James Baldwin in Obama’s America

(Originally published in the GC Advocate, October 2010)

The Cross of Redemption : Uncollected Writings.  Random House, 2010.

Nearly every review I’ve seen of the Cross of Redemption so far has picked up on one particular quote from this new collection of James Baldwin’s writing.   It is the first paragraph of a piece titled “from Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve – A Forum,” which is a transcript of a 1961 speech the 36 year old Baldwin gave in New York for the Liberation Committee for Africa:

Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day – thirty years, if I’m lucky – I can be President too.  It never entered this boy’s mind, I suppose – it has not entered the country’s mind yet – that perhaps I wouldn’t want to be.  And in any case, what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro “first” will become the first Negro President.  What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.

The quote is shockingly appropriate, not only for his comments about the potential of a black president, but also that it was given at an event on the liberation of Africa.  Barack Obama’s ties to the African continent through his father are now well known. (And will undoubtedly play a significant role again in the 2012 campaign since the “birther” conspiracies still persist.) Early in Obama’s political career, and early in his presidential campaign, he was wise enough to address his connection to Africa head-on.  It bespoke Obama’s intelligent grasp on the history of black political discourse in America. Black artists in the 1960s and 1970s, inspired by the international politics of anti-colonialism in that time, and inspired by the anthropological study of African survivals, began to re-connect with and embrace the continent and its culture.  They turned the “curse” of Ham and African lineage into a positive affirmation of global liberation.  By the next decade the black intelligentsia would be awash in kente clothe, and the term “African-American” would begin to seep into the American lexicon.  That quote also encapsulates Baldwin’s always razor-sharp analysis of race in America.  Baldwin understood that the symbolic progress of a few, especially the prospects of a black man in the White House, could very easily be used to discredit the persisting inequality among the many.

James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He was the oldest of nine children, and grew up in poverty.  His father was a strict, religious man (and actually his step-father) who was a minister of a storefront church in Harlem. Baldwin would depict this early life in the church and this troubled relationship with his father in his first novel Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953).   At the age of fifteen Baldwin accepted his own call to preach and did so for three years before leaving the church, and home, and moving downtown to Greenwich Village.  Eventually he made his way to Paris among the American expatriate community there.  He met a friend and lover Lucien Happersberger, a Swiss artist, who invited him to stay in his village in Switzerland where Baldwin completed writing Go Tell it on the Mountain.  Later, at the behest of a Turkish actor friend, he would also spend several years living off and on in Istanbul, Turkey where he completed his bestselling novel Another Country.  Baldwin was involved in the civil rights movement through marching and speaking, but became exhausted by the string of assassinations in the 1960s (“they’re killing my friends” he said in an interview once) and he spent more time in France in the 1970s.  He eventually died of cancer at his home in the South of France on November 30, 1987.

The writings featured in this collection are not entirely new.  Some of these were collected in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction a volume which is now out-of-print. The Cross of Redemption was compiled by Randall Kenan, a fine creative writer in his own right (author of the novel A Visitation of Spirits) and a professor of English at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  It is meant to be a companion piece to the Library of America’s collection of Baldwin’s non-fiction essays by compiling other essays and interviews published in magazines over the years from 1947 to 1987.  The book reviews from the 1940s are especially interesting as they provide a look into Baldwin’s early years as a developing writer.

In his introduction Randall Kenan points out how easy it is to “pigeonhole” Baldwin as a writer who was limited to writing about race and blackness.  These were certainly subjects that Baldwin knew well, but he always wrote about them in the service of much bigger ideals.  As Kenan puts it, “…though it is too broad – if not useless – to say his true topic is humanity, it is useful to see how, no matter his topic, how often his writing finds some ur-morality upon which to rest, how he always sees matters through a lens of decency, how he writes with his heart as well as with his head.”

