The Global Imagination of James Baldwin

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In February this year a first-rate group of scholars gathered in New York City to debate the legacy of the twentieth century American writer and critic, James Baldwin (1924-1987). I missed the proceedings, titled “James Baldwin’s Global Imagination,” so I asked one of organizers, Rich Blint, about the conference’s aims, Baldwin’s ideas and politics of Baldwin as well as what he would have made of Barack Obama’s “post-racism.”

Can you tell us about the highlights of the “James Baldwin’s Global Imagination” Conference?

The principal highlight was the generosity of time and spirit extended by the Baldwin family who turned up in various configurations over the course of the four days. Aisha Karefa-Smart, the author’s niece, spoke boldly at the Opening Plenary Session about what her uncle meant to the world, to her family, and to her then young mind and heart. Listening to her confirmed, if one ever doubted, that James Baldwin was, as he repeatedly stated, a “family man;” and that it was this embrace of the ethic and responsibilities of the expansively familial that activated his passionate and consistent upbraiding of his readers to pursue the democratic and ethical ideal.

Howard Dodson’s moving virtual homage to his friend and his insistence on marking the appropriateness of staging the opening of the conference at the Schomburg Center (where Baldwin spent a great deal of his formative years and situated directly across the street from where he was born) clearly registered with the audience and corroborated my own instincts and that of the Program Committee. But it was also something to hear Hilton Als and Darryl Pinckney in conversation about Baldwin’s amazing essay, “The Creative Process,” concerning the necessary role of the artist in society. And it was brilliant to witness Hortense Spillers, Kendall Thomas, and Cheryl Wall present remarks about the shifting meanings of race, democracy, and literature on the panel, “James Baldwin in the “Age” of Obama.” Reflecting on Baldwin’s theories of race and power, Thomas offered a deeply challenging analysis concerning the President’s significance to the contemporary “ethnicization” of blackness, which  echoed Spillers’ incisive queries concerning the complex racialized terrain of demonization and sanctification President Obama (and all of us) will have to continue to navigate. Spillers also pointedly questioned the wisdom of the black community’s vigorous celebration of Obama’s “integration into a burning house,” and wondered if his election could seriously be considered the teleological arc in our centuries-long quest for freedom.

The new scholarship from emerging scholars also stood out. Panel after panel featured complex exchange about the intricacies and implications of the author’s work. And the concert—which included artists like Rashidah Ismaili AbuBakr, Courtney Bryant, Marc Cary, DJ lynnee denise, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, Tamar-Kali, Morley, Somi and Imani Uzuri–was a lyrical embrace. The proceedings confirmed Baldwin’s relevance to contemporary arrangements and betrayed a pervading hunger for the lucidity of his revelatory imagination in this moment of increasing crisis and possibility.

You know of the moment in the early 60s on assignment for public television (watch it here) in the American Northwest when Baldwin–to a mostly skeptical audience of black men–essentially predicted the election of a black president. Apart from noting his foresight, and though we can only speculate, what do you think he would have made of Barack Obama?

That moment comes early in Baldwin’s devastating 1963 tour of San Francisco filmed and released by KQED as Take this Hammer. The scene directly preceding it highlights a pointed query from Baldwin to his hosts at Youth for Services concerning the efforts underway to shield black children in the city from the almost universal message of dispossession and despair then engulfing communities already under siege by the forces of gentrification and urban renewal: “What precisely do you say to a Negro child to invest him with a moral which the country is determined he shan’t have…To insist that he know that he can do anything he wants to?” The speaker acknowledges the difficulty of the question and begins with the commonplace that “everybody can be President,” to which Baldwin, with a slightly mocking laugh, replies, “that’s true.” And what happens in the scene directly following, the one to which you refer with Baldwin surrounded by a mass of largely young black men crushing in their articulation of disaffection with their country (“we can’t get jobs, how we gonna be President?”) is less about Baldwin’s prophetic witness concerning the inevitability or eventuality of a black President in the US, and more expressive of the labor involved in communicating, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, that a “Negro” has the intellectual acumen to administer the affairs of the nation. In the presence of disillusioned young boys and girls, he is attempting to dispel the mythology of the natural inferiority of “blacks,” a perception only reinforced by the material asymmetries everywhere in evidence in San Francisco and throughout the nation.    .

Baldwin’s authoritative affirmation that “there will be a Negro President of this country, but it will be a different country than the one we are sitting in now” is most definitely inspired by his very local context since this logic of equating the election of a black leader with social transformation is in stark contrast to what he shared on the subject only two years prior. In a speech given in June 1961, Baldwin is equally concerned with what kind of country America would be with a black person at the helm; but he is tentative and leaves the question and the prospect bitingly open:

Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day—thirty years, if I’m lucky—I can be President too. It never entered this boy’s mind, I suppose—it has not entered the country’s mind yet—that perhaps I wouldn’t want to be. And in any case, what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro “first” will become the first Negro President. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he will be president of.

