When children learn they are black, they are often confused. If they have learned their colors, they are confused because, more often than not, their skin is not literally black. If they have realized that being called black is less about pigment, and more about categorization, and they have also learned—subversively, I might add—that they remain worthy of both love and belonging, then they are confused by the idea that blackness would deny them this. If they have learned, from whatever source, that their existence is marginal and their well-being a secondary concern, they are confused as to why this is attributed to color. Because I do not look like them? Blackness is a bewildering answer. And if they have learned that they live in a time where they are black and that blackness has a particular meaning because they live in a white world, they should remain unsure. They should remain confused. Because if, as a black child, they remain disturbed by the logical fallacies embedded in the idea of “race”—they will never have to emerge from the dungeon that confines us all.
Like a piece of armor, The Fire Next Time is one of the books that I carry with me almost everywhere I go. Often it rests on my nightstand, gathering a small but never substantial amount of dust, placed next to my tortoise-shell glasses. Before falling asleep, as my mind winds down each day, I set aside whatever was holding my attention—a book of poetry, my cell phone, my journal—and rest it on top of Baldwin’s book. A literal stabilizing force.
In many ways, my most profound interaction with James Baldwin was as a black child who did not know who he was. While my parents provided my brothers and me with an immense library full of books written by and about people of color, I never encountered him. This was mostly because I grew up in white suburbs during the re-segregating of American public schools. As we entered junior and high school, James Baldwin did not feature on our syllabi and reading lists. He was not one of the writers—think Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou—who, at that time, white Ameri- cans acknowledged as part of some distinguished literary canon. Though certainly not a large sample size, while attending public schools in New Mexico, Tennessee, Texas, California, Iowa, and Arizona, neither of my two brothers or I recall hearing his name.
Yet amidst that sense of inadequacy—beneath the notion that my worth was predetermined by the mythologies of prejudice—was a different sensibility. A realization that, as Baldwin’s friend and poet Audre Lorde said, silence would not protect me. So as I mumbled, stuttered, and gasped for air, I was most grateful for the space. And it was in one of these moments of trying to stay afloat that I noticed her shelf: a shelf comprised mostly of James Baldwin’s books.
We were avid readers: We leaned heavily on books to orient us in a world that felt vast and distorted. When I came to understand that I was black, around age four or five, I began to realize that the world was shaped differently than the spinning globe in my classroom implied. Books were one of the places where my brothers—both such unbearably enthusiastic readers that they won awards at the local library for reading so many books one summer—and I began to make sense of the world. And as a child, a black child growing up in the United States, I began playing lost and found with my sense of self.
Baldwin, in his own words, explains this:
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
Reading Baldwin—as happens with other writers who are able to tap into human sensibilities and follies so intimately one’s body begins to ache—changed me. His life, his work, and his dispositions illuminated corners of the world I had never seen. He also, and this is the kind of statement that can never avoid cliché, was part of my becoming. His position on my nightstand reflects that I view him as central to me becoming the person, scholar, and writer that I am. Baldwin is special, however, because he was invested in the becoming of our world. He urged us to historicize our “pain” and “heartbreak.” And this web of history and interconnectedness—personal and local histories, global and societal interconnections—is why Baldwin still feels urgently relevant today. People and places have come before us and we are intertwined with the world they have made and we are currently making.
During my third year of undergrad, I was enrolled in a course called “Intolerance and Prejudice.” It was an upper-level social psychology course that explored the cognitive mechanisms of bias, prejudice, and discrimination. It tapped into all the mental shortcuts we take, in order to cognitively manage a planet filled with stimuli. Our tendency to categorize and label is evolutionary, but human beings too often take it dangerously far. Whether it is conscious or unconscious, snap judgments we make about one another and ourselves permeate contemporary life—they are the difference between a police officer pulling the trigger or never reaching for his gun. They are what have led women and students of color to experience “stereotype threat” during standardized tests—added anxiety during the exam because they do not want to fit the stereotype that women are bad at science or math or that black people are intellectually inferior.