I would also add that in addition to head and heart, Baldwin knew the importance of the body as the site and source of human liberation.  This is the Baldwin who published Giovanni’s Room in 1954, an explicitly gay novel, now considered a classic, but which at the time was a massive risk, not only because he was a young writer, but also because this was a time when people were literally arrested for being in possession of such “obscene” material.  Baldwin understood that sex and the body were at the core of understanding American racial and political attitudes.  Reading through these essays one is never more than a sentence or paragraph away from the body, whether he is writing about the physical work of labor, the perplexities of love and sexuality, or the reality of death.   In this way Baldwin belongs in conversation with another of New York’s great writers, Walt Whitman.  Like Whitman, Baldwin knew New York City, and the nation it belongs to, backwards and forwards, from top to bottom.  Because of the circumstances of their birth – Baldwin born poor into a storefront church family in Harlem, Whitman born poor into a Long Island family full of alcoholism and disability – both writers learned what it means to be on familiar terms with a human desperation that most Americans spend their whole lives trying not to see.  Baldwin saw it all, the depths poverty in Harlem, the bright lights and glamour of the Broadway stage, the suffocating racial customs of the South, the staggering stupidity of Hollywood.  He also witnessed the perceptions of Americans abroad, in Europe (especially Paris) and in the Muslim world (particularly in Turkey where he lived off and on over a decade).

The essays in The Cross of Redemption are surprisingly fresh.  It is a credit to Baldwin’s genius as a writer that his work remains vibrant and timeless even thought he was writing about political figures and controversies that have since faded into the past.  I’ve been reading Baldwin for years, but I admit I came to this collection with the (arrogant) perception that I would somehow have to update his commentary to write about him.  I had the idea that Baldwin was a writer who, despite his split from the church, remained mired in Christian theology and yoked to a problematic notion of Christian victimhood.  I thought I would have to revise his work to account for all the political changes since his death in 1987.  I also thought I’d need to account for the growth of things like the Internet and new media, and its string of ridiculous spectacles passed off as “news.”

Nope.  Jimmy was way ahead of the game.

For instance, in “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist” Baldwin writes “The people who run mass media and those consume it are really in the same boat.  They must continue to produce things they do not really admire, still less love, in order to continue buying things they do not really want, still less need.  If we were dealing only with fintails, two-tone cars, or programs like Gunsmoke, the situation would not be so grave.  The trouble is the serious things are handled (and received) with the same essential lack of seriousness.”  Take out the references to cars and Gunsmoke, and essentially the commentary applies to today’s ridiculous new media spectacles.  In another example, “An Open Letter to My Sister Angela Y. Davis” and “A Letter to Prisoners,” Baldwin speaks to the conditions of our ever expanding prison industrial complex, as the profits of incarceration continue to be fueled by the bodies of the poor, most of them are young black and Latino males.

There are several pieces in the collection that I could spend this entire review quoting and parsing over.  But the one that stirred me the most was “The Uses of the Blues.”  Here Baldwin weaves together the genius of black music and ties it to the history and politics of the United States.  Certainly when he quotes Bessie Smith “Then it thundered and lightnin’d and the wind began to blow/ There’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go” Hurricane Katrina comes to mind.  From “Brownie you’re doing a heckuva job” to a spaced out Barbara Bush saying that sleeping on the floor in a gym in Texas was “working out well” for the evacuees since they were dead broke anyway, the disaster impressed on a whole new generation of young people that the American government still possesses a shameful lack of regard for the poor, and in particular, poor people of color. (“George Bush does not care about black people”)  And yet, while Barack Obama certainly rode a wave of indignation about Hurricane Katrina, about Wall Street’s excesses, and about the economic inequalities throughout the nation, and harnessed them into his impressive run to the White House, that indignation and that guarded sense of suspicion the people have for this country still exists in spite of his historic win. Baldwin puts it this way:

“I want to make it clear that when I talk about Negroes…I am not talking about race; I don’t know what race means.  I am talking about a social fact.  When I say “Negro” it is a digression;  it is important to remember that I am not talking about a people, but a person…I’m talking about what happens to you if, having barely escaped suicide, or death, or madness, or yourself, you watch your children growing up and no matter what you do, no matter what you do, you are powerless, you are really powerless, against the force of the world that is out to tell your child that he has no right to be alive.  And no amount of liberal jargon, and no amount of talk about how well and how far we have progressed does anything to soften or to point out any solution to this dilemma.  In every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world, some way to make the child who will be despised not despise himself.”