And this brings us to the person of Barack Obama. It is rather reckless to speculate on what James Baldwin might have had to say about President Obama. And I suspect I agree with Kendall Thomas who suggested during the conference that such conjecture assigns to Baldwin questions that we must grapple with ourselves. That said, the quote above suggests unsurprisingly that Baldwin would not have been seduced by the symbolic power of the President’s singular achievement. Rather, he would be expending his energies determining the anatomy of Obama’s ascendancy and what it means for the country. It is safe to say that there is very little in the two-year old record of this administration that would have impressed Baldwin. From the familiar embrace of the forces of global capital, ineffectual and misguided military misadventures, exceptionalist and short-sighted foreign policies, and lethargic and impoverished efforts to address issues of race, class, and power at home, most readers of Baldwin would agree that the President would fall rather short in the author’s estimation. But the almost predictable resurgence of explicit racial and racist feeling prompted by Barak Obama’s election would most certainly have “exercised” Baldwin’s rare and subtle mind. One feels deeply the absence of the kind of fine and penetrating thinking that came to characterize his writing in this period of such intense national confusion.

Can you say something about the content of Baldwin’s transnationalism?

James Baldwin lamented the fragile human impulse for categorization, that nagging will to “imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations.” The dangerous and often violent need for “life neatly fitted into pegs” signaled for him the death of the imagination, a kind of indulgent innocence bent on refusing the demands and contradictions of history. The content of Baldwin’s transnationalism is founded in his ethical resolve to pursue the human condition beyond all the concrete abstractions—race, religion, sexuality, and country, etc.—that we inherit. This expansive and, yes, global (conceptually) proposition can’t quite be contained by our very specialized, contemporary term. Baldwin’s keen apprehension of the magic and mystery of the very fact of human life and the great effort required to survive it is what animates his repeated cries about the necessity for affinity and solidarity across the fictive demarcations of “nations.” Although he was among the first to make connections between the operations of power on populations across the world (between colonization on the continent and slavery and segregation in the Americas), the question of human connection remained for him an interior one (“love has never been a popular movement. And no one has ever really wanted to be free”) concerning how one imagines oneself in a world which routinely misnames and divides us as a means of maintaining a particular order. In his first essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin famously reminded us:

Now, as then, we find ourselves bound, first without and then within, by the nature of our categorization. And escape is not through a bitter railing against this trap…Society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled in that void. From this void—ourselves—it is the function of society to protect us … but it is only this void, our unknown selves, demanding, forever, a new act of creation, which can save us from the evil which is in this world

The capacity for human invention and the commitment to inhabit a life beyond the impoverished scripts of the nation is richer, edifying, and a bulwark against the inherent violence of the state—this is some of the substance of James Baldwin’s global imagination.

I recently read an interview with Baldwin published in Paris Review, where Baldwin was asked why he went to live in France when he left America for the first time, and Baldwin replied: “If I were twenty-four now, I don’t know if and where I would go. I don’t know if I would go to France, I might go to Africa. You must remember when I was twenty-four there was really no Africa to go to, except Liberia. I thought of going to Israel, but I never did, and I was right about that.” What was Baldwin’s relationship with Africa, with the continent and its peoples, as an African-American? 

Like most African Americans, Baldwin’s relationship with Africa was necessarily complex. I couldn’t hope to answer your question with any satisfaction in this context, but let me offer this. In Dick Fontaine’s remarkable cinematic collaboration with Baldwin, I Heard it Through the Grapevine (1982), we find him near the close of this revealing documentary about his return to cites of Civil Rights struggle in the American south on a tour with the Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, of the old slave market in St. Augustine, Florida—now renamed the marketplace. Baldwin is rhetorically grand here and implores Achebe to “look” at the place where they were chained together four-hundred years ago without the benefit of shared language. The film achieves its climax with them around a table with others speaking of the conceit and decline of a white supremacist logic which conspired that they “should never meet.” It is a moving, difficult (because honest) encounter that expresses the mutual recognition and unspeakable gulf between them. And when analyzing the construction “Afro-American” in his long essay, No Name in the Street, Baldwin is piercing, calling the term a “wedding…of two confusions, an arbitrary linking of two undefined and currently indefinable proper nouns [since] in the case of Africa, Africa is stilled chained to Europe, and exploited by Europe, and Europe and America are chained together.” He goes on to characterize Africa as “hard to speak of except as a cradle and a potential…[not] until the many millions of people on the continent control their lands and their resources will the African personality flower or genuinely African institutions flourish and reveal Africa as she is?” Baldwin was writing less than a decade after the period of decolonization on the continent and it shows. But he goes on to immediately suggest that America presents “as profound and as dangerous a mystery for human understanding as the fabled dark continent” and closes this line of inquiry with a critique of conventional attitudes of civilization suggesting that it “lives first of all in the mind” and, sharply, that “[t]here is reason, after all, that some people wish to colonize the moon, and others dance before it as an ancient friend.” Whatever tropes of progress and civilization are being rehearsed, critiqued, and transformed here, this is one of his many reflections on the enormous dislocation wrought by that miserable Passage. He longed to make some sense of the psychic distance yawning between Africa and African America as a consequence of an episode of rupture without peer in modern history.

