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On the film I Am Not Your Negro and the essays "Notes of a Native Son" (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963).
Baldwin is a go-to figure at this point in discussions of race; his essays, stories, and speeches provide a key touchstone in discussing how racism has warped our culture. So, how do we translate his testimony into philosophical theory? When he talks about the psychological/sociological maladies of both black and white folks resulting from the overt racism of his day, to what extent do his insights apply to us now, when racism has become more subtle?
The full foursome are rejoined by Lawrence Ware to shed new light on our discussion from ep. 161. We focus on Baldwin's middle way between MLK's love and Malcolm X's rage and his critique of the American dream. How do you oppose the inhumanity of others without demonizing them, and thereby becoming inhuman yourself?
Buy the book version of I Am Not Your Negro. Buy the James Baldwin: Collected Essays that includes the rest of our readings. You can also read the essays online: "Notes of a Native Son," and the two essays that make up The Fire Next Time, the shorter “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation" and the more lengthy "Down at the Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind."
You can watch several interviews used in the film or referred to on the episode: This 1963 one with Kenneth Clark is key; the clip is bookmarked at the claim from the film that white people created this despised other category; to fix America, we have to figure out what psychological need drove that creation. The short clip actually used in this episode from a Dick Cavett interview is here and another key point in that interview is here. The 1984 interview Mark refers to where Baldwin reflects on the lack of real progress in addressing the results of racism is here, bookmarked at at the point Mark paraphrased about the the increasing "economic uselessness" of blacks according to establishment.
Continued on part 2, or get your full, ad-free Citizen Edition right now with your PEL membership. Please support PEL!
Baldwin picture by Solomon Grundy.
I think it is worth watching this famous debate at the Cambridge Union between Baldwin and William F. Buckley to get a better idea of who Baldwin was and his impact on the discussion.
Alan Thomas says
Baldwin was a great and moving writer, and his accusations were absolutely on point for the time. But note that in his letter to his nephew, he also wrote “For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.” This is quite different from the viewpoint of someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who sees America as a fundamentally white supremacist nation, now and forevermore.
It’s tricky territory, to argue “but things have gotten so much better”, because it can be taken as “racism is over, quitcher bitching”. And there are those who do make specious arguments of that sort. That is not what I am saying. More along the lines of the aphorism President Obama was fond of quoting: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I consider it undeniable that our country has bent more toward justice (in net, with setbacks like the current one, obviously) since _The Fire Next Time_.
But that does not mean we’ve *arrived* at full justice. To move in the right direction over the long run is what we should aspire to, even though it requires accepting half-measures or quarter-measures, and living with the fact that we may not witness full justice in our lifetimes or even our grandchildren’s lifetimes. But to shrug off progress as nonexistent or insufficient is, I believe, a grave mistake that promotes apathy and despair. When in fact, African Americans have tended in recent years to be significantly more optimistic than whites, something I doubt was the case in Baldwin’s time:
“White voters were more pessimistic, 76-20 percent, while African-Americans were divided, with 48 percent seeing America on the wrong track and 47 percent saying the country’s course is fine.”
I mentioned on part 2 how the strategy of the contemporary movements are detrimental to that brilliant way Baldwin held fast the middle sight between both movements. I personally despise the jargon of micro aggression and white privilege, for the simple fact they’re too nuanced and lack the point of view of their subject but demand the subject occupy their point. This is will always fail for so many fundamental reasons. Black Justice is Universal Justice therefore I always make it my duty to offer up a universal strategy that focuses on the real hand that takes us out of society. The overeach of laws and their violation of property rights is a fight worth one person’s freedom and it doesn’t vector on one particular race though it certainly affects the poor. Baldwin will last unless these ideologies and their jargon destroy his legacy, which if it could. If Baldwin could see title nine complaints and memes and youtube he would see an opportunity to do much better than this, I think.
Alan Thomas says
I was with you until halfway through, when you started sounding a little libertarian for my tastes.
Luke T says
James Baldwin’s Archive, Long Hidden, Comes (Mostly) Into View
There is nothing more revolting than a “guilty white liberal”
Luke T says
Identity politics coda:
Elucidations episode #107: Linda Martín Alcoff discusses identity and history