October 10, 2018

ON MY MIND | I Am Not Your American: Reviving James Baldwin’s Opposition to U.S. Empire

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The figure of James Baldwin has been buoyed in recent years by a revival across the liberal wings of the United States’ political, cultural, and intellectual establishment. Most notably, during remarks given at the dedication ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016, former President Barack Obama quoted from Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.” That same year, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated film I Am Not Your Negro enjoyed widespread critical acclaim over its solemn presentation of the Civil Rights-era writer’s saliency to the present-day (A. O. Scott of the New York Times dazzles readers with the headline “Review: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Will Make You Rethink Race”; Simran Hans in The Guardian remarks that “Baldwin’s words feel as urgent and articulate as ever”). In 2015, the Library of America published a volume of Baldwin’s later novels, which had “yet to receive the consideration given his earlier fiction.” This effort was mirrored in the academic sphere with the founding of an annual journal called the James Baldwin Review, dedicated uniquely to studies of Baldwin’s works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction.

The trend continues into 2018: Barry Jenkins, of Moonlight fame, has directed a highly anticipated film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk that is set to release in theaters on November 30. Little Man, Little Man, a children’s book written by Baldwin in 1976 (his only venture into the genre), is currently back in circulation with a new edition being published by Duke University Press — at a time when, according to the New York Times, “children’s book authors and publishers are more frequently placing black and brown children at the center of narratives about everyday life.” In August, on what would have been the writer’s 94th birthday, social media feeds on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were awash with Baldwin quotes and commemorative posts by ordinary and verified users alike — from the rapper/actor Common to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

What is remarkable about these popular evocations is that they are largely devoid of any acknowledgment of Baldwin’s commentary on the United States’ role in the world at-large — a commentary that reached far beyond the confines of “race relations” within his own country’s drawn borders. Although Baldwin is largely remembered in the public imagination for his unsparing critiques of racism against black people in the United States, his political vision consistently held that white supremacy at home could not be delinked from white supremacy abroad. In Baldwin’s eyes, a white cop’s billy club in Harlem or Montgomery and the butt of a U.S. soldier’s rifle in Korea or Vietnam were one and the same.

The Fire Next Time, perhaps Baldwin’s most well-known work, is commonly upheld as a watershed text focalizing all the hope and zeal of the Civil Rights movement — whose goal, we have been told since third grade, was desegregation: blacks and whites learning to love, or at least accept, each other. “The price of [America’s] transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro… He is the key figure in this country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his.” This was James Baldwin’s thesis in 1963 — one which catapulted him into the national spotlight, where all the trappings of fame and wealth lay.

But Baldwin ineluctably saw his country from the darker side of its color curtain; identified, against the logic of immaculate individualism, with the outcast and downtrodden, the residents of the ghettos and migrant shacks, the wretched of the earth. Even as he exhorted his white and black compatriots in the movement “to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world,” Baldwin harbored no illusions about the fact that “internationally, for many millions of people, we [the United States] are an unmitigated disaster.” Baldwin was thus compelled to counterpose his thesis with a profound and unsettling question — one which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr would echo in the final days before his assassination: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”

Several years later at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967, Baldwin was asked to join the International War Crimes Tribunal, an extrajudicial trial organized by British philosopher and antiwar activist Bertrand Russell against then-President Lyndon B. Johnson and his administration; the charge was of American war crimes against the people of Vietnam. For his contribution to the tribunal, Baldwin submitted a fiery polemic to the African American journal Freedomways. In the piece, he holds the United States — along with the entire Western world, onto whose legacy America clings — guilty for precipitating global chaos and bringing humanity to the brink of oblivion. In the same vein of thought as the Civil Rights Congress, whose petition “We Charge Genocide” before the United Nations in the midst of the Korean War was desperately repressed by the U.S. government, Baldwin draws a direct link between the oppressions of Indigenous North Americans, African Americans, and the Vietnamese people under the heel of U.S. imperialism:

“Long, long before the Americans decided to liberate the Southeast Asians, they decided to liberate me: my ancestors carried these scars to the grave, and so will I. A racist society can’t but fight a racist war — this is the bitter truth. The assumptions acted on at home are also acted on abroad, and every American Negro knows this, for he, after the American Indian, was the first ‘Vietcong’ victim. We were bombed first.”

By Baldwin’s reckoning, the price that white Americans paid for pleading willful ignorance towards the conditions of their black brothers and sisters — the price they paid for telling themselves racial progress could be measured by “the speed with which Negroes accept[ed] and adopt[ed] white standards” — was their stunning bewilderment at the contempt they faced (and continue to face) in those regions of the world they strove to “make safe for democracy.” If the surly masses of the darker peoples saw through this hypocrisy and repulsed it, America, confronted with an existential threat to its image of itself, could only seek recourse, again and again, through “police actions” designed to “neutralize” all traces of discontent. As in Korea, so in Watts; as in Attica, so in Gaza.

In an extended 1976 essay titled The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin traces the compounding disasters of U.S. imperial policy back to a Western concept of freedom which “pivots on the infantile, and, in action, criminal delusions of possession, and of property.” He then proposes an alternative concept of freedom: freedom as a “mighty responsibility” hinging on the acceptance of one’s role as a custodian towards future generations. “Your life does not belong to you,” Baldwin counsels — and reflects, “But the people of the West will not understand this until everything which they now think they have has been taken away from them.”

As one of the most recognizable figures of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin is often imagined to have succumbed to the impetuous rage and sectarian mystique of Black Power; some critics have gone so far as to claim that the waning decades of the twentieth century found Baldwin at the end of his hope for the future. The reality is that Baldwin had always been candid about the remote prospects he saw for a voluntary and timely transformation of American society. And while it is true that Baldwin grew increasingly caustic in his terminal prognosis of America’s silent white majority — those who locked themselves in their homes at the sounds of black protest, anguish, and struggle billowing up a stone’s throw away because it nothing to do with them: and yet, the locked doors said otherwise — this was remediated by the hope he began to place elsewhere, beyond the gates of the Republic to which he himself belonged:

“We are in the center of a mortal storm, which many of us saw coming. Many of us will perish and certainly no one of my generation can hope, honorably, to survive. And, whether or not one agrees with me, I think it is useful to assume that America will not survive this storm, either. Nor should she; she is responsible for this holocaust in which the living writhe; it is American power which makes death an enviable state for so many millions of people. We are a criminal nation, built on a lie, and as the world cannot use us, it will presently find some way of disposing of us. I take this for granted; and the future of this nation, even though it may also be my own, cannot concern me any longer. I am concerned with the living, I am concerned with a new morality, and a new creation.”

It is a feat in itself simply to appreciate the sheer persistence with which James Baldwin used his voice to attack and expose U.S. imperialism at home and abroad over the span of his lifetime — consequently, it is not for a lack of material that the contemporary Baldwin revival remains conspicuously reticent on his anti-imperialist worldview. That Baldwin’s piercing vision has been blunted and domesticated by mainstream currents should be no surprise (which makes it no less absurd that no one bats an eye when Obama’s name is uttered in the same sentence as Baldwin’s). But if we, the living, really do see ourselves as inheritors to Baldwin’s legacy, then it is our responsibility to ensure that the full truth of his person is set free to do its emancipatory work: by leading people to forge a new standard for humanity, shorn of all the vestiges of an empire already collapsing before our eyes. To settle for anything less is to deny ourselves and to commit a crime against the generations to come.