I have a vivid memory of an early November day—winter had not yet descended upon us—talking with my professor after class. Professor Diana Hill Mitchell remains one of my closest mentors and my learning from and alongside her really began that day when I walked with her back to her office. We sat down, talked about my interest in the course materials, and I somehow began telling her about my life. I had not realized until that moment how much the world had engulfed me, how many of these insidious cognitive functions had shaped me. In that conversation, unexpectedly, I told her that I was gay and that I was struggling— deeply struggling—to come out. I explained how Christian my family was and how upset and unaccepting I imagined my parents would be. Using academic language, I told her how much I hated having another ‘stigmatized identity.’
Dean Hill was incredibly supportive, validated both my struggle and my worth, and calmed me when I burst into tears. I do not actually recall crying; that came up during a later conversation with her, but I remember sitting in her office that day. I remember that her class resonated so strongly because it gave me evidence for things I had felt my entire life. Yet amidst that sense of inadequacy—beneath the notion that my worth was predetermined by the mythologies of prejudice—was a different sensibility. A realization that, as Baldwin’s friend and poet Audre Lorde said, silence would not protect me. So as I mumbled, stuttered, and gasped for air, I was most grateful for the space. And it was in one of these moments of trying to stay afloat that I noticed her shelf: a shelf comprised mostly of James Baldwin’s books.
I tell this story because it is the product and practice of what you might call a Baldwinian ethic. It reflects, in my life, the notion that the black child is right to be confused.
As a regular visitor to her office, I eventually heard the story of how Baldwin had struck a chord in her own life but it was on this first visit that she handed me The Price of the Ticket. In the weeks that followed I dove into more of his novels, essays, and plays; his insights and stories, a perfect companion as I pondered what it might mean to live authentically. His works terrified me—they showed the anguish, pain, grief, and trauma that characterize many people’s lives. Yet these were the same books that saved me. That told me that there had been people in the world like me before—black and queer—and that there was still life to be lived, regardless of how the world turned. That in my pain and heartbreak, I was not alone.
I tell this story because it is the product and practice of what you might call a Baldwinian ethic. It reflects, in my life, the notion that the black child is right to be confused. It simultaneously reveals that if we stare at human history, unabashedly, we might find new ways of being in the world. That the ascribed can be complicated by the avowed. That we can resist unjust ways the world turns. What Dean Hill did that day was not only hold a mirror up to my own life and my own struggle, but encourage me to question the current order of things. Question the world from which my life emerged. The child, any child, is right to be confused by the way our world has been shaped. I began to understand that the social boundaries, the distribution of resources, and the conversations people did and did not have—these were facets of life that were not set in stone. I came to believe that the past was valuable, not because it foretold what would happen next, but because it was necessary to imagine other ways the world might be.
My academic work focuses on legal histories of inequality and race. In a study of the legal history of firearms and race, which uses the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense as a case study, I delve into the implications of gun laws. I discuss how American law has ensured that white people have felt safe, whether or not they were actually threatened or just perceived a threat, and that non-white people have been left vulnerable to harm. I tried to understand how contemporary conversations around gun control often ignore the fact that black people experience the highest rates of gun harm. I grappled with the idea that communal gun violence is highly correlated with chronic joblessness and that in the white suburbs where I lived, everyone who wanted to have a job, had a job. I tried to make sense of why black children are four times as likely to grow up in poverty as white children. I tried to understand the grip that racial capitalism, a system where people’s social and economic value is derived from racial categories, has on American life. I tried to illuminate the ways white supremacy hides itself in every facet of our lives. My research is that of a confused child, one closely examining the unfounded logics on which inequality is built.
