Distance, Knowledge, and Love

I found the section of No Name in the Street where Baldwin discusses his relationship with his old friend to be particularly interesting. His friend, according to Baldwin, has not changed a bit. He is “trapped, preserved” (361) in time. Baldwin, on the other hand, is a public figure who smokes on television and no longer subscribes to the Church that formed so much of his childhood. There is distance between them. This distance is reminiscent of the kind of distance Baldwin saw between white and Black people. There seem to be two worlds, a Black and white one, but Black people are forced to know about the white world because they are confronted with it daily. This causes an epistemic gap where white people do not have access to as much reality: “Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves” (312). The distance between Baldwin and his friend poses a different, but interesting question about knowledge, privilege, and reality. Unlike the stark distance between the Black and white worlds, the distance between Baldwin and his friend illuminates a more subtle point about the relationship of Black people to celebrity status and wealth. 

Baldwin goes on to explain what this gap means for him: “For that bloody suit was their suit….they had created Martin…The distance between us, and I had never thought of this before, was that they did not know this, and I now dared to realize that I loved them more than they loved me” (365). Two points emerge from Baldwin’s analysis. First, Baldwin explores the idea that “they” created Martin Luther King Jr. This seems to suggest that everyday Black Americans participated in the mythologizing of MLK and formed the base of support that helped to skyrocket him to prominence. Baldwin, though, had more intimate knowledge of Martin. He knew about his wife, his tendencies at parties, and what it felt like to talk with him. Baldwin’s friend must rely on the caricature of Martin as true whereas Baldwin has access to Martin in all of his humanity. The distance, then, causes the “everyday person” to have a simplistic picture of the world that evades the truth. 

The second idea from the quote above is that Baldwin has a larger capacity to love his friend than his friend has to love him. This claim, to me, is the more controversial one. Baldwin links up knowledge with an ability to love, which seems to incorporate a level of privilege into his theory of love. Is it really true that his friend cannot love him just because he does not know the intimate details of his lifestyle? If love requires an understanding of the other, how does Baldwin account for those structurally barricaded into only knowing about a certain sector of society, for example a poor, Black family? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I d think Baldwin is trying to make sense of the separation that occurs between those Black people with celebrity status (or wealth) and those without. Whether this idea is successful hinges on the relationship between love and knowledge.