U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Can Baldwin redeem the postwar pluralists?

Last week I saw the new film I Am Not Your Negro, an exploration of American racism through the words of James Baldwin. Consisting mostly of notes from a never-published book, but including passages in some of his other works and his television appearances, I Am Not Your Negro couples Baldwin’s arresting capacity for capturing the depravity of white supremacy with images, video footage, and contemporary popular culture that place it in a visual and auditory context. The result is a journey as every bit as hair raising and unnerving as you would expect.

Some of the most disturbing moments in the film come when Baldwin – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson – speaks of the slaughter behind American innocence while footage (usually from films) depicting the most profoundly white fantasies of suburban bliss and consumption are splashed across the screen. At one point, the film shifts from this representation of white America as it wishes to see itself to white America as it actually is – and here, while Baldwin warns of the murderous rage that the emptiness of white culture creates in the heart of white Americans, clips from the film Elephant, a wrenching exploration of the phenomenon of school shootings in America, flickers slowly across the screen.

It is a devastating moment, filling Baldwin’s awful prophecy to the brim and dropping it, like a sack of bricks, on the heads of the audience. This does justice to one of Baldwin’s best gifts; his ability to bring to life the darkness and desperation of the psychology of white people under white supremacy. (In that sense, actually, the film couples very well with Get Out, which focuses mostly on the consequences to black people.) This does not, however, usually come coupled with much political analysis, at least in the traditional sense – Baldwin is not concerned with advising any political party or suggesting any specific strategy to civil rights organizations. Reflecting after the film, it occurred to me that in his focus on the psychology, rather than strategy, of political culture, Baldwin actually shares a lot with the postwar pluralists, known for their discussions of alienation, status anxiety, and the desire to belong.

This is not an obvious coupling. As I have previously written about here before, Baldwin wrote scathing critiques of the white liberal intellectuals of his time, recognizing their utter uselessness in either thinking or speaking clearly and honestly about racism in America. As he wrote of white liberals,

One wondered, indeed, if anything could ever disturb their sleep. They walked the same streets I walked, after all, rode the same subways, must have seen the same increasingly desperate and hostile boys and girls, must, at least occasionally, have passed through the garment center. … Of course, these liberals were not, as I was, forever being found by the police in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood, and so could not have had first-hand knowledge of how gleefully a policeman translates his orders from above. But they had no right not to know that; if they did not know that, they knew nothing and had no right to speak as though they were responsible actors in their society; for their complicity with the patriots of that hour meant that the policeman was acting on their orders, too.[1]

At first glance, then, there’s not much that is compatible between the likes of the postwar pluralists and Baldwin.

Yet one of the main reasons that the psychological explanations of the pluralists come up so glaringly short is precisely because they completely ignore race. After all, it would be difficult to argue that the affluent lifestyle of the suburbs did not come with a host of existential problems and anxieties, even if these were likely aggravated by the accompanying obsession with psychological analysis that typified most of the social sciences in the postwar period. But when David Riesman talks about the dangers of social conformity to democratic culture without mentioning Jim Crow, or when Seymour Martin Lipset opines that the Radical Right is “irrational” while ignoring their very real material interest in preserving white supremacy, these analyses become laughable at best and rankly offensive at worst.

Enter Baldwin, with his keen eye for catching how whiteness lurks behind every weirdness in American life. Let’s consider what bringing Baldwin into conversation with the idea of “status politics” might gain us. Primarily associated with Hofstadter – who, some scholars quibble, should not be considered a pluralist or consensus thinker but, let’s put that aside for the moment – the idea of status politics argued that in periods of prosperity, a style of politics emerges based not in economic interest, but psychological insecurity born of the attempt to shore up one’s social status in a world turned upside down by affluence. Hofstadter claimed that the immigrant origins of so many Americans made this anxiety particularly astute, placing everyone in a position of proving their loyalty to the nation. They already had the house and two-car garage though, so what was the problem? As Glazer and Riesman wrote “it is not jobs or goods they do not have that worry them; indeed, what worries them is often that they do not know what worries them, or why, having reached the promised land, they still suffer.”[2] The answer, they argued, was the resentment created by still finding themselves behind the Eastern establishment elite even after they achieved such material success. This provided, the pluralists thought, a particularly compelling explanation for the power of McCarthyism, which these non-WASP newcomers, pluralists argued, largely fueled.

Something certainly rings true in this concept of status politics, which is really identity politics for white people, as many post-Trump analyses have pointed out. But without including the overwhelming important dynamics of anti-blackness, it is not very satisfying. Baldwin corrects for this massive oversight. “If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent on what they still call ‘the Negro problem,’” he writes in No Name in the Street.

