The Poetics of Beautiful Blackness

April 28, 2019 John Drabinski

Broadly: How can the abjection of blackness under regimes of anti-blackness be (or has it already been) reversed, disrupted, disputed, and resisted? Specifically: what is Négritude to James Baldwin, who is Baldwin to Négritude?

My essay, linked here in final draft form, is forthcoming in a volume on James Baldwin and his influences and sites of intervention. Baldwin did not talk in any detail about the Négritude movement in his non-fiction, despite the fact that it was one of the most important movements in the mid-century black Atlantic world. This is a peculiar feature of Baldwin’s writing, and reveals a lot about his lack of interest in south Atlantic intellectual life. At the same time, Baldwin and Négritude shared a concern with underscoring the historical and present-future beauty of blackness as a form of cultural and political critique. This essay, then, explores the relationship of Baldwin’s work to the Négritude movement in terms of common thematic concerns and how the broader questions of blackness – internationalism, diaspora, the American exception – inform both points of intersection and profound moments of difference.

In close, then, let me return to the opening motif of the present essay. The question of beauty and blackness dominated mid-century black Atlantic thought, and for good reason. Centuries of anti-black racism produced, and continues to produce in neo-colonial forms, a tie between blackness and abjection that inspired both the opening scenes of scattered bodies, limp and lifeless, in Césaire’s Notebookand Baldwin’s many descriptions of the despairing landscape of Harlem. What is blackness outside that abjection? This is a question for theorists, but Césaire and Baldwin were just as much aware that it is really a question for every black person in relation to themselves and to fellow folk. Answering this question, though, requires an ante-chamber inquiry into beginning. What does it mean to begin? With what resources can black cultural liberation struggle begin? This is a question of the reach of anti-black racism in the Americas, a reach that has worked itself out through enslavement, colonialism, segregation, and ongoing state-sponsored terror. Is anti-black racism a total project? Does it produce what Orlando Patterson famously called “social death” or what Fanon described as the zone of non-being? Of course it does. Yet, just as production of social death and the zone of non-being draws boundaries on human possibility, there is also the companion question of forms of human belonging, world-making, and thriving that exceed economies of suffering, resistance, and survival. Baldwin’s complex relation to the Négritude movement works on these boundaries, affirming the despair produced by anti-blackness while also asking about the lives of black people in community with other black people. A poetics of that beauty, this life and community and its tradition, is Baldwin’s great and enduring contribution to his diverse, fraught, and complicated mid-century moment.


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