James Baldwin’s White History Week

In 1986, one year before he passed away, James Baldwin announced a radical idea: “White History Week.” In this post, Ed Pavlic writes about how Baldwin got to that moment.

Black Lives Matter protest in Memphis, Tennessee, 2013 (Photo: Chris Wieland, via Flickr CC).

Between the late-1940s and the mid-1980s, in novels, essays, films, plays and poems, James Baldwin (1924-1987) engaged the complexities of race and the human condition in aggressive and always-shifting terms. After countless, often surprising, permutations, near the end of his life, in 1986, he announced a radical idea: “White History Week.” Before we get to that week, we need to cover a little ground. Stay tuned.

Rewind. Baldwin’s association of whiteness and American-ness with perilous, if at times seductive, delusions goes back to the earliest moments of his career as a professional writer. At the close of “Too Late, Too Late,” his 1949 review of seven volumes of sociology and history for the left-leaning Commentary magazine, the writer who’d not yet become “James Baldwin” signaled the perils of an American—a term at the time that presupposed a certain assimilation into “whiteness”—identity. Concluding his piece, Baldwin wrote: “What is happening to Negroes in this country has been happening for a long time, and it is something quite logical, inevitable, and deadly: they are becoming more American every day.” As he moved from his origins in poverty through early years broke in Paris writing home—to a poor family—for money and into his fantastically successful and politically charged—and dangerous—career, his early sense of the perils of whiteness/American-ness would twist, morph, expand; it would do just about everything but disappear.

Having scaled the literary mountain during the 1950s, Baldwin’s most famous single book, The Fire Next Time (1963)—first published in the November 17, 1962 issue of the New Yorker—turns upon a complex, chess-like debate over dinner with then National of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad. Baldwin relates the conversation in nuances finally painting himself into a corner by recounting Muhammad’s question: “And what are you now?” As an American literary writer at the time, Baldwin finds that he can only answer the personal question of “who” he is. “What?” was social, historical, a question beyond the literary. Against Muhammad’s gauntlet, Baldwin scripted his now-famous literary persona’s realization that his craft would have to expand, an expansion—by the way—that his critics in the American school of literary craft still haven’t been able to digest.

As for the Nation of Islam’s version of “what” it was all about, though Baldwin treats Elijah Muhammad as a worthy conversant in his narrative of realization, he also made it very clear it wasn’t a narrative of conversion. In Life magazine a few months later (May 24, 1963), beside of photo of himself outside a storefront mosque in Durham, North Carolina, he said: “The Black Muslims serve one extremely useful function: they scare white people. Otherwise they are just another racist organization and the only place they can go is to disaster” (83).

The question of “what” must be dealt with, yes, but one must absolutely not adopt the particular or structural insanities of existing racial and sexual discourses and mores. Baldwin’s way of mixing deep, subtle human nuances and quick, brutal (his term) if often angular, racial realities—and by turns his acknowledgment of the banalities of human brutality countered by nuanced and subtle racial intimacy—continued to present readers and listeners with challenges throughout the 1960s.

Often music provided Baldwin the best—if not the only—route he could trace through the blizzard of complexity across eras of personal, local, national and global tumult and turmoil. Amid the late-1960s fury over Black Power much of which he thought dangerously “American,” Baldwin advocated a version of “black power” that eluded the paucities of white power, principal among them the concept of color itself. Baldwin’s version of possibility was always tuned closely to the unheard—or heard yet unremarked—elements of black music. Riffing on his thought from the late 40s above, in his 1967 essay, “Anti-Semitism and Black Power,” he wrote: “I would rather die than see the black American become as hideously empty as the majority of white men have become.” If remarked for what they were almost saying, he thought, the voices in the music could liberate the face of black power from its American (read: white) mask in the mirror: “There is a sense in which it can be said that my black flesh is the flesh that St. Paul wanted to have mortified. There is a sense in which it can be said that very long ago, for a complex of reasons, but among them power, the Christian personality split itself in two, split itself into dark and light, in fact, and it is now bewildered, at war with itself, is literally unable to comprehend the force of such a woman as Mahalia Jackson, who does not sound like anyone in Canterbury Cathedral, unable to accept the depth of sorrow, out of which a Ray Charles comes, unable to get itself in touch with itself, with its selfless totality.” He wrote that in an address to the World Council of Churches in 1968 while living in California working on a film version of Malcolm X’s life that he, privately, was modeling after what he heard in Aretha Franklin’s album Aretha Arrives (1967). Baldwin’s version of Malcolm didn’t make it to the screen in the late 60s, but listening to, say, Aretha’s “I Wonder,” now, one hears how her sound guides the version of Malcolm Baldwin sifted into No Name in the Street (1972) “the truth about Malcolm: he was one of the gentlest people I have ever met” (CE 410). Black history. 

