James Baldwins Jeremiad

James Baldwins Jeremiad


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



This sea change in national psychology is not all James Baldwin’s doing, of course. Before him there

were the Montgomery bus boycott, and the sit-ins, and kneel-ins, and the whole incredible pageant of black

America striding to the center of the national stage. There were Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X

and the black nationalists of all descriptions, and CORE and SNCC, and Gomillion vs. Lightfoot.



Books by and about James Baldwin

 Go Tell It on the Mountain  /   The Fire Next Time  /  Notes of a Native Son  /    If Beale Street Could Talk

Carol E. Henderson, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain: Historical And Critical Essays. Peter Lang Publishing, 2006.

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James Baldwin’s Jeremiad

[Or Baldwinism Gone Awry]

By Albert B. Southwick

It seems fair to say that James Baldwin has had more influence on the thinking of white Americas in regard to black Americans than any other man living. His writings, particularly The Fire Next Time, may someday be ranked a landmark in race relations, along with Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta speech of 1895 and W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk a decade later.

But unlike those earlier pronouncements, Baldwin’s angry trumpet sounds with an uncertain note. Booker T. Washington may have been the essence of Uncle Tomism, as his detractors claim, but he did spell out a workable theory of race relations for his time. Du Bois put great hope in the “talented tenth” who were to lead the Negroes out of ignorance and squalor. But Baldwin is short on both theory and hope when it comes to facing the color line dilemma. He is a jeremiad of despair, a chronicle of outrage, but not much of a guide for those seeking a way to higher ground.

Baldwin’s eloquence is unquestioned. A clue to the power of his indictment is the reluctance of whites to challenge his thesis and assumption. It is as if the white world were struck dumb by the awfulness of his revelations in regard to the racial nexus. But challenged he must be, unless we all want to succumb to the paralyzing defeatism that accepts race relations as too terrible for human solution.

What Is He Asking?

To accept Baldwin’s indictment without protest is to admit that the Christian churches are a nest of crude hypocrisies, the Christian faith itself a Pauline abomination of puritanical superstition, American history a fraud and American democratic a crass rationalization for brutal exploitation. At its far reaches, Baldwinism (for this philosophy deserves a name) holds that liberals and liberalism are part and parcel of a cowardly sham cleverly designed to keep the Negro’s face ground in the dirt.

The Black Muslims, using arguments shored up by a contrived theology, have drawn the logical inference that the white man was created by the devil, is indeed the devil incarnate, is doomed; and that the only salvation for colored people is to separate and segregate themselves completely in their own communities. And truly, if Christianity, democracy, the American dream and the liberal conscience are to be cast on the rubbish pile, why not? What weapons are left to prove the late Malcolm X and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad wrong? Baldwin does not say. He does insist, at the end of The Fire Next Time, that the “relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks” must “end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” But at another point he concedes, “ “I know that what I am asking is impossible.” It may well be, for who knows what he is asking?

The gulf opened up in the American consciousness by Baldwin can be measured by such a book as Ruby Berkley Goodwin’s It’s Good to be Black, published in1953. “Until I argued once with a psychology teacher,” she wrote, “I didn’t know that all Negro children grow up with a sense of frustration and insecurity.” Her book ended with a lilt that seems pathetic today: “I felt genuinely sorry for everybody in the world lighter than the brown pair of Red Goose shoes laced to my dancing feet.”

False Dawn of Postwar Ideals

Mrs. Goodwin was not the only one entranced by that false dawn of postwar ideals W .E. B. Du Bois had doffed his usual pessimism in 1946 to announce, according to Roi Ottley, that “by 1965 the Negro will have a fair chance to earn a living at a decent wage.” Du Bois foresaw the disappearance by then of residential segregation, and Negroes’ “exercising the franchise freely in the South as well as the North.” A few years later Du Bois gave up hope for the American system and declared for communism as the only solution.

Not many others have followed him, but it must be admitted that the dream of racial justice looks pretty much like a nightmare at the moment. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, proclaimed to apply to the world, do not yet apply to American Negroes. Prejudice is no longer a simple evil confined to red-necked Southerners and doomed under the onslaught of education, but an insinuating, pervasive force that is in some ways more frustrating in New Rochelle than in Alabama.

This sea change in national psychology is not all James Baldwin’s doing, of course. Before him there were the Montgomery bus boycott, and the sit-ins, and kneel-ins, and the whole incredible pageant of black America striding to the center of the national stage. There were Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X and the black nationalists of all descriptions, and CORE and SNCC, and Gomillion vs. Lightfoot. But it was Baldwin who lanced the boil, who forced the whites of the north — the liberal whites across the country — to gaze on that which they had not wished to see: their relationship to the machinery that keeps the Negro in the no man’s land of two-thirds citizenship.

So far, fair enough. Most whites need to have the file put to their consciences in regard to the plight of Negroes. But the indictment goes too far when it sinks into incomprehensibility. What, for example, are we to make of LeRoi Jones’ charge that the trouble lies in this nation’s “puritan colonial temperament” and that “Harlem . . . exists only because the establishment this temperament controls needs it to exist. If it did not want that place, and the nightmare of its implication, to exist, Harlem would be removed by the time this article appears.”

