James Baldwin’s journey

September 21, 2017

Ronnie Almonte introduces the writings of one of the 20th century's great novelists and essayists--and his political transformation in the era of the Black freedom struggle.

THE WRITER James Baldwin is being rediscovered today, particularly by a new generation of radicals, nearly 30 years after his death in 1987.

It easy to understand why participants in the Black Lives Matter struggle or other movements would look to Baldwin. His words express as well as anyone the profound sense of alienation felt by the oppressed.

This alienation--which the young Karl Marx explained more than a century before Baldwin had its basis in capitalism--causes people to lose their sense of humanity, disrupts relationships and causes hatred between groups of people as they compete for the few crumbs left to them.

Baldwin first became famous as a novelist, but he is also renown for his essays and journalism that documented and examined the ideas and experiences of the Black freedom struggle in the post-Second World War era, from the civil rights phase through Black Power and into the 1980s and the decline of the movement.

Baldwin was profoundly successful in conveying the experiences of oppression--whether as a consequence of being poor or Black or gay or a woman--in these years, and that message resonates today, at a time when the sense of social alienation for the have-nots has been heightened by record levels of economic and social inequality that has left the majority of the population struggling to respond.

James Baldwin
James Baldwin

Baldwin wrote about the need for love in a world that seems so loveless--and about the impossibility of simply waiting for justice to be delivered. "Nothing can be changed until it is faced," Baldwin wrote--and it is on this basis, with a sense of urgency, that people read him today.

WHEN BALDWIN published Notes of a Native Son, his first collection of essays, in 1955, he hoped for a peaceful way out of racism--a mainstream position that characterized the early liberal civil rights movement. By the early 1970s, Baldwin had broken with liberalism and become a militant socialist.

This political transformation clearly affected Baldwin's writing. Many critics and academics criticize the so-called "later" Baldwin for being grumpy and pessimistic, having been corrupted by the maniacal Black Power movement.

But the importance of Baldwin's political journey--of being let down by liberals, who had the resources to start wars abroad, but not the guts to challenge their Jim Crow colleagues in South who belonged to the same party--lies not only his own radicalization, but how it embodies a mass political transformation in postwar U.S. politics.

Notes of a Native Son was published a year after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that "separate but unequal" schools were unconstitutional and just before the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the end of 1955, an event that kick-started the civil rights movement.

Notes of a Native Son is such an excellent book because, like all of Baldwin's works, it articulates in beautiful prose the day-to-day thoughts and feelings of Black people as they actually are. In the essay "Many Thousands Gone," he writes:

[T]here is, I should think, no Negro living in America who has not felt, briefly, or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees, and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day...to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as that dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled; no Negro, finally, who has not had to make his own precarious adjustment to the "nigger" who surrounds him and to the "nigger" in himself.

It is these moments in Notes of A Native Son that the reader feels tragically the alienation that the oppressed endure. Racism causes a loss of a sense of individuality, community, and overall humanity. This affects Black people, of course, but also, as Baldwin pointed out throughout his life, white people as well.

Thus, Baldwin writes in the book's final essay "Stranger in the Village": "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.

NOTES OF a Native Son is usually considered the Baldwin book, and usually one of the only ones that people are introduced to as students.

Taught through a liberal lens it is easy to see Notes as nothing more than a liberal account of racism, produced for a white audience. But read more closely, this is clearly not the case. Baldwin constantly criticizes liberals--as in the mocking reference to one conversation: "'As long as such books are being published,' an American liberal once said to me, "everything will be all right.'"

Baldwin aimed his critique at Black liberals, too, with this similarly mocking reference to a Black-owned newspaper: "The editorial concluded that Negroes had come a long way and that 'as patriotic Americans' it was time 'we' stopped singing the blues and realized just how bright the future was."

In "The Harlem Ghetto," Baldwin goes so far as to say: "[O]ne cannot help observing that some Negro leaders and politicians are far more concerned with their careers than with the welfare of Negroes."

Another reason Baldwin is wrongly claimed for liberalism is his stormy relationship with the Black novelist Richard Wright, whose books portray a racist society in stark terms and who was well known to be a socialist and member of the Communist Party.

The older Wright helped Baldwin as he was starting out as a writer, but Baldwin later published a pointed criticism of Wright's novels for have what Baldwin claimed were unrealistic characters fabricated to meet the requirements of political dogma.

The controversy between Baldwin and Wright is usually ascribed to Baldwin's alleged belief that art and so-called "protest literature" were incompatible. But in his obituary for Wright years later, a different view emerges.

And the "early" Baldwin's hostility to radicalism is clearly overstated, even based on a reading of Notes of a Native Son--where Baldwin, for example, writes approvingly: "In the thirties, swallowing Marx whole, we discovered the Worker and realized--I should think with some relief--that the aims of the Worker and the aims of the Negro were one."

