Last night, my friend was talking to me about struggling to take care of herself. She is a passionate, critical, and involved human who always challenges me to be a better ally, revolutionary, and person. Her critical gaze allows her to hold her community, her friends, and herself morally accountable. This helps her make an actual difference everywhere she goes. She knows that the world can be kinder and expresses that with an urgency. I’m always so deeply impressed and touched by her passion. However, she also holds herself to high standards and struggles with acknowledging the state of her mental health. Almost automatically, I started sharing some things I’ve learned about James Baldwin.
In this class, we have truly challenged and interrogated Baldwin’s canon. By beginning with Richard Wright and discussing the throwaway treatment of the two rape scenes, we familiarized ourselves with the limits of the tradition which jumpstarts and undercuts Baldwin’s career. In Baldwin’s own fiction, we examined the female characters, like Hella, who receive underwhelming, and occasionally misogynistic, depictions. In Baldwin’s essays about France, we discussed his potential responsibility to address France’s racism and ongoing colonization in the context of the Algerian War. Several of us were disheartened by the lack of nuance and attention that the situation received. We resolved this partially by a comparison to King’s backlash at speaking up about the Vietnam War, as well as emphasizing his mental health struggles and suicide attempts. Finally, in the Civil Rights section, we acknowledged yet another limit to Baldwin’s canon. In his lively conversation with Audre Lorde, Baldwin has a frustrating commitment to his distinct perspective as a man. This was yet another challenging subject for our class, as we were once again forced to confront Baldwin’s personal limits. Even though he attempts to hear Lorde out, a disconnect and lack of witness remains in that interview. Ultimately, our class came to the tenuous (I hesitate to say) conclusion that even if Baldwin’s mind wasn’t changed in this interview, it at least must have made him think.
Despite all the ways we encountered frustrations and limits in Baldwin’s canon, I’m primarily left with his radical resistance and transformative message of love. He exposes the spark burning deep within the gilded walls of the Church & of America. He challenges himself and all his readers to enter into the Love we each enflesh in a revolutionary way. It is certainly a prophetic and explosive vision. I feel so blessed to have been able to unpack it right now and with all of you.
Finally, I’d like to bring this back to the conversation I had with my friend. This powerful and loving person in my life was being so hard on herself for needing a little help to feel ok. So, I tried to tell her about the deep complexity of Baldwin as a person, writer, and revolutionary. Even Baldwin has limits, be they personal or political. And he recognizes them, which allows us to as well! I believe it is a deeply loving act to present those limits unaffectedly and honestly. Accepting his limits resists the totalizing projects of capitalism, authoritarianism, and fascism. Baldwin’s resistance doesn’t seek some neo-liberal consumptive version of success or perfection. He is human and he wants us to be, too. Deeply, radically, and lovingly human.