James Baldwin – Earliest Collected Essays on Race, Sexuality and Bad Books

In six early book reviews, Baldwin pans what he sees as second-rate novels.  I read these pieces mostly with an eye to seeing trends in Baldwin’s views on the questions those novels dealt with more than as reviews per se (especially since I haven’t read the novels).  I’ll pull out a quotation or two from each essay and say a little bit about it.  The books reviewed are mostly about race and racism, but “Preservation of Ignorance” is an early essay which addresses issues of homosexuality and heteronormativity.

These essays were all published before Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955) – I’ll blog about those books in future entries.  For now here’s a paragaph or so about each of these six.

  1. From “Smaller Than Life” [1947] (review of There Was Once a Slave: The Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass by Shirley Graham):

She is so obviously determined to Uplift the Race that she makes Douglass a quite unbelievable hero and has robbed him of dignity and humanity alike.

This is a frustration Baldwin expressed later with Richard Wright – that art in the service of obviously political conclusions, even if they’re good ones, doesn’t always work.  But to contextualize that to African-American literature, he seems to be expressing here a skepticism about books that make superheros out of black protagonists in an effort to somehow overcome all the problems of racism on one single bound.  Noteworthy is Baldwin’s capitalization of “Uplift the Race” – a rhetorical device I’ve never found a name for but works really well to critique some particular phenomenon as being more important than it ought to be by capitalizing its terms.   Across the race divide, this is a frustration I remember feeling when being asked to read books like To Kill a Mockingbird – I would grow suspicious of how important it was to the White teacher to get White me to understand that White Atticus Finch was a Great Man Before His Time (okay, I’m not as creative as Baldwin).  And I had the persistent sense (though lacked the vocabulary to explain it to myself) that characters like Finch and his story were not going to get us anywhere in understanding the causes and effects of racism, much less overcoming them.

2.  From “History as Nightmare” [1947] (review of Lonely Crusade by Chester Himes):

If He Hollers Let Him Go [an earlier novel by Himes].. seemed to me then one of the few books written by either whites or Negroes about Negroes which considered the enormous role which white guilt and tension play in what has been most accurately called the American dilemma… Mr. Himes seems capable of some of the worst writing on this side of the Atlantic, but his integity has actually the cumulative effect of making him seem far wiser and more skillful than he is.  The value of his book lies in its earnest effort to understand the psychology of oppressed and oppressor and their relationship to each other.

The idea in that last phrase there – “its earnest effort to understand the psychology of oppressed and oppressor and their relationship to each other” seems to me like a core Baldwin theme, one that he explores from many angles with ever-present acuity.  Baldwin here announces the need to understand racism as a systemic set of processes, rather than as a set of relatively static attitudes or beliefs held by individuals.  Many people emphasize racism’s systematic, institutional nature; what seems uniquely impotant for Baldwin is its dynamic, dialectical nature.  Both the Hegelian master-slave dichotomy and Dostoevsky’s elaborate social-system novels speak to this idea – and Baldwin apparently studied both of them in some depth.  He also ends this essay with an approving nod to Joyce: “‘History,’ says Joyce, ‘is a nightmare from which I am struggling to awaken.’  We have all heard what happened to those who slept too long.'”

3.  From “The Image of the Negro” [1948] (review of five books):

… we have here, in effect, merely the exploitation of an ugly reality [the “ancient bogeyman of sex between the races”].  Finally, we are shown nothing, we feel nothing, nothing is illuminated.  The worthlessness of these novels consist precisely in that they supposedly expose a reality that in actuality they conspire to mask.  For that is not the reality: the reality is more sinister, more treacherous, and more profound than this; and it is, above all more personal.

Again, from where I sit, I’ve seen more than enough examples.  One that comes to mind is  O, the 2001 Othello retelling.  That is allegedly a movie about “racism,” but it has nothing more to say about racism than it does about basketball or private schools (i.e., not much).  It uses the central relationship as alleged evidence of its protagonists’ non-racist nature, but it does not ask why they (or we) are so fascinated by the interracial relationship in the first place.   It’s like the presence of the trope is supposed to alert the audience to some sort of liberal bona fides that it does nothing with except let us know it’s “not racist,” thereby allowing its audience to continue vicariously enjoying it.  Which is different entirely from being anti-racist.