In many ways, I am adhering to Baldwin’s idea of historicizing “pain” and “heartbreak”. After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, I spent several weeks with organizers and activists in the town. I had spent my undergraduate years in St. Louis, had driven through Ferguson a few times, but had few grounds to claim it was a place I knew. But as I learned more about the town’s palpable anguish and how these people—overwhelmingly black people—had been abandoned, I realized that I knew the place well. My research on the Black Panthers and gun laws slowly turned into a history of Richmond, California, and a history of the Bay area. I saw how white communities harbored and hoarded wealth and moved to the suburbs, how state resources were stripped from poor communities of color, and those same communities were blamed for the consequences. It is the same story, with a few reconfigurations, in Ferguson. And thus, despite my training as a historian of specific places, times, and people, I began to see the interconnected nature of how America had been made. I saw that what was happening in Ferguson—the slow violence enacted against black life and the instantaneous killing of people like Michael Brown—was happening throughout the country. It does not take a police officer reaching for a gun for communities of color to be devalued and destroyed. It takes a country so invested in looking away from the mirror, with pocketbooks so deep and zealously protected that they will do anything to not grapple with their wealth, power, and how that influence came to be.
Baldwin urged people, in his essays and literary works, to engage with the ideas that divide us. I find myself invoking him in my research, where although I do not focus on literary criticism, his writings are prescient.
I came to believe that the past was valuable, not because it foretold what would happen next, but because it was necessary to imagine other ways the world might be.
Take the mysterious notion of race and recognize that it is mysterious; Baldwin reminded us often that nobody was white, that there were only “people who believed themselves to be white.” In many ways anticipating what would become whiteness studies, Baldwin implored his readers to remember that our mental shortcuts are just that: tricks. Whiteness was the product of artifice and power; a construct, like other categorizations called “race.” Race, then, emerges as a conjured impulse that is used to rationalize and explain the maintenance of vulnerability, violence, and harm. Baldwin reminds us that race is a trapping system of thought—one that makes whiteness the default. Recent scholarship has explored this trap—in academic works like Karen and Barbara Fields’ Racecraft and more popularly in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. Our reliance on race, a biological fiction and artificial category, permeates every facet of our lives. Americans constantly refer to “African-Americans” or “Blacks” or “Latinos” or “Hispanics” without any real consideration of the ideological assumptions from which this language emerged. Especially in a country built so centrally on categories of difference, race-craft is integral to how this country has and continues to be made.
Baldwin, thus, does not only point us towards the mythology and how the myth is made, but also to how the myth is undone. I do not just mean this in the context of race. Here, again, emerges a Baldwinian ethic. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin puts it so plainly: “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.” As my consciousness rose during my last few years of undergraduate, I began to identify the mythologies everywhere—the over-simplified stories we tell about ourselves so it is a seemingly more convenient world to move through. There are white people, there are straight people, there are disabled people, there are women, and there are men. Our world—the confused child might notice—had been shaped to acknowledge, recognize, and privilege the well-being and material resources of some of these people and not others. And this privileging of some and marginalizing of others is the very interconnectedness that Baldwin invokes. He reminds us that there are people who believe themselves to be one thing, and in order to maintain that belief, must believe that other people are something else.
In Dean Hill’s office and her Baldwin library, I began to encounter the myth-making process and how myths are undone. All the internalized disdain that I had placed on myself began to unfurl the minute she made me feel seen. As a human whose journey had more nuance and complexity than classifications should ever hope to capture, I felt seen. This feeling, what academically might be called the affect of “intersectionality,” made my blackness and queerness part of the interwoven fabric of my being. She, I would argue in the vein of Baldwin, helped me undo the myth that I was just a category of things. She helped me undo the idea that there was nothing that had ever come before me and that I was an ahistorical cosmic frustration. She unraveled the knot and showed me that there was a thread that traced me and the categories that trapped me to the past.
What Baldwin can tell us about undoing myths remains the reason I have found him particularly relevant in our historical, political, and liminal moment. While capitalism and “post-racialism” have strong footholds in contemporary liberal thought, wealth inequality and mass incarceration are two glaring realities that contradict American progress. Which is to say, the myths circulating during Baldwin’s lifetime have rooted themselves and his understandings of them are undeniably salient and relevant. There is a reason that you could read any number of Baldwin’s essays and wonder if he somehow knew about Ferguson, about Baltimore, about the South Side of Chicago. In too many ways to count, he did.
