Source of book: I own the complete essays of James Baldwin
This is my official choice for Black History Month this year.
Here is the list of Black History Month selections since I started this blog, and also some related books:
2016: Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Black Boy (American Hunger) by Richard Wright
Other notable books by African American or African authors:
Poems by Phillis Wheatley
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
I Greet The Dawn (Poems) by Paul Laurence Dunbar
The Price for Their Pound of Flesh by Daina Ramey Berry
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Books on Black History by other authors:
The Slaves’ War by Andrew Ward
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Vol.1 by M. T. Anderson
Devil In The Grove by Gilbert King
Three years ago, I read James Baldwin for the first time: his semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain. While the depiction of domestic violence and dysfunction was difficult at times, the book really impressed me with its psychological perceptiveness and nuanced view of various political and religious movements.
I had a chance to pick up a collection of Baldwin’s essays in the Library of America format, so I did. I decided to start at the beginning, and read the first collection for Black History Month this year.
This collection was fascinating and thought provoking. It is divided into three sections. The first is essentially critical reviews of books of movies - specifically, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son by Richard Wright, and the film version of Bizet’s Carmen starring African Americans, Carmen Jones. (My wife had heard of the last of these despite its obscurity.) The second section looks at the African American experience in the United States. The third is about the author’s experiences in Europe. Preceding all of this is an introduction entitled “Autobiographical Notes,” which is fantastic.
I’ll look at these roughly in the order they are in the book. First are a couple of wonderful lines from the introduction. Baldwin really articulates well the unspoken and unacknowledged role of racism and white supremacy in the very core of our politics. It is impossible to coherently talk about pretty much any issue in our current political discussion - particularly the election of The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named - without acknowledging the past and its effects on the present. As Baldwin puts it:
I don’t think that the Negro problem in America can be even discussed coherently without bearing in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions, customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the country; in short the general social fabric. Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart.
There is more good stuff about this in the final essay, which I hope to discuss later in this post. The second quote is fantastic, and is one I hope to steal.
I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.
This is a common - and intentional in my opinion - misunderstanding of those of us who criticize America. We love our country, and want to see her live up to her ideals, not degrade to our worst instincts and historical moments. And this is why the Colin Kaepernicks of the world will always be far truer patriots than the jingoistic gun-toting sorts. To love is to expect the best, not enable the worst.
I didn’t note any particular quotes from the literary reviews, but I did want to touch on them. First, Baldwin’s criticisms of Uncle Tom’s Cabin are entirely just. He is right that, to reach her audience, she had to make her Negros either exotic (see: Topsy) or all too perfect to be realistic. As Baldwin notes, they cannot be fully human, with weaknesses and all, or they would be rejected by Stowe’s white audience. And yes, this remains a problem in white portrayals of people of color, from the “magical negro” on down. I won’t get into that further, other than to say that the essay is worth a read. It isn’t so much a takedown of Stowe as a critique of white audiences in general.
I can’t say much about Baldwin’s criticism of Richard Wright’s Native Son, as I have not yet read that. I thought his autobiographical work, Black Boy (American Hunger) was good.
The takedown (and takedown it was) of Carmen Jones appears to be entirely justified. Heck, so much of classic Hollywood has aged extremely badly - particularly on issues of race. I will particularly note his fantastic riff on why Black Carmen - and particularly the black men who desire her - cannot be allowed to be truly sexual. After all, that would get uncomfortably close to the most pernicious stereotypes about African Americans.
The second section is both intriguing and depressing. Baldwin is not much of an optimist, and is pretty much a self-admitted misanthrope in many cases. His view of black politicians is pretty dismal, even as he acknowledges the need for more blacks in politics. Sadly, so much of what he says seems to be true about today as well. Sigh.
I do want to quote one of his percipient statements, at the beginning of his description of the hazards of traveling to the deep south - specifically a horribly botched fundraising campaign involving a friend of his.
It is considered a rather cheerful axiom that all Americans distrust politicians. (No one takes the further and less cheerful step of considering just what effect this mutual contempt has on either the public or the politicians, who have, indeed, very little to do with one another.)
