Mythologization of Baldwin

I hope to continue my discussion from last week on Baldwin’s own biomythography (term intentionally borrowed from Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name), specifically with regard to the mythologization of James Baldwin today. Nearly 35 years after his death, Baldwin’s name and words are invoked as a source of inspiration for such movements as #BlackLivesMatter. Baldwin, beyond other civil rights figures or prominent black authors, is invoked most often. On Twitter alone, “The words ‘James Baldwin’ (1,708 tweets) appear more in the August 2016 archive than ‘Claudia Rankine’ (416), ‘Langston Hughes’ (281), ‘Assata Shakur’ (130), ‘Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (129), ‘Toni Morrison’ (72), ‘Teju Cole’ (55), ‘Richard Wright’ (50), ‘Ralph Ellison’ (49), and ‘Amiri Baraka’ (10) combined” (Walsh). Perhaps Baldwin’s hybridity as both an autor and activist resulted in such an admirable legacy, as his social criticism is given breath on new platforms, such as Twitter. The temporal disjunct between past – namely the civil rights movement and present – namely the BLM movement – is collapsed through and within James Baldwin. He bridges the gap, teaching us of the cyclical and incessant nature of racism in this country. Baldwin, although I believe might support BLM, would revolt against his own mythologization. Melanie Walsh, author of “The Mythology of James Baldwin on Twitter” writes: “Twitter users engage in collective acts of authorship under the auspices of Baldwin as a single literary avatar, creating a communal literary mythology based on Baldwin’s real life and words but also extending beyond him” (Walsh). Whether or not Baldwin intended for his voice to be borrowed and manipulated to support or dismiss certain movements is unclear, yet presumed as not. It raises another question as to who our voices belong to, especially when they are used by others after death. I believe this might anger Baldwin, that his voice is now owned, accessible, and used by the mass public as a means of activism. Would this further Baldwin’s dominant message of the Black man being a commodity owned by the Republic? 

I believe, however unintentional, Baldwin was indeed mythologized, as a ruse invoked in the context of the political and social upheaval we are facing today. His words, and thus his contribution to the world, are quoted (or misquoted) countless times in our media, legitimizing certain social justice movements and giving an eloquent voice to black rage, which Audre Lorde explicitly alluded to in her work “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding To Racism” (1981).