Privacy, coloniality, identity

November 8, 2014
November 8, 2014 John Drabinski

Privacy, coloniality, identity

Here are my remarks from the roundtable discussion on James Baldwin and Privacy at the American Studies Association meeting in Los Angeles. They are short (a 5-8 minute slot), but I try here to think about colonialism as hyper-visibility and publicity and how Baldwin’s conception of Black cultural formation in the United States operates with a sense of privacy that complicates, if not out rejects, the relation between coloniality and the social and political practice(s) of anti-Black racism in the U.S.


Five-to-eight minutes is a peculiar time slot, so let me say just two things. First, a note my interest in James Baldwin’s non-fiction in terms of the larger questions of a book project, and then, second, I want to say a word or two on the question of privacy and how it might resonate in that project.

This book, tentatively entitled ‘So Unimaginable a Price’: Baldwin and the Black Atlantic, offers a treatment of Baldwin’s non-fiction in the context of the mid-century black Atlantic moment. That moment is defined in large part by anti-colonial struggle, a struggle that produced some of the most enduring and profound cultural and political theory of the period and after. Issues of language, subjectivity, embodiment, history, memory, and, in the end, questions of what constitutes a sense of “home” compose a revolutionary moment in philosophical thinking. Black Atlantic thinkers confront whiteness, not just as part of the past, but as a ghost of the future, a specter haunting the horizon of the imaginable. This is the effect of colonialism, to make the whole world white and therefore unlivable for Black people. How can we think liberation outside that horizon? What alternatives are possible? In conceiving this moment, the enigma of Baldwin’s work in the black Atlantic context is crucial, namely in how that work pushes so hard against the competing articulations of diasporic identity. In short, how Baldwin contests the universality of the colonial paradigm.

The question of privacy is crucial here as well, especially in trying to theorize how Baldwin might complicate the black Atlantic narrative of diaspora. Aimé Césaire’s presentation at the 1956 Paris Congrés, treated in such provocative terms in Baldwin’s “Princes and Powers,” sets the context for this complication. In positing “what legitimizes our meeting here,” Césaire describes a two-fold sense of Black solidarity. He writes:

There is a double solidarity among all those who are gathered here: first, a horizontal solidarity, a solidarity created by the colonial or semicolonial or paracolonial situation that has been imposed on us from without. And on the other hand, another solidarity that is vertical, a solidarity in time, which comes from the fact that out of an initial unity, the unity of African civilization, there has been differentiated a whole series of cultures that all owe something to that civilization.

Colonialism binds the diaspora in a shared lived-experience – subjugation, exploitation, particular forms of alienation – but the élan vital of diasporic unity lies in the de-activated, but wholly re-activateable, civilizational force of Africa. Colonialism therefore names a shared sense of loss and the possibility of retrieval, a sort of negative-actuality and nascent potentiality whose time-structure is simultaneously the ancient past and the unprecedented future.

Baldwin’s response to this in “Princes and Powers” is profound and moving, appealing, against Césaire (and the thrust of the 1956 Congrés), to a sense of ownership – to a sense that suffering and work earn a right to place, a right older and more deeply rooted than the white supremacist claims to the same, and therefore a right that is as much existential as it is moral. This ownership is everything. A right to the land, yes, but also and just as importantly, a right to place. This last twist in “Princes and Powers” is key. What is place? How does space, land, or territory get transformed into a sense of place, even without belonging? Or, perhaps better put, how is place forged as a counter-belonging in a space that by law and custom – by all those swirling violences of anti-Black racism – blocks belonging? Baldwin’s account of this place is something akin to the revealing of a secret that has never been secret, yet remains hidden from view. Not quite Du Bois’ veil, but certainly nothing like the epic metaphysical force of Césaire’s Africa.

Here, I think the notion of privacy is helpful. Colonialism, if I may make a broad statement (the five-to-eight minutes thing), has the feature of making everything public, in the sense that the colonial relation cannot install measure without making that measure explicit and evident. The power of colonialism draws from its hyper-visibility, which, in turn, becomes a total project precisely because the visibility of that power occludes all other possibilities of knowing and being. That is how the white gaze functions as a force of domination: in the public, the measure for everyone. Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks is arguably the best documentation of this equation of visibility and domination; the book shows time and again how the gaze embodies everything and is in everything, from the skin to language to love to the imagination. A total project. Baldwin does a good bit in “Princes and Powers” to mark the African-American experience as different, never quite colonial enough to warrant full membership in Césaire’s sequence: colonial, semi-colonial, or para-colonial. The difference is not so much a difference in kinds of white people; the white gaze is plenty troubling and the source of plenty violence in Baldwin’s work, for sure. The difference is more about attuning the writerly and thinking gaze to what is not visible to the white gaze, and therefore not made meaningful by it. In particular, I am thinking of this passage from “Many Thousands Gone,” in which Baldwin sets out the parameters of his thinking about Black people and establishes that important difference between his work and the work of anti-colonial struggle we find in Césaire and Fanon, but also Wright’s early fiction. He writes:

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.