That’s both depressing and far too true these days as well.
In a later essay, Baldwin also makes a thoughtful observation about hate. Baldwin had a vicious, abusive father. In this essay, he mentions that he didn’t want to see his father on his deathbed. Although he told his mother that the reason was that he hated his father, he acknowledges in this essay that the real reason is that he didn’t want to see his father in a condition too pathetic to hate. Baldwin’s level of self-awareness is impressive and admirable. But the quote applies beyond just his situation.
I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.
There is so much truth in this, both on the personal level, and on the broader societal level, as we endure a season where hate has gained a renewed vigor.
The final section was, in many ways, my favorite. If that is the right word. During the Jim Crow era, Europe, particularly Paris, was a bit of a haven for African Americans. It was a place where they would be treated relatively equally, and had access to the mainstream of intellectual and social live. But it wasn’t exactly a utopia, as Baldwin points out. While one wouldn’t be denied food, shelter, or employment, one was always burdened with the assumptions that came with being an American. Baldwin also notes that white supremacy is endemic to Europe too - that whole colonialist enterprise was founded on the idea of white superiority. It just manifests differently.
Perhaps the most horrifying essay is the one that tells the tale of Baldwin’s experience with the French criminal justice system. So, this fellow American runs into Baldwin, and gets his help in finding lodging in the same dive hotel in Paris. Unbeknownst to Baldwin, this guy stole the sheets from his previous lodging. Baldwin borrows these sheets while he does a protest that he can’t get his own sheets washed by the hotel. The cops are called, and an identifying mark is noticed, and Baldwin and his acquaintance end up in a bewildering cycle of bureaucracy and oppression which keeps them incarcerated for weeks on end on what is the most petty of thefts. (And Baldwin didn’t even do anything!) Finally, after an agonizing and seemingly endless series of hearings, Baldwin manages to get a fellow inmate who is released to go contact a lawyer friend of Baldwin’s, who gets things dismissed in fairly short order. The whole episode is a chilling reminder of the challenges - and abuses - faced by immigrants in our own justice system. Forget not sharing a common language. Baldwin is most horrified by the fact that he can’t read the culture like he could at home. Even in the South, he would have been able to kiss the right asses and get out. But in France, it is a bewildering mystery. This is why a bristle at those who claim that immigrants and refugees should somehow be able to master our own system the first time, without mistakes, and that any mistake should result in catastrophic consequences. I wish that each of those persons might find themselves afoul of a justice system they don’t instinctively understand. (Our own would be good enough - but a foreign one would be even better.) I love Baldwin’s observation on culture:
One had, in short, to come in contact with an alien culture in order to understand that a culture was not a community basket-weaving project, nor yet an act of God; was something neither desirable nor undesirable in itself, being inevitable, being nothing more or less than the recorded and visible effects on a body of people of the vicissitudes with which they had been forced to deal.
I am reminded of Abraham Maslow’s amazing quote about culture:
It is too often not realized that culture itself is an adaptive tool, one of whose main functions is to make the physiological emergencies come less and less often.
This is one of the main arguments I have had with people in the last few years. “Culture” is essentially used as a euphemism for race, of course, but more than that is the argument that somehow a culture is superior by definition because it has subjugated other cultures. Rather, cultures and subcultures are as much driven by circumstances as by choice.
Another essay in this section concerns Baldwin’s experience in a tiny Swiss village, where he was essentially the first black person anyone had seen. It is pretty horrifying in many ways, even though it is predictable as to the human behaviors. One of the best lines in this comes from Baldwin’s notice of a missionary collection box - seeking money to “convert the heathen Africans.” As Baldwin contemplates the irony of “buying” souls as black bodies were bought in the recent past, he makes an observation about his own father, who was a devout preacher even as he was abusive to his family.
I tried not to think of these so lately baptized kinsmen, of the price paid for them, or the peculiar price they themselves would pay, and said nothing about my own father, who having taken his own conversion too literally never, at bottom, forgave the white world (which he described as heathen) for having saddled him with a Christ in whom, to judge at least from their treatment of him, they themselves no longer believed.
