History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again. Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993)
As a guide, as a seer, as a prophet – James Baldwin is a writer we need. As Baldwin said about Beauford Delaney, the Black painter who rose to prominence in the Harlem Renaissance and then mentored the young Black writer, “the reality of his seeing caused me to begin to see.” We need Baldwin’s insights to cause us, too, to begin to see.
In the course of his life, Baldwin became a fierce visionary, offering readers a “moral compass,” as Eddie Glaude Jr. puts it in his new book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (2020). For Glaude, Baldwin’s “writings and witness during his own after times offer direction and particular insight into how we might imagine beginning again in the face of yet another failure of America…What might an honest reckoning with the country look like now?”
To assess our “now,” many of us are aided by the increasing availability of Baldwin’s works—especially the clips of his speeches currently garnering millions of views on social media streams and web sites. There is a palpable sense that people are coming to Baldwin today more frequently than in the last two decades of his career – and more urgently than ever before.
Many viewers for the first time saw Baldwin, the visionary, in Raoul Peck’s widely-acclaimed 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. In 2018, Black director Barry Jenkins followed up his Oscar-winning film Moonlight with If Beale Street Could Talk, based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name. At the same time, James Baldwin has become a True North for many Black intellectuals, and one of the authors most consistently cited by Black Lives Matter activists.
The Sixties civil rights icon John Lewis lived just long enough to have witnessed the wave of protests that rolled over America after the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. On his deathbed a few weeks later, Lewis wrote an essay to be published posthumously, on the day of his funeral.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision,” wrote Lewis, “can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
This “good trouble” took many forms in the course of Lewis’ remarkable life, as it did in the life of James Baldwin and other members of the heroic generation of the civil rights movement that redefined America in the Fifties and early Sixties. While Lewis, like Martin Luther King, was an agitator long before he became a legislator, Baldwin shared the Black gift of prophecy with forerunners as different as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey.
“We are,” proclaimed Baldwin in 1967, “in the hideous 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.”
At the time he wrote this, America was embroiled in a bloody but abortive war in Vietnam, while entire Black neighborhoods were going up in flames during the more than 150 uprisings that occurred during “the long, hot summer of 1967,” engulfing cities from Atlanta, Birmingham, Newark and – most convulsively of all – Detroit, as the civil rights movement’s continuing demands were met with rising white resistance.
The similarities with America’s long, hot summer of 2020 are uncanny, even ominous. Fifty-three years have passed, and yet we’re still haunted by some of the same ghosts of the same history that ravaged Baldwin’s time – resurrected in the midst of yet another lethal war, this time against an invisible as well as an implacable enemy.
At the time of this writing, the global death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has neared 900,000. On May 1, the death toll was just over 200,000: nearly three quarters of a million more people have perished in three months. It did not have to be this way. But the failed responses of our government have made matters much worse; and as the virus has spread in America, its disproportionate impact on communities of color has become increasingly clear.
It has been one more reason to proclaim, as protesters have throughout the summer of 2020, that Black Lives Matter– and this was a necessary proclamation, simply because too much evidence suggests that in America, a half century after the heroic achievements of the civil rights movement, Black lives don’t matter.
In an interview with Esquire published in 1968—just a few months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—Baldwin was asked if the social unrest of that moment wasn’t hurting African Americans the most.
“No,” he replied, “we are only the ones who are dying fastest.”
There are countless threads to unravel about the similarities between these moments, shelves of books to be written about the continuities between Baldwin’s prophetic voice in the Sixties and the terrors of our own day. The urgency of our moment, though, leaves little room for extended ruminations, demanding instead a choice.
An election looms, and a nation must choose: between the truths of science and the veracity of a competently led coordinated federal response; or the false claims, abdication of responsibility, mountains upon mountains of meaningless mendacity trumpeted by the incumbent and his abettors amidst a daily barrage of distractions and racist dog-whistle claims that ring louder than megaphones. For people of color, the choice is existential: it’s a choice between life and death.
It is, in other words, a mortal and a moral storm America is facing, and the mortality portended by these winds means making the wrong choice may well involve the very fate of our nation. To be very explicit so as not to be misunderstood, if we fail in this choice, it will not simply mean that more Black Americans will die. American democracy may die as well.
