Tag Archives: Black Lives Matter

Celebrating James Baldwin

Today, on what would have been James Baldwin’s 93rd birthday, we’re celebrating by sharing an excerpt from A Political Companion to James Baldwin edited by Susan J. McWilliams (forthcoming November 2017). In this selection, eminent scholar Eddie S. Glaude Jr. explores why contemporary activists follow Baldwin in a radical cultivation of democratic individuality in the service of racial justice.

James Baldwin and Black Lives Matter

By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.9780813169910

I want to think about Black Lives Matter in a different register, one that connects this complex movement with the extraordinary insights of James Baldwin. My reflections were triggered by citations of Baldwin by protesters (and serve as kind of run-up to a more extensive engagement with his disturbing book on the Atlanta child murders, The Evidence of Things Not Seen).[1] To put it bluntly, Jimmy is everywhere. People, especially young people, seem to be reaching for him as way of accounting for the latest disaster—the latest national panic around race—that has defined this country since its beginnings. In fact, when I think about the protests and the damning precarity of black life in this country, Baldwin’s words come to mind: “America sometimes resembles . . . an exceedingly monotonous minstrel show; the same dances, same music, same jokes. One has done (or been) the show so long that one can do it in one’s sleep.”[2] To be sure, there is something familiar and wholly unprecedented in our current moment. No wonder activists are reaching for Baldwin.

My thoughts are preliminary; they are inchoate. They reflect my efforts to think about Baldwin as a kind of exemplar of a perfectionist tradition that takes shape under the conditions of domination. I want to suggest that Black Lives Matter refracts this tradition in particularly interesting ways. Of course, against the backdrop of events in Ferguson and Baltimore and the deaths of so many black women and men at the hands of the police, the assertion that black lives matter takes on added significance. We utter the words in the context of life-and-death circumstances—at least some of us do—circumstances that seem to be a constant feature of what it means to be black in this country.

[ . . . ]

In no way do we live in a society like apartheid South Africa (that would be an example at the extreme), but we do live in a country where black people confront every day the reality that we are less valued; it is experienced, as Clarissa Hayward argues, in the very built environment of this nation—in our neighborhoods, where we go to school, and the places we work.[3] The data are crystal clear. African Americans suffer chronic double-digit unemployment. We lead the nation in rates of heart disease and HIV/AIDS. African Americans make up nearly 1 million of the 2.4 million Americans in prison. When we think about the differences between whites and blacks in high school graduation rates, among those with college degrees, mortality rates, in access to health care, in levels of wealth, differences in salaries with the same level of education, in the percentage of children in poverty, we can see, independent of individual acts of racism, that white Americans, particularly those with money, matter more than others.[4]

We ought to understand the Black Lives Matter movement as a rejection of this belief. More to the point, we ought to understand it as a rejection of the belief that white lives are presumed more valuable than black lives. Because, it is that belief—the view that animates so much of the mess that has undermined democratic life in this country—that limits our ability to reach for higher excellences (and I mean this for both black and white Americans).

I use the language of excellences purposefully. I want to think about the Black Lives Matter movement in the tradition of what I call black democratic perfectionism: that is, a radical cultivation of democratic individuality in the service of racial justice. Within the Black Lives Matter movement, we find an insistence on the expansiveness of black life—at the forefront of the protests are black members of the LGTBQ community, the working black poor, and others challenging the state as well as narrow conceptions of black political leadership and action—all in the name of a robust form of black individuality (and I don’t mean some facile bourgeois idea of individualism consistent with the political rationality of neoliberalism—although it is certainly susceptible to it).[5]

My model for this view is James Baldwin. In his essay “The Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin clearly states what he takes to be the “Negro Problem”:

I’m talking about what happens to you if, having barely escaped suicide, or death, or madness, or yourself, you watch your children growing up and no matter what you do, no matter what you do, you are powerless, you are really powerless, against the force of the world that is out to tell your child that he has no right to be alive. And no amount of liberal jargon, and no amount of talk about how well and how far we have progressed, does anything to soften or to point out any solution to this dilemma. In every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world, some way to make the child who will be despised not despise himself. I don’t know what the “the Negro Problem” means to white people, but this is what it means to Negroes.[6]

Here Baldwin foregrounds the idea of white supremacy that I put forward earlier: that the fact of growing up, of coming of age, in a place that denies you standing distorts one’s sense of self and disfigures one’s character. It arrests one’s capacities, and, in that light, it is with great effort and risk that one takes up the task of self-creation in such a world.

