“You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse” : A comparison of the literary philosophies of James Baldwin and Richard Wright

Baldwin and Wright respond to an intellectual landscape with limiting depictions of blackness in differing ways. Both authors agree that not only do white authors dehumanize and demonize African Americans in their work, but African American writers themselves write narratives that pander to a white audience. As black men engaging with a Eurocentric intellectual tradition, they take on the role of Caliban, (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) using the language of his master, Prospero, against him. Their approaches to combatting eurocentrism through their literature display differing interpretations of black political thought.

Richard Wright characterizes African American literature as lacking in “forthrightness and independence. ” (Intro, X).  In his essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” he writes, “Negro writing in the past has been confined to humble novels poems, and plays, prim and decorous ambassadors who wend a-begging to white America… dressed in the knee-pants of servility… For the most part these artistic ambassadors were received as though they were French poodles who do clever tricks.” Their writing centered intelligent, tame protagonists who are led to an uncharacteristic act of violence, but Native Son does the opposite to expose the effects of the socioeconomic reality imposed on the negro. Through the character of Bigger Thomas, Wright takes on a philosophy of Afro-pessimism, arguing that due to the ongoing effects of racism, colonialism, and the history of slavery in the United States, the Negro is driven to violence. The character Bigger in Native Son, internalizes and lives out this philosophy and believes that “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else” (Wright ).

In comparison, Baldwin, an avid reader, enjoyed books written by white authors and art coming out of Europe growing up. His appreciation for the works of authors like Henry James is evident in the quality and artistry of his written work. However, he knew himself to be “a kind of bastard of the West.” As a black man, he brings to the western tradition a “ a special attitude.” “These were not really my creations” he writes, “they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself.” Because he is not white, he cannot claim these great writers and artists as intellectual predecessors. In accepting this outsider perspective, he can freely and perpetually criticize the country which he loves so dearly. Baldwin admits that he had fear for both white and black people, but to submit to that fear, “gives the world power over him.”

This is the key difference between Baldwin and Wright’s work is that where Baldwin is optimistic yet critical of his country, Wright exposes the injustices of his country, and accepts them as unchangeable fact. As Baldwin writes, “[protest novels] emerge… A mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.” The failure of Wright’s perspective is that it cannot see beyond the Master-Slave dialectic, submitting to the idea that racism is a fixture of American society, and we have to work within this system. Baldwin’s philosophy gives us hope. His job as a writer is to “examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source,” and reveal the context of the Negro problem: the history, traditions, customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the country. Using his unique perspective, he reveals complexity in Negro life, pushing against the dehumanizing assumptions of the Eurocentric framework and revealing its limitations.

“There is no white community”: cultural appropriation and pop-culture in the US

How do we understand race in the modern digital age? In our conversation on Wednesday about the essay “On Being White and Other Lies” by James Baldwin, we discussed the choice to become white when European immigrants reached American shores. These people gave up their unique heritages for homogeny. As James Baldwin wrote, “America became white because of a necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying black subjugation” (Baldwin 1). This led me to question how we see ourselves as Americans today, and the future of race in America because of this homogeny. As a midwesterner, I share many interests and speech patterns that are considered universally “American”. I love hot dogs and baseball games, I say “ope” in awkward moments with stranger, etc. But because of the institution of white supremacy, anything American has become synonymous with whiteness. As a false identity created to support racism, it is ironic that today it is popular for young white people to appropriate black culture.

American pop-culture is becoming increasingly more homogenous, and it is harder and harder to separate internet slang from African American culture. Mainstream colloquialisms popularized on social media are drawn heavily from African American Vernacular English. Daily, I hear familiar words and sayings I remember from growing up, the way I speak with other black people, emerging as poor imitations from the lips of white students. I hear my culture distorted and appropriated, used like a knowing look, an offhand word or phrase thrown into a conversation as a reference of that one TikTok we’ve all seen (remember that meme?) like a joke we’re all in on. The AAVE is usually preceded by a pause, like a comedian before a punchline. An extreme example would be of the viral TikTok of a white woman describing her frustration with her concert tickets, exclaiming, “No like, I finna be in the pit” , which garnered an appropriate amount of backlash.

We see this in other ways online. If we think back to viral videos on vine or popular reaction pictures and gifs from the early 2010’s, most of these images were at the expense of a black person. A modern Jumpin’ Jim Crow – the image of blackness continues to be used as entertainment for white people. Baldwin equates the choice of whiteness to a “moral erosion”. He uses the example of black people in athletics, and discusses how white people watch in either relief or embitterment by the black presence on the team, but do not face what black athletes had to pay to get to that position because of white supremacy. Black bodies were used as commodities to build this country, and although slavery seems long ago the black body continues to be commodified: the product of our tongues (music, language etc), our hair, our lips, our curves, our style are sold on the market: lip fillers, BBLs, waist trainers, self-tanner.

With the appreciation/appropriation of blackness in mainstream American culture, does Baldwins assertion that “there is no white community” still ring true? This is a difficult question given the universality of American culture. I think that the problem of whiteness as described in Baldwin’s work has reached farther extremes than Baldwin could have imagined in the 21st century. Homogeny has eroded the uniqueness of black culture and commodified it for economic gain. Is this commodification and appropriation a symptom of the “crisis of leadership” ? That paradox that “those who believed that they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves” (Baldwin 5)? Possibly a lack of definition in white culture caused an reaching to other cultures for definition.

However frustrating and degrading cultural appropriation can be, African American culture’s integral role in making American culture is the fulfillment of Baldwin’s assertion that “We—who were not Black before we got here either, who were defined as Black by the slave trade—have paid for the crisis of leadership in the white community for a very long time, and have resoundingly, even when we face the worst about ourselves, survived, and triumphed over it.” (Baldwin 5). Black culture’s dominance in America is a testament to our resilience and is something to be proud of.

Some could say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that might be a little too on the nose.