This is, indeed, the conclusion I myself have come to about white American Evangelicals. They sure believe in their doctrine, in their beliefs, and especially in their white nationalist politics - but they sure as fucking hell do not believe in Jesus Christ. At least not in a way that might possibly affect their behavior toward their fellow humans.
The final four pages of this essay are some of the best writing on race I have ever read. Baldwin takes the reader on a tour-de-force of the history of European chauvinism and the need whites have to remain wilfully ignorant of their own complicity in harming others. He starts with the idea that the American dream, of the equality of mankind, runs directly counter to American behavior. The expansion of equality to include the black man has caused tremendous cognitive dissonance. Let me quote at length.
[T]o betray a belief is not not by any means to have put oneself beyond its power; the betrayal of a belief is not the same thing as ceasing to believe. If this were not so there would be now moral standards in the world at all. Yet one must recognize that morality is based on ideas and that all ideas are dangerous - dangerous because ideas can only lead to action and where the action leads no man can say. And dangerous in this respect: that confronted with the impossibility of remaining faithful to one’s beliefs, and the equal impossibility of becoming free of them, one can be driven to the most inhuman excesses. The ideas on which American beliefs are not, though Americans often seem to think so, ideas which originated in America. They came out of Europe. And the establishment of democracy on the American continent was scarcely as radical a beak with the past as was the necessity, which Americans faced, of broadening this concept to include black men.
This was, literally, a hard necessity. It was impossible, for one thing, for Americans to abandon their beliefs, not only because these beliefs alone seemed able to justify the sacrifice they had endured and the blood that they had spilled, but also because these beliefs afforded them their only bulwark against a moral chaos as absolute as the physical chaos of the continent it was their destiny to conquer. But in the situation in which Americans found themselves, these beliefs threatened an idea which, whether or not one likes to think so, is the very warp and woof of the heritage of the West, the idea of white supremacy.
Americans have made themselves notorious by the shrillness and the brutality with which they have insisted on this idea, but they did not invent it; and it has escaped the world’s notice that those very excesses of which Americans have been guilty imply a certain, unprecedented uneasiness over the idea’s life and power, if not, indeed, the idea’s validity. The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization (the present civilization, which is the only one that matters; all previous civilizations are simply “contributions” to our own) and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men. But not so to accept him was to deny his human reality, his human weight and complexity, and the strain of denying the overwhelmingly undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that they approached the pathological.
Dang. The idea of the pathological rationalizations is even more true today of white Evangelicals than when Baldwin wrote it. It goes on:
At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself.
Baldwin goes on to note the history of lynching and segregation - and calls this an insanity which overtakes white men. Indeed. Baldwin then goes on to get to a really raw nerve. One which is at the heart of both our toxic excuse for religion and our equally toxic politics. I have to quote the final two paragraphs in their entirety, because they are so prophetic in explaining both our current political moment and indeed the way that white Evangelicalism has self-destructed over the last few decades.
Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not thing, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world - which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white - owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us - very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will - that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.
The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact face, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.
I have read and re-read these paragraphs over and over a few times, because they are so fantastic. Really, the political and cultural moment we find ourselves in is contained therein. Trump ran on a platform which is essentially what Baldwin describes as “European innocence.” That state in which the existence of non-whites can be denied. MAGA is really - and has always been - “make America white again.” But the world is no longer white, and it never will be again. These warring ideas play out in so many ways, from the debate about immigration, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to our discussion of taxation and public benefits. The undercurrent of white supremacy has yet to be fully addressed, a full 75 years after Baldwin wrote these words. And it is nowhere as fully unaddressed as within white Evangelicalism. So many things here apply, from the naive (or, more likely, malevolent) insistence on a black and white morality (literally and figuratively), to the pathological denial of reality, to the way that moral high-mindedness and false innocence turns one into a monster: these are literally the defining characteristics of white Evangelicalism these days.
This collection of essays is well worth the read. Baldwin, even though he wrote decades ago, seems more prophetic and relevant than ever. His writing seems, like Jean Sibelius’ music, to be “cold, clear water” offering that clarity so needed today.