To James Baldwin, the Struggle for Black Liberation Was a Struggle for Democracy

James Baldwin knew that racism, properly understood, is a question of tyranny: wherever it persists, democracy does not.

Portrait of James Baldwin at the Albert Memorial. (Allan Warren / Wikimedia Commons)

James Baldwin’s paternal grandmother was born into slavery. The preceding generations had lived and died in it. Chronology is not causation, but the writer’s attraction to the radical current can be better understood in light of this fact. The giant of mid-century American letters was near enough to bondage to know and love someone who had been bound.

He survived an era marked by the assassinations of members of his cohort — Malcolm was nine months his junior, Medgar eleven, and Martin younger by four years. A book detailing his memories of these men, his friends, was the last thing he was working on before his death. That work, like his legacy, never arrived at tidy denouement.

It is not only for that lack of resolution that Baldwin has gone through a renaissance in recent years. His frank assessments of the past have been summoned again, but this time to be read as a prophecy of a racial reckoning. But in making of him some soothsayer of America’s darker entanglements, the breadth and depth of his own thought has largely been effaced.

As is to be expected, the writer’s thinking changed over time, though now his name is often used as shorthand for an incisive, internally coherent critique of white supremacy. Such reductionism is a common historical fate for black intellectuals. Once their contributions have been refracted through the idiom of American civics, black thinkers in the United States are frequently treated as theorists of equality.

But the tidiness of that packaging does a disservice to their demands. Their concern is not just an appeal to equality, but to the possibility of democracy. How democratic can a nation be, one wonders, if tens of millions of people feel compelled to pour into the streets to insist that the government should not murder its own citizens?

“Power,” Baldwin wrote, “is the arena in which racism is played out.” So long as it is thought a question of hatred, of a heart’s interiors, then the black thinker who demands freedom will be received — by friends and enemies alike — as speaking of an emotional problem. Equality itself is relegated to the realm of feeling, and for many, that is more comfortable.

The popular version of Baldwin is known for his ability to soften the blow of his fury with an appeal to America’s better angels. In his first book of essays, Notes of a Native Son, he wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” The line has become one of his most famous. It has appeared on signs, been quoted by senators, reproduced in the opinion sections of the Washington Post and New York Times, and deployed against right-wing claims to the mantle of patriotism. The nation is criticized out of love and thereby improved.

Little attention is paid to the moment in history that produced those words. It was written before Montgomery and Selma, before the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, before Black Power.

In No Name in the Street, written nearly twenty years later, Baldwin looked back on the early years of his fame and remarked, “I was, in some way, in those years, without entirely realizing it, the Great Black Hope of the Great White Father. I was not a racist — so I thought; Malcolm was a racist, so he thought. In fact, we were simply trapped in the same situation, as poor Martin was later to discover.”

As a younger man, he had sought to define a sense of patriotism he could live with. He had been dissident, but loving. He was no longer that man. Too much had happened, as it always does. The Civil Rights Movement, abhorred in its time, is now sanctified, having been shorn of the question of victory. Only a few years on, Baldwin described the era as one “when many of us believed or made ourselves believe that the American state still contained within itself the power of self-confrontation, the power to change in the direction of honor and knowledge and freedom, or, as Malcolm put it, ‘to atone.’” The passage of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act has been mythologized as the triumphal capstone to that period of legitimate struggle.

James Baldwin at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Wikimedia Commons)

That legitimacy was, of course, conferred only once the movement had dissipated. Moreover, the gutting of the VRA less than a lifetime later is enough to bring any ostensible atonement into question. Whether citizens have the right to vote is not a matter of prejudice. It is a question of whether the United States is remotely interested in having a liberal democracy.

Over a decade before the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Congress had attempted to petition the United Nations for redress with their document “We Charge Genocide.” The petition, signed by W. E. B. Du Bois amongst others, argued that the legal and extralegal policies of the government were a threat not only to the lives of the country’s black citizens, but to democracy itself. The tools to suppress their dissent were necessarily antidemocratic.

It stated plainly: “Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many an American the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative.” The taking of black lives, it proffered, was integral to US governance: “[Evidence] suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.”

The intervening years transformed the country’s legal regime, but they might still be characterized as the dashing of a larger dream. One would certainly be hard pressed to argue that the problem of police policy with respect to the nonwhite population of the United States has become less relevant now than in 1951.

Having spent so long deluded by deliberate misunderstandings about chattel slavery and Jim Crow, it will take some work to recognize that racism, properly understood, is a question of tyranny. Wherever it persists, democracy does not. The insistence that we have recently been in a fight to preserve American democracy presumes that such a thing existed prior to 2016. Fears that Trump would tamper with the election last November were valid, but what has been defended in thwarting his attempts is a particular set of potential means to a democratic life and not the thing itself. This distinction matters, because if it is true that until now we have lived democratically, then the restorationists are right: we only need to go backwards in order to move ahead.

