Baldwin, race, identity

In his 1964 essay “The White Problem,” dating from the period of the publication of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin sets out what he calls “two levels of experience.” These two levels operate as the dialectical tension within which whiteness as an American identity emerges. “In this country, for a dangerously long time,” Baldwin writes

there have been two levels of experience. One – to put it cruelly, but, I think, quite truthfully – can be summed up in the images of Doris Day and Gary Cooper: two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen. And the other, subterranean, indispensable, and denied, can be summed up, let us say, in the tone and in the face of Ray Charles. And there has never been in this country any genuine confrontation between these two levels of experience.

What would it mean to imagine this confrontation? Baldwin is here imagining a confrontation of images, but they are of course the images that entwine to create the imaginary landscape of American culture and politics. What it means to be emerges from these images. To be sure, it is a very different confrontation for white and black Americans, but racial identity as a lived reality, as an existential condition, emerges in both cases from this tension, these “levels of experience,” between Doris Day-Gary Cooper and Ray Charles. If the tension is dialectical, then it is important to see how the meaning of the images is itself broken apart by the racialization of that meaning and the affective life of images across the (in this case, two) poles of racialization.

For white people, the dialectic is anchored in the abjection of blackness. The white experience of racism – and it is important to underscore that whites experience racism as the efficient cause and existential outcome of (a category of existence is produced from) anti-black racism – establishes a sense of measure against and through which identity is constructed. Baldwin poses this construction as a displacement of “paying dues,” a sense of how the racial other, for white people, carries the burden not just of the social cost of abjection, but also of making the meaning of collective identity for the very people who produce conditions of abjection. Baldwin writes:

In this country, the entire nation has always assumed that I would pay their dues for them. What it means to be a Negro in this country is that you represent, you are the receptacle of and the vehicle of, all the pain, disaster, sorrow which white Americans think they can escape. This is what is really meant by keeping the Negro in his place.

Whiteness is therefore not reducible to privilege or benefit. While it is true, of course, that white people benefit enormously in every sense of anti-black racism, Baldwin is making a deeper, more searching claim. Whiteness, he is arguing, only makes sense as an existential category, as an identity in and across time, in relation to the abjection of blackness, so the meaning of being white is inseparable from the experience and construction of privilege as an infrastructure of the lifeworld, and the entire range of affects and psychological pathologies that come from the abjection of the racial, social other.

This moment in racial dialectic, if we can call it that, recalls a key moment in “Princes and Powers,” written nearly a decade prior to “The White Problem,” in which Baldwin argues much the same point. He writes:

…at bottom, distinguished the Americans from the Negroes who surrounded us…was the banal and abruptly quite overwhelming fact that we had been born in a society, which, in a way quite inconceivable for Africans, and no longer real for Europeans, was open, and, in a sense which has nothing to do with justice or injustice, was free…It may have been the popular impulse to keep us at the bottom of the perpetually shifting and bewildered populace; but we were, on the other hand, almost personally indispensable to each of them, simply because, without us, they could never have been certain, in such a confusion, where the bottom was; and nothing, in any case, could take away our title to the land which we, too, had purchased with our blood.

Much of what I want to do in my Baldwin and the Black Atlantic book will be an elaboration of this passage, for in it lies the whole cluster of enigmas that structures Baldwin’s work. Of particular interest in this post, and by way of concluding the remarks: if for Baldwin black identity is linked to a peculiar sense of “free” – a sense that, as Baldwin noted, has nothing to do with justice or injustice, but instead a sense of beginning – then what does that mean for thinking from a dialectic anchored in abjection? Baldwin’s disruption is two-fold. First, the guiding principle, and so what motivates disruption here, is a disentagling of blackness and African-American identity from the white gaze – something that is already at work in his early critiques of Richard Wright, for example. Second, and pertinent to a number of prior posts here, Baldwin reclaims the “sheer intelligence” (Toni Morrison) of African-American vernacular cultural forms and expression, which confronts abjection on its own terms. Confronting abjection on its own terms, in the imagery of his “The White Problem” essay, means seeing the tone and face of Ray Charles as a moment in tradition, and so not a melancholic or mournful voice, but instead the ecstasy of having made being, knowing, and beauty out of pain – to have survived not only as a survivor, but as a whole world with its own words, sounds, and meanings.