James Baldwin’s America and the Paradox of Race

Fifty years ago this month, African American essayist and novelist James Baldwin published “A Letter to My Nephew” in the pages of The Progressive magazine.

The following year, the piece would be packaged and published as the first of two essays under the title The Fire Next Time, which endures as one of the most important pieces of social commentary to come out of the 1960s.

Writing in The Progressive amidst the upheavals of the civil rights revolution and against the backdrop of centennial celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin gazed upon the racial topography of early-1960s America and saw not a dreamscape of possibility, but a sobering and ongoing nightmare. “You know, and I know,” Baldwin wrote, “that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.” Although the insurgencies of Baldwin’s time would bring about the most sweeping victories for racial democracy since Emancipation and Reconstruction, looking out from Harlem, Baldwin understood the sharp proscriptions and limitations of those victories. The evidence was everywhere: in the ghettos to which Blacks were relegated and where it was “intended that [they] should perish”; in broad social insinuations of African American worthlessness; in white presumptions to define Black people’s place in society.

Baldwin’s frame, both in that Progressive piece and in his larger corpus of work, was contoured by a knowledge that the problem of American racism was something far beyond the sorts of political, social, and economic inequalities that civil rights militancy and legislative intervention could roll back. To be sure, the burden the United States had hoisted upon Black people was always in substantial measure a matter of resources and materials. This much was clear from Baldwin’s sharp condemnations of ghettoization and poverty in particular that surge through his writing.

But the problem of racism was at the same time more insidious, deeply rooted in the American consciousness and imagination. As the Black freedom struggle ground onward, the earth was shifting beneath the feet of the entirety of the nation’s white majority. Although there were clear differences between rabid racists, ambivalent observers, and racial progressives, within white America nearly everyone, including the “innocents,” had relatively little idea how to respond to the era’s insurgent articulations of Black ability and equality. For Baldwin, even white calls for “integration” and “acceptance”—linchpins in the period’s dominant progressive idiom—rang hollow. They seemed presumptuous and laden with racial privilege, fictions borne of the idea that it was time for white America to finally welcome Blacks fully into the fold of a national community that whites saw as providentially their own. “There is no reason,” he wrote his nephew, “for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.”

In spite of this, it should be understood that Baldwin was never the separatist or racial fire-starter his critics sometimes made him out to be. Though a radical intellectual of the highest order and a blazingly fierce social critic, Baldwin never became what anyone would rightly call a racial militant. Although as he watched the casualties in the freedom struggle mount he became evermore despondent about the likelihood of America escaping whatever wrath it conjured upon itself, he never argued in favor of violent upheaval in service of realizing a less brutally racist America. (This is different, it should be noted, than saying that he did not understand those people who did.) Indeed, in that 1962 letter, Baldwin went to great lengths to exhort his nephew to approach his white countrymen from a place of love—“to force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

But the path out of what often seemed a racial hell would, Baldwin knew, be a fraught one. The tortured paradox of racism was (and is) that it at once involved racial proscription as well as racial oblivion. A constitutive feature of Baldwin’s America was the marginalization—the invisibility—of poor, urbanized African Americans in the broader nation’s political and social conscience. The southern Civil Rights movement, with its powerful challenges to the legally codified racism of Jim Crow, touched an emotional nerve across the United States. But the social and economic violence wrought upon African Americans elsewhere went largely ignored. Indeed, part of the reason so many of Baldwin’s contemporaries hedged about racism’s intractable social currency was that they could not, or would not, see poor Black residents of the nation’s cities as anything besides flat caricatures of incapacity and failure. “I am writing this letter to you,” he wrote, “to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist….Your countrymen don’t know that [your grandmother] exists, either, though she has been working for them all their lives.”

In other words, the threat of perishment facing millions of Black people wasn’t just a literal one—though it was surely that, as well. It was also a figurative one, or perhaps more adequately, a social one. It was an existential erasure born of societal marginalization, spatial containment, and racial fear. Even as the southern Civil Rights movement completed its assault on codified Jim Crow a few years after Baldwin’s writing, the human existence of young urban Blacks like Baldwin’s nephew, and the conditions that they faced, remained on the periphery of the American consciousness.

It was for such reasons that Baldwin lamented the prematurity of freedom’s celebration fifty years ago, and it remains difficult to read him today and not feel discomfited about our own narratives of progress since his writing. Though half a century removed from the height of nonviolent Civil Rights and a century further still from Emancipation, solutions to racism’s entrenched historical legacies and contemporary currency continue to elude us. Particulars have changed, but less so than many of us would like to believe. Social and economic marginalization of millions of poor Black urbanites in many places is as bad—or worse—than ever. Urban joblessness and underemployment is pervasive. The machinations of an outsized carceral state wreak havoc upon poor communities of color. Assaults on voting rights fall disproportionately on the poor, especially the Black and Brown poor. The list goes on and on.

At the same time, denials that we even have a racial problem run as through lines in American society—the most popular of these being the overtly self-congratulatory idea that we’ve moved “beyond race,” that ours is a “post-racial” nation, that the truly enlightened no longer “see” race. After all, the logic goes, ours is a society nominally without formal barriers to access, a place where anyone with a brain and a work ethic can make their way. Ours is, indeed, a country headed by a Black president—a social and political accomplishment that supposedly marks our collective maturation on issues of race.

The debunking of Obama-centered post-racialism is a project that’s been ably handled by many social critics, historians, and journalists, among others. A sketch of the evidence: the constant questioning of Obama’s legitimacy, whether in his nationality and eligibility for office; horribly veiled tetherings of him to supposed excesses of the welfare state (“the food stamp president,” in Newt Gingrich’s breathtakingly vapid insinuation); overtly racist caricatures of him and his family; and so forth. All this while, as Ta-Nehisi Coates recently described in brilliant and wrenching fashion in The Atlantic, Obama remains bound by an impossible racial double standard that effectively forces him into silence about racial history and modern inequality, lest he risk being seen as “too black.”

The multiplicity of responses to the Obama presidency helps to demonstrate the contentlessness of the post-racial idea, but his is not the most important story here. More crucial, rather, are the circumstances of the Black urban poor—the children and grandchildren of the people to whom Baldwin tried to give some voice fifty years, people who today find themselves fetishized in popular culture and demonized in political discourse and whose actual, fundamental humanity continues to be cast to the fringes of American social thought.

This is the racial double-bind into which our dominant political and social narratives ties these Americans: the litany of destructive social forces facing many urban Black communities—incarceration, joblessness, violence, defunded educational systems, food insecurity, and so on—simultaneously wreak havoc within those communities, while at the same time the immensity of those forces is used to castigate the residents therein as “dependent,” “dysfunctional,” “self-destructive,” ensnared in a “culture of poverty,” etc. Within that narrative, it is not the destruction that takes its toll upon the people, but the people who create—or at least exacerbate—the destruction. Racism has only a very limited agency, if indeed it has any at all. Urban African America’s dire straights are less a matter of historical processes and structures of inequality generations in the making, and are rather chalked as the fault of welfare mothers, criminal fathers, morally bankrupt neighborhoods. In the news, in pop culture, everywhere we look, the people that navigate these conditions on a daily basis are presented as caricatures: human beings whose humanity seems somehow more aspirational and less complete, people whose role in the social circle is that of “taking” rather than contributing. The fact that beyond such caricatures exist vibrant communities of people who work, breath, dream, learn, love, think, etc. rarely finds its way to the dominant narrative surface. As a result, millions of Americans of color are placed in the unenviable position of simultaneously fighting a frontal battle against the conditions they face, and a rearguard battle to defend their dignity and assert their humanity.

Thus is the durability of the paradox of racial proscription and erasure that Baldwin suggested to us fifty years ago. The life chances of millions of Black Americans continue to be sharply limited by the entrenched inequality that inheres in our society. At the same time, shielded behind a veil of post-racialism, millions of other Americans (who are far from actually “not seeing race”) neglect to see—or resist seeing—racism’s impacts. The step from there to in turn not seeing the people who suffer under racism’s weight in any meaningful way turns out to be an alarmingly small one indeed.

This has perhaps never been clearer than in the age of the Great Recession. In the election cycle that just wrapped, the dominant frame for talking about the impacts of the economic collapse was to measure its toll on the middle class. For reasons related to race, class, and the issue of political power that attends them both, there was barely a mention of the poor generally and urban, racialized poverty in particular. Given modern conservatism’s dogmatic philosophical (if not practical) adherence to an ethic individual responsibility and its knee-jerk aversion to acknowledging race-based inequality, that this is the case in right-leaning circles is hardly surprising, and need not be retread here.

