Baldwin’s Escape

Upon reading last week’s blog entries and participating in this week’s discussion, it seems as if our collective admiration of James Baldwin is complicated by his lack of advocacy for Algerians living in France and his lack of understanding of double jeopardy for black women. We questioned whether Baldwin should be forgiven for his disregard of the marginalized while in France in addition to whether his blindspot for a black woman’s lived experience should in any way lessen the legitimacy of his message. I think these are perhaps the most significant discussions we’ve had all semester. For weeks, we’ve put Baldwin on a pedestal: his command of language, his profound delivery, his thorough understanding of a black man’s “cage of reality bequeathed at birth”. These are hard-earned principles that Baldwin must be applauded for. His negligence in other areas interrupts his message but doesn’t destroy it. He is worthy of admiration. Yet is also worthy of critique. It is something Prof. Kinyon has made clear: Baldwin was human. He was fallible, imperfect, ignorant. Even the most “perfect” and morally adept Civil Rights leader, namely Martin Luther King Jr., was imperfect. 

Something I’ve also had to remind myself most recently is Baldwin’s severe struggles with mental illness. The expectation we hold him to often disregard this reality. James Baldwin recurrently attempted suicide, even at the height of his fame and creative power. He wanted to escape a life in which he presumably had much to be proud of and feel meaningful because of. In my opinion, Baldwin’s desire for death must be included in the conversations had in his quest for life – a life he singlehandedly built himself. He re-wrote himself and the various identities he held. Even amidst re-defining himself with his own words, he didn’t feel worthy of another breath. He alluded to his proximity to death in an interview before his death in 1987. He says: “For every James Baldwin, there are a whole lot of corpses, a lot of people who went under” (Holiday). France was Baldwin’s escape until he realized that it was no such thing. Escape from a world in which a black man lived in a cage. A reality which Baldwin had to contend for and which I believe doesn’t excuse, but perhaps adds perspective to his losses. He attempted to save himself, to float above the water threatening to drown him. But to do so, he unintentionally saw others drown. He carried a heavy societally-sanctioned burden with his own intersectionality, and thus cannot be expected (now or then) to save us all.

2 thoughts on “Baldwin’s Escape”

  1. Thank you, David! I appreciate your comment and input, and I agree 🙂

  2. Kiera, this is such an astute post! I often forget the importance of contextualizing an author’s writing not only in History-with-a-capital-H, but also history–– their personal experiences, joys, and struggles. Baldwin had a difficult life, a fact which he often draw upon to fuel and position his social commentary. We have read anecdotes from his life in nearly every persuasive essay of his. As you say, then, we ought to do better to remember not only his arguments, but also his-story. Contextualizing his activism and creative work with Baldwin’s individual history will allow us to better understand his messages.

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