This is what Baldwin tries to convey to William Buckley and the young students at Cambridge in 1965. Here Baldwin insists on a sense of perspective: how the question of who we are gets handled, managed, and pursued under adverse conditions matters. It matters if one bears the brunt of the police baton and if one does not, if one is a descendant of slaves or of slaveholders. Both may be inheritors of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call upon us, but the difference matters greatly. As Baldwin writes, “To persuade black boys and girls, as we have for so many generations, that their lives are worth less than other lives, and that they can live only on terms dictated to them by other people, by people who despise them, is worse than a crime; it is the sin against the Holy Ghost.”[7] This is, and it must be said without concern for hurt feelings or guilt, undeniably white supremacy.

Baldwin makes explicit the primal scene of instruction: it is a context in which black people are seen as disposable. This scene, in all of its messiness, casts in relief what Stanley Cavell calls Emersonian perfectionism.[8] For Emerson, we have the task before us to ascend to higher forms of excellences. But this task isn’t rooted in some fixed destination or some final resting place of perfection (the spiral stairs going upward—taking each step and leaving others behind). That final resting place, however, differs for each person. Life’s journey consists of better and more excellent versions of who we take ourselves to be. Each experience of significance calls us to a higher sense of ourselves and requires the abandonment of older versions. Jeffrey Stout puts it best: “The higher self congeals out of the highest intimations of excellence you can intuit from where you stand. Excellence and sacred value are the kinds of goodness that matter most for living well.”[9]

But the daunting challenge of seeking a higher self in a world that denies one standing gives new meaning to W. E. B. Du Bois’s cry of “two unreconciled strivings.”[10] For African Americans, as Langston Hughes said, life ain’t been no crystal stair.[11] To embrace perfectionism across the proverbial tracks, then, requires something more fundamental; it requires a confrontation with what Baldwin calls reality. For Baldwin, reality is a denotative term for whatever happens in experience: the doings and sufferings of people transacting with environments that result in joys and suffering, even though white people are seen as more valuable than others.[12]

Baldwin asserts a form of perfectionism in such an environment, and that assertion requires an unflinching encounter with the ugliness of who we are and a rejection of comforting illusions that hide the lie and all of the rot underneath the American Idea. Here our moral and ethical senses are profoundly distorted, and any robust idea of the public good is obscured. As Baldwin put it: “What is most terrible is that American white men are not prepared to believe my version of the story, to believe that it happened. In order to avoid believing that, they have set up in themselves a fantastic system of evasions, denials, and justifications, which system is about to destroy their grasp of reality, which is another way of saying their moral sense.”[13] This adds another layer of complexity to the context of the black democratic perfectionism he commends. It is not just white supremacy—the fact that life as it is in this country says over and over again to the black child of fifteen and to the black woman of forty that you are less then (and it says this in every possible way)—it is also the maddening fact that the country denies what it has done and continues to do to black people, a kind of willful ignorance. As if Baltimore or Ferguson is somehow a surprise just as Harlem and Watts and Detroit were shocking some fifty years ago. That innocence is the crime, as Baldwin noted, and it corroborates what he mercilessly described as the monstrous quality of this place: “There is something monstrous about never having been hurt, never having been made to bleed, never having lost anything, never having gained anything because life is beautiful, and in order to keep it beautiful you’re going to stay just the way you are and you’re not going to test your theory against all the possibilities outside. America is like that. The failure on our part to accept the reality of pain, of anguish, of ambiguity, of death has turned us into a very peculiar and sometimes monstrous people.”[14] The reality of white supremacy and its repeated evasion or outright denial makes the idea of abandoning older versions of ourselves damn near impossible. We seem to be comfortable right where we are—permanently docked in the station.

