than me. How do you say anything intelligent about a novel whose subject matter was chosen because it defies intelligent commentary? The recursive trick can only be pulled off once, I feel, and Vonnegut already did it.

While I was busy feeling stuck on Slaughterhouse Five, I needed a pick-me-up. So I re-read Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s eighth novel. It is zany and wise but not a masterpiece. On its release in 1973 it was widely panned for being cheaply outrageous. Even to me, a huge fan, Breakfast of Champions gives the impression in places of following a well-worn formula. But in a way it also offers proof of Vonnegut’s greatness. If Breakfast of Champions is the kind of thing Vonnegut can reel off on a bad day, truly we stand in the presence of a genius.

I’m going to prove it. And I’m going to prove it by cheating.

Rather than churning out one of my turgid, philosophical essays about hidden structures and moral realism and so forth, what I’m going to do is: march straight through the text of Breakfast of Champions and give you the money quotes. I will proffer only the smallest soupcons of comment along the way, promise. I just can’t be bothered to think very hard today.

Hi ho.

Where better to start than with the founding of our country, by enlightened commercial privateers whom Vonnegut calls “sea pirates.” A good 35 years before the New York Times1619 Project” claimed that rapaciousness and subjugation were organically part of our colonial founding, Vonnegut was already on point:

Actually, the sea pirates who had the most to do with the creation of the new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.

The sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black. Color was everything.

Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world, and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which was a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched this seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This gas blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities. The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily; so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away. The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.

More or less, the sea pirates thought they were doing the copper-colored people a favor in 1492. That’s what we learned as kids in school, right?

The teachers told the children that [1492] was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.

Breakfast of Champions is a novel of ideas, but not in the usual sense. Rather than tracing one or two big ideas all the way though, it goes different directions. Sometimes it’s about bad ideas and how humanity has survived despite having so many of them. Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s favorite made-up science fiction writer, does yeomen service looking into this question. He comes up with some answers, too.

And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.

The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of year, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.

. . . And then Earthlings discovered tools. Suddenly agreeing with friends could be a form of suicide or worse.

In our time, of course, our idea badges have been put to serious use, thanks to our tools. Cold War economics was instructive in this area:

Dwayne Hoover’s and Kilgore Trout’s country, where there was still plenty of everything, was opposed to Communism. It didn’t think that Earthlings who had a lot should share it with others unless they really wanted to, and most of them didn’t want to.

So they didn’t have to.

Everybody in America was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold on to it. Some Americans were very good at grabbing and holding, were fabulously well-to-do. Others couldn’t get their hands on doodly-squat.

Mostly we get our idea badges from school. Regarding Kilgore Trout’s chidlhood education in Ohio:

His high school was named after a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.

So it goes.

Dwayne Hoover, Breakfast of Champions’s antagonist, is psychotic, Vonnegut tells us. It’s because of bad chemicals in his brain. Moreover:

A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads. But there were thousands upon thousands of other people in the city who bought bad chemicals and ate them or sniffed them–or injected them into their veins . . .

People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve. They lived in ugly places where there were only ugly things to do. They didn’t own doodley-squat, so they couldn’t improve their surroundings. So they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead.

Well, it is hard being human. Kilgore Trout, impoverished, unknown science fiction writer, knows this:

[Street life] had given him a life not worth living, but it had given him an iron will to live. This was a common combination on the planet Earth.

And people in America aren’t just ravaging themselves over this dilemma. They’re doing it to the ground beneath their feet, too. As Kilgore Trout hitchhikes through West Virginia, he is positioned to observe:

The surface of the state had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

The surface of West Virginia, with its coal and trees and topsoil gone, was rearranging what was left of itself in conformity with the laws of gravity. It was collapsing into all the holes which had been dug into it. Its mountains, which had once found it easy to stand by themselves, were sliding into valleys now.

The demolition of West Virginia had taken place with the approval of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the State Government, which drew their power from the people.

That last part is the kicker.

Life is not just institutionalized in demented ways in the America. Bad craziness seeps into every aspect of life, making you wonder if the gods themselves are crazy. This passage is allegorical–it’s about a dog–but you’ll get the point, I think. Lancer, the dog in question, is a greyhound, nervous and active by breed. He is kept

in a one-room apartment fourteen feet wide and twenty-six feet long, and six flights of stairs above street level. His entire life was devoted to unloading his excrement at the proper time and place. There were two proper places to put it: in the gutter outside the door seventy-two steps below, with the traffic whizzing by, or in a roasting pan his mistress kept in front of the Westinghouse refrigerator.

Lancer had a very small brain, but he must have suspected from time to time, . . . that some kind of terrible mistake had been made.

We build our own hells. Or we placidly occupy them while we allow them to be built around us. Lancer didn’t ask for the life he had.

Although I’m a sturdily happy person and feel like forging ahead through all of life’s challenges right up till the end, I also feel, in a certain way, that an insuperable hell is being built around me. Vonnegut suggests something of it here:

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

And so on.

Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.

It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.

There are more great quotes from Breakfast of Champions, but this is the one I will close with, because it sums up certain discontents that I feel as keenly as Vonnegut does. I find myself done in by the idiot choices of my countrymen in the same way.

To wit: The society in which I live is consciously designed as a shooting gallery. It makes no more sense than Lancer the greyhound’s mad setup, but it is worse because it kills. In any encounter between law officer and citizen in America, both parties have a presumptive right to carry and use lethal force. And the reason the situation is this way is because gunfighting is the most meaningful story that Americans can bring themselves to believe about their lives–that it’s a frontier struggle, which is fun and exciting.

