Black Looks - Including an African LGBTIQ+ Archive

Black America, Guest Blogger

James Baldwin 4: Freedom & Choice

I asked a few of my blogger friends to write something on James Baldwin – so far only Keguro has responded and I thank him dearly for writing this piece. Keguro speaks of Baldwin’s clarity and ability to “see into us” a “Too-frightening clarity”. I have watched him over and over and I see what Keguro means.

Freedom and Choice by Keguro Macharia

James Baldwin does not have an “I have a Dream” moment or a “What the Slave Thinks of the Fourth of July” moment or “A Dream Deferred” moment. Unlike King, Douglass, and Hughes, he does not have any one single speech or interview or novel or play that defines him. He remains mercurial, visible but also all-too-invisible.

When visible, as Dwight McBride argues, he is the race man: black, strong, hetero-normative. Or the coy queer, who speaks of loving men and women, interested in expanding our ideas of who to love–a necessary strategy–even as he refuses to be “out” and “proud.”

Not queer enough and yet too queer.

Like other important black figures–Alexander Crummell, Pauline Hopkins, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Audre Lorde–Baldwin is remembered less for what he said and more for saying, and saying with style. We claim him as a race warrior, a queer warrior, a class warrior, an arts warrior, without ever engaging his slipperiness, his ability to see into us with frightening clarity. Too-frightening clarity.

Too-close scrutiny might damage what we think we know and love about him.

In his essays, Baldwin returns to the themes of freedom and choice over and over. A few selections and then one or two comments.

Any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations. (“Nobody Knows My Name,” 1961)

I said that we couldn’t talk about minorities until we had talked about majorities, and I also said that majorities had nothing to do with numbers or with power, but with influence, with moral influence, and I want to suggest this: that the majority for which everyone is seeking which must reassess and release us from our past and deal with the present and create standards worthy of what a man may be–this majority is you. No one else can do it. The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in. (“In Search of a Majority,” 1961)

Let me point out to you that freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important. (“Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” 1960)

We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over. (“Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” 1960)

Reading these selections, I am struck by Baldwin’s absolute belief in a we who could and a we who can. A belief that was so necessary in the 1960s. One we seem to have forgotten.

Not resistance, but change. Not capacity building, but freedom. Not empowerment, but revolution. What Essex Hemphill called ass-splitting truth.

A truth not simply about the world out there, about oppression out there, about repression out there, but also about ourselves. Baldwin dares us to look into mirrors, into our hearts, into our souls, dares us to assume responsibility for the world we inhabit.