THE EARLY Baldwin was more radical than liberals today may give him credit for. Yet he was also obviously grappling with the pushes and pulls of Cold War liberalism. He wrote in Notes of a Native Son: "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."

For the early Baldwin, the fundamental division in society is between Black and white people, not classes, so his explanations for the how and why racism persists are usually limited to "the white man's motive [and] the protection of his identity," as he writes at one point--which leaves the question of how this identity was established in the first place.

But developments in the civil rights movement and in global politics over the court of the 1960s would cause a radical transformation in Baldwin.

By 1963, when Baldwin published his acclaimed nonfiction book The Fire Next Time, the civil rights movement was well into the most explosive phase of struggle, detonated chiefly by young people with the lunch-counter sit-ins and freedom rides a few years before. The experience of the struggle radicalized them and turned many into revolutionaries.

Baldwin wasn't one to sit on the sidelines--he had become an active participant in the struggle. He did speaking tours and participated in debates in the South on behalf o the Congress of Racial Equality. He was at the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.

Through his activism, he got to know Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.--three men who would be assassinated, in 1963, 1965 and 1968, respectively--and was impacted by them emotionally and politically, both in life and in death.

In No Name in the Street, another non-fiction book published in 1972, Baldwin talks about his initial involvement in the movement. He had been living in France in 1957 when he heard about the abuse that Dorothy Counts, then a 15-year-old Black student in North Carolina, went through when she tried to attend a newly integrated school.

"I could, simply, no longer sit around in Paris discussing the Algerian and the Black American problem," Baldwin wrote. "Everybody else was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine."

NO NAME in the Street contains Baldwin's own perceptive reflection on his political journey. That journey began in an era "when many of us believed or made ourselves believe that the American state still contained within itself the power of self-confrontation, the power to change itself in the direction of honor and knowledge and freedom."

Baldwin recalls that "in those great days I was considered to be an integrationist" and that "without entirely realizing it [at the time], I was the Great Black Hope of the Great White Father."

But by the rise of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s, he, like so many civil rights activists, was questioning the old civil rights movement strategy. As Baldwin wrote in No Name in the Street:

Malcolm was very caustic about the March on Washington [in 1963], which he described as a sellout. I think he was right...The reasoning behind the March on Washington, as it eventually evolved--or as it was, in Malcolm's words, "diluted"--was that peaceful assembly would produce the best results. But five years later, it was very hard to believe that the frontal assault, as planned, on the Capitol, could possibly have produced more bloodshed, or more despair. Five years later, it seemed that we had merely postponed, and not at all to our advantage, the hour of dreadful reckoning.

Baldwin had criticized liberalism from the start of his political writings, but the hypocrisy of liberal politicians throughout the 1960s--first in trying to contain and pacify the civil rights movement, especially its more militant expressions, and then in leading a war against people of color abroad--enraged Baldwin.

The Fire Next Time had already begun to acknowledge the limits of a purely reformist strategy. By 1972, though, Baldwin minces no words about his feelings toward liberal politicians. He recalls the McCarthy era, which "taught me something about the irresponsibility and cowardice of the liberal community which I'll never forget...I watched them do to each other during the McCarthy era" things which were "in some ways, worse than anything they had ever done to me."

Then came Black Power, Baldwin recounts:

Watching the Northern reaction to the Black Panthers, observing the abject cowardice with which the Northern populations allow them to be menaced, jailed, and murdered, and all this with but the faintest pretense to legality, can fill one with great contempt for the emancipated North which, but only yesterday, was so full of admiration and sympathy for the heroic Blacks in the South.

Gone was the language that appeared as late as The Fire Next Time that "we must accept [our oppressors] and accept them with love."

THE WAY that Baldwin talks about oppression itself changes, becoming more precise over the course of his career.

In Notes of a Native Son, he writes broadly about "white people," with their actions to the understood as emanating from their attitudes toward Black people that were formed on the basis of feelings about their own identity.

By 1972, Baldwin had developed a class analysis of power. In No Name, he writes bluntly about how "American oil interests [don't] give a shit about human life." In discussing the compatibility of Black rights and capitalism, he says that "Black capitalism [is]...a concept demanding yet more faith and infinitely more in schizophrenia than the concept of the Virgin Birth."

Specifically, Baldwin began to differentiate between the power held by different groups of white people. Baldwin makes it clear that white capitalists--and Black capitalists, too--who have the power over not just Black people, but most white people, too. In his open letter to Angela Davis, he writes:

The will of the people, in America, has always been at the mercy of an ignorance not merely phenomenal, but sacred, and sacredly cultivated: the better to be used by a carnivorous economy which democratically slaughters and victimizes whites and Blacks alike.

