James Arthur Baldwin, perhaps the greatest essayist in the English language, matters because of his unconditional defense of humanity. He is one of the most original thinkers on racial and social matters. He matters because he uncovered the workings of the machinery of racism and its pedestrian and predatory day-to-day practices and assumptions. He matters because he rigorously demonstrated how modernity engages complexity and difference. He gave us the concepts and language to talk about and begin understanding the oppressive system of white supremacy in holistic ways. He probed its forms, its depths, its psychological and social psychological dimensions, its conscious and unconscious workings, its human devastation, especially for Americans. Baldwin showed that the dialectics of racism conditioned the dialectics of the social order. Economic exploitation and inequality function within the boundaries it sets, not the opposite. White supremacy was, he taught us, far more than ideology and more than a derivative of the economic system, as Marx and his followers claimed. He inverted the European Enlightenment’s and scientific orthodoxy’s agreed to assumptions and logics concerning white folk, and even what sociological reasoning asserted about race. Race was neither natural nor normal. Whiteness was an abnormal and pathological (in both psychological and societal meanings) reality, birthed by the needs of the slave trade, slavery, capitalism and European empires. However, like the HIV virus, it began to attack and take over the host from which it sprang. Brought into the world by slavery, capitalism, empire and their existential necessities, white supremacy takes them over and subtly and progressively they become it. Rather than the system becoming a capitalist, imperialist and white supremacist system, as we normally think of it: the system itself becomes a white supremacist system within which the machinery of capitalism and imperialism operate. It obviously produces its own racial, gender, sexuality protocols, meanings and intersubjectivities. However, as we have seen in the 21st century in reproducing itself, the system transforms, transfigures and reconfigures itself in order to sustain itself. Whiteness and white supremacy, finally, can be reinvented through new racial, gender and sexual identities, protocols and practices. Yet the system remains what it is. A “revolution” thereby could overturn capitalism, and its earlier identity practices without substantively changing the system: its principal material essence would remain and be produced and reproduced even within a new, conceivably socialist economy, women’s, gay and trans equality, black civil and voting rights and even a black President in a new time/space era. For Baldwin a genuine revolution must ultimately overturn the system of white supremacy, and the identity practices and existential meanings of whiteness. There is not and cannot, as he thought, be a revolution that does not destroy whiteness. However, a great irony defines this moment. The white supremacist system morphs and reconfigures itself by reconfiguring identities and its definitions and meanings of difference. These reconfigurations are mere changes in, not of the system: often changes that give life to it, by transfiguring white supremacy and expanding the definitions of what whiteness and normality are. To many such reconfigurative changes are an indication of expanding personal freedom, political democracy and the renaissance of civil society. Pop culture, pop art, and transgressive cultural and personal identity practices, indicate for some people, especially those from the petit bourgeoisie, a substantive transformation of the system. It is argued that the trajectories of fundamental and revolutionary change will occur through the change of and expanding social space for multiple identities and protocols of difference. Ironically, however, rather than the dawn of a new revolutionary moment these, more or less superficial changes, and expanding social and cultural space for them, are but an indication of systemic decadence and what in Latin is called a momento mori, a reminder of the system’s impending death. This is so because at the level of the system the mere change of identities is usually a diversion from and an obscuring of the overriding systemic question, the destruction of white supremacy. But the refiguring of what are decadent and dying social, cultural, racial, gender, sexuality and economic relations, as well as the growing poverty and chaos of everyday life, especially for working people, in no way indicates the onset of a new and more human society, but its tragic opposite.
Baldwin saw the start of the real American revolution when Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and young radicals like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panther Party focused their political practice upon exposing, clarifying and attacking white supremacy and its many manifestations. Whiteness, while emerging within the specific time/space continuum of modern capitalism, nonetheless can outlive it, producing post modern and even post capitalist white supremacist realities. Realities that can accommodate identity changes and changes in the ways social differences are articulated without addressing the main problem, white supremacy and white identity.
