This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, raised by his mother Berdis Jones and step father Reverend David Baldwin. Baldwin’s relationship with his step father would shape his understanding of life as an African-American in the twentieth century; his biological and emotional distance offering the space to question his own identity and to observe the conditions suffered in American society as epitomised by his step father.
David Baldwin would not hide the fact that James was illegitimate, often bullying him for his looks and calling him ugly, but this became a useful metaphor for Baldwin, who would describe himself as a ‘bastard of the West.’ The metaphor of illegitimacy would lead Baldwin to the conclusion that there was a shared struggle amongst white America and African-Americans, an endemic crisis of identity. From this position, Baldwin captured the essence of what W.E.B. DuBois referred to as ‘twoness’;
‘One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’
For Baldwin, it may well have been four-ness; as a black, illegitimate, queer American he was especially isolated from the society he found himself in. Insisting that he was ‘not merely a Negrowriter’, Baldwin was stifled by what he saw as essentialist and holistic views that limited his existence and perpetuated oppression in American society. The fractured nature of Badwin’s identity transposed into his work, as he developed an approach to America’s racial conflict founded on a radical existential phenomenology, encouraging his readers to escape and transcend structures of oppression and ideas that encouraged mauvaise foi, and to embolden the autonomous lived experiences of African Americans.
Religion was a principal focus for Baldwin, and a central obstacle to black liberation. Baldwin’s involvement in the Black Pentecostal Church as a young preacher is a central theme of his work. Based on his early experiences, Baldwin offered a critique which highlighted the misguided and restrictive elements of the church; the bloodless theatre and ritualistic illusion which severed the African American experience from reality and instilled an inauthentic existence. Baldwin linked these church practices to an inherent form of black self-hatred, inspired by the curse of Ham, son of Noah. Organized religion was merely ‘a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.’ Baldwin also criticised the more radical growth of religion. The Nation of Islam, which was perceived by many as a radical departure from consevative, and repressive Christianity, was criticised by Baldwin. In Baldwin’s view, the binary fallacy of Elijah Muhammad’s position that espoused the white man as devil only enforced a rigid, and racially exclusive dichotomy of black versus white existence. Baldwin believed that to enforce this dichotomy was to perpetuate an essentialist idea of race that was built in order to oppress. In his critique of the Nation, Baldwin stipulates that the ‘negro’ was created by white people, built solely to subjugate. Therefore to define themselves in relation to ‘the white man’, was to preserve the oppressive dichotomy, tantamount to remaining within that original definition of a ‘negro.’ In the same sense, the definition ‘negro’ has served to inform and embolden the white man in America, as the ‘negro’s’ diametric opponent, and that there is an almost symbiotic relationship between the two concepts reduced solely to an obsession with ‘race’ or colour. To escape from these limited definitions, it is important to focus on the phenomenological experience of Black people rather than on abstract and essentialist definitions of colour.
Leaving the church, and America, Baldwin began a cosmopolitan expatriate lifestyle that would last for the rest of his life. His formative years had exposed him to the peculiar relationship between Christianity and the African American. Then, in his European travels, Baldwin was exposed to the peculiarity of ‘race.’ In ‘The Discovery of What It Means to Be An American’ Baldwin most explicitly shows his existential approach toward defining his identity. Baldwin states how he sought to ‘find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.’ Baldwin describes what is essentially an existential crisis during his convalescence in Switzerland: ‘I began to try to re-create the life that I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight.’ Turning towards phenomenology, drawing upon his experiences to understand who he is today. For Baldwin, this is the most significant political paradigm for dealing with what he would describe as ‘the White problem.’ By drawing a line under the paradigm of ‘race’ Baldwin was beginning to clarify that the White American had created this dichotomy to define his essenceas a ‘negro’, but as Sartre says – existence precedes essence. Through this theory, Baldwin’s definition of ‘the White problem’ re-evaluated perceptions of race with significant political implications. By developing the philosophical notion that race is an arbitrary concept, originally developed to benefit white supremacy, Baldwin’s saw philosophical ‘color-blindness’ as the best way to, not only combat racism within America, but to overcome the shortcomings of apparent developments in race relations.
Baldwin’s fractured queer identity, and complex relationship with American society placed him in a unique to assess the problem of race in America. Throughout his work, Baldwin offers a framework for liberation which emboldens the lived experience of African Americans, while simultaneously exposes the deep-set roots of structural oppression in America.