August 2 marked the birth anniversary of James Baldwin, one of the most important and radical voices in American literature, who in his works, explored deeply the intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in American society. Some of his notable works are Go Tell it on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, and Notes of a Native Son.
Baldwin was born as James Arthur Jones in 1924 to Emma Berdis Jones, in Harlem, New York. His mother worked as a cleaning woman to support herself, and James never knew his biological father. Three years later, she married a Baptist preacher named David Baldwin, whom James referred to as his father throughout his life. His parents were children of former slaves, and Baldwin wrote throughout his life about what this meant for him, living in a deeply racist America, and the rage and sorrow that consumed his life in the country.
At the time, Harlem was known to have a large Black population, especially as large numbers of Black people migrated from the Jim Crow riddled South with its culture of racist lynching and violence in an attempt to seek better education and opportunities for their families. However, Harlem was far from the American dream, and at the time racism and racial segregation were rife in the country. The urban ghettoization of blacks into specific areas like Harlem led to an inequality of opportunities and quality public services such as education in these areas. After World War I, Harlem became the center for art, literature, music, and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, which would challenge white-dominated art and culture. A young Baldwin was influenced and mentored by poets of this movement such as Countee Cullen.
One of the striking features of his fiction work was the way in which he reflected on his personal experiences, weaving them with radical commentary on society. In these works, he explored his strained relationship with his father who was also navigating his own ideas about race, the prejudices he faced and his resulting personal torment about his sexuality and his race, his feelings of isolation within his community at a time when homosexuality went strictly against many of their Christian beliefs, interracial relationships, and so on. After his close friend Eugene Worth committed suicide, Baldwin decided to move to Paris, to distance himself from the suffocation of living in such a highly prejudiced America. It was in Paris that he was able to write most freely, where even though the French had their own racism, a lot of talented Black Americans were welcomed.
Baldwin’s ideas and searing critique of American society are relevant across the world and show lessons in what power and resistance are. Baldwin wrote about the core of the White psyche as being marked by denial and suppression of truth and a gap between their public and private selves. The history of colonialism and genocide of Native Americans and the legacy of slavery were all obfuscated in American legends of origin and promises of the American dream. Similarly, today, the violent and oppressive brahminical history of India is glossed over constantly and the thread of caste running through all of India’s social and political changes is erased in favour of a falsified narrative of the glorious Indian past and culture, and promises of economic prosperity.
Baldwin also spoke about the ideas of inclusion and progress thrust upon Black people in America based on White capitalistic standards. White society applauded itself on the rising presence of Black people in sports and media and so on, but Baldwin pointed out, “Insofar as the American public wants to think there has been progress, they overlook one very simple thing: I don’t want to be given anything by you. I just want you to leave me alone so I can do it myself”. Further, he questioned the benchmark of progress as being the American dream, saying, “Perhaps I don’t think that this republic is the summit of human civilization. Perhaps I don’t want to become like Ronald Reagan or like the president of General Motors. Perhaps I have another sense of life… Perhaps I don’t want what you think I want.” Baldwin recognized that the history of racism was intrinsically tied to the history of capitalism, and said “I attest to this: The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”
Baldwin also critiqued the idea of ‘nonviolence’, which was used to vilify and delegitimize the resistance of the oppressed, especially at that time with the growth of the Black Panthers movement and leaders like Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael who no longer conformed to ideas of acceptable resistance. In turn, he pointed out how violence was accepted and even applauded when it came from white people and those in power. Today, in India, this is more important than ever, as acts of large scale violence committed by the State or by capital are seen as necessary- be it in colonial subjugation of Kashmir or the North East or Adivasi lands, forests and water, the dilution of labour rights, the imprisonment of activists, institutional prejudice against and incarceration of the Bahujan. All while any attempt at resistance is branded as militant anti-nationalism, ‘rioting’, and so on.
Although he passed away in 1987, James Baldwin’s ideas have stood beside the anti-race struggle in America for years, as police brutality and racist violence remains just as much of a reality now as it did during his lifetime, marked by protests against the murder of Michael Brown in 2014, and most recently, the murder of George Floyd, and the resulting nation-wide Black Lives Matter protests.