In many ways, we could say that this passage completes the struggle to articulate what Baldwin, at the close of “Encounter on the Seine,” simply calls birthright – the right to the land of one’s birth. It is surely that. With the word tradition, Baldwin names the continuity of a people, a continuity of pain, of course, yet also the continuity of experience, which we know is broader and deeper than what white people have done to Black people. Something already outside the power of the white gaze. But it also pushes against the publicity of a diasporic unity derived from the horizontal solidarity of shared colonial experience. In part, this is simply another version of how the United States does not fall easily, if at all, under the rubric of coloniality. The frame of “privacy,” however, suggests another way of reading this passage, namely, locating a sense of how the “relationship Negros bear to one another” is a kind of cultural public-ness rooted in a kind of historical privacy – a way of life forged outside of what mid-century black Atlantic theorists name as colonialism and place under the rubric of the white gaze as a total project. Tradition is here a sense of relation outside the white gaze that constructs the complexity of the Black gaze directed to itself, exchanging between Black people, and with the effect (and affect) of making a whole world not just as resistance and refusal, but as a way of life, a shared experience in private, while at the same time being wholly public in the formation of a cultural tradition.

Privacy, then, might function as another name for the epistemological difference Baldwin needs to mark an important distance from the colonial experience. And in that difference and distance, Baldwin is able to clear the space for thinking one of the great enigmas of his work: home as counterbelonging and counter-belonging as home.


John E. Drabinski

Amherst College

, ,

Comments (4)

  1. Sabine

    john, thanx for this. could you please explain how you arrived at the specific term”privacy” for what baldwin perceives as the “difference” of black life vis-a-vis the (anti)-colonial paradigm (cesaire/fanon)? and would that hold only as a US difference, or would you read this as an indirect critique by baldwin’s work of fanon’s validity for thinking black life forms, as walcott has been calling it, in more global terms? does this perhaps resonate with the debate between moten and wilderson? and how would wynter figure in, who does go a long way with the (anti-)colonial, but also insists on the creation of a specific black culture? so, coming back to my first question: why “privacy” – given all the connotations the private-public binary has had, e.g. for feminism? the bourgeois undertones of a valorization of “private life”(“comfort and happiness in private”) as opposed to political engagement? Greets, Sabine

    • Hi Sabine, the language of “privacy” is part of the panel – the topic was “Baldwin and the Question of Privacy.” Most folks took it in the direction of sexuality and the (lack of a) Baldwin archive, but I worked it through (obviously) a more metaphysical space.

      My book is about Baldwin’s careful attention to the U.S.-diaspora difference, so the claims follow for the United States, not as a matter of focus, but as a matter of his argument about historical and memorial difference. I take this to be his version of what’s developed in the post-Césaire/Fanon Caribbean with figures like Brathwaite, Glissant, Chamoiseau, Confiant, and others – an emphasis on cultural formation in local spaces, rather than theorizing the enormity of a geographic diaspora.

      I wouldn’t think that would prevent usefulness as a strategy – scholarly or political. But it would push against epistemologies and metaphysics of diasporic unity, of which Césaire is a particularly important example (in my view). It’s also the case that my book (as the subtitle suggests) is reading Baldwin in his moment, so that’s also the reason for the particular interlocutors.

      As for the wider implications? Of that, I’m not sure. But I do think they locate a spot between sort of rejections of diasporic unity talk and discarding Black solidarity across geographies and histories. In that sense, “Black life” is probably a helpful place to start.

  2. Thanks John. Granting your (and Baldwin’s) point, how should we move from African-American singularity to disasporic solidarity (in what terms should it be construed) and from there to multi-racial democratic solidarity? And is publicity in general – in the historical reality we’ve inherited – wholly constituted by the white gaze, in your view?

    • I think solidarity can be constructed, but not on Césaire’s terms. In that way, strangely, I think Césaire under-thematizes racism as such; racism is related to, but not entirely the same as, colonialism. I think there are resources in Fanon’s work for working from a conception of racism to solidarity, but that’s speculative work. I’d probably rather work from Gilroy’s many reflections on solidarity in a post-nationalist context. Complicated question, though.

      I think publicity in the United States is a complex thing. On the one hand, yes, politically this is constructed by the white gaze. On the other hand, and Baldwin’s work repeatedly comes back to this, American culture is indistinguishable from African-American culture. White hegemony absolutely rules, but only in response to the persistence and intense presence of African-American culture in American life more broadly.

      But, in the end, a sense of home or (counter-) belonging is crucial, and that’s why I focused here on Baldwin’s sense privacy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *