“The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”— James Baldwin, 1963
If he were alive today, James Arthur Baldwin would be 95 years old. With all the current divisiveness and turmoil in America, I often think about what he would be saying, writing, preaching, and arguing about the MAGA era. The thought exercise doesn’t take much imagination: Before his death in 1987, Baldwin wrote voluminously about the very subjects that fuel so much of today’s discord, and much of that work proves to be almost eerily applicable to the present day.
In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin describes himself as “utterly drained and exhausted,” a sentiment familiar to anyone living in 2019. It’s an understandable reaction to dealing with people who, as he writes in 1965’s “The White Man’s Guilt,” “with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves” against the “disagreeable mirror” of facts about our president.
Trump’s bigotry corroborates a convenient lie: The myth of America as a “White” country. It never was, never will be, never can be, but most importantly: That’s okay.
What the mirror shows, of course, is that Trump attempted to ease their legitimate economic anxiety by coaxing their racial animus — and was lying to them the entire time. “The fact that they have not yet been able to do this, to face their history, to change their lives — hideously menaces this country,” Baldwin writes later in “The White Man’s Guilt,” “Indeed, it menaces the entire world.”
For those voters, Trump’s bigotry corroborates a convenient lie: The myth of America as a “White” country. It never was, never will be, never can be. Yet, as Baldwin told graduating seniors at an Oakland high school in 1963, “it is through your sense of your own history that you arrive at your identity.” To those millions in MAGA caps, Black people can honestly respond using his words: “It seems that that history had been accomplished without my presence.” Baldwin would call for a kind of patriotism rooted in accepting vices and virtues, as opposed to a dangerous nationalism that assumes only virtues and zero vices.
It’s hard not to think of Trump when Baldwin, in his 1976 essay “The Devil Finds Work,” writes that “a child is far too self-centered to relate any dilemma which does not, somehow relate to him — to his own evolving dilemma.” Our president shows little empathy for others, but his Twitter account shows a clear obsession with those who adore him, as well as those who despise him (and, as polls show, far outnumber the adorers). The White House looks like a castle but can feel like an ornate cage; he’s surrounded by people who lavish him with hyperbolic praise one moment, then turn around and describe him as a buffoon to journalists. He is angry about everything, but also because he must pretend his party’s tolerance is love and that its allegiance is loyalty.
In response to the White House meltdown we’re seeing in real time, Baldwin would cut right to the hypocrisy of the Republican party. He’d likely say, as he wrote in the 1962 New Yorker essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” that he “might have pitied them if I had not found myself in their hands so often and discovered, through ugly experience, what they were like when they held the power and what there were like when you held the power.”
Such hypocrisy begins with the stories people tell themselves. Americans, Baldwin wrote in “Many Thousands Gone,” have “the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection” and to “transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into proud decoration.” Nationalism, then, requires a type of selective memory. The slogan “Make America Great Again” is a clear example that, as Baldwin writes in “The White Man’s Guilt,” “people who imagine that history flatters them are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves or the world.”
If Baldwin were writing today, he would likely continue to force the country to confront its “profound desire not to be judged by those who are not White” and need to “be released from the tyranny” of the mirror. But as bad as things can feel sometimes, I think he would have been hopeful. He would say, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.” It wouldn’t have tempered his worry, but Baldwin knew we’d transcended harsher obstacles. Baldwin’s hope was not romantic — it stemmed from a righteous love and radical truth-telling. He asks us to examine ourselves, to “free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.”
The Harlem-born laureate understood that holding up the mirror to “our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream” is the most powerful but simple thing each of us can do. Eventually, you will force the country to accept that growth can only come from vulnerability, and reconciliation only from truth-telling. If he were alive today, Baldwin would know that we’re still very much living through a revolution, and there’s no way for that to be pretty — but as difficult as it is, he would insist that we persist.
This post was previously published on Level and is republished here with permission from the author.
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