But it’s not. Life is chaotic: it lacks any point that we do not give it. We are compelled to give an unformed life narrative shape. Why did we give it this one? My brain is small, but I feel some terrible mistake been made.

The Philosophy of Loyalty

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In Lionel Shriver’s 2010 novel So Much For That, two of the main characters are financially ruined by medical disasters. And what Shriver has in mind by “medical disaster” is something virtually all of us will eventually do–die non-suddenly.

How can this be? in the world’s richest, most developed country, how have we created such a rigid formula for impoverishing people for being mortal?

One of Shriver’s best-drawn characters in in So Much For That is Flicka, a 16-year old girl with a wasting, terminal illness whose life is a 24/7 schedule of intense, often humiliating medical therapies. Statistically speaking, she is bound to die before the age of 30.

Flicka refuses to pretend she will ever have a normal life. She resists doing algebra, and the rest of her homework. All the fine things meant to decorate the human soul are meaningless in the face of her daily miseries and her fast-approaching mortal horizon. The role of the game child-patient, Flicka believes, is a construct whose purpose is exclusively to buoy up everyone around her–not herself. When her mother, aching for a moment of normalcy, prepares a nice dinner party, Flicka takes care, in front of the guests, to blend the meal’s components in the food processor and inject the resulting slurry into her stomach tube. Shriver is excellent at depicting this kind of performative acerbity.

Flicka’s parents persist, of course, in trying to get her behind the idea of life even if her particular version of it hovers chronically at the level of pure misery. What else can they do?

In this passage, Flicka puts a sharp edge on her objections to having to pantomime a meaningful existence:

There’s no point in training me to be a productive member of society when I’ll barely make it to being a grown-up. My having to go to school at all just exposes the whole thing as a big baby-sitting service. I don’t need to learn about the causes of the Civil War, and you know it. What’s gonna happen to all those facts? They’ll be cremated. They’ll literally go up in smoke.

It’s a striking observation. With variations allowed for our individual funeral arrangements, all of us will ultimately face this realization. The facts in my brain will be cremated, too. So will the memories, the attachments, and everything else that made this mortal vessel of mine and its penumbra of experience worth nourishing. Flicka’s question, Why stuff our brains with perishable facts? gives way to a broader question, Why stuff our lives with any organized content at all?

As it turns out, being a productive member of society is not a bad first stab at answering this question. We want our successors to have a decent, prosperous society in which to live out their lives. It appears, though, that some lives can hardly factor into this equation when we put them to Shriver’s severe test. Flicka seems to be correct in her assessment that she can neither contribute to nor benefit from society’s “productivity.”

I propose that the thing most of us are aiming at when we say “productive member of society” is actually the idea of a loyal member of society–someone who stays true to society’s essential purposes and discovers a role for oneself in service of those purposes. There is a stream of human experience that we are born into, from which we absorb the elements of our self, and which will go on after our deaths. That is the proper object of our loyalty.

This is not my own idea. I came across it several months ago as I was reading Atul Gawande’s excellent 2014 book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. It is a hard read, but a highly useful one. Being Mortal is a call to do the hard work of envisioning not just one’s death, but one’s mortal demise. The process of dying can go on quite a long time, and it can rob you of the resources a person needs to make rational decisions (not least, money, as Shriver illustrates amply in So Much for That). Make as many of your hardest decisions about end-of-life care now, counsels Gawande, and you will do your family and your medical care givers an enormous service. Don’t wait till you’re a wreck.

Josiah Royce

But the passage I have in mind today is one in which Gawande identifies a service we can do for ourselves as mortal beings: read the American philosopher Josiah Royce on the subject of loyalty. As all our lives slip toward some version of Flicka’s demise (more merciful, we hope, but who knows?), we all face the same question she did–why bother standing up to life’s miseries and indignities by developing a structured, purposive self? The crematorium will surely send that structured self up in smoke. Drawing on Royce’s 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty, Gawande put his response this way:

What more is it that we need in order to feel that life is worthwhile? The answer, [Royce] believed, is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. This was, to him, an intrinsic human need. The cause could be large (family, country, principle) or small (a building project, the care of a pet). The important thing was that, in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning. Royce called this dedication to a cause beyond oneself loyalty.

You can pick up Royce’s 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty cheap (I got my Kindle copy for 99 cents), or you can read it for free on Google Books. Either way, read it if you can. It’s great.

Gawande gets the thrust of Royce’s idea about right, but he leaves out a key part. Royce sees life as following a kind of arc, a progression of development. Early on in life, people have experiences that expose them to all kinds of potential causes. Even if we regard ourselves as strict individualists, we are all born into this ecology of ideas, traditions, institutions, and a whole host of other social constructs. It’s the idea that Kurt Vonnegut was having fun with anytime he would say, “Hey, I just got here.” He meant that, experienced as he was, all the world’s foibles, indecencies and crying shames were already here before he came around.

But so were its glories and beauties–the things worthy of our passion, discipline, and sacrifice: what Royce called causes. This is the key part of Royce’s idea that Gawande leaves vague. All the elements that go into making up our cause predated our existence. Wherever we got them from–parents, school, church, Boy Scouts, the Army, books–they were gifts to us, and we helped ourselves to them. Part of living a loyal life is to keep one’s faith that such things will go on, for our successors to seize on. I guess Vonnegut has subverted me, because I cannot help being slightly jokey about my own cause–it is “serial mortality.” You need not live forever to be useful. It is enough to live in a way that makes your own loyalty contagious–to cause others to want to cultivate their own loyalty.