Race, reading, and critical framing

I’m working slowly but persistently on this James Baldwin book – tentative title ‘So Unimaginable a Price’: Baldwin and the Black Atlantic – and have recently been sitting with his famous critique of Richard Wright. The basics of that critique are well-known and straightforward enough: the protest novel is one-dimensional and Black life is more complex, complicated, and therefore worthy of a better literature. Whether or not that’s fair to Wright is its own question. But it reveals Baldwin’s own priorities and values as a thinker and are important for that reason alone.

I also think that appeal to the complexity of African-American life is its own kind of provocative critical turn in theorizing the epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ontology of that life (yes, my philosopher moment). I’m thinking here of how Baldwin’s comment in “Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone” reroutes accounts of African-American life – past, present, and future – through what he calls “the relationship that Negroes bear to one another.” And the idea of tradition that follows, an idea that, in its own way, subverts the white gaze and its presence in genuinely radical ways. The passage:

[w]hat this means is that a necessary dimension has been cut away [by Wright]; 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…[Native Son] 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.

In this snippet, Baldwin offers an incredibly potent critical tool. While directing a critique (again) at Wright, Baldwin is also proposing a mode of engagement and critique: rather than confront or engage the white gaze, what would it mean to confront and engage in the space created – for so very long, this is not new – “the relationship that Negroes bear to one another”? How does that alter an analysis? I think this is important for many reasons, the primary one being that it de-centers or altogether dispenses with the white gaze and its distortion of the realities of Black life. Diane Exavier’s reflection on the Kara Walker installation on this site is an interesting, self-reflective version of just that. In Baldwin’s own case, a story like “Sonny’s Blues” is a perfect example, where so many of the crushing realities of anti-Black racism, and the variety of responses to those realities, are examined as negotiated, lived, and worked out between Black people – siblings, communities, generations.

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This is not of course to say that Baldwin denies or minimizes the power of whiteness to dominate the world and the psyche. Indeed, he has a great deal to say about shame and related affects that issue directly from the presence of the white gaze in the interior of Black life. But he is also arguing that there is another mode of analysis, another engagement and kind of critique, which takes the relationship Black people bear to one another seriously as a whole world. Not a world in need of something, not a lost or wandering aggregate of forms of pain, but a whole world to itself with language, expression, love, art, rage, tenderness, manners, rebellion, difference, identity, and all those things that make a world whole. And one that expands as those relationships form the conflicts, divergences, and innovations that come with the word tradition.

The key arguments in my book manuscript pertain just to that expansion in Baldwin’s engagement, mostly as insistent criticism, with the dominant voices of black Atlantic theory of the middle-20th century.

And then I was reading Koritha Mitchell’s 2011 book Living with Lynching, which interprets a series of African-American plays from the first part of the 20th century – plays that were for Black people, by Black people – as responses to lynching. The documentation is fantastic and the readings are engaging. But in her turn to the sorts of relationships toward which Baldwin directs us, a whole series of issues arise for Mitchell: what are the implications of using the photograph as historical authority and transmission of memory? How does the white gaze and its (widely cast) violent hegemony carry over even in those projects like Without Sanctuary that affix a critical frame to history? And what sort of limited sense of archive do we work with when fiction and its cultural life is excluded from our imagination of history, memory, and archival research? To be plain: what’s at stake in imagining an archive of African-American life that is comprised primarily of what white people saw and wanted to see? Mitchell engages these questions head-on and lets all the ambiguity and ambivalence sit front-and-center for the reader.

The whole book is worth reading. I’ll post this long passage from the introduction and, in many ways, this post has been an excuse to quote it. Mitchell here articulates a shift in critical perspective that is still much needed, if you ask me, and one that Baldwin (and a number of writers before him) argued is crucial for our appreciation and extension of the African-American intellectual tradition.

Living with Lynching therefore takes seriously questions of how archives come into existence and why they have been preserved. After all, there are many ways to access lynching history, but only the pictures in Without Sanctuary inspired the Senate’s apology. When we pause to ask why, we find that the nation has again allowed the archives left by perpetrators to eclipse all others.

