James Baldwin and the Fear of a Nation

“On one side of town I was an Uncle Tom,” said James Baldwin in an interview with The Paris Review, “and on the other the Angry Young Man.” But the list of epithets was much longer than that. Robert Kennedy, apoplectic at Baldwin’s statement in a private meeting in 1963 that black Americans couldn’t be counted on to fight in Vietnam, called him a “nut.” Harold Cruse, who attended the same meeting with Kennedy, complained of Baldwin’s “intellectual inconsistencies,” while Richard Wright, his earliest idol and first champion, considered him an ungrateful apostate. To Eldridge Cleaver, Baldwin was a traitor, with a “grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites.” British Immigration named him a persona non grata and J. Edgar Hoover, who kept a case file on Baldwin at the FBI that ran 1,884 pages long, declared him “a well-known pervert” and a threat to national security.

Baldwin, for his part, accepted no characterization. “A real writer,” he wrote, “is always shifting and changing and searching.” The credo guided his work and his life. He moved to France at the age of twenty-four to avoid “becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.” Later he would recoil whenever someone described him as a spokesman for his race or for the civil rights movement. He rejected political labels, sexual labels (“homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual are twentieth-century terms which, for me, really have very little meaning”), and questioned the notion of racial identity, an “invention” of paranoid, infantile minds. “Color is not a human or a personal reality,” he wrote in The Fire Next Time. “It is a political reality.”

His refusal to align himself with any bloc within the civil rights movement isolated him, and he suffered from it—Cleaver’s attack wounded him, as did Wright’s sense of betrayal and Martin Luther King Jr.’s decision to exclude him from the list of speakers at the March on Washington. But the same resistance to alliances that cost him during his lifetime has given shape and power to his afterlife. Now that the old factions have disintegrated, and the national discussion of race has largely retreated from debates over proposed solutions to a debate over whether problems still exist, Baldwin’s work has regained its influence. That his observations about race in America feel as relevant and cutting as ever is as much a testament to his insight as to the level of the current discourse.

Today, like sixty years ago, much of the public rhetoric about race is devoted to explaining to an incurious white public, in rudimentary terms, the contours of institutional racism. It must be spelled out, as if for the first time, that police killings of unarmed black children, indifference to providing clean drinking water to a majority-black city, or efforts to curtail the voting rights of minority citizens are not freak incidents but outbreaks of a chronic national disease. Nebulous, bureaucratic terms like “white privilege” have been substituted for “white supremacy,” or “micro-aggressions” for “casual racism.” “All Power to the People,” “By Any Means Necessary,” and “We Shall Overcome” have yielded to the understated, matter-of-fact “Black Lives Matter.” The rhetorical front has withdrawn from “How can we cure this?” to “What is the nature of the problem?”

Writers, scholars, and activists have turned to Baldwin for answers. The first annual volume of The James Baldwin Review appeared last year1 and at least a dozen books have been published about Baldwin since Barack Obama’s inauguration, most of which comb the embers of his legacy for some new spark; these include monographs about Baldwin’s life in Turkey and in Provence, his views on the criminal justice system, and his writing on music. One of the more valuable recent entries is Douglas Field’s All Those Strangers, an idiosyncratic biography that focuses on three (somewhat) neglected fields of Baldwin study: his relationship to the political left and the FBI, his thinking about Africa, and his conflicting views on religion and spirituality. Field emphasizes the paradoxical nature of Baldwin’s various identities. The strangers of the title are Baldwin’s incarnations:
Baldwin the deviant rabble rouser…; Baldwin the civil rights activist…; Baldwin the passé novelist and homosexual sidelined by Black Nationalists; Baldwin the expatriate; and the Baldwin struggling to work out his conflicted relationship to Africa.
As Field examines in turn each of these strangers, he creates a portrait of a writer of “outright contradictions” who sought truth at the expense of ideological purity. Baldwin was often hailed as a prophet but this praise was misplaced: he could not predict the future, but few writers were able to diagnose the present as vividly or unsparingly. That was enough.

With the man himself having departed the scene three decades ago, contemporary writers have chased his ghost. In The New Yorker, Teju Cole traveled to Leukerbad, the town where Baldwin finished Go Tell It on the Mountain (and the subject of his essay “Stranger in the Village”); in The New York Times, Ellery Washington followed Baldwin’s trail around Paris; and, again in The New Yorker, Thomas Chatterton Williams trespassed onto the property in Saint-Paul-de-Vence where Baldwin spent the final seventeen years of his life. (“Today, among my generation of black writers and readers,” writes Williams, “James Baldwin is almost universally adored.”)

No one has done more to popularize Baldwin in recent years than Ta-Nehisi Coates, who used Baldwin’s address to his nephew in “My Dungeon Shook,” the first part of The Fire Next Time, as a model for Between the World and Me, the most widely read book on race in America in a generation.2 Consecutive short essays by Coates in The Atlantic about his response to Baldwin’s nonfiction demonstrate the difficulty in pinning Baldwin down. “Baldwin’s writing is roughly contemporaneous with the Civil Rights movement, but he seems to share none of its hope, none of its belief in the power of love to conquer all,” Coates wrote in the first essay. Writing two days later: “My point is that after all of this—after all his hard talk—Baldwin is still talking about love.”

This year on January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the most-viewed speech in America was Chris Rock’s recitation of “My Dungeon Shook.” Delivered at Harlem’s Riverside Church, about a mile west of Baldwin’s childhood neighborhood, the performance was remarkable both for Rock’s impassioned delivery and his omission of the essay’s most incendiary passage: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.” There remain limits to what even a figure as respected and outspoken as Rock can say on the subject of race in America today.

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