Baldwin recognized how the power of ruling class didn't end with poor whites, but extended even to the more privileged sections of the white population. He writes tellingly of white, college-educated activists in the movement:

[T]hey had not realized, how cheaply, after all, the rulers of the republic held their white lives to be. Coming to the defense of the rejected and destitute, they were confronted with the extent of their own alienation, and the unimaginable dimensions of their own poverty. They were privileged and secure only so long as they did, in effect, what they were told: but they had been raised to believe that they were free.

Likewise, he wrote in his letter to Angela Davis: "White lives, for the forces which rule in this country, are no more sacred than Black ones, as many and many a student is discovering, as the white American corpses in Vietnam prove."

By this point in his life, Baldwin had come to the conclusion that most people weren't just morally unfree--the main point of his early workers--but were politically and materially oppressed as well.

BY THE time he published No Name in the Street, Baldwin was clearly a socialist.

He had come in contact with radical politics as a teenager living in Harlem, having participated in May Day demonstrations. At one point, he even identified as a Trotskyist.

But No Name marks a new development in Baldwin's political life: he started advocating an alternative to capitalism and used an economic analysis to understand race relations.

This latter point was present much earlier. In a lecture to public school teachers, for example, he said:

The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor. They were indispensable to the economy. In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved to be treated like animals...[Racism] was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from Black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.

By the time of No Name in the Street, Baldwin was prepared to name the alternative to capitalism as one that has no place for oppression: socialism. Recalling a visit to Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, Baldwin writes:

Huey believes, and I do, too, in the necessity of establishing a form of socialism in this country...The necessity for a form of socialism is based on the observation that the world's present economic arrangements doom most of the world to misery; that the way of life dictated by these arrangements is both sterile and immoral; and, finally, that there is no hope for peace in the world so long as these arrangements obtain.

By this point, too, Baldwin had rejected his early suspicion of all theories--clearly aimed at Marxism. "To study the economic structure of this country, to know which hands control the wealth, and to which end, seems an academic exercise--and yet it is necessary, all of it is necessary, for discipline, for knowledge, and for power," he writes.

Baldwin always understood the crucial role of solidarity in challenging the system. Throughout his career, he wrote how the oppression of one group is bound to the oppression of all. In The Fire Next Time, he wrote:

If we--and I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious Blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others--do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.

By the time of No Name, as the Vietnam War made clear that the U.S. government was committed to oppression and exploitation around the world, Baldwin's concept of solidarity expanded further--he became an internationalist. Solidarity between Blacks and whites in the U.S. wasn't enough by itself, because racism couldn't be overcome at home while it was being perpetrated abroad. Thus, in No Name in the Street, Baldwin writes:

[A]ny real commitment to Black freedom in this country would have the effect of reordering all of our priorities, and altering all of our commitments, so that, for horrendous example, we should be supporting Black freedom fighters in South Africa and Angola, and would not be allied with Portugal, would be closer to Cuba than we are to Spain, would be supporting the Arab nations instead of Israel, and would never have felt compelled to follow the French into Southeast Asia. But such a course would forever wipe the smile from the face of that friend as all rejoice to have at Chase Manhattan.

BALDWIN FIRST gained renown as a novelist, and all of his fiction is filled characters who plainly suffer from the intertwined alienation of oppression.

There is David in Giovanni's Room, grappling with his sexuality; Rufus in Another Country with his identity as a Black man; Tish in If Beale Street Could Talk, a young Black women, pregnant and trying to win the release of her lover, who was jailed for a crime he didn't commit; Arthur in Just Above My Head, a young Black and gay gospel singer from Harlem, dealing with his identity, with his life and with losing his friends and lovers to the Jim Crow South and imperialist wars.

There is so much pain in Baldwin's novels because the world is a painful place, and Baldwin's great skill was to portray that world in an utterly genuine and real way.

From Baldwin's novels, radicals today can learn a great deal about the day-to-day misery that burden all different kinds of people. From his nonfiction writings, there is ample evidence of many of the basic insights of the socialist tradition: that racism is the lifeblood of capitalism, that socialism is the alternative, that the system must be studied to fight it; that the struggle must link together all oppressed groups in solidarity for a common cause of total liberation.

The price of not doing so is too high. The Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg famously said that humanity faces the choice of socialism or barbarism. In his own way, James Baldwin said something similar. Recounting the Bible's story of Noah and how the world was destroyed with the flood, he quotes an old slave song for the title of one of his most acclaimed books; "God gave Noah the rainbow sign: No more water, the fire next time!"

As socialists, it is our duty to organize so that humanity can avoid the fire next time. We have an alternative to the world Baldwin chronicled--a fire fueled by the profit motive, a blaze that consumes our humanity--by uniting and fighting for a socialist society.

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