In No Name in the Street (1972), James Baldwin traced the movements of a dark dress suit that he bought to wear at an appearance with Martin Luther King, Jr., at Carnegie Hall. Days after the Carnegie event, King was assassinated. Baldwin found himself wearing the same suit to King’s funeral. He told a columnist that he would never be able to wear that suit again.
As Baldwin would later recall, the suit was “too heavy a garment”: “I simply could not put it on, or look at it, without thinking of Martin, and Martin’s end, of what he had meant to me, and to so many. I could not put it on without a bleak, pale, cold wonder about the future.”
The columnist’s article with its mention of the suit drew the attention of a boyhood friend of Baldwin’s—a man Baldwin had not seen in years and from whom he felt estranged by the fact of his departure from the world that had created that friendship, the world of the Harlem of his youth. Leaving that world was a “rupture, which was, of necessity, exceedingly brutal and which involved, after all, the deliberate repudiation of everything and everyone that had given me an identity until that moment.” The old friend called Baldwin and told him that he needed a suit: they were, after all, just the same size, and if Baldwin were not going to be wearing that suit anymore, well, he would like to have it.
That was how Baldwin found himself, suit draped over his arm and all too self-conscious, stepping out of a limo in front of the Bronx brownstone where the man and his family now lived. Baldwin understood that the Jimmy Baldwin the family knew and loved was no more. He and his former friend were now separated by vast divides.
The reunion between Baldwin and the old friend and his family was no love feast. They nearly came to blows over Vietnam, with the old friend, a postal worker, defending the war, and Baldwin outraged that his friend would stand up for the “racist folly” in Southeast Asia, as Americans and surely black people had “no business there.”
In the end, the old friend tried on the suit, it fit to a “t,” and Baldwin went home.
Baldwin’s elusive terrain, where he