In the 1970s, Baldwin increasingly referred to himself as a “poet.” In A Rap on Race (1971) he told Margaret Mead: “Now in the 20th century we are going to find only two terrible facts: the fact of prose, on every single level from television to the White House, and the fact of the hope of poetry, without which nobody can live” (187). While his best “poems” would always take shape in forms that looked like paragraphs, his often bafflingly complex feel for issues of race, self, sex, and history in the 1970s was a matter of graceful, overlapping fluctuation. In The Devil Finds Work (1976), he scripted one such lyrical passage:

Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes. (537)

In his 1979 essay, “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption,” he argued that music presented the possibility of converting a history, even a—as he contended all histories were—brutal history, into something with which one could work, or play. Or, even wear:

Music is our witness, and our ally. The ‘beat’ is the confession which recognizes, changes, and conquers time.

Then, history becomes a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide; and time becomes a friend (Cross 124).

But, people who insisted on thinking of themselves and each other as white—though, as he said repeatedly of the United States, “this country is only white because it says it is,”—had some serious “what” questions to confront in the eyes of themselves, each other and the world.

In a 1979 speech in Berkeley, Baldwin made the provocative statement, “Insofar as you think you’re white, you’re irrelevant.” He then intoned, “We can no longer afford that particular, romance.” This could sound simply chauvinistic and the duality between racial bluntness on the one hand and the supple complexities of identity on the other—to the extent that anyone has attempted to think about it—still confuses even Baldwin’s most attuned readers. His final novel, often derided when acknowledged at all by the literary establishment, Just Above My Head (1979), effectively had no white characters at all. In it, he deals with the dangers and importance of “loose garments” for the wearers of which garments—now at the dawn of the Reagan era—white people’s clutching of thick, racial cloaks in their suburban cul de sacs was irrelevant. Discussing the novel with Mel Watkins for The New York Times Book Review, in 1979, Baldwin said:

Well, first, there are few white people in the novel. But it was unconscious. It just came out that way. It perhaps reveals something that is happening to me. It’s difficult to get at, as yet. I think the whole concept of race has had its day. Ultimately, to be white is a moral choice. It’s obviously a very deliberate challenge to people who think they’re white to re-examine all their values, to put themselves in our place, share in our danger. . . In any case, [key characters in the novel] realize that white people are irrelevant to their lives, at least provisionally. Not because they’re white, but because of the choices that they’ve made. At the very bottom, it’s now the choices we make, we no longer depend on the choices they make. Even they can’t depend on the choices they make. . . They must get back in touch with reality. They can’t avoid it, if they want to live.  can’t avoid it if they want to live (36)

For Baldwin, by 1980, it was clear that “whiteness” was, in fact, a “state of mind” attained only by people who had amputated their connection to their living inheritance and hid themselves in places they imagined were “safe.” Then, talking with Watkins, as if to clarify his terminology, an explicit trace of which is there in his thought at least since the early 60s, he added:

I’d like to say that when I say “white” I’m not talking about the color of anybody’s skin. I’m not talking about race. It’s a curious country, a curious civilization, that thinks of it as race. I don’t believe any of that. White people are imagined. White people are white only because they want to be white. . .(36)

In Baldwin’s mind, and in ways rooted directly to the cultural politics of the Freedom Movement in the United States, black people had instigated a profound—if partial and always internally conflicted—reassessment of their history and identity, and were situated in the contemporary world in a way that reflected a revolutionized conception of who was who and what was what. For one thing, during the years between 1955 and 1975, at least, and since, black people, in the United States and elsewhere, had changed their image in the eyes of the world and, most importantly, in the eyes of themselves and each other. This work wasn’t perfect, wasn’t over, wasn’t unified; but a profound price had been paid and a real shift had taken place in ways so drastic and nuanced that, at times, it’s difficult to measure.

Which brings us to White History Week in the 1980s. For Baldwin, white people, as a group, had refused to take up the question of “What” they are in the eyes of the world—to say nothing of themselves and each other—and therefore remained frozen in attempts—across the political spectrum—to keep what they thought they possessed: the power to see and not be seen, the power to be and not be present. So, here we pick up Jimmy Baldwin, looking tired and even a little bored, on December 10, 1986, addressing the National Press Club in Washington DC. But, even in the belly of the media-beast, the pleasure he took in and the energy he derived from engaging people occasionally flashed to life. From a point of view he called, lyrically and with his New Yorker’s accent twisting the last word in the phrase, “the view from here,” he concluded his brief remarks. Read from today it might be important to emphasize that Baldwin was addressing a world absent the Internet:

We are living in a world in which everybody and everything is interdependent. It is not white, this world. It is not black either. The future of this world depends on everybody in this room and that future depends on to what extent and by what means we liberate ourselves from a vocabulary which now cannot bear the weight of reality.

