2010/09/28 – James Baldwin

James Baldwin

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, of thought what one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free – he has set himself free – for higher dreams, for greater privileges. All men have gone through this, go through it, each according to his degree, throughout their lives. It is one of the irreducible facts of life.”[1]

– James Baldwin, “Faulkner and Desegregation”

I had the privilege of attending his Ethnic Studies lectures at Bowling Green State University 1979 as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies. I was thrilled to be in the magnetic presence of the small black man who lectured at the table where we all sat. He often shifted between the suave, slow-talking, charming fellow and the explosion of an interminable, fiery anger, nearly driven to madness by the sickness that plagued the minds of America.

“They want us to wait?” he asked in mock surprise, referring to the America’s attitude of delaying justice and equality. “They already have taken up my life, how much more do they want?”


Being black, gay, unattractive, impoverished from birth, Baldwin only had his love for words to get him through. His words demand to be heard, and the titles of many of his books alternately scream alienation or dire warnings for the future, like the apocalyptic, The Fire Next Time, Nobody Knows My Name, No Name in the Street. These are works of alienation, sorting himself to find a place to belong, or an identity that was real.Typically modernist themes. But it was Go Tell It On the Mountain that impressed me in high school. Baldwin’s personal Harlem, although lost to history, seemed to superimposed my own life when I read it. I never would have dreamed he was sitting in the same classroom, right in front of me, a few years later, smiling broadly at me in the bright morning. But I digress…


Appearing in 1956 at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin’s essay was response seethed in anger and directed the southerner novelist William Faulkner; a former Nobel Prize winner of Literature and recognized by academics as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century, reputedly looked askance at the South’s dehumanizing and brutal treatment of blacks (indeed, in Faulkner’s works, a recurrent theme appears the South was under a “curse” due to the institution of slavery) while at the same time, advising blacks to “go slow” in their demands for social equality and justice. Baldwin wryly asks aloud what Faulkner expected black people to do while waiting for Southerners to work out their issues on their own. But this post isn’t so much about what modernist writers living in the 1950s thought about the fight for racial equality, or to discuss Faulkner’s position regarding the “race problem” in his works and personal life, for any study would reveal he was conflicted within his identity that was forged and programmed by the Southern Cult of the Land and its brutal, accursed history.


Instead, this Monograph in Defense of Equality puts forward the need a dialogue which will expose and purify the pollution of “noble” concepts of such words as “liberty” and “equality” while demanding that all social and economic theories be reworked in order to finally rise to the conceptual maturity to manifest the only equality which matters, which is economic equality for all people.


Baldwin had it right in the quote above: any “real” change removes all that one has previously considered as real, everything that one thought oneself to be or had connection to, whether as possessions of objects tangible, political or metaphysical – the implication that all relationships within the previous state were only illusions, while possibly causing an existential nausea, is something that yet must be faced and transcended in order for a being to progress beyond social and self-imposed limits. This is nearly impossible to achieve, for people are loath to expand themselves to a state beyond their opinions.


The noble principles of Equality, Liberty, Justice, et cetera, have been reduced to meaninglessness by those whose business is to maintain the status quo of the present economic system. Human beings are brought into the world without any notion that these things exist. We have made everything up: money, God, politics, philosophy, morality – all things created by consciousness we pretend to be real we have used to create Hell on Earth. Why not create Heaven?


The principle of Liberty, in particular, was developed into a very noble ideal that was first optimistically promulgated by Enlightenment-era Europeans who possessed enough disposable income that they could, from within the comforts of their council estates, freely consider such abstractions that applied to themselves, as first among equals. The liberals wished to be free to pursue their economic dreams without too much interference from the State. So they devised quaint concepts like Liberty, Social Contract, Equality, Justice and so on.


I suppose I could tell you all that James Baldwin was a hero of mine. Did you know that the ancient Greeks invented the word to describe a  soldier who fell in battle. They were thought to have ceased to exist, yet families and friends would sit by the fire and gave honor and glory to their names in songs or poems. All in vain, of course. Let the breakup of the world that one knew continue, so that real change may indeed come.

James Baldwin died in 1987.


[1] James Baldwin, “Faulkner and Desegregation,” Originally published in Partisan Review, Winter, 1956. Collected in Nobody Knows My Name and The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985.


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