This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this is not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks. That the scapegoat pays for the sins of others is well known, but this is only legend, and a revealing one at that. … The suffering of the scapegoat has resulted in seas of blood, and yet not one sinner has been saved, or changed, by this despairing ritual. Sin has merely been added to sin, and guilt piled upon guilt. … For, in the generality, as social and moral and political and sexual entities, white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people of any color, to be found in the world today.[3]

As Baldwin wrote, the civil rights movement worked a kind of unintended magic on all those anxious white ethnics – it made them fully, undoubtedly white for the first time. How did it not occur to Riesman, to Hofstadter, to Glazer, that as the white citizens of Cicero threw rocks at the heads of civil rights protesters, that it was whiteness that they wanted to preserve, and, having obtained some of its more important outward signifiers, were not about to allow black people to deny them? We can say they did not have the benefit of hindsight that we do today, but this is not enough. As Baldwin writes,

One can, indeed, one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.[4]

So, the pluralists had their finger on something – but, due to their inability and/or refusal to recognize it for what it was, all they can really be credited with in the end is identifying that something wasn’t quite right with the American middle-class soul. Missing the complexion of that problem, so to speak, meant missing almost everything; and as a result, I wouldn’t recommend reading Hofstadter, Lipset, Riesman or any of the other pluralists for those looking to understand the white American condition. Why bother, when one can simply begin with Baldwin?

Hilariously enough, tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, an event which has become, in the post civil rights era, a day for most white people to pretend that they aren’t white – and for Americans of Irish descent to pretend that this means anything anymore. I wonder what Baldwin would think about this irony; all the white ethnics have completed their sparkling but blood stained American resumes so well, they sometimes wonder if it was such a good idea after all.

[1] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 34-35, emphasis added.

[2] Glazer and Riesman, “The Intellectual and the Discontented Classes,”66.

[3] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street, 54-55.

[4] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), 5-6.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice post. The recent resucitation of James Baldwin is a fascinating phenomenon. Beyond the rhetorical and aesthetic power of his works, I ask myself sometimes about the emergence of this new appeal. Reading through one of Darryl Pinckney’s wonderful articles on Baldwin, I found an interesting quote that might help explain the resurgence of Baldwin amidst the rise of the BLM era and Trumpism. In the article, Pinckney compares Richard Wright with the author of The Fire Next Time, stating that: “In relation to Wright, Baldwin sets himself up as a sort of patriot, rather like Larkin claiming in the early 1960s that literature had replaced life as Auden’s subject, meaning that Auden’s work had suffered because of expatriatism.” At the same time that he traces and condemns the racism that pervades US society to its roots, Baldwin still finds a way for articularing an “American we”. Yet, as Pinckney explains, there are many Baldwins: in the Fire Next Time this “we” dissolves into the Black struggle for liberation, and in his last essay the “we” alludes only to African Americans.

    An interesting issue that Pinckney brings up is how Baldwin was criticized by more radical Black intellectuals and writers for not engaging Black people directly and for allegedly focusing only on the white audience. He was derided for not being authentic or Black enough, in other words. This rejection was partly–maybe mostly?–founded on Baldwin’s homosexuality. One problem I had with the documentary is that I felt it could have explored more the importance of Baldwin’s sexuality, bringing up perhaps his literary texts into the fore. In the text quoted in the film, Baldwin connects his function as a political witness–and the fact that he was did not more active within the Civil Rights movement itself–to writing and being an intellectual (if I remember well), but it is true also that his sexuality played an important part in his marginal role, not unlike the case of Bayard Rustin (see Brother Outsider, a very good documentary on Rustin’s life). Even though I am Not a Negro does not tackle this issue, one could also add Baldwin’s queerness–and how it affected his reception in his era–to the current redemption of his work. Praise the “apostle of paradox,” as Pinckney calls him.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1998/11/19/the-magic-of-james-baldwin/

    • Thanks so much for this rich reply, Kahlil. I think you are on to something on both fronts; Baldwin is, to steal a line from Atlanta, *both* Malcolm and Martin, and I think that mix makes him very appealing to the contemporary left. Likewise I wish his sexuality was more discussed; it is interesting, in his writings and television appearances, to see how that was dealt with at a time when it couldn’t be a part of his persona that was openly celebrated. On that point, though, he is better than most black male intellectuals at the time on the question of gender, but still not great; he still very much clung to the notion of manhood and responsible masculinity as what was being denied black men in America, and as a post here at the blog a few weeks earlier points out, making him more visible hasn’t seemed to increase the visibility of women in the civil rights movement. Michelle Wallace also has interesting stuff on this in her classic book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman.

      • Great and necessary point. Even in the documentary one can see the unfolding of Baldwin’s complicated gender politics, through the different ways in he imagines the roles of men and women. The latter seem to take a backseat in terms of social action in his narrative Why wouldn’t he include an Angela Davis or a Fannie Lou Hamer, for example? The latter, well, one could say that his disinterest in Black Power politics had something to with that, but Hamer and others? As we look back to Baldwin as a potent source of political and social inspiration, it is important to never forget his own limits.

  2. Thanks for the post, Robin. I read it, and wanted to acknowledge your work, even though I don’t have anything to add right now. I did screen I Am Not Your Negro, but I haven’t attempted to put into words my reactions to its images and message. – TL

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