A few minutes later, taking questions, he returned to the theme: “This never has been and never will be a white country. . . and the vocabulary which we are avoiding has got to deal with that.” But, as Baldwin knew, it would take persons—people for whom the notion of who they thought they were and the question of what other people thought they were had something to do with each other—to deal with that. With Baldwin’s patience visibly thinning and sweat appearing on his forehead, a member of the audience asked a question about “race relations” that seemed to suggest they’d heard nothing he’d said (either that afternoon or since 1949). After a long pause and several deep breaths and imitating his performance patience audiences had warmed to in the early 60s, Baldwin said: “Well, it’s a very difficult question to answer seriously because, well, the question is sincere but it’s posed in such. . .” at which point the veneer dissolved and another version of Jimmy Baldwin told the audience:

Let me. . . you know. . . what I would like to do, what I would really like to do? It’s an idea which maybe we could take hold of in this room. I want to establish, a modest proposal, white history week. [and smiling] Because the answer to these questions is not to be found in me, but in that history which produces these questions. It’s late in the day to be talking about race relations, what are you talking about!? And as long as we have ‘race relations’ how can they deteriorate or improve? I am not a race and neither are you. No. We’re talking about the life and death of this country. And one of the things, I’m not joking when I talk about white history week, one of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don’t know who they are or where they come from. That’s why you think I’m a problem. But, I am not a problem your history is. And as long as you pretend you don’t know your history you’re going to be the prisoner of it. And there’s no question of your liberating me because you can’t liberate yourselves. We’re in this together. And, finally, when white people, quote unquote white people, talk about progress in relation to black people, all they are saying and all they can possibly mean by the word progress is how quickly and how thoroughly I become white. Well, I do not want to become white I want to grow up and so should you. Thank you.

White History Week, in James Baldwin’s mind, at least, would be an endeavor whereby people who think of themselves—and also whom the world thinks of—as white would address their irrelevance—some call it privilege—to the world of actual experience going on around and within them—and in a strangled way between them—everyday.

Sure, but not quite just that simple, if that was simple.

Rewind for just a moment. In 1967, in “Anti-Semitism and Black Power,” addressing the Black Power ideologues, Baldwin wrote: “Why, when we should be storming capitols, do they suggest to the people they hope to serve that we take refuge in the most ancient and barbaric of the European myths? Do they want us to become better? Or do they want us, after all, carefully manipulating the color black, merely to become white?”

Fast-forward to now or somewhere just beyond it. Above we’ve seen but possibly haven’t exactly remarked that the ways of whiteness aren’t exactly dependent on skin color—or maybe that “whiteness” is really the tracking of human reality that depends upon skin of any color. We’re not sure exactly but, it’s somehow rooted, or better, routed in the way what was modern—autonomous, rational, self-interested—became the target of resistance—collective, non-white, non-male, non-straight—en route to whatever came next—ever-partial, diffused and ironic when present at all, uploaded, unrooted—but no one can put their finger on it. In ways to which Baldwin’s work maybe the best single guide, at least one American poet, Lybian-born Khaled Mattawa, gets this. His book Tocqueville signifies brilliantly on the longings for “whiteness” by people of whatever color, worldwide:

You’ve got to admit that we’re all white people now. Everybody that got killed in that war is White, all got killed for Whitie. Even the people in China are White people now. That’s what a lot of these brown or yellow conservatives are really saying, and even they don’t realize what they’re getting at. They’re saying race doesn’t matter because they’ve become White. (43)

So, following Baldwin beyond Baldwin and then following Mattawa back toward him, maybe, White History Month has a channel for us all. Stay tuned.

Further Reading

Edson in Accra

It happened in 1969. But just how did he world’s greatest, richest and most sought-after footballer at the time, end up in Ghana?

The dreamer

As Africa’s first filmmakers made their unique steps in Africanizing cinema, few were as bold as Djibril Diop Mambéty who employed cinema to service his dreams.

Socialismo pink

A solidariedade socialista na Angola e Moçambique pós-coloniais tornou as pessoas queer invisíveis. Revisitar esse apagamento nos ajuda a reinventar a libertação de forma legítima.