Whether it is conservatives using Martin Luther King Jr.’s colorblind principles to argue against progressive anti-racism, while ignoring his condemnations of white moderates, or leftists using the legacy of Frederick Douglass to argue for radical black activism, while ignoring his embrace of American traditionalism, the trend of collapsing the complexity of our collective past into political agitprop cuts across partisan lines. This tendency to appropriate the moral gravitas of beloved historical figures to suit a particular ideological narrative in the present may be effective, but it is rarely honest.
The problem is that history is not an objective quantity from which to draw clear ethical lessons. Likewise, those exceptional individuals who make history are not exempt from the messy and paradoxical quality of human life. What we choose to select from the past is invariably more influenced by the political fashions of the moment than by impartial readings of historical facts or a meticulous assessment of a given figure’s total personality.
Nowhere is this impulse more obvious than in the discussion of race in America. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s police execution and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, a vast wave of anti-racist sentiment has crashed onto our political shores and swept up much of the culture in its wake. To add to the furor, award-winning filmmaker Raoul Peck recently wrote an article rehashing the major themes of his 2017 film I Am Not Your Negro, about the celebrated writer and civil rights figure James Baldwin.
Peck writes that his film “cruelly shortens time and space between acts of police brutality in Birmingham in 1963 and images of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown; recent images of protests over the death of George Floyd extend that tragic connection to the present-day.” His essay proffers many Baldwin quotes featured in the film pinpointing the anti-black sentiment beneath apparent white innocence. In his reading of Baldwin, the country remains a structurally racist society, which is eternally stained by the original sin of white supremacy, and still has not come to terms with its glaring moral blind spots.
The film was my first exposure to Baldwin and I couldn’t help but be moved by the beautiful indignation, unmatched eloquence and penetrating moral consciousness that marked his life and work. The feeling he provokes is that of living on history’s edge, as though you are an active agent in tectonic worldly events instead of a passive observer. Naturally, this is the rhetorical purpose of the film: to connect our present cultural epoch to the upheavals of times past.
The film shows Baldwin relating the tragic failures of the civil rights era with uncompromising bitterness after having seen his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. murdered one after the other. Nothing has changed, the film suggests. Baldwin’s commentary is interspersed with images of the original Black Lives Matter protests that emerged in response to the police killings of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice and others. Their faces glide across the screen as Baldwin eerily laments, “the corpses of your brothers and your sisters pile up around you!”
But when I started reading Baldwin for myself, I couldn’t help but notice the yawning distance between his place in the sociocultural lexicon and much of what he actually said. Squaring his ideas with the prevailing narrative on race is not as easy as many of his admirers appear to believe. In one moment, Baldwin is excoriating the limits of the white American imagination and its blindness to black oppression, while, in the next, he appeals to a broad humanist vision of society. He details the social significance of race as it’s been historically constructed and attacks those who deny its weight in American life—but then he rejects racial categorization in its totality and holds out hope of a transracial future. Baldwin contained multitudes. To squeeze him into one political box or another is to neglect the internal tensions, contradictions and conflicts that, through grappling with them, ultimately made him into a great artist and a timeless writer. Appropriating Baldwin’s legacy for our own rhetorical benefit is a way of suppressing that legacy and stifling a holistic understanding of his output.
To get a taste of the lesser known side of Baldwin, one good place to start is his first published essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. The book was the result of his leaving America to discover precisely where his racial identity ended and his own identity began—a feat which could only be accomplished outside the constraints of the American color line. The first piece he wrote in Paris was “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he says, “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and cannot be transcended.” I can’t imagine he would be particularly fond of white fragility theory.
Building on this theme, in the following essay Baldwin critiques the novel Native Son, by his friend and mentor Richard Wright, in which a young black man called Bigger Thomas goes on a killing spree as a cathartic reaction to the pressures of his squalid and segregated existence. Baldwin took issue with Wright’s use of Bigger as a social device to portray black Americans as the sum total of their oppressions, leaving out all the personal adjustments made within those circumstances to give life its meaning and black culture its power:
Leaving aside the considerable question of what relationship precisely the artist bears to the revolutionary, the reality of a man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings solely in social terms. What this means for the novel is that a necessary dimension has been cut away; this dimension being the relationship that negros bear to one another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life.
Given Baldwin’s resistance to framing human beings as sociological puzzles to be solved through the correct analysis, it’s hard to imagine that he would find common cause with today’s purveyors of intersectionality, who view the intersection of our identities as determining the outcomes of all our lives. There is so much about human beings and human culture that will never be captured by the various social identities we inhabit.
Modern anti-racist discourse essentializes group identity by putting it at the forefront of every interaction, claiming that, although race is not a biological reality, it is a meaningful social construct, which has been injected with meaning by history. Yet, despite acknowledging that racism was a reality in the lives of black Americans, Baldwin strove to convey a universal message that rejected identitarian essentialism: “The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness do not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.”
Absent from Black Lives Matter and woke progressivism more generally is a set of principles and ideals that could create a brighter future. White supremacy is portrayed as so deeply entrenched in our social fabric that nothing short of a complete overhaul of the system could defeat it. This has the unfortunate effect of creating a self-replicating feedback loop of collective guilt and noble victimhood. But Baldwin never surrendered to easy pessimism.
At the end of his classic essay “Stranger In The Village,” in which he recalls being the first black man to ever grace a particular isolated mountain town in Switzerland, Baldwin writes,
I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all of its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black–white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today.
Baldwin was ambivalent about the counterculture that emerged after the victories of the civil rights movement, as we can see in this conversation with poet and activist Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni takes issue with the older generation’s fixation on morals instead of power. She sees it as more important to embrace her blackness than to convince white people of her humanity, a sentiment representative of the broader shift from the colorblind ideals necessary to end segregation in the 50s and early 60s, to the romanticism of the late 60s and the rise of black militancy. Baldwin pushes back, insisting that race has always been a fallacy and that power without morality is corruption.
None of this is to suggest that Baldwin would be against anti-racism or progressivism if he were with us today, nor that people who use his legacy to make political arguments are being cynical or dishonest. His work can be interpreted in many different ways. But in a polarized cultural atmosphere that gives “moral clarity” precedence over moral ambiguity, answers over questions, and narratives over facts, there is value in recognizing that our heroes were complicated. No single ideology can claim ownership of history.
Near the end of the PBS documentary The Price of the Ticket, Baldwin’s brother relates some of his final words, through tears:
I pray I’ve done my work so, that when I’ve gone from here, in all the turmoil through the wreckage and rumble, when someone finds themselves digging through the ruins, they’ll find me. Somewhere in that wreckage, they’ll find something they can use, that I left behind. And if I’ve done that, then I’ve accomplished something in life.
It is the humanist message of Baldwin that best represents his legacy, for me: “From my point of view, no label and no slogan and no party and no skin color, and indeed no religion, is more important than the human being.” Baldwin isn’t yours or mine. He is all of ours.