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. Continue reading “Race, reading, and critical framing”
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.
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. Continue reading “Baldwin, home, tradition”
Below is the conclusion to my essay “Vernaculars of Home,” in which I explore James Baldwin’s conception of language. In the essay, I argue that Baldwin’s defense of what he calls “black English” works as an epistemological and ontological account of African-American subjectivity. This account links black English to the sorrow songs, and so to long-standing accounts of how sound and musicality function as the foundation of the African-American intellectual tradition – which, in turn, links Baldwin to Douglass, Du Bois, Locke, and others. The full essay can be found HERE (in draft form, of course, with all those caveats in place). Photos in this post are not in the essay, but are included here just for decoration. Continue reading “Language, race, memory, home”
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 Continue reading “Baldwin, race, identity”
The function of the spirituals in the African-American intellectual tradition is well-known, especially in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke – for both, the spirituals work as a foundation to the tradition. The spirituals are an enigma. They represent content as both lyric and sound; indeed, the distinction between those two forms of content is thin, at most. More likely there is no real distinction. Frederick Douglass notes the profundity of the sorrow songs in Narrative when Continue reading “Baldwin, language, spirituals”
In “Letter on Humanism,” a letter written to French theorist Jean Beaufret in response to the claim that his book Being and Time did not contain an ethics, Martin Heidegger famously remarks that “language is the house of Being.” This is a signature moment in Heidegger’s work, one that (roughly) shifts his work from the relationship between subjectivity and ontology to the more searching, and certainly more peculiar, question of language, truth, and Being. But Heidegger underscores something very important in this famous remark: language and what it means to be are inextricably linked. Continue reading “Baldwin, language, blackness”