April 10, 2014 John Drabinski

Baldwin, home, tradition

From the conclusion to my essay entitled “James Baldwin and the Question of Home” – also the final chapter of my book project tentatively entitled ‘So Unimaginable a Price’: Baldwin and the Black Atlantic.

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A final few words.

I began the present reflections with a note on Balfour’s and Miller’s characterization of Baldwin’s non-fiction as a politics of recognition, oriented in part – if not a large part – toward a dialectical transformation of racial politics. In this frame, the question of home is a question of what is to come, a future not-yet (avenir, a-venir) and yet spoken in the present. In this frame, and with this politics of the future, we can register the messianic dimension of Baldwin’s remarks on love in texts like The Fire Next Time. It is not a god that can save this Baldwin. It is the strange work of love, negotiated by way of revolutions in affect, cultural production, and political confrontation, then conciliation. Baldwin’s conception of home, however, negotiated in part through his experience of exile, tells a different story: the right to place operates and has long operated outside the dialectical relationship – stalled by racism – between white and Black Americans. Purchased with our blood – this evocation of racially specific memory and history in “Princes and Powers” speaks to an anterior relation in African-American life, one that is not just a political claim, but an existential claim and, let’s be real, a direct description of how African-Americans have lived and created for centuries. Life and creation. Naipaul bemoans the notion that nothing was created in the West Indies, that it was itself only a creation and now it decays. But Baldwin hears sound, which reminds him of home not just as a nostalgia for the familiar, but as the deep claim of birthright. Revolution and the resolution, such as it is or will be, of the dialectic of race means for him, renegotiating the bargain of America. Renegotiating it away, in fact, such that the claim to home can take leave of the terribly haunted geography of this country and settle out the muddiness of belonging and non-belonging without altering the long, deep, and sustaining story of Black vernacular culture. That ethical moment, that demand for respect. The unsublatable in the racial dialectic.

 baldwin 1

In the end, the long, sustained meditation on the question of home brings us back, like so many of Baldwin’s important ideas, to the conflict with Richard Wright. Baldwin’s critique of Wright is always foregrounded with the motif with which I began today: the worthiness of life and the cruelty of anti-black racism. Bigger Thomas is always a truth, even as he is the sign of Wright’s limits as a thinker and writer. We all know the line from Baldwin, that no Black person can miss the truth of Wright’s character because it accesses the affective life of so much of Black subjectivity; “No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.” Bigger Thomas is the social remainder, the abject body alive with its own death and dying. Rage is the last moment of life, in some ways only the waiting for death, the anticipation of the too familiar. And it is precisely this that prompts Baldwin’s deepest criticism. Wright, Baldwin claims, does not understand the richness of African-American life that operates outside of the violence of racism. Racism is in Bigger Thomas’ body; his death is no less expected than was his violence, his innocence that must become guilt, and all of those themes. But there is more to the life of that body, which Baldwin captures when he writes in “Many Thousands Gone”:

What this means for [Native Son] is that a necessary dimension has been cut away; this dimension being the relationship that Negroes bear to one another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life…[Wright’s novel] creates its climate of anarchy and unmotivated and unapprehended disaster; and it is this climate, common to most Negro protest novels, which has led us all to believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse…For a tradition expresses, after all, nothing more than the long and painful experience of a people.

This form of life, this diversity of blackness and the beauty of life even under regimes of exploitation and machines of pain, what Baldwin’s first essay on Wright simply called humanity, is already more than political belonging and recognition. It is African-American life before that racial dialectic. It is a sense of connection and belonging that is cultural and political, yes, but also, perhaps more, a sense of love inside memories and histories of violence. Survival is never the whole story, and resistance is only a beginning. Love makes tradition, even if it is so often love as survival and resistance.

