On Baldwin by Henry Louis Gates

This was the first time I had heard a voice capturing the terrible exhilaration and anxiety of being a person of African descent in this country. From the book’s first few sentences, I was caught up thoroughly in the sensibility of another person, a black person.. When Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time in 1963, he was exalted as the voice of black America..

By proclaiming that the color question conceals the graver questions of the self, Baldwin leads you to expect a transcendence of the contingencies of race, in the name of a deeper artistic or psychological truth. But instead, with an abrupt swerve, he returns you precisely to those questions..That traditional liberal dream of a non-racial self, unconstrained by epidermal contingencies, was hopefully entertained and at last, for him, reluctantly dismissed. “There are,” he observed, few things on earth more attractive than the idea of the unspeakable liberty which is allowed the unredeemed. When, beneath the black mask, a human being begins to make himself felt one cannot escape a certain awful wonder as to what kind of human being it is. What one’s imagination makes of other people is dictated, of course, by the laws of one’s own personality and it is one of the ironies of black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is.

This is not a call for “racial understanding.” On the contrary, we understand each other all too well, for we have invented one another, derived our identities from the ghostly projections of our alter egos. If Baldwin had a central political argument, it was that the destinies of black America and white were profoundly and irreversibly intertwined. Each created the other, each defined itself in relation to the other, each could destroy the other.. America’s “interracial drama” had “not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too.”..

As an intellectual, Baldwin was at his best when he explored his own equivocal sympathies and clashing allegiances. He was here to “bear witness,” he insisted, not to be a spokesman. And he was right to insist on the distinction. But who had time for such niceties? The spokesman role was assigned him inevitably. The result was to complicate further his curious position as an Afro-American intellectual. In those days, on the populist left, the favored model of the oppositional spokesman was what Gramsci called the “organic intellectual,” who participated in, and was part of, the community, which he would not only analyze but also uplift. And yet Baldwin’s basic conception of himself was formed by the older but still well-entrenched ideal of the alienated artist or intellectual, whose advanced sensibility entailed his estrangement from the very people he would represent..

Eldridge Cleaver wrote in his essay on Baldwin that he found in his work “the most grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in any black American writer of note in our time.” According to Amiri Baraka, the new star of the Black Arts Movement, Baldwin was “Joan of Arc of the cocktail party.” His “spavined whine and plea” was “sickening beyond belief.” In the eyes of the young Ishmael Reed, he was “a hustler who comes on like Job.”..

Cleaver attacked Baldwin on more than racial grounds. For the heated new apostle of black machismo, Baldwin’s sexuality, that is, his homosexuality, also represented treason: “Many Negro homosexuals, acquiescing in this racial death-wish, are outraged because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man.” Baldwin was thus engaged in “a despicable underground guerrilla war, waged on paper, against black masculinity.” Young militants referred to Baldwin, unsmilingly, as Martin Luther Queen. Baldwin, of course, was hardly a stranger to the sexual battlefield. “On every street corner,” Baldwin would later recall of his early days in the Village, “I was called a faggot.” What was different this time was a newly sexualized black nationalism that could stigmatize homosexuality as a capitulation to alien white norms, and in that way accredit homophobia as a progressive political act..

As his old admirers recognized, Baldwin was now chasing, with unseemly alacrity, after a new vanguard, one that esteemed rage, not compassion, as our noblest emotion. “It is not necessary for a black man to hate a white man, or to have particular feelings about him at all, in order to realize that he must kill him,” he wrote in No Name in the Street, a book he began in 1967 but did not publish until 1972. “Yes, we have come, or are coming, to this, and there is no point in flinching before the prospect of this exceedingly cool species of fratricide.” That same year he told The New York Times of his belated realization that “our destinies are in our hands, black hands, and no one else’s.”..
How far he had come from the author of The Fire Next Time, who had forecast the rise of black power and yet was certain that "we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task: there is certainly no need now to create two, one black, and one white."..

In an impossible gambit, the author of No Name in the Street sought to reclaim his lost authority by signaling his willingness to be instructed by those who had inherited it. Contradicting his own greatest achievements, he feebly borrowed the populist slogans of the day, and returned them with the beautiful Baldwinian polish. “The powerless, by definition, can never be `racists,’” he writes, “for they can never make the world pay for what they feel or fear except by the suicidal endeavor that makes them fanatics or revolutionaries, or both; whereas those in power can be urbane and charming and invite you to those houses which they know you will never own.” This view—that blacks cannot be racist—is today a familiar one, a platitude of much of the contemporary debate. The key phrase, of course, is “by definition.” For this is not only, or even largely, an empirical claim. It is a rhetorical and psychological move, an unfortunate but unsurprising attempt by the victim to forever exempt himself from guilt.

This definition masquerading as an idea—would have once been debunked by Baldwin.. He would have repudiated it not for the sake of white America—for white America, he would have argued, the display of black prejudice could only provide a reassuring confirmation of its own—but for the sake of black America. The Baldwin who knew that the fates of black and white America were one also knew that if racism was to be deplored, it was to be deplored tout court, without exemption clauses for the oppressed.

This conviction also appeared in Baldwin's view on Malcolm X. He ventured that by preaching black supremacy, “what [Malcolm] does is destroy a truth and invent a myth.” Compared with King’s appeal, he said, Malcolm’s appeal was "much more sinister because it is much more effective. It is much more effective, because it is, after all, comparatively easy to invest a population with false morale by giving them a false sense of superiority, and it will always break down in a crisis. That is the history of Europe simply—it’s one of the reasons that we are in this terrible place."..

Despite the unfortunate pronouncements of his later years, I believe that he was finding his course again, and exploring the instability of all the categories that divide us. As he wrote in “Here Be Monsters,” an essay published two years before his death, and with which he chose to conclude The Price of the Ticket, his collected nonfiction: “Each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.”

But perhaps times are due to change again.. a new generation of readers has come to value just those qualities of ambivalence and equivocality, just that sense of the contingency of identity, that made him useless to the ideologues of liberation and anathema to so many black nationalists.