Baldwin saw and thought about these realities deeply. He thought in places far removed from normal and acceptable thought practices. Measured on multiple dimensions he was an outsider: a fact he gladly embraced. His phenomenology was predicated upon an outsider-insider duality. He was, substantially in, but not of the space/time continuum of US and Western epistemic protocols. This made him prophetic, subversive and transgressive. He self defined his social and ideological positionalities. He was, as far as was possible, a self defined human. He acknowledged all of the varied identities applied to him by the social and cultural systems that defined the world he inhabited. None of them quite fit him, as he thought. He was a “black gay man” in a white supremacist society. The race, class, gender, sexuality preferences and intersectional matrices said something about who he was, but did not fit all of who he was and his possibilities. He was, as he thought, even as child, far more (as they say in the streets: “way more”) than the meanings of all those words separately or in some marginalizing combination when applied to him. For instance, many people who did not know him or never experienced him in person or through his novels, plays and essays took shortcuts, defining him only as a “gay black man”. That combination of words and meanings of course than and now (although less so now) meant a broken, indeed pathological and dangerous person on every scale of human normality. He of course insisted he was human and was not and would never allow himself to be anyone’s definition of him, especially if the societal meanings of those words cursed, stigmatized or stereotyped him. For instance, Eldridge Cleaver, a leader of the Black Panther Party and the famous essayist, in his book Soul On Ice attacked Baldwin as inauthentic in black and revolutionary terms and the white man’s tool to divert the black revolution. Cleaver insisted Baldwin was a petit bourgeois counterrevolutionary whose life was defined by what he considered desires that did not fit a black or revolutionary definition of masculinity. For Cleaver homosexuality was a petit bourgeois and counterrevolutionary impulse. He called Baldwin a “faggot”. Jimmy responded by informing Cleaver in the essay “To Be Baptized” that he did not know what Cleaver’s experiences were in or out of prison, but assured him, that he was not one of the “sissies” (Baldwin’s words), he had encountered in his life. Many of them, Baldwin asserted, had been broken on the wheel of life, still struggling, not merely with their sexuality, but their humanity as black men. But he counseled Cleaver that as a revolutionary he had more in common with himself, because the artist and the revolutionary are driven by profound urges of love for their people, even when the people they love often misunderstand them.
But more than being a writer Jimmy decided he wanted to be James Baldwin, whatever that was or would become. The characters in his novels and plays are like Dostoevsky’s in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, complex subjects, products of unpredictable intersubjectivities and circumstances. He was able to write Giovanni’s Room, a novel situated in Paris where none of the characters were black and all of the main ones were homosexual or bisexual. He said, however, it was not, as many still believe, a “gay novel”. He said it was a novel about people attempting to find human community, generosity, empathy and love: and how, more than not, they fail. That is the case, while the places and racial identities and even sexual preferences were vastly different, in for example, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country, Blues For Mr. Charlie, Tell Me How Long The Trains Been Gone and If Beale Street Could Talk. And just as it diminishes his intellectual, artistic and philosophical enterprises to call his other novels “black”, it is just as misleading to call Giovanni’s Room “gay”: just as misleading as it is to reduce Baldwin to “a gay black man”. That might be what he is to you, or the society in which he lived, but not what he was, or for that matter what he strove to be. Just as his life’s journey, in spite of every obstacle, was to be James Baldwin, which for him meant to be human in the sense of a free, self-defining and self-actualizing, his characters had the same strivings. His oeuvre is a type of multivolume autobiography of humanity in the time of white supremacy. It can be thought of as a form of humanity’s self-narrative, told by a living, striving part of humanity. The narrative is about more than black folk, gay folk or poor folk, they are the concrete forms he gives to the human: but it is about the complexities, tragedies, comedies, strivings, pathologies, failures that humans experience as they attempt to be human: while ironically trying to hold on to nonhuman (perhaps prehuman) and semi-human culturally invented identities and practices.
He was completely honest and courageously principled when defining who he was. In a 1984 interview for the Village Voice with Richard Goldstein, Baldwin was asked, “Do you feel like a stranger in gay America”. His answer was progressive for then and now, although because of time for different reasons. Baldwin answers:
“Well, first of all I feel like a stranger in America from almost every conceivable angle except, oddly enough, as a black person. The word “gay” has always rubbed me the wrong way. I never understood exactly what is meant by it. I don’t want to sound distant or patronizing because I don’t really feel that. I simply feel it is a world that has very little to do with me, with where I did my growing up. I was never at home in it. Even in my early years in the Village (the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan), what I saw of that world absolutely frightened me, bewildered me. I didn’t understand the necessity of all the role-playing. And in a way I still don’t.”
The interviewer returns to that question later on, asking, “Do you think of the gay world as being a false refuge?” He answers,
“I think perhaps it imposes a limitation which is unnecessary. It seems to me simply a man is a man, a woman is woman and who they go to bed with is nobody’s business but theirs. I suppose what I am really saying is that one’s sexual preference is a private matter. I resent the interference of the State, or the Church, or any institution in my only journey to whatever we are journeying toward. But it has been made a public question by the institutions of this country.” He went on to say that on all questions of identity and preference, he refused to think from within the language of the positionality or intellectual geography of the oppressor.
James Baldwin’s mind and observational capacities were unsurpassed. He was, as such, a figure not of the past, but of our now/time. He was and remains a thinker for us in what he called “the long meantime”, the time of America’s long and terrifying racial counterrevolution. Amiri Baraka in his eulogy at Baldwin’s home going service, brilliantly observed, “His spirit is part of our own, it is our feelings’ completion. Our perceptions’ extension, the edge of our rationale, the paradigm for our best use of the world.” And then Amiri concludes, “For Jimmy was God’s black revolutionary mouth. If there is a God and revolution his righteous natural expression. And elegant song the deepest and most fundamental commonplace of being alive.”