The Left’s problem in this regard, it must be emphasized, is different. But it’s important to not hedge about the fact that there’s a problem just the same. Though there are important exceptions at more localized levels, on the whole the movements that have captivated the national progressive community have still fallen into a trap that struggles to honestly incorporate poor urban residents of color. For example, one of the fundamental failures of imagination within the 2011 labor uprising in my native Wisconsin was its persistent narrative of the threats that Governor Scott Walker’s austerity agenda posed to a deserving, hard-working, middle-class Wisconsin that was almost always implicitly white. Though organizations such as the Madison-based Freedom, Inc. and the Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera at times pushed the boundaries of that narrative, again and again the central thrust of the protests was white middle-class Wisconsinites rightly criticizing the administration’s heartlessness, while at the same time failing to extend itself to the plight of the state’s more vulnerable citizens. Meanwhile, Milwaukee proper—much Blacker and disproportionately poorer than the rest of the state—was, worse than anywhere else, set to collapse under the weight of the Walker administration’s policies. In Madison, meanwhile—ground zero of the uprising and historically one of the epicenters of American progressivism—racial disparities in education, incarceration, poverty, and the like have long been on the rise. Yet these issues have done little to animate the city’s white progressive community.

Somewhat similarly, the Occupy movement, while more creatively inclusive in its vision than the Wisconsin uprising, has largely struggled to translate its critique and desires for coalitional politics into meaningful engagements with low-income communities of color. Itself a predominantly city-based movement, Occupy has at times made overtures to urban African America and then wondered aloud at the ambivalent response. The rise in some places of the Occupy-affiliated “Occupy the Hood” movement is a promising starting ground, but even that has failed to generate significant influence in most of the urban enclaves from which it grows.

The reason, it in part seems, is that engagements between white-dominated progressive movements and the local Black communities around them are rarely ones of mutuality. The spirit of Occupy is, to its great credit, inherently collectivist and coalitional; indeed, messages don’t get much more explicitly inclusive than “We Are the 99%.” But at the same time, Occupy’s critiques of crony capitalism, the one percent, and so on don’t address with much specificity or immediacy the perilous circumstances of urban life facing much of the nation’s Black poor. Put differently, an abstract anti-capitalism doesn’t itself improve school funding, desegregate metropolitan geographies, put food on tables, ease the strain of police repression, and so forth. There’s much to recommend Occupy’s messages in a long view, but in the short term its possibilities are much less clear. Thus Occupy and other majority-white progressive movements like it would do well to reframe their engagements with poor urban communities. More mutual dialogue and intellectual exchange, less talk of making “inroads.” More questions, fewer ideological prescriptions.

Among other explanations, this is true because, although people outside those communities almost never hear about such efforts, in urban communities of color everywhere there are brilliant and vibrant intellectual, political, and social networks that already exist. As just one example, in Chicago (where I currently live) there are a variety of people working variously toward achieving safer urban environments, reforming educational opportunities, fighting police abuses in their myriad forms, and so much more. Broadly speaking, they are seeking many of the same things that other progressive movements are—a fairer and more just social arrangement. That they labor in relative obscurity is, once more, a testament to the durability of Black social invisibility is in this country.

The soil for collaboration between such activists and the communities they serve on the one hand, and larger progressive movements on the other, is rich. But it can only be turned by the latter of these offering up themselves: asking how they can help rather than pointing out the long-term programmatic advantages such an alliance would potentially produce, viewing the needs of such communities through their own ideological lenses (anti-capitalist or otherwise), and so forth. There seems to be a presumption that impoverished Black urbanites should want to latch on to movements like Occupy; but it remains unclear why the obverse shouldn’t be just as true.

We live in a precarious time, one in which our political and social imaginations are evermore deeply contoured by a tremendously exaggerated narrative of racial and social progress. Racism’s historical legacies and contemporary impacts continue to shape our culture, economy, and society in profound ways. All the while, the deep wounds that racism cuts in our social fabric bleed heavy at precisely a moment when a powerful discourse gathers strength that says that, when it comes to race and racism, there’s literally nothing left to see. The fact that urban communities of color remain so marginalized, so disproportionately impoverished, and so roundly forgotten in our political discussions is not simply a product of the failure of the people in them. It is rather more a measure of all of our collective social and political failures.

In a very short amount of space in The Progressive fifty years ago, writing at once to his nephew and to the country which they both called home, James Baldwin described to us that truth. He implored his nephew, and by extension us, to “make America what America must become.” We haven’t yet, though we still might. While acknowledging that we proceed from a place that’s impoverished by the loss of voices like Baldwin’s, that struggle—if we’ve the will to keep waging it—continues.

Simon Balto is a PhD candidate in History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently lives in Chicago.


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