But I truly came to this conclusion that Baldwin pulsates in a particular way in our political moment when I was anxiously sitting near the back of a bus headed to the University of Oxford. In my senior year I was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship—an honor bestowed not despite, but because of, my personal struggle. I remember leaving my interview for the award, being totally convinced that I would not be selected, but proud that I had unapologetically been myself. Now sitting on this bus amidst the other newly selected Scholars, I heard two of my classmates discussing their favorite books. This is usually a conversation I ignore; I have been around too many people who try to impress with either their knowledge of the latest (usually white male) author who wrote a modern classic or people who coyly say they still love a classic they read in high school like Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Instead, the voices coming from a few rows behind me were talking about The Fire Next Time. I was incredibly nervous at this point—I was moving to a new country with some of the smartest people I had ever met and was terribly worried I had not made any friends or a good impression on anyone. Usually when I am nervous I just stay planted where I am, trying to not make things worse. Surprising even myself, I got up and walked to the back of the bus and interjected with some remark about how James Baldwin changed my life.
What Baldwin can tell us about undoing myths remains the reason I have found him particularly relevant in our historical, political, and liminal moment.
Donald “Field” Brown and Tim McGinnis would become two of my closest friends in large part due to that conversation. Field, a student of black philosophical thought, is effervescent—charming, but grounded in the black Southern tradition in which he was raised. Tim had spent two years attending an alternative school on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm; while brilliant, it is his considerate empathy that I most recall. Our different personalities and disciplinary interests (Tim planned to be a doctor and Field a literature professor) met seamlessly when it came to Baldwin. Beyond our professional pursuits, I found, we all were grappling with what it meant to be—how we were meant to live—in an unjust world. The three of us would start a James Baldwin reading group at Oxford. For me, and I think all of us, our weekly meetings were a respite. They rooted the intellectual questions we were grappling with at Oxford in the unflinching commentary of a man who loved his own country so much that he insisted on “the right to criticize her perpetually.” Even for the non-American students who joined our group, Baldwin shed light on what it meant to undo any myths that obscure human dignity. His words enabled us to envision a better world.
This coming year, as part of a Baldwin reading group, we will be reading Giovanni’s Room. It is another book that I treat as armor; it reminds me that my life has precedence in this world. In re-reading it this summer, I was reminded of how powerfully Baldwin’s fiction articulates his orientation in life. Baldwin, as one of the many intellectuals who traveled to Europe, came to understand his own existence and own Americanness by traveling abroad. Field, Tim, and I have discussed feeling like we were on our own Baldwinian adventure during our time in the U.K.
One of my favorite quotes from the book reveals what I would argue is Baldwin’s message for the confused child. It captures his way of being in the world. Hella, the narrator David’s wife, laments:
“… Americans should never come to Europe,’ she said, and tried to laugh and began to cry. ‘It means they never can be happy again. What’s the good of an American who isn’t happy? Happiness was all we had.’ And she fell forward into my arms, into my arms for the last time, sobbing.
‘Don’t believe it,’ I muttered, ‘don’t believe it. We’ve got much more than that, we’ve always had much more than that. Only—only—it’s sometimes hard to bear.”
We have always had much more than our simple notions of who we are and what this world has made us. For Americans, again, Baldwin pushes us towards the “hard to bear.” Baldwin, writing this while in Europe might have been talking to himself. But he asks his readers to grapple and be confused—to interrogate ourselves and the world that made us. He implores us to look closely at potentialities, utopias, and imagined futures. His work simultaneously can protect us from dogmatic ideologies and throw us in the deep end. He takes us out of the myth. Brings us back to the state of the confused child, who has yet to embed bias and prejudice into his heart. He begs us to envision other ways of being. And as thinkers—especially in academia—we must rely on people like him. We must lean on those that have come before us, be bewildered alongside their work, and inch closer to a more reasoned sense of the world.