. America the Unredeemed: James Baldwin's radical vision | Ceasefire Magazine

America the Unredeemed: James Baldwin’s radical vision Comment

James Baldwin’s critique of American life remains one of the preeminent interventions of the Civil Rights movement. In the wake of the Trump era and the rise of BLM, Baldwin's radical vision is more relevant than ever, writes Zwan Mahmod.

Editor's Desk, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, July 18, 2021 10:23 - 0 Comments


James Baldwin’s critique of American life stands out as one of the preeminent interventions of the Civil Rights era. A bitter moral condemnation underlay his analysis, yet it was attenuated by a belief in a very worldly redemption, in which America, a house divided against itself, could become one. Race was central to Baldwin’s thinking, as were issues of sexuality and class, ideas explored through his fiction, notably Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, and through his non-fiction, in the form of essays.

In Notes of A Native Son, James Baldwin declared his principal ambition in life was to be ‘an honest man and a good writer’. In 1948, at the age of 24, he departed for Paris, spending the rest of his twenties in Europe, before returning to America in 1957. Baldwin stood outside the reality of his country, which allowed him to more accurately observe what he saw upon his return. In many ways, it was this distance which allowed him to offer the critiques that he did.

Baldwin’s conception of America was fascinating. Whereas MLK fought non-violently for an integrated America and Malcolm X rejected the promise of it, Baldwin argued America was already integrated. The labour spent and the blood spilt building the country, he pointed out, were the consequence of an existing, enforced and unequal state of integration. Three centuries after the first slaves arrived in North America, and two centuries after the founding of the union, had ensured that the United States, black and white, were integrated by blood, if nothing else. Yet, given the economic, social and spiritual immiseration of Black Americans, Baldwin believed in the necessity of creating art, a greater form of liberation for the individual and society at large. His own novels were an obvious example. Rufus Scott, the black protagonist of Baldwin’s novel Another Country, was partially based on his friend Eugene Worth, who committed suicide in 1946 by jumping off the George Washington bridge (just as Scott does in the novel).

Black music also featured prominently in Baldwin’s imagination. As a child preacher he understood the importance of cadence and musicality to the human ear, and even after leaving the Church, this feeling remained with him. ‘There are three elements in the blues: the reflection of a condition, the expression of a rage, and an avowal of love. It’s love that gives the blues their ironic and tragic tone’. The ironic, the tragic and the beautiful were Baldwin’s assessments of America, an insight, as an outsider and writer, he was best placed to make.

Baldwin’s analysis of American racism is best understood as a social-psychological critique, grounded in a potent moralism. As he memorably put it in an interview with Dr Kenneth Clark in May 1963:

The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people…whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger whom they’ve relied on for so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man.

Baldwin’s outspoken declaration was an assertion of an identity long denied. The very terms which were used for black men — ‘boy’, ‘nigger’ — reflected the infantilisation and degradation of black Americans. Racism is explained as a product of white American fear and insecurity. The ‘nigger’ was a creation of white minds, not a description of reality. Baldwin goes on: “For a negro there’s no difference between the North and the South…there’s just a difference in the way they castrate you, but the fact of the castration is the American fact’. No other significant intellectual of the period spoke in such a way. The extraordinary achievement of Baldwin was to simultaneously condemn his country for its conduct yet hold out the prospect of redemption, as long as black and white subsumed themselves as Americans.

Baldwin’s criticism also extended to the idea of cultural immaturity. ‘Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a great virtue, too’. Baldwin explored the idea of American immaturity in great depth in an early essay, written in 1949, titled,’ Preservation of Innocence’  as well as in one of his final essays, ‘Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood’. The ‘unnaturalness’ of homosexuality was cited as the reason for its depravity yet, as Baldwin pointed out, even assuming this was true, it would be to partake in the naturalistic fallacy, where the so-called ‘natural’ is good, and the artificial evil.

This fear and revulsion of homosexuality were deep-seated in American life. The FBI, who were surveilling Baldwin, speculated about his sexual orientation, and deemed him a ‘pervert’. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, referred in private to Baldwin as ‘Martin Luther Queen’. As one of Baldwin’s biographers, James Campbell, puts it, ‘colour and sex are the defining preoccupations of the American mind’.

Half a century after the Civil Rights Movement was launched, America has undoubtedly made immense cultural progress. Intolerance towards homosexuality and racial minorities has not only become unacceptable but baffling to most Americans in the 21st century. Yet, a danger lies in replacing radical rhetoric and direct action with platitudes and self-congratulatory sloganeering. Baldwin’s evident radicalism cannot be sanitised for the modern age: ‘There is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure’.

Has such change occurred? Electoral politics is still dominated by big donors who retain an inordinate amount of political power, with corporations free to not only exploit the domestic economy but an ever-expanding global market. What would Baldwin think of the expansion of American capitalism and the development of what many scholars have termed neo-colonialism? It is not completely evident that change is always progressive, or that there are no backwards or sidewards steps along the road of history. Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 are only two of the most ominous signs of such regression.

The Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 are also emblematic of the continuing suspicion and hostility between large segments of African American communities and the police. ‘Race relations’, the term we often use to talk about this subject, is itself evidence of failure. The hope of transcending race has seemingly crumbled and, along with it, James Baldwin’s promise of redemption.

However, this is not where the story ends. Baldwin was born in 1924, poor, black and gay. He was dealt one of the worst hands America had to offer. Despite this, he was able, through extraordinary intellectual and rhetorical power, to unravel the nature of the American mind and show us that where there is dark there is also light, that where there is hate there can also be love, and that belief in such redemption is not merely desirable, but necessary.

Zwan Mahmod

Zwan Mahmod is a writer based in London.

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