As Senator Kamala Harris, the Vice-Presidential pick for the Democratic ticket, succinctly puts it, “we need more than a victory on Nov. 3. We need a mandate that proves that the past few years do not represent who we are or who we aspire to be.”
Facing such a choice, we choose—as James Baldwin did—a reckoning with history and a renewal of hope. History, Baldwin insisted, is necessary as a guide. But to guide us true it needs be a faithful, full history, howsoever painful. The incipient mythologizing of American innocence that rallies behind anachronistic cries of making America “great again” will simply plunge us backward, forever backsliding.
We need instead, as John Lewis suggests, to “study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time.”
“Tell the story,” urges Glaude in Begin Again, speaking of the implications of Baldwin’s achievements for our own time: “Make it real for those who refuse to believe that such a thing can happen/has happened/is happening here. Bring the suffering to the attention of those who wallow in willful ignorance.” Help us see.
To have seen, and then to start over, entails a renewal of hope. Beginning again, as Baldwin was forced to do in the 1970s after witnessing the dreams of the civil rights movement dashed upon the rocks of reluctance, recalcitrance, and conservative recidivism, means also that one is bound to repeat oneself. Proclamations, warnings, and pleadings – all uttered before – must be declared anew. The hope that his time will yield different results must also entail, as our epigraph from Maya Angelou suggests, the courage to face our history.
Hope may be the hardest of Baldwin’s ideas to honor in practice, even though he reassures us, as he did readers in a piece in Ebony in 1970, that “hope is invented every day.” As we look to the life, works, and legacies of James Baldwin as an aid in the cascading crises that envelop us amidst a global pandemic, we are guided not just by Baldwin’s bold witness, but by the ferocity of his courage: the courage to learn from history; the courage to tell the truth about race in America; and the courage to hope, with eyes wide open for our future.
Dwight A. McBride is President of The New School and Justin A. Joyce is Research Director in the office of the President at The New School. The co-authors are also co-editors, with Douglas Field of Manchester University, of the James Baldwin Review.
Eleri (Witness), 2018. Dr. Fahamu Pecou, PhD./fahamupecouart.com James Baldwin Review Volume 6 Table of Contents Introduction To Minimize the Bill That They Must Pay Justin A. Joyce Feature Essay The Great Debate: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Jr., and the Civil Rights Revolution Nicholas Buccola Essays “The Shape of the Wrath to Come”: James Baldwin’s Radicalism and the Evolution of His Thought on Israel Nadia Alahmed Birthing a New World: Black Women as Surrogates of Liberation in James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk Marquita R. Smith Chagrin d’amour: Intimacy, Shame, and the Closet in Giovanni’s Room Monica B. Pearl Graduate Student Essay Award Winner Baldwin’s Kitchen: Food and Identity in His Life and Fiction Emily Na Graduate Student Essays The Warrior and the Poet: On James Baldwin and the Many Roles in Revolution Nicholas Binford Baptism by History: Reading James Baldwin’s Existential Hindsight in Go Tell It on the Mountain Miller Wilbourn Dispatch The Disorder of Life: James Baldwin on My Shoulder Karen Thorsen Bibliographic Essay Trends in Baldwin Criticism, 2016–17 Joseph Vogel Review Symposium Review: “In a Speculative Light: The Arts of James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney,” Knoxville,Tennessee, 19–21 February 2020 D. Quentin Miller From the Field Baldwin’s Transatlantic Reverberations: Between “Stranger in the Village” and I Am Not Your Negro Jovita dos Santos Pinto, Noémi Michel, Patricia Purtschert, Paola Bacchetta, Vanessa Naef Rebranding James Baldwin and His Queer Others: A Session at the 2019 American Studies Association Conference Magdalena J. Zaborowska, Nicholas F. Radel, Nigel Hatton, Ernest L. Gibson III Read the full introduction to Volume 6, by Justin A. Joyce, in the latest issue of James Baldwin Review here. Volume 6 will be available on JBR’s open access website in October of 2020 here. Print copies of James Baldwin Review can be purchased here.