But for black folk, especially those who languish in the shadows of America’s ghettos, to stay right where we are means to surrender to death. So, Baldwin’s insistence on reaching for higher forms of excellence under captive conditions demands an unflinching encounter with the uses and abuses of the past. As he says in “The White Man’s Guilt”:

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more human and more liberating.[15]

Such an approach to history requires a black self, in particular, that isn’t reducible to sociology as Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray described it—the flat statistics and stereotypes that trap Americans in the farce that is race relations.

I am not talking about the version of the story that trades in the Willie Hortons, Bigger Thomases, the welfare queens, the thugs of the world—those black people who are natively criminal or, because of their woeful circumstances, destined to be criminal. I am not talking about that. Instead, black democratic perfectionism requires a self with a rich and complex interiority, what William James refers to in The Varieties of Religious Experience as a two-storied self—an interior that has been, whether we want to admit it or not, terribly wounded by the inescapability of what Toni Morrison describes as a nastiness that will dirty you on the inside.[16]

[ . . . ]

Baldwin commends perfectionism in the context of a system of domination that denies black selves any standing. He also insists on a vibrant and complex black interiority in a world that reduces us to flat, predictable characters and narrates its history to corroborate such descriptions. Both are bound up, constrained by, an idea of history that corroborates the lie that some people matter more than others. But, again, this is not some bourgeois preoccupation, some private affair with no public consequence. Black democratic perfectionism has radical implication for the order of things. As Baldwin puts it, “When a black man, whose destiny and identity have always been controlled by others, decides and states that he will control his own destiny and rejects the identity given to him by others, he is talking revolution.”[17]

Baldwin’s witness entailed aspirational claims about what kind of society we hoped to live in and what kind of persons we aspired to be as well as claims, rooted in care, about the historical depth of where we now stand (that is, about the enduring legacy of white supremacy that deforms self-formation and about the history of struggle that constitutes the backdrop of current efforts). His democratic perfectionism is situated in the histories of black life in particular and American life more generally—stories that narrate the litany of events and the chorus of black voices struggling for freedom and resisting the arbitrary use of power. These histories carry with them an ethical ought: that the struggle and sacrifices of so many require of those who are its immediate beneficiaries a commitment to treating one’s fellows justly and to ensuring a society where all can flourish—a society in which all of us can reach for higher excellences.

Invocations of that history can spur or constrain; they can serve as “wind beneath our wings” in the context of creative engagement with the present, or they can limit the range of actions to a stale, ossified set of practices that purportedly best represent our efforts. Baldwin’s democratic perfectionism commends the former. He insists that we look the facts of our experience squarely in the face and challenge directly the idea that white people matter more and upend a world comfortable with the senseless death of black people.[18]

To my mind, Black Lives Matter, at its best, works in this register. Young people all around the country are challenging the underlying assumptions of white supremacy. They are putting their bodies on the line, disturbing the peace, and “asking hard questions and taking very rude positions.” This is what our moment requires. Turning our backs on the status quo and demanding a revolution of value. But it also requires that we abandon older versions of ourselves. That we break loose from stale models of black political engagement and confining ideas of black community and obligation. We can no longer suffer from what I want to call catalepsis: that political condition characterized by rigidity and fixity of posture; it is that which arrests the perfectionist impulse; it paralyzes us, keeps us where we currently are, allows for a black political class to exploit that fixed position in the name of progress, and desensitizes us to the pain and terror of what it means to be black in this country. We remain trapped.

But these young folk are daring to break free (with all of the complications that daring and risk entail). They are asserting the uniqueness and distinctiveness of their own voices. In short, they are daring to be—and that, if I understand Baldwin, is a revolutionary act in this country. As he put the point in a short piece written in 1959 titled “A Word from Writer Directly to Reader”: “What the times demand, and in an unprecedented fashion, is that one be—not seem—outrageous, independent, anarchical. That one be thoroughly disciplined—as a means of being spontaneous. That one resist at whatever cost the fearful pressures placed on one to lie about one’s experience.”[19] To my mind, Black Lives Matter, at its best, enacts this formulation courageously and, to take a phrase from Henry James, “at the pitch of passion.”[20]


[1] James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (New York: Holt, Reinhart, 1985).

[2] James Baldwin, “Black Power,” in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, ed. Randall Kenan (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 81.