James Baldwin, writer, Harlem, New York,  1945, 160.15877

It is difficult to reckon with this relation of love to violence if we theorize the meaning of blackness only as a relationality, co-constituted by the white gaze, always in some sense reactive, and therefore dialectical even before the struggle for recognition (or in the wake of its failure). This is surely Wright’s position, and it is also the claim set forth in Césaire, Fanon, and other mid-century black Atlantic thinkers. Such a position structures a theory of resistance from the tension produced by rage; affect makes protest possible, which, in turn provokes a total transformation of the terms of racial and political identity. Recognition is then cashed out in terms of citizenship. While this is certainly part of the story of Baldwin’s work, the other story of home, and of titles to land, birthright, and tradition, pushes against the secular in giving voice and attention to the sacred history of what was purchased with blood. That other story, the story of the belonging of African-Americans with other African-Americans, is, I would argue, the central meaning of Baldwin’s non-fiction. It is his ethical sensibility that respects tradition and, more widely, reflects his writerly courage in theorizing what can never be neatly resolved.

Baldwin’s writing is in many ways animated by four fundamental spirits: a vernacular sense of Americanness, exilic consciousness, his books, and the music of Bessie Smith. The sound of tradition. “Armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter,” Baldwin writes, “I began to try to recreate the life that I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight.” Let me close with Smith, then, whose voice and presence shows up everywhere in Baldwin’s fiction and non-fiction, and whose own vision of home is, like Baldwin’s, always muddy – yet still home. Her song “Muddy Water” is sung in downriver glance, looking, one imagines, from a club on Beale in Memphis down across South Memphis, through, if you take 51, the terrifyingly named Tennessee border town Whitehaven, or maybe you take 61 and it is just the memory space of the Great Flood, flat and vast and full of ghostly memory. Either route, you get into the open space of the Delta. Close to the river, which means close to the traffic routes and roots of Black people’s pain. Muddied, but home. Muddied because it is home. Bessie Smith sings it:

Muddy water ’round my feet

Muddy water in the street

Ah God don’t shelter

Down on the delta


Muddy water in my shoes

Reeling and rocking to them lowdown blues

They live in ease and comfort down there

I do declare


Been away a year today

To wander and roam

I don’t care, it’s muddy there

But see it’s my home


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Comments (2)

  1. Chike

    Fascinating stuff. The book sounds great!

    I question the inclusion of Cesaire in the list of those who theorize blackness as “always in some sense reactive.” He of course fits that description better than Senghor, which is why he serves as the epitome of Negritude in Sartre’s “Black Orpheus,” with its reading of Negritude as antithesis. But I view him as generally striving to balance his focus on the pertinence of the colonial relation with a foundational recognition of African heritage as a source of cultural value.

  2. John Drabinski

    Chike, thanks!

    Based on this snippet, yes, absolutely that’s an overreach on Césaire. But in the full version, it comes out of a short reading of both Notebook and “Culture and Colonization,” which means that this should be read as not about AC’s developed position, but instead in terms of his characterization of the West Indies (well, Martinique, but I think we can extrapolate) as an abject space.

    On my reading, it’s that characterization of the black Americas that leads him (also Fanon) to theorize a different relation to place (Africa as a civilizational élan vital, the colonized as a global South identity for Fanon) by drawing on an elsewhere. That drawing on an elsewhere means finding ways to wrest blackness (Césaire) or postcolonial consciousness (Fanon) from the white gaze – which is a position built upon a certain characterization of the Americas as abject, alienated. (My surely not so popular exposition claims this makes Césaire and Fanon really no different than Naipaul. But I think it is true!)

    Thus, Baldwin’s innovation in his black Atlantic moment: to theorize the U.S. as home in the turn to the cultural formations and senses of connection between African-Americans outside the white gaze – “the relationship that Negroes bear to one another.”

    For me, my reading is not so much a normative claim or exploration, but instead a moment to pause and consider Baldwin’s position on the exceptional status of African-Americans in the black diaspora. It’s a position, I’d argue, that does not come from some cold war fantasy, but instead from this notion that black people in the U.S. (perhaps this is true too of Canada, though that’s a total guess on my part) are not a colonized people. Which means, to put it in boring terms, that the analysis needs different terms. And that’s the book in its subtitle: Baldwin and the Black Atlantic, seeing him in that moment and how his work carves out very different philosophical space.

    (It is also how Baldwin anticipates the Caribbean creolist movement in the later part of the twentieth century.)

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