James Baldwin’s Racial Critique Has Contemporary Relevance

In recent years, American novelist and playwright James Baldwin has come to occupy an increasingly prominent place in public thinking on race and democracy. Baldwin, who died in 1987, was a giant of his time but his continuing presence was largely relegated to the halls of specialists in Black thought and writing. However, that has changed. Baldwin and his masterful works have now been revived for a wider public. Today, writers are measured by his yardstick while books and documentaries let his writing tell the story of America’s moral immaturity.

A sense of urgency — and possibly, emergency — has immersed this revival, while his return has also been a harbinger of hope. Of the great Black writers available to us, why Baldwin and why now? I can make this clear by following Baldwin’s lead, and by telling a story about my own journey toward self-discovery while navigating this project we call America.

I came to Baldwin about eight years ago during a time of multiple difficulties. I was finishing my first book, The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time, and was trying to figure out who I was as a scholar. What did I want my work to mean, beyond words for a select group of specialists to read? More importantly, what did the work say about me? I had received my PhD in philosophy at MIT and, like many minority scholars before me, felt I had been dropped into a sociological elevator shaft. No one around me was like me, and no one I read was like me. Imagine coming from the hood with a history of using food stamps, while everyone around you discusses how such social programs make people worse off. Back home, kids who were on the block one day were six feet under the next, while my peers at MIT spoke complete nonsense about a life they had not experienced.

But I bought into it. As real as the hood is, I wanted out because I didn’t want to be six feet under — literally or figuratively. I came to believe this was my ticket to legitimacy and therefore success. And so I spent my graduate career and early academic career trying to be like the white thinkers I read because everyone with power (almost always white scholars) told me they were the real markers of legitimacy.

Although I brought the perspective of the racial underclass to my work, the problem was voice. I was straining my Black perspective through a white register. The issue became soul — my work was at risk of not having any, and I was at risk of losing mine. Then I came to James Baldwin.

Baldwin’s words snapped me to in the midst of a second, nationally recognized difficulty. Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement forced the public to face the fact that America’s police and private citizens were executing our people on the streets with impunity. This was not news to me, and it was never news to Black folks — only to white folks. But the images of murder and brutality side-by-side with white tears made me hate this country with a force I didn’t know possessed me. But hate will eat at you until you disappear while the horrors remain behind. I wanted to hope intelligently while maintaining my dignity.

This line from Baldwin defined a newfound sense of purpose in me: “There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing [is]….You must accept them and accept them with love.” Baldwin wanted me to love people who made possible Daniel Pantaleo’s video-recorded choking of Eric Garner — an eerily restaged modern-day lynching if ever there was one. Baldwin wanted me to love people who empowered the police officer who intimidated and embarrassed Sandra Bland on the side of a road. Bland later hanged herself in a jail cell in which she should never have been placed. How does one square the cycle of rage and resentment one can feel toward America and its white beneficiaries?

That question has only intensified. On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump — an undeniable white supremacist — won the electoral college. In 2016, someone who would have been right at home in 1816 was granted the most powerful seat in the nation on the heels of Barack Obama’s presidency. Whatever progress Obama was meant to represent seemed annihilated by this atrocity.

It was Obama who seemed the real aberration, as America was founded on racism and trafficked in its politics for centuries. Even in recent years, fake progressives like the Clintons hedged their political bets by falling back on supporting the carceral state and pandering to the notion of Black “superpredators.” It wasn’t long before Obama’s presidency was treated as a crime by white conservatives, yet we now have a president embroiled in more criminal scandals than any president in American history — a president who thinks Richard Spencer’s tiki-torch wielding cronies are “very fine people.” Trump’s administration is also holding Brown immigrant children in cages, torn from parents as if people from the south of the border are equivalent to George R. R.

Martin’s monsters, capable of destroying your way of life just by touching you. I believe that white America’s prophecy of doom and loss compelled our return to Baldwin as both witness to America and counter-prophet of the road to ruin if we do not change our ways. Baldwin urges all Americans to fight for the reclamation of historical truth, as opposed to white superiority, as the marker of good character. He warns in “Equal in Paris,” “That no people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it. This price…is revealed in their personalities and in their institutions.” Twenty-first century institutions reveal that America is paying the price for its culture — Black bodies remain expendable, white supremacy remains viable, and many white Americans, even those who disagree with racism, are unaware of their privilege. Baldwin says no democracy can survive in such a state. What shall we do?

This question leads us back to the seemingly paradoxical timeline of Baldwin’s re-emergence at a time of emergency, where Black and Brown people have justifiable resentment toward white America and Baldwin counsels that we love white Americans. When Baldwin asks us to love whites, he is not speaking of the mushy sort of unconditional love one finds in a bad movie. Instead, he is speaking of kinship love; the type that can be tough and compels us to embrace a sister in a supportive hug or challenge a brother who won’t quit bullying us. And we do so, if for no other reason than to maintain the only relationship that truly matters in the world: that between a democratic society and its people. Baldwin is so urgent because his work forces us to remember that we can never allow white Americans to exploit and endanger our humanity and capacity for hope; that, barring revolution, our democracy is the most important relationship we have as a society.

Baldwin tried leaving the United States, only to realize that there was no place to go. He realized that his pains and trials here had also been accompanied by the beauty of resistance and the possibility of redemption.

Our mandate to love whites is not to accept them as they are, but to demand that they become better lest they endanger all of us. Baldwin was not naïve; he was clear on the dangers of this mandate but knew alternative courses of action are possibly more catastrophic. How else could he say to us, “The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.” Only a person who could hold in one hand the radiance of hope, and in the other the dagger of racial indictment could embrace us with the wisdom required by the moment. Today we are either in grave peril or just approaching the horizon of a new and better day. We’ve turned to Baldwin not to know which situation we face, but because the only way to a better day is to understand the costs of moral immaturity. Baldwin’s words empower us to love intelligently and toughly so that we might walk the road of hope with dignity and a real chance at salvation.

About the Author

Chris Lebron is the associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a senior writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).