Who tells the story of America, and how? If there is one thing that I’ve learned in our James Baldwin course, it is that we may never find this question’s perfect answer. Through engaging with Baldwin’s biography and his publications, I have been trying to practice being an American intellectual historian. I want to track the history of thought. I’ve pushed myself to view Baldwin as just another contributor to this history of thought—not so as to simplify him, but rather so as to demystify and humanize his persona in our popular imagination.
Going into our course in February, I honestly had already sensationalized and heroified Baldwin in a way that many often do with other great American thinkers; I subconsciously considered him—or expected him—to be free of fault or confusion. This left me with a novice approach to understanding Baldwin’s life and his works for the first few weeks…I expected him to answer the question who tells the story of America, and how? with objectivity and excellence. I basically denied him the humanity that I would have given another non-Black non-queer thinker, which is messed up, right?
Well, this course has pushed me to see Baldwin as someone just as human and American as myself. He was not some nebulous being that was sent to solve all of America’s problems. He could not have totally solve the problem of racism in our country. He could not have promises us a perfectly inclusive reformation of the American church. But he did help us understand a direction that our nation should turn. There will always be more that we can argue Baldwin “should have” done, and there is nobility in our criticism…but there is also naïveté in our disappointment.
It’s likely that no one will tell the story of America. It’s likely that there isn’t a way how. It’s likely that we will all just continue to tell our own stories and sew together the scenes that we see most compatible. Maybe America’s story is in Hamilton. Maybe it is in the works of Oscar Wilde. Maybe Audre Lorde or Marcus Garvey or Joni Mitchell or James Baldwin. Maybe nowhere at all. My pessimism, which I am neither ashamed of nor disappointed in, tells me we will never find it exactly. I suppose that just because there is no perfect way to tell America’s story doesn’t mean that the “arc of history” won’t still “bend toward justice”. It’s like limits in calculus (if x = justice, or something). We may not find it, but we can keep getting closer.