Lessons on Black Life from Writers Toni Morrison and James Baldwin

It is challenging to figure out the business of living in America with Black or Brown skin. Watching white counterparts, one immediately observes the vast array of daily concerns that do not occupy them – living under suspicion of deviance; working and studying while suspecting peers think you are an affirmative action appointment; and the persistent mortal danger from state institutions. These are just a few of the considerations that represent the toll that comes with being born Black, and, conversely, the absence of these considerations in white lives indicates that what is often unbearable for us is simply their insufferable lightness of being. How are we supposed to think and feel about America when its politics and economics are predicated on this divergent quality of existence?

I’ve been spending time with Toni Morrison’s recently published collection of splendid essays, The Source of Self-Regard. The title of the book is telling. A primary theme in the book reflects on the mindset humans need in order to be humane to others. But a deeper recurrent theme is about Blackness – the ways and means Black folk must employ to live steady and ready in America.

Morrison seems intent on rejecting a long line of liberal thinking that urges moderation and assimilation. For example, she writes in her 1976 essay “Moral Inhabitants:” “Our past is bleak. Our future is dim… A reasonable man adjusts to his environment. An unreasonable man does not. All progress, therefore, depends on the unreasonable man.” Morrison’s forecast for America is less than sanguine. But, her position amounts to more than rejecting hope. Rather, it embraces personal sovereignty in the name of survival. As she goes on to say, “We cannot be optimistic. But we can be clear.”

Why is clarity more useful than optimism?

Optimism trades the critical eye born of wariness for an unwarranted positive outlook on the future. For Black folks, optimism requires the same belief that allows the kid who is bullied every day at lunch to think that the answer is befriending the bully; that this will finally convince them of the error of their ways. But the missing link in that thinking – in that optimism – is that bullies bully because they misunderstand someone, not because they insist on understanding their target as a victim precisely so that they can victimize someone. And so it goes with race in America.

Racism isn’t born of an error but of willful disdain. There is no room for optimism in that civic equation. But clarity helps.

One reason clarity helps is as a defense against the outside world. One is less likely to be exploited, disrespected, or endangered when one moves through the world, fully knowing that the world would prefer that you just stayed right where you were.

Clarity is emancipatory. But clarity has another use, and that is keeping our internal lives as people of color well-ordered and healthy. What are the risks if we lack clarity? This was a question that haunted James Baldwin and qualified his artistic admiration for the novelist Richard Wright. Wright wrote the perennial classic Native Son out of a desire to bring white Americans face-to-face with the ugliness of Black experiences with white supremacy. But Baldwin felt that Wright miscalculated. Wright gave whites too much credit for sympathizing with Black suffering. Baldwin “never believed that [Wright] had any real sense of how a society is put together,” and in America, that is a perilous deficit. Yet, this was not the deficit that most worried Baldwin.

Native Son’s main character, Bigger Thomas, lives a life on the unseen and unpleasant margins of America in the slums of Chicago. His life seems like one without prospects, and he spirals into a life of violence and sexual assault that sends him running from the law. His story ends in an irredeemable tragedy. Wright makes Thomas a receptacle for rage and little else. Maybe it’s the case that rage prevents us from achieving clarity. But it’s more likely the other way – a lack of clarity permits rage: clarity on who wins and who loses when we are defined by rage; the way we are demeaned when we submit to rage; the ways that rage can create a self-fulfilling prophecy; and the way rage alienates us from those closest to us, especially when we fall into the cold arms of reactive politics while shunning the warmth of community and fraternity. Baldwin’s lament was that “Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry… but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits that possibility of his being sub-human[.]”

Morrison’s and Baldwin’s lessons are urgent and fundamental. Living life Black in America is both risky and unavoidable. There is little to be done for it – we are here and so is America so we must get on with life. It might seem that being unreasonable is an obstacle to being clear, thus avoiding the pitfalls that worried Baldwin. But that is to misunderstand Morrison. She counsels us to avoid adopting the dominant expectations of our behavior as they result in acquiescence. Unreasonableness, then, is that which keeps us alert to outer dangers but also to the rise of inner demons.

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).