Today marks 30 years since James Baldwin’s passing, and America seems to be as ignorant of its inherent racism as it was when Baldwin was writing and being an all-around brilliant man, scholar and activist. Sometimes I like to imagine a James Baldwin fan fiction of what he’d be doing today if he were still alive.
I can see him on Angela Rye’s podcast, On One, dissecting the ineptitude of the current administration. Or I picture Baldwin exchanging ideas with Colin Kaepernick, helping him expand his activism. Or maybe he’s a guest on Don Lemon’s CNN Tonight, reading whoever needs to have their white supremacy checked at the door.
As an orator, giving someone a read is really what Baldwin did best. While he was debating or being interviewed, his delivery and ability as a wordsmith were unmatched. Just imagining him destroying Donald Trump with his wordplay makes me giddy. But Baldwin would usually save his most stinging criticism for white America as a whole. His words are still relevant today (eerily so), so in celebration of his legacy, here are five times James Baldwin read white America.
It’s tragic, in a sense, because the bulk of white Americans treat and think of black people as though we came here yesterday—as though we are very different from and much less valuable than the bulk of white people—and do not realize what they’re doing, what they think they’re doing to black people, is what they’re really doing to themselves.
Baldwin’s words, while he was a professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., basically sum up the entire 2016 presidential election. White America voted against its own best interest, electing a man whose administration is actively working to increase their taxes and destroy their access to affordable health care, all in the name of upholding white supremacist, patriarchal values. It raises the question, how much is a border wall really worth?
The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.
In 1963, 10 years after his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published, Baldwin dropped this gem in an interview with Kenneth Clark. I’d argue that the opposite is also true: America will always be on a shaky foundation as long as black and brown folk are the objects of oppression.
When the ex-attorney general, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said that it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro president—and that sounded like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard and did not hear and possibly will never hear the laughter and the bitterness and the scorn with which this statement was greeted. From the point of view of the men in the Harlem barbershop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday. And now he’s already on his way to the presidency. We’ve been here for 400 years, and now he tells us that maybe, in 40 years, if you’re good, we may let you become president.
This is a Baldwin classic. While debating conservative commentator William F. Buckley in front of students at the United Kingdom’s Cambridge University, Baldwin took white America to task for building the American dream at the expense of (and on the backs of) black men and women. Here, he calls out the condescension with which black progress is met. It’s an idea that’s familiar to everyone from Barack Obama to Kaepernick to every black woman who has ever worked in corporate America: that we should be happy just to be near the table, let alone have a seat at it.
Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue, along with sincerity. And the result of this is, if you’re simpleminded enough, you can become … I didn’t want to go that far. [Laughter.] And as long as you’re sincere in what you say, you haven’t got to know what you’re talking about. These are the American virtues—two of them, anyway. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a virtue, too.
Did Baldwin have a crystal ball when he delivered this at the National Press Club? Thirty years ago, it seems, Baldwin predicted the rise of our current simpleminded, immature, Twitter-fingers president.
The American white republic has to ask itself why it was necessary for them to invent the “nigger.” I am not a nigger. I have never called myself one. But when one comes into the world, the world decides you are this for its own reasons. And it’s very important, I think, for the American, in terms of the future, in terms of his health, in terms of the transformation that we are all seeking, that he face this question, that he needed the nigger for something.
After the March on Washington, Baldwin participated in a roundtable with Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte, among others. He was the last person to speak, delivering this mic drop as food for thought. And it’s a question that remains unanswered even today, because to do so requires that all of white America, liberals and conservatives alike, acknowledge the role that racism plays in the American freedoms they enjoy.