Finally, can you talk about his queer politics and how he did/not reconcile it with his pan-Africanism and black nationalism? And what he might have made of black nationalism’s legacy especially with all the homophobia in Africa. (Not that homophobia is unique to black nationalism as British journalist Gary Younge reminded me recently:

I guess the best way to address this massive question would be to clarify our terms and suggest how they might differ from the vocabularies Baldwin evolved to deal with these issues. Baldwin grew up in a time when “queer” meant “faggot,” and lived to see the advent of the term “gay,” which was to have supposedly come along with a kind of liberation. What we call “queer politics” now was simply a politics of the self for Baldwin then. If we remember, the man we know as James Baldwin has been self-described as a short, effeminate, black kid who was routinely teased and beaten up (in Harlem and Greenwich Village) so perilously vulnerable was he to a virulent home-grown racism and homophobia. It made him fear for his life—at his own or others’ hands. His long quarrel with members of the Black Power contingent of the Civil Rights movement concerning his sexuality and the precise volume of his blackness achieved some reconciliation. But it wasn’t about Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka, or the movement. That they articulated their plea for inclusion in the national narrative in the fashion of the white patriarch was not surprising. Yes, Gary Younge is on to something when he suggests that black nationalists do not have a unique purchase on bankrupt attitudes of gender and sexuality. In his 1985 essay for Playboy, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Baldwin suggests that for him, “all of the American categories of male and female, straight or not, black or white, were shattered, thank heaven, very early in my life.” What he means is not that they ceased to exist and shape his world, but that they were divested of any stable meaning for him. This is where we can locate his capacity and impulse for necessary self-fabrication and invention.

The homophobia on the continent is terrifying. But how do we begin to understand the global persecution of those who are compelled by the same sex as profoundly connected and emerging from the “spiritual famine” that afflicts us all—despite progressive developments in other parts of the world? In talking about those desperately aimless straight boys who tormented him, Baldwin writes, “many of them are dead, and I remember how some of them died—some in the streets, some in the Army, some on the needle, some in jail.” These “ignorant armies” roam the world, frustrate our efforts to sustain livable societies, and represent a tremendous loss of human life and energy. The vulgar situation in Uganda and across the continent, as well as the endless reports of gay-bashing here at home, confirms that the project of black nationalism has not been fully achieved. But this is certainly the case for our not-so-long ago American Revolution. So, ultimately, Baldwin’s goal was not so much to reconcile his sexuality with his racial politics. What he presents in his work is an orienting perspective on the insistent narration of the pervert, which requires us to turn inward and examine our violent preoccupation with the “freak”: “Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.”

* Rich Blint, writer and cultural critic, is busy completing his dissertation, Trembling on the Edge of Confession: Racial Figuration and Iconicity in Modern American Culture, in the Program in American Studies at New York University. He is guest editor of the Winter/Spring 2008 issue of Black Renaissance Noir and co-editor (with Douglas Field) of a special issue of African American Review on James Baldwin forthcoming in 2012. He serves on the Executive Board of Vanderbilt University’s, “Issues in Critical Investigation: The African Diaspora,” and on the Editorial Board of The Feminist Wire. Rich lives in New York City and has taught courses at NYU, The Brecht Forum, and Hunter College, The City University of New York.

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3 thoughts on “The Global Imagination of James Baldwin

  1. Wonderful interview which rewards many rereadings. Perhaps the alleged ‘yawning psychic distance’ between African America and Africa is overplayed and a little dated. His niece, Aisha Karefa Smart, has the surname of a well known Sierra Leone political family ( John Karefa Smart was a notable Sierra Leonean politician educated in the US in the 1940’s). And Baldwin does mention a sister living in LIberia in one of his essays.

    I would give anything to hear James Balwin speak about now – about the US in the wake of Katarina and Barrack Obama; the current state of the Middle East; Africa and growing homophobia; France, Islam and the Hijab….I could go on. His voice is missed!

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