“I conceive of my own life as a journey toward something I do not understand, which in the going forward, makes me better.”
Thirty-five years ago today, December 1st, 1987, James Baldwin died of cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, at the age of 63. He died not long after I graduated high school, but it would be a few years before I actually studied him and began to understand his importance.
Baldwin was born in Harlem and spent his early life there before leaving America behind for Paris in 1948. Part of the Parisian expatriated African American intellectual circle in the 1950s, he was a public intellectual in the fullest sense of the term, though he was never fully comfortable in that role. Rubbing shoulders with French thinkers such as Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, as well as other African American writers who had taken refuge from the racial atrocities back home, such as Richard Wright and Chester Himes, he was not just a generationally talented writer, but also an in-demand public orator on both sides of the Atlantic.
I was first confronted with his work in a class at Florida State called “Theories and Dynamics of Racism and Oppression” taught by Dr. William R. Jones. Dr. Jones required us to read Baldwin’s “Faulkner and Desegregation”, a short essay about comments the white Mississippi writer made about the difficulties of desegregation. It was an interesting choice of required reading for me, because, even though I could only understand about half of what Faulkner was trying to say in his books (I mean, how many colons, semicolons and commas can you have in one sentence?), he was exalted as a quintessential “American writer”, and I (attempted to) read most of his work. Baldwin’s essay managed to eviscerate Faulkner’s comments without making me bristle, and at that point I figured I needed to learn more about this openly gay, controversial African American writer who died only 2 years before I entered Dr. Jones’ class.
I’ve read much of Baldwin’s work, though not all of it, and I tend to come back to it here and there, never straying too far. Since I’m particularly fond of his poems and essays, he’s easy to pick up when I want a quick shot of magnificent writing laced with cutting social commentary. And that’s the thing- he’s such a great writer of the English sentence. Some of his sentences and paragraphs might have as many commas, colons and semicolons as Faulkner, but his paragraphs read as if he's sitting across from you, chatting and sipping his bourbon. Admittedly, I am not a Professor of English, but if you are reading THIS, and you’ve never read anything HE wrote, please pick an essay or two and allow yourself to wallow in his beautiful prose. Somehow, he manages to be conversational and intellectual, without watering down his arguments, or, conversely, boring his readers.
Anyway… on this anniversary of his death, I was at the Mayo Clinic getting a chunk of my shoulder cut out, since it contained a malignant basal cell carcinoma, a process that entailed about an hour of attention to my tumor and four hours of sitting around and waiting. I was reading through some of Baldwin’s essays and started making some links to what he wrote years ago and things that I see happening currently in America. He once wrote about Richard Wright, “I wonder what he knows about the American south now, after all these years”, and likewise, I found myself wondering what Baldwin would say about American life in 2022.
A hint can be found in one of my favorite essays, 1960’s “In Search of a Majority”. Baldwin was asked to speak about what the goals of American society should be, regarding minority groups, and his first point was to attempt a definition of ‘minority’ group as opposed to ‘majority’ group; in other words, before we can speak for a minority, we first need to define who or what is the majority.
We might think of the American majority today being in large part determined by a relatively conservative, reactionary, white middle class population that fights for ‘traditional values’, in the face of social changes, or at least the fear of social changes, that threaten their definition of normalcy. But where did these definitions come from, and do they truly represent the ‘majority’ of Americans- a term Baldwin felt was not based on numbers, but based on influence? Tracing America back to its pilgrim roots, he states that contemporary standards of “the majority” are essentially nostalgic. “They refer to a past condition; they refer to the achievements, the laborious achievements, of a stratified society; and what is evolving in America has nothing to do with the past.”
This then made me think of the Republican “organization” (as my guest Noam Chomsky said, they can’t really consider themselves a political party at this point) of Donald Trump and the cry to “make America great again”. When exactly was this mystical period of American greatness, at least as it extended to people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, and those in the working class? As Baldwin says, it’s built on nostalgia. In the 1950s, the heyday of white post-war opulence, the highest marginal tax rate was around 90% (!), compared to 37% today (!), the government was huge, expanding opportunities through the New Deal, and President Eisenhower was sending in the National Guard to make sure black kids and white kids could go to school together in Little Rock.
Is this what the MAGA sentiment stands for? Most certainly not- like Baldwin alluded to, it is an invented nostalgia that has taken on the sheen of majority rule, but in fact is patently fringe. A loud and vocal minority on the right has presented their inanity as ‘majority rule’, and just as Baldwin points out, we cannot move forward as a country- whatever that may really mean- if we cling to nostalgia, and not just nostalgia, but fabricated nostalgia, as our beacon forward.
James Baldwin beseeched Americans, particularly white Americans, to do better- to do better in terms of race relations, but in a deeper sense, to do better at being humane and empathic citizens. His most significant writings are now over 50 years old, but his present-day relevance is undeniable. There was no compromise in his writing, and no abdication of current responsibilities.
To wit, in “A Fly in the Buttermilk”, he wrote, “the future is like heaven- everyone exalts it but no one wants to go there now”. Yet to reach heaven, or at least a livable future, we need to do the heavy lifting now; they won’t arrive magically, without determination, engagement, and sacrifice. To bring it full circle, Baldwin closes his essay on Faulkner thus:
“There is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”
Can we rise to this challenge in America?
[Photo credits: https://tetw.org/James_Baldwin and https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000rbv8]