The danger in the Age of Obama is to think that November 4, 2008 somehow marked the end of the dilemma that Baldwin describes here.  The danger is in thinking that because the President shares the same skin color and texture of hair as your child that your child will now automatically get a fair shake in education, employment or the criminal justice system.  James Baldwin, tapping into that prophetic tradition, and seeing what had happened over the course of his own life, knew that a little progress can be a dangerous thing.  Having a black president in office didn’t help the 14 year old boy I saw in Brooklyn on Fulton and Tompkins the other day, surrounded by three NYPD officers, looking disgusted and helpless while sitting on his bike getting written up for the grave offense of riding his bike on the sidewalk.  People in the ‘hood see this, and know that they are caught in the quota game, and sooner or later, this kid gets cycled through the criminal justice system, and sooner or later the optimism of 2008 will fade if there is no substance behind it when it comes to the day to day conditions for the working poor.

As Baldwin continues in the same essay, “it is not a question of accusing the White American of crimes against the Negro…What I’m much more concerned about is what White Americans have done to themselves.”  Those white Americans, particularly the ones clinging to the Republican Party, may not feel the police breathing down their neck daily like the young man on Fulton, but economically they are not faring much better.  It is their faithful allegiance to corporate power that will eventually choke the life out of them.  These same corporations, Wal-Mart the most iconic among them, shamelessly tout patriotism while exporting jobs overseas, busting unions at home, and profiting from the influx of illegal immigrant labor domestically. The middle class, (black, white and otherwise) is decimated.  But we still clamor for that good life, and are now getting enslaved to consumer debt and homes we can’t afford, because buying and owning stuff is conflated with patriotic duty.  Yet, even amidst the financial crisis there is a very real prosperity that America has experienced over the years and can’t be easily dismissed.  Immigrants still risk life and limb for the possibilities of living here.  The dream still shines. As Baldwin says, “We really did conquer a continent; we have made a lot of money; we’re better off materially than anybody else in the world.” But, he cautions, “How easy it is as person or as a nation to suppose that one’s well-being is proof of one’s virtue.”

It is precisely this conflation of wealth and righteousness which has always been at the root of American capitalism and has grown even more intense since 1989 and “the end of communism,” just two years after Baldwin died.   And that brings us to “The Tea Party” a revival movement rooted as much in commerce as it is in spirituality or theology.  Defenders of the movement claim it is really about economic policy and not about race, and I don’t think we should be quick to dismiss that claim outright. Again from “Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin writes.  “To talk about these things in this country today is extremely difficult.  Even the words mean nothing anymore. I think, for example, what we call ‘the religious revival’ in America means that more and more people periodically get more and more frightened and go to church in order to make sure they don’t lose their investments.” Yes, the sacred economy has fallen, and in order to set it right a blood sacrifice must be made to the gods in order to restore order.  That’s what they really mean by “watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants.”  Whiteness, capitalism and faith are all intertwined in this right-wing worldview.  In another essay “We Can Change the Country,” Baldwin writes. “One must face the fact that this Christian nation may never have read any of the Gospels, but they do understand money.” And that’s an apt description of this movement, equal parts anti-intellectualism, “free-market” ideology, and apocalyptic Christianity

There is much more here in The Cross of Redemption than I cover in these few paragraphs.  I think it is true that Baldwin did get “bitter” later in his career, as people claimed, and rightfully so.  Again, the assassinations wore him down.  Nixon and Vietnam wore him down.  And his artistic success allowed him the opportunity to get some reprieve by spending time in other parts of the world where he did not have to confront this trouble on a daily basis.   Though he felt some despair, he did not lose all hope.  In the documentary James Baldwin: Price of the Ticket (California Newsreel, 1990), Baldwin spoke in a clip about his guarded optimism for the future:  “I really do believe in the New Jerusalem.  I really do believe that we can all become better than we are.  I know we can.  But the price is enormous and people are not yet willing to pay it.”