Many of us were disappointed in James Baldwin when we read his conversation with Audre Lorde, “Revolutionary Hope.” Throughout their discussion, Lorde continuously mentions the plight of Black women, saying, “The cops are killing the men and the men are killing the women. I’m talking about rape. I’m talking about murder.” She wants Baldwin to acknowledge the physical violence perpetrated on Black women. He does acknowledge it, but he also excuses it. Baldwin replies that for Black men who beat up women, “it’s his responsibility, but it’s not his fault.” Baldwin is correct – racism in American society absolutely contributed to this trend, but then Baldwin adds, “It hurts me at least as much as it hurts you.” Here is where a female reader might become frustrated. How could it hurt him as much? The Black woman being physically beaten at home is certainly suffering more than the man beating her. Why doesn’t Baldwin understand that? Is he not listening to Lorde? She agrees with him that they are both suffering, but she wants him to recognize the unique harm faced by someone who is both Black and a woman.
In this discussion, however, it seems that Baldwin never reaches that point. He persistently tries to recenter the conversation around Black men, telling Lorde that “in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man.” When she argues that being Black is the crime, not being a Black man, he maintains his position. After they go back and forth about the challenges faced by Black men and women, Baldwin eventually gives one or two word answers. He never affirms what Lorde tells him and it does not seem that they even agree by the end. Lorde backs him into a corner and he seemingly gives up, but he never admits his misunderstanding. While Baldwin is a brilliant participant in the civil rights movement, he fails in this exchange to stick up for women. I was reminded of Baldwin’s flaws as a social critic while watching MLK/FBI this weekend. Martin Luther King is an imperfect figure as well. While his contribution to the civil rights movement is undeniable, he was not a faithful husband. Despite working as a pastor and using his moral code as the foundation for many of his arguments, he frequently broke those moral rules. This information is undoubtedly disappointing, but it doesn’t unwrite the work he’s done for Black Americans, just as Baldwin’s unsatisfactory responses to Lorde do not discredit his achievements as a social critic. It is unfair to hold our heroes on great pedestals and expect them to be flawless, as many do with King especially. Instead, we must see them as human.