4.  From “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” [1948] (review of Raintree County):

There is observable now, moreover, to an extent unprecedented hitherto, an anxiety on the part of Americans concerning themselves and their heritage.  This anxiety cannot yet be called probing; Americans are not noted for introospection and rather disapprove of it.  Rather, we are approaching a state of mind which closely resembles shock… There were always contradictions, but we assumed that they would be taken care of… Americans passionately believe in their avowed ideals, amorphous as they are, and are terrified of waking from a radiant dream… The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit… I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberies, social equality, etc., where, indeed, a strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking, instead, of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness, a terror of individual reapsonsiblity and a corrsponding terror of change.  This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particulary now, since if we cannot undersatnd ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

Baldwin is working to disentangle what we might call a liberal-progressive pursuit of “social equality” from the center-left, Democratic-Leadership-Council project of “making  the American dream a reality for all its citizens.”  The latter relies, for Baldwin, on shallowness, a refusal to introspect, and a denial about, among other things, the property gained from Native American genocide and the wealth accumulated from African-American slavery – and so is doomed to failure.  But Baldwin also suggests an alterative – “individual responsibility” – rather than continued engagement with the traditional political institutions and discourses.

5. From “Preservation of Innocence” [1949]:

We arrive at the oldest, the most insistent and the most vehement charge faced by the homosexual: he is unnatural because he has turned from his life-giving function to a union which is sterile… his ambiguous and terrible position in our society reflects the ambiguities and terrors which time has deposited on that relationship as the sea piles seaweed and wreckage along the shore.

Baldwin, I think, wrote more about being black than about being gay – or at least, I think he is better known for the former than the latter.  But the language in this passage draws connections between the essentially interpersonal-systemic dimensions of racism and what we now call heteronormativity. Here he suggests something like Foucauldian archeological excavation as a method for coming to understand the accrued structures of privelege.  But in invoking the notion of innocence in the title, he also draws a connection to America as a whole –

The recognitinon of this complexity is the signal of maturity; it marks the death of the child and the birth of the man.  One may say, with an exaggeration vastly more apparently than real, that it is one of the major American amibitions to shun this metamporphosis.  In the truly awesome attempt of the American to at once preserve his innocence and arrive at a man’s estate, that mindless monster, the tough guy, has been created ad perfected; whose masculinity is found in the most infantile and elementary externals and whose attitudes towards women is the wedding of the most abysmal romanticism and the most implacable distrust.

This draws together racism, sexism, heteronormavity and know-nothing American patriotism into one intuitive archetype – the “tough guy” – the [white, straight, wealthy, American] “tough guy,” also known as Tony Soprano’s “strong silent type.”

6.  From “The Negro at Home and Abroad” [1951] (review of No Green Pastures by Roi Ottley:

The European image of the black man rests finally, one must say, on ignorance, and, however expedient this ignorance may be, it is sustained by the objective conditions; whereas the American image of the Negro has been created out of our terrible experience, and is sustained by an anguished inability to come to terms with that experience, or to conquer the guilty fear and shame which have been its quite inevitable and self-perpetuating legacy… He is not one of them.  But he is one of us-and from this reality there is no escape.

This, and the rest of the essay, is a perfect answer to that person with whom you’ve had an inane conversation where they tried to convince you that race is a “totally American thing” and that Europeans “don’t see things the way we do.”   Of course they don’t, Baldwin replies, but it’s not because non-Americans are color-blind, or because “talking about race” is what causes the problem; instead, it’s because Europeans’ racial experiences are rooted in colonialism, which kept black people at a distance; American’s racial experiences are rooted in slavery, which did not.  Each of those specific histories would give rise to very specific forms of racism, forms that would look different or perhaps even unrecognizable across national boundaries, but which still exist, and have a lot in common.

I’ll next post after I’ve read Go Tell It On the Mountain.

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