Decades of antilynching activism and testimony from victimized black families did not move the nation’s leaders at the last turn of the century, and today they are not the inspiration for the Senate’s historic gesture or for the majority of lynching scholarship. Instead, white-authored photographs have become the evidence that simply cannot be ignored. Granted, this is partly out of the spirit of letting the murderers condemn themselves. As art historian Dora Apel argues, “the loss to historical understanding incurred by refusing to see [these pictures] would only serve to whitewash the crimes of white supremacy” (6). But this reasoning does not change the fact that when we treat images of mutilated bodies as the ultimate evidence of lynching destruction, we reaffirm the authority of the mob. Ultimately , it is because they come from white perpetrators themselves that we have allowed the images to continue to trump testimony from victimized communities. By treating the pictures as records, we pretend that they offer an objective view, that they are less biased than the testimonies of those targeted by this terror. But the pictures are anything but objective. They represent a particular perspective, and they helped the mob to accomplish its work, during and long after the victim’s murder. The photographs did not simply document violence; they very much perform(ed) it.

In fact, the Without Sanctuary collection exists because mobs incorporated photography into their rituals. Black success and beauty may have attracted white violence, but whites insisted upon the beauty of their vengeance: there was an art to the mob’s deed. Between 1890 and 1930, lynchings were frequently theatrical productions, so newspapers often announced the time and location so that crowds could gather. Spectators knew that they would see familiar characters (so called black “rapists” and white “avengers”) and that these characters would perform a predictable script of forced confession and mutilation. Souvenir hunting would complete the drama with audience participation, but because the most coveted keepsakes (such as the victim’s bones and burnt flesh) were in limited supply, pictures became souvenirs. Because photographs served as mementos, they survive today to verify lynching’s theatrical qualities and the variety of stages that mobs claimed, for bodies dangle not just from trees, but also light posts, telephone poles, and bridges.

When we elevate the photographs above other artifacts, however, we decontextualize them, and our focus on what Billie Holiday called “strange fruit” amounts to an acceptance of a very specific representation of the violence— one that is more limited than we realize. After all, these gruesome images were created and preserved because they fell in line with discourses that supported racial violence. The black corpse is surrounded by a mob of righteous whites— no grieving loved ones in sight. Thus, mainstream lynching photography depicted victims as isolated brutes with no connection to a family or community, or to institutions like marriage. To similar effect, the images today encourage an acknowledgement of black bodies and even black bodily pain, but the interest in them has not naturally led to an appreciation of the community’s more enduring  losses, including psychological, emotional, and financial suffering.

If we can resist privileging the photographs over other artifacts from the same era, such as the plays of this study, Americans will better reckon with the complexity of the interactions that shaped this historical period. Given whites’ power in society, we often assume that they set into motion forces that blacks always found themselves resisting . African American cultural production is therefore viewed through the lens of oppression, with attention to how it protests injustice or counters negative images of the race. Very often, though, turn-of-the-century blacks focused on surviving and on affirming themselves in their new roles as citizens. As they did so, whites confronted them, “resolved to prevent the extension of democracy” (Hunter viii, 3). Given this tendency, African American expressive culture that asserts racial pride and records achievement is not best understood as a response to white oppression but rather as a sign that blacks valued the continuation of their traditions. This is why I am coming to prefer the term “lynching drama” rather than “anti-lynching drama,” which I have used in earlier work. These writers were not simply reacting against lynching; they were working to preserve community insights. While offering a cultural and literary history of the genre, I challenge readers to recognize that black art about lynching does not simply respond to violent injustice; it continues affirming discourses in African America— established discourses that the mob felt compelled to answer.

Fully appreciating black expressive culture becomes impossible if readers assume that white oppression was so powerful that there could be no psychic or discursive space for anything other than resisting or protesting. It goes without saying that blacks were not magically impervious to the racist messages that bombarded them, but when we insist that their every move was in response to white oppression, then we become blind to the insights that they shared by producing novels and newspapers, poems and plays. To put it bluntly, Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s script indicates that blacks understood lynching as a white response to their success. It makes clear that blacks were valuing each other and loving each other, and whites reacted. Granting primacy to white oppression when examining lynching drama would therefore prevent thorough analysis. To assume that blacks were responding to whites when writing these plays would not only diminish the archival evidence that they left, but it might also amount to what John Ernest calls “a ritualized reenactment of the protocols of U.S. racial history” (30). After all, the goal of white oppression was to discount the community perspectives preserved by this unique genre.

 – from Koritha Mitchell, Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890-1930 (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 6-9.