A more holistic view of the nation’s history suggests that the most recent attempt by Georgia Republicans to restrict access to the ballot is not an instance of a democratic government becoming unresponsive to its constituents, but rather the government clarifying who constitutes its people. They, too, are behaving as restorationists — they are simply looking a little further back.

Even if we take seriously that “American” ideals have determined our ultimate trajectory, we cannot take seriously the idea that American practices have not. Indeed, they have frequently done so with greater force. “[It] cannot be overstated,” wrote Baldwin, “that these centuries of oppression are also a history of a system of thought.”

He does not call upon this history as proof that Americans have fallen short of their ideals. They have competing value systems and the intellectual and moral appeal of progress is rarely sufficient on its own. “Habits of thought,” Baldwin continued, “reinforce and sustain the habits of power.” To misname what we and our predecessors lived through as democracy might prevent us from seeing the path to the real thing.

The year before No Name in the Street was published, Baldwin spoke at a rally in defense of the Soledad Brothers. The three men, George Jackson, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo, were still awaiting trial for having allegedly conspired to murder a prison guard who had previously shot and killed three inmates in California’s Soledad Prison while the Brothers were incarcerated there. At the rally, Baldwin gave his most succinct explanation for what was at stake, saying, “[There] are sounds — no matter how quiet it is kept — from people in America who are aware of what is happening to them and what criminal action has been taken against their lives. I don’t merely mean black lives: that’s the most visible symptom of the rottenness of a certain state, of the end of a certain history.”

The ends of histories rarely arrive as early as expected, but Baldwin demonstrates what is missed in confining something like black liberation to a category separate from that of democracy and authoritarianism. Power is accustomed to operating in certain modes, and its force traditionally applied in certain directions, but that does not mean that it can be contained there. A social base bent on defeating a protest movement against police brutality will likely find other movements worth repressing.

Baldwin identified this American crisis as the general “situation of the Western nations.” Its pervasiveness destroyed the hope of a strictly moral appeal as the means for ameliorating the situation. “It is not even remotely possible,” he wrote, “for the excluded to become included, for this inclusion means, precisely, the end of the status quo.” This thought is not unique to Baldwin. Only a few years after No Name in the Street, Samuel Huntington infamously diagnosed the turmoil of the 1960s as being a symptom of an “excess of democracy” in which “marginal groups” were making new demands capable of “overloading the political system.” His proposed cure was to reassert undemocratic forms of authority.

Thinkers across the ideological spectrum often arrive at a similar, if at times unspoken, conclusion. The separation of issues of “equality” make little sense in a political system where status is the central question.  The implication is that black people, like many others who have been forcibly excluded and exploited, are not capable of withdrawing consent. Were they thought capable of participating at such a basic level in a democratic society, then these sustained protest movements would be read as indicators of a crisis of legitimacy. Consent implies choice — the unspoken agreement is that black people have none. To move from that position implies a revolution. Here, Baldwin’s formulation works backwards, too. If you want to change habits of thought, you will have to change those of power.

“At the bus station in Durham, North Carolina,” May 1940. (Jack Delano / Wikimedia)

When one arrives at this juncture, it is common to fall back on Frederick Douglass’ dictum that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” This is frequently interpreted as the natural role of petitions and protest and even prayer. Baldwin took this a step further, arguing, “For power truly to feel itself menaced, it must somehow sense itself in the presence of another power — or, more accurately, an energy — which it has not known how to define and therefore does not really know how to control.” It is not as succinct as Douglass and takes on a more revolutionary hue. Counter-power is more than dissent; it is provocation and confrontation.

That modulation in Baldwin’s position, often buried now, is reasonable enough given what had transpired in the intervening decades. Americans are not trained to ask the people who lived through that period which side they were on unless they offer it up. The violence — the murders, the imprisonment, the assaults — is known, but it still sits uneasily in the national consciousness as a part of that netherworld once called the Negro Question.

When Baldwin first sought refuge from the racist terror of the United States, he arrived in Paris without any money and so “lived mainly among les misérables — and, in Paris, les misérables [were] Algerian. They slept four or five or six to a room, and they slept in shifts, they were treated like dirt.” Their analogous position was not lost on him, but he was careful to distinguish that history had not deposited carbon copies of the dispossessed. Rather, the similarities were routed through the dispossessors — the Americans and the French — who were alike in their response to their subjects’ desire for freedom.

After the shock of the fall of Dien Bien Phu during the French empire’s failed attempt to hold onto its colonies in Southeast Asia, Baldwin noted a shift in the streets of Paris. Algerians were not belligerents in the war,

and yet the attitude of the police, which had always been menacing, began to be yet more snide and vindictive. This puzzled me at first, but shouldn’t have. This is the way people react to the loss of empire — for the loss of an empire also implies a radical revision of the individual identity — and I was to see this over and over again, not only in France. The Arabs were not a part of Indo-China, but they were part of an empire visibly and swiftly crumbling, and part of a history which was achieving, in the most literal and frightening sense, its dénouement . . . and the French authority to rule over them was being more hotly contested with every hour. The challenged authority, unable to justify itself and not dreaming indeed of even attempting to do so, simply increased in force.

