Words From James Baldwin For Our Times

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Originally published: 12/07/15

James Baldwin, the late novelist, playwright, essayist, and civil rights activist was lost to cancer 28 years ago this week. Still, his timeless diagnosis of American life and lore echoes like no other in our current moment. Baldwin once said in 1963: “The whole nature of life is so terrible that somebody’s right is always somebody else’s wrong.”

Today, the country’s media finds itself caught in a maelstrom of misunderstandings as conversations surrounding incidents of racial insensitivity on college campuses shift towards broader considerations. Whether some tactics used by activists hedge free speech and whose job it is to institutionally provide what students deem “safe spaces” where they feel sufficiently protected against heinous offenses and their more subtly manifested microaggressive kin.

“It’s clear that the students’ anger and resentment were long in coming,” Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway told the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb in an interview during the aftermath of that campus’ spilling tensions. “This is not about one or two things. It’s something systemic and we’re going to have to look at that.”

A whole host of people have had a look at the implicated systems underpinning these divides and yet greater consensus, among even those on the political left, has failed to form. It seems every thinkpiece touching on the issue has been either a direct or indirect counterpoint to a series of other written salvos in another publication. Authors accusing one another of strawman arguments, inaccurate paraphrasing, mischaracterization of conclusions, or all the above.

In a media landscape so democratized (and hyperlinked) the fissures are there for everyone to see. Crucially however, upon inspection one finds the disagreements, though sometimes presented as core, are often over wording. By this I don’t mean petty quarrels over rhetorical semantics. Rather there are, apparently, truly different definitions of what certain words - specifically words that express grave principles - mean, or should mean.

Many agree to the platitude of greater inclusion, but what’s inclusive enough? What is liberalism really? Or racism? What are our rights and privileges exactly and where do they end? Why do they often end in different places depending upon one’s area code or skin color? Why do some people not believe that? What do simultaneous intellectual diversity and emotional safety look like, feel like? How do we measure them and with whose calculus does an organization operate if everyone’s appreciation of meaningfulness and meaningful change is different?

Since making sense of all those layers of consideration alone is effectively impossible, I’ve found myself intellectually and emotionally leaning on the wisdom of James Baldwin - particularly his 1963 speech The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity in which he uses that struggle as an allegory for the painstaking process of growing humanity’s collective consciousness.

Baldwin, always particularly poignant when interrogating America’s idyllic self-conception with its harsher realities, had this to say about the relationship between words and ideals:

I really don’t like words like artist or integrity or courage, or nobility. I have a kind of distrust of all those words because I don’t really know what those words mean. Anymore than I really know what such words as democracy, or peace or peace-loving, or warlike, or integration mean. And yet, one’s compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are kind of attempts made by us all to get to something which is real, and which lives behind the word.

Language is ultimately nothing but an attempt to express ourselves and make sense of our world. By the fact of our being human, there will be limits to our ability to pin down meaning and attach corresponding letters, much less agree to a common conception of how that meaning should be applied in our personal or public lives. Baldwin immediately grapples with this too:

...There is such a thing as integrity. Some people are noble. There is such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that all of these words, the reality behind these words, depend ultimately on what the human being, meaning every single one of us, believe to be real.

In reflecting on that idea of words’ meanings being dependent on what people “believe to be real,” it comes into stark light how articles outlining ‘perceived injustices’ can lead to accusations of media ‘dismissive of black pain,’ how ‘First Amendment advocation‘ can be interpreted as a ‘Free Speech Diversion,’ and even how Black Lives Matter can suitably in the minds of many be ‘countered’ with All Lives Matter (stubborn to the notion of mutual inclusivity though it is.)

To be sure, the altercations are not always verbal. Donald Trump supporters attacking a man while chanting ‘All Lives Matter!’ at a campaign rally is chilling evidence of that. There is undoubtedly, a large slice of America, diametrically, sometimes violently, opposed to greater inclusion - who believe the solution for America’s problems is not to move forward together, but rather for some among us to take their country back. Any attempt at conversation with those loyal to demagoguery is, in all likeliness, an act of futility.

Yet misunderstandings between “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks” who Baldwin famously said “must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others in order to end the racial nightmare and achieve our country” may very well just be part of a painful, but eventually fruitful process of better communicating what we mean by the words we say. A process - albeit much more painful for people of color - of establishing a new ‘normal’ as far as common lexicons go.

Because to those who are not hip to the parlance on 2010s college campuses, it is tough to keep up. In the way that Americans of African descent have been on an unmatched journey of changing identity descriptors - from Freedmen to Colored to Negro to Black to African-American and Black again - now LGBT has been extended to LGBTQIA and more flexible terminology like gender non-conformity are gaining traction.

The usage of some terms has overlapped and every transition has been fraught. As things change, the way people talk about things change - though never in step with one another.

When student activists speak of microaggressions as a form of ‘enacting violence’ they are regrettably written off as hyperbolic by those who aren’t privy to academic spaces in which ‘violence’ has come to be used in a much broader context that doesn’t necessarily denote physical harm. I imagine that definition is confusing for an overwhelming majority of Americans. And if the goal of these increasingly relied upon vocabularies are not only to validate and formalize their ideas, but also to better express their ideas to the public, then clearer distinctions must be made or words must be changed.

