In keeping my promise to myself, I recently re-read James Baldwin’s collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. The introduction, by Edward P. Jones, provided new insight into what had been an instinctive reaction on my part, that being related to Baldwin’s detached, philosophical approach to the white power structure and its relationship with Black America. The title of the recent PBS documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, suggests an explanation of the author’s designed separation from the center of the conversation.
Jones observes, “The militant me asked, for example, why would Baldwin write at times as if he were not black but some observer, a guilty one, true, but still an observer. ‘Our dehumanization of the Negro then,’ “he says to me in Many Thousands Gone,” ‘is indivisible from dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.’
Driven by the emotional and personal subject matter explored by Baldwin in his essays, it would be forgivable, and even expected, for him to assume a defensive and accusatory tone toward his oppressors. Instead, he places the white distortion in stark relief against the realities of American society, at the same time rejecting its central fabrication, the Negro. The “Negro”, and the “Negro problem” are a creation of the white man, and, as such, exist in his own mind. They are not recognized by Baldwin, except as a reference point to further support his argument.
Listen to how differently the above passage would sound had Baldwin not separated himself from the central myth:
Your dehumanization of me and my people then, is indivisible from dehumanization of yourself: the loss of your own identity is the price you pay for your annulment of mine.
In contrast, much of Notes of a Native Son rings with a very personal tone. James as individual is quite willing to share his first person recollections and impressions of his childhood, segregation, relationship with his father, his father’s funeral, his approach to Christianity, and his frightening experience in a French jail cell. ” It was quite clear to me that the Frenchmen in whose hands I found myself were no better or worse than their American counterparts.”
Baldwin also provides his critique of popular culture in his review of Carmen Jones, the film adaptation of Carmen, criticizing the use of an all black cast as a contrivance where the characters lack depth and connection to their shared black experience. He further notes that the actors were selected for their lighter complexions.
Baldwin is most openly critical in his review of two other popular works of literature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Native Son by Baldwin’s literary influence Richard Wright. While the stereotypical and dated characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are easy targets, Baldwin’s stance on Wright’s main character, Bigger Thomas is eye-opening, to the point where several readers found his reaction extreme, mean-spirited, or in the case of Eldridge Cleever, even disingenuous. As a fan of both writers, I can understand Baldwin’s point of view, that the character of Bigger was overly violent, unsympathetic, and played to the black male stereotype of the times, without totally agreeing with it. However, even Baldwin had his limits:
“And there is, I should think, no Negro living in America who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruelest vengeance, their women, to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as that dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled; no Negro, finally, who has not had to make his own precarious adjustment to the “nigger” who surrounds him and to the “nigger” in himself.”
I am disappointed that James Baldwin’s influence and recognition as one of America’s greatest writers has faded, especially in the polarized environment that is 21st Century America. We need more contemplative and objective responses to balance the loose cannon, mindless Twitter blasts we are subjected to on a daily basis. Then again, respect and restraint have never been the hallmark of those in power.