This pattern, where authority is challenge and responds with vindictive force, remains familiar. Those expressing consternation at the police response to last summer’s protests in full view of the international press would have done well to read the later, less patriotic Baldwin. Racist exclusion prods the realm of feeling, but not in order to produce hysterical minorities. The legal fictions that this exclusion rests on mutate over time until they become social ones as well, and these stories are difficult for their tellers to relinquish. Rather than engage in such an emotionally draining process, it is easier to maintain these misapprehensions, and to do so by force if necessary.

The Algerian Revolution should have made plain for the French what the preceding century of colonization had not. Yet, Baldwin noted, even one of the premier French writers, Albert Camus, could not comprehend what was happening. Instead, “European humanism appeared to expire at the European gates: so that Camus, who was dedicated to liberty, in the case of Europeans, could only speak of ‘justice’ in the case of Algeria. And yet, he must have surely known, must have seen with his own eyes, some of the results of ‘justice’ in Algeria.”

It was an impossible position, but that is not as rare as it might sound. The same dislocation occurs in the reception of black struggles in the United States. People demand freedom to, say, breathe or find housing or walk down the street, and their lack is perceived as a problem of justice. Legislative and structural gestures to equality are necessary, but they are not nearly sufficient to the project of leading a democratic life.

Baldwin goes further on the attack: “There was no way for [Camus] not to have known that Algeria was French only insofar as French power had decreed it to be French. . . . It is power, not justice, which keeps rearranging the map, and the Algerians were not fighting the French for justice, [but] for the power to determine their own destinies.” The increasing militancy of the black protest movement over the last decade suggests a broader understanding that “political freedom is a matter of power and has nothing to do with morality.”

James Baldwin in 1974. (Wikimedia Commons)

If one cannot get clean drinking water or walk down the streets without being harassed, then the formal structures of justice are beside the point. The startling success of recent voter suppression campaigns should not be broached separately from these extra-parliamentary confrontations. Limiting the electorate not only preserves power for a minoritarian party, it also insulates the ruling class from electoral consequences for failing to meet the demands of certain constituencies. That such a situation can be so frequently described as a question of “race relations” repeats the same analytical failure as Camus. The Algerian Crisis, the Negro Question — these are difficult to understand when the habits of our thought sustain the situation.

When Baldwin was back in the United States and traveling through the south, a powerful man groped him. Describing the horror of the situation, he explained “this man, with a phone call, could prevent or provoke a lynching.” For all the worries about voter fraud or disinformation, these kinds of petty powers and persisting fiefdoms produce the countervailing forces to democracy. They are the constituencies that prop up antidemocratic politicians and the means for expressing that set of politics, particularly where parliamentary procedure presents a hurdle. The fights against these forces constitute the terrain on which the struggle for a democratic life is fought.

Inequality necessitates force and its institutionalized forms, such as the police, are likely to develop a politics of their own. A French loss in Vietnam provoked racist assaults in Paris; an American loss in the same war provided fertile ground for the modern white power movement. It is not just a matter of who is excluded, but what the force required to exclude them will do of its own accord.

As Baldwin’s term as the Great Black Hope was beginning to expire, he was tasked with mediating a conversation between Malcolm X and a “sit-in student” on a local radio program. They all feared that Malcolm would tear him apart, but he was “one of the gentlest people” Baldwin ever met. Nevertheless, Malcolm cut to the quick:

“If you are an American citizen,” Malcolm asked the boy, “why have you got to fight for your rights as a citizen? To be a citizen means that you have the rights of a citizen. If you haven’t got the rights of a citizen, then you’re not a citizen.”

“It’s not as simple as that,” the boy said.

“Why not?” asked Malcolm.

Malcolm’s retort overstates the power the title “citizen” bestows, but not as much as the claims to a fictive past do. There has been no real reckoning with the fact that in a liberal democracy, people responded to their fellow citizens’ attempts to vote or share a schoolroom by blowing up and burning down churches. The liberal historian of the United States might posit that we can only claim to have lived in a “multiracial democracy” since the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; even this is an acquiescence in terms. Having gone through with the invention of race, a multiracial democracy is the only kind available to us. Anything less is either an oligarchy of the skin or the remnants of a genocide.

Early on in No Name in the Street, Baldwin recalls that as a child with younger siblings in the house, he learned that “rats love the smell of newborn babies.” No people can consent to gain this kind of knowledge firsthand; it is imposed on them by a power greater than themselves. And that power is antidemocratic by design. Indeed, the way our society has rationed our ability to care and receive care, to find shelter, to do more with one’s time than work and seek work has generated great wealth, as well as a politics that sees these forms of domination as the end goal itself.

So long as we maintain the institutions and traditions necessary to preserve this rationing, that antidemocratic political current will not be extinguished.