And yes, there is an argument to be had that the idiom “stepping up to the plate” is ableist and that “hey guys!” is sexist, but the hawkish monitoring of language in that manner can ultimately be counterproductive to producing forums conducive to dialogue. McGill graduate Aurora Dagny fleshes out that argument well in her widely shared longform piece ‘Everything is Problematic.’

The hypocrisy of higher education’s liberal scions can be confounding, even nauseating. At Tufts, I’ve witnessed those who rail against the irredeemability of gentrification and proceed to move into gentrified neighborhoods upon graduation. I’ve scratched my head at those who denounce classism and elitism, yet turn their noses up at those who disagree with them if they are not equipped to spar with all of identity politics’ newfangled, often inaccessible, phraseology.

Yet positionality and intersectionality, two hallmark isms among the liberal academy, are crucial concepts grounded in concrete realities of privilege and oppression, proven by empirically-based research.

And I personally would have never experienced the growth that’s helped me more actively consider personhood without professors and classmates well-versed in activism within the academy, who had the patience to engage with my social misconceptions and help me unlearn them.

Though the overwrought application of some terms invokes eye rolling, it has to be acknowledged that it was high time that there be popularized scholarship verifying perspectives outside of the dominant narrative of what middle-aged white males at proverbial and literal roundtables deem objective truth and history.

Some things on the list of demands from students at fellow NESCAC school Amherst College may come across as overzealous such as the ironic demand to censure and “not tolerate” posters on campus that proclaimed free speech was being censored by activists. However, students make a devastating point when they demand the school discontinue Lord Jeffrey Amherst as its mascot. Turns out Lord Jeff may have very well been involved in biological warfare against Native Americans.

Still, growing calls to rename the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton due to that president’s racial policies egg on the recurring question: where is the line? Getting rid of Confederate flags on public property is finding wide favor, but if Wilson is denounced who’s next? The same logic would dictate that the Rhodes Scholarship be renamed because of its namesake, Cecil Rhodes, a ruthless British imperialist.

The list would tumble on. There are over a dozen American presidents who owned slaves. Gandhi, cleanly served to us in lore as a universal egalitarian, had a well-documented distaste for Africans. Frankly, very few people of the past could stand up to the scrutiny of modern morality.

All things considered, combatting the hegemony of the whitewashed western canon and deconstructing problematic conventions that so many interpret as givens in post-colonial society are at the heart of student activists’ energies. That energy must, in the least, be respected as an important counterweight to traditionalists as the country debates its compass.

In the end, I’m not sure there is any effective way to institutionally regulate the interpersonal tensions that are the bedrock of the more superlative - and thus more widely condemned - manifestations of racism. It’s those interpersonal tensions that tacitly communicate to people of color everyday in the classroom or out at night that they just don’t matter as much or belong as much as their white counterparts.

How does an administration, in practice, guard against the air of superiority a WASP carries on campus or disincentivize the dull glare and patronizing chuckle he gives whoever challenges his worldview which implicitly tells them “whatever, my parents are rich and my eyes are blue.”

There’s no clear top-down way to fight those in the “whatever” camp. They’re not interested in fighting, much less dialoguing. Maybe that’s because they have no motivation to put their privilege on the line. Maybe the only hope is in steadily converting those on the fence, who lean towards empathy, but don’t quite ‘get it’ or don’t quite ‘get’ the vocab used to describe ‘it.’

Baldwin, too, bemoaned the very people who he deemed must be won over in order to move humanity toward greater consciousness as “terribly inarticulate in a very particular, hard to describe way.” Those who he alliteratively labels as “unlettered in the language of the heart, totally distrustful of whatever cannot be touched, panic stricken at the very first hint of pain ... it frightens me half to death ... I’m talking about two thirds of the public and our technical allies.”

This is the Baldwin who after considerately weighing the scales of arguments, comes to an unequivocal verdict. He goes on. “I am tired of people saying ‘what should I do?’ They mean ‘what can I do for you?’ There is nothing you can do for me. There is nothing that can be done for negroes. It must be done for you!”

It is incumbent upon all of us, not just those deemed oppressed, to better understand each other because ignorance of how marginalized peoples experience the world come to haunt the humanity - and security - of the privileged as well. Baldwin the humanist and artist, more a civil prophet than simply a social critic, understood this well.

“The framework in which we operate weighs on us too heavily...” he concludes at the end of Struggle for Integrity. “It is time to ask very hard questions and take very rude positions, and no matter what price.” Spoken to an audience in the thick of the civil rights movement, his words reverberate in the recently awarded pages of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and in the manifestos of student activists - many of whom surely read Coates this fall.

The current nomenclature used by anti-oppressive movements has made some awfully-hard-to-articulate aspects of the world, which so often render us speechless, more sayable. The fractious discourse, colorful disagreements, and sharp feelings surrounding it all illustrate an incomplete stained-glass mosaic of our world. Hopefully, through the mosaic people of goodwill can grout how to better say what we mean and move towards a reality living behind the words, if such a thing is possible.

And to that attempt - even as we do the work of googling what the hell we’re talking about - we should all say bravo.


This essay was originally published on 12/07/15