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.

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