[3] Clarissa Rile Hayward, How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[4] I am mindful of arguments like William Buckley’s and other conservatives that attribute much of this state of affairs to the pathologies of black people. In his debate with James Baldwin at Cambridge in 1965, Buckley mobilizes this argument in response to Baldwin by citing Nathan Glazer. Here Buckley shifts the blame, after citing the progress that Baldwin himself represents, onto shoulders of black people. Baldwin’s eyes were ablaze upon hearing this “nonsense.” But Baldwin answers this argument clearly in his essay “The Uses of the Blues” (which first appeared in Playboy in January 1964).

The fact that Harry Belafonte makes as much money as, let’s say, Frank Sinatra, doesn’t really mean anything in this context. Frank can still get a house anywhere, and Harry can’t. . . . [W]hen we talk about what we call “the negro problem” we are simply evolving means of avoiding the facts of this life. Because in order to face the facts of a life like Billie’s [Holiday] or, for that matter, a life like mine, one has got to—the white American has got to—accept the fact that what he thinks he is, he is not. He has to give up, he has to surrender his image of himself and apparently this is the last thing white Americans are prepared to do.

See “The Uses of the Blues,” in The Cross of Redemption, ed. Kenan, 60–61. Well, Buckley is clear about this. In fact, he says if it comes down to America’s precious ideals, then they “will fight the issue.”

[5] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone, 2015).

[6] Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, ed. Kenan, 60.

[7] Ibid., 84.

[8] See Stanley Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[9] Jeffrey Stout and Ron Kuipers, “Excellence and the Emersonian Perfectionist: An Interview with Jeffrey Stout, Part 1,” in The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture (September 1, 2009), http://theotherjournal.com/2009/09/01/excellence-and-the-emersonian-perfectionist-an-interview-with-jeffrey-stout-part-i/.

[10] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 7.

[11] Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son,” in The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: Works for Children and Young Adults: Poetry, Fiction, and Other Writing, ed. Dianne Johnson (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 81.

[12] The connection to Emerson is strong. In the beginning of “As Much Truth as One Can Bear” (1962), Baldwin strikes an Emersonian note, recalling the beginning of Nature, as he seeks to open space for young writers who write in the shadow of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and Faulkner. I was particular struck by this formulation. It gives one a sense of the different stakes in Baldwin’s perfectionism: “We live in a country in which words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not to wake him up; and therefore, it seems to me, the adulation so cruelly proffered our elders has nothing to do with their achievement—which I repeat was mighty—but has to do with our impulse to look back on what we now imagine to have been a happier time. It is an adulation which has panic at the root” (The Cross of Redemption, ed. Kenan, 29).

[13] Ibid., 77.

[14] Ibid., 64.

[15] James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” in James Baldwin: The Collected Essays: Volume 2 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 722–23. This echoes Baldwin’s point about God in The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1962). If the concept doesn’t make us larger, freer, and more loving—in short, more humane and more liberating—then it’s time we got rid of him.

[16] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Modern Library, 1902).

[17] Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, ed. Kenan, 81. How might we think of Philip Petit’s notion of freedom as nondomination in light of Baldwin’s position? Petit argues that freedom ought to be understood “as the absence of subjection to the will of others.” He limits this, however, to social, political, and economic questions/concerns. But subjection can happen, and Baldwin insists on this point, at the level of historical memory—how our refusal to confront the past or willingness to disremember that past can do the work of domination much more efficiently, or at least less brutally, than the coercive arm of the state. That refusal to remember, as you recall, results in a startling fact: that white folks are as unfree, if not more so, than black folks. They’re stuck.

[18] This is the connective tissue of the tradition I am trying to outline here. As Ms. Ella Baker said so powerfully, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” This is the direct challenge to white supremacy as I have defined it. It is the ground upon which Black Lives Matter acquires meaning. So it is not about asserting our value; it is about rejecting the belief that snuffs out the ability of others to reach for higher selves.

[19] Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, ed. Kenan, 8.

[20] Henry James, The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and Practice of Fiction, ed. William Veeder and Susan M. Griffin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 235. In The Cross of Redemption, Baldwin writes, “I am aiming at what Henry James called ‘perception at the pitch of passion’” (49).

Excerpted from A Political Companion to James Baldwin edited by Susan J. McWilliams, forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky in November 2017.