Would it were so. But the average person is hard put to see just what he can do to eliminate Harlem overnight, and if such a burden is put on his shoulders he may give up all hope that the situation is redeemable. “it is almost impossible for the white man to determine just what a Negro is really feeling . . .” wrote Richard Wright shortly before his death. This mystique, transmogrified, is one of the roots of the problem. If Negroes really are that different from whites, then black is black and white is white and never the twain shall meet – and the Black Muslims are right after all.

Guilt Feeling Is Not Enough

It is one thing to prick the conscience of white America, to arouse a sense of guilt for the wrongs that have been done. But guilt feeling by itself is not enough; if it becomes too overwhelming, the human psyche has defense mechanisms that allow the guilt energy to be dissipated outside of any constructive channels. How many thoughtful white Americans, thinking of South Africa, feel in their hearts that the situation in that cursed land is so hopeless that they might as well forget even trying to think of any solution? And how many white Americans get a similar bleak feeling when they consider not only Mississippi but Harlem, Roxbury, New Haven, Gary and a hundred other places where racial relationships have been tied into knots which defy unraveling? The feeling is intensified in practically every case of school integration; for how many parents are willing to jeopardize their children’s education for the principle of equality – or for any principle, no matter how laudable it may be?

Given this sort of perfectly human dilemma, it is the easiest thing in the world for a Baldwinite to pour acid into the wound, to push even the most liberal white man to the wall where he comes face to face with not his own prejudices so much as the prejudices of others and a paralyzing feeling of defeatism.

There is a point in trying to make a person see his moral responsibilities. But is there any point in making white people of good will feel that their every motive is suspect? Is a man merely salving his guilt feelings when he is courteous to Negro maids and janitors? If he makes an effort to find housing in a decent neighborhood for a Negro physician or professor, should he be made to feel so sensitive on the subject that he hesitates to invite Negroes to his home, because of the fear of some shade of inverse-reverse-obverse prejudice? The achievement of normal relations between whites and blacks is difficult enough under the best of circumstances. But if every social move has to be analyzed and psychoanalyzed, normal relations will be impossible.

Doomsday Dust All Over Him

People, black and white, will just have to do the best they can, James Baldwin’s apocalyptic prophecies notwithstanding. “A bill is coming in that I fear America is not able to pay,” he says, doomsday dust all over him. “At the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains. Well, if this is so, one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that after, and at no matter what risk – eviction, imprisonment, torture, death.”

At no matter what risk. At the risk of James Baldwin being called an Uncle Tom in certain circumstances? One wonders if Baldwin is really ready to go all the way in striving to bring about an improvement in race relations.

It is not heartless to say that change will not come with a clap of thunder, and that the bill being presented to America cannot be paid all at once but only in installments. It is not hypocritical to point out that the way to progress is not via Armageddon but by such prosaic milestones as civil rights laws, federal injunctions, legal processes, demonstrations, summer projects, voter registration drives, school busing and tokenism here, there and everywhere. Negro leaders are rightly suspicious of Fabian policies. The phrase “it will take time” often masks the secret hope. “Perhaps it won’t have to be done at all.” Nevertheless the fact is plain: it will take time.

And the struggle demands the support of all the good will that can be found, even when it is found mixed with faint-heartedness and hypocrisy. Wherever the conscience of the white man flickers there is support for Negro aspirations, and no one should be written off or read out of the movement because he is not a hero. People are not all heroes. Generally they are not very brave or imaginative. Often they are prisoners of their past. Yet it is the people – the ordinary people – who have to carry this burden of social revolution on their backs and in their hearts. God has no other instruments for his will.

Is it not time for James Baldwin to put away his whiplash and join hands with the rest of us sinners? And is it not time for him to wonder whence cometh his prophetic indignation, which has shaken a great nation to its core?

Source: The Christian Century (March 24, 1965)


Selected Works

Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953

Notes of a Native Son, 1955

Giovanni’s Room, 1956

Nobody Know My Name (, 1962

Another Country, 1962

The Fire Next Time, 1963

Blues for Mister Charlie (a play, produced in 1964)

Going to Meet the Man, 1965

Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, 1968

A Rap on Race, with Margaret Mead, 1971

If Beale Street Could Talk 1974

The Devil Finds Work, 1976

Just Above My Head, 1979

The Evidence of Things Not Seen, 1985

The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction, 1948-1985, 1985

Perspectives: Angles on African Art, 1987

Conversations with James Baldwin, 1989

Early Novels and Stories, 1998

Collected Essays, 1998 (ed. by Toni Morrison)

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Take this Hammer—a James Baldwin documentary

KQED’s film unit follows poet and activist James Baldwin in the spring of 1963, as he’s driven around San Francisco to meet with members of the local African-American community. He is escorted by Youth For Service’s Executive Director Orville Luster and intent on discovering: “The real situation of negroes in the city, as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present.” He declares: “There is no moral distance . . . between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. Someone’s got to tell it like it is. And that’s where it’s at.” Includes frank exchanges with local people on the street, meetings with community leaders and extended point-of-view sequences shot from a moving vehicle, featuring the Bayview and Western Addition neighborhoods.

Baldwin reflects on the racial inequality that African-Americans are forced to confront and at one point tries to lift the morale of a young man by expressing his conviction that “There will be a negro president of this country but it will not be the country that we are sitting in now.”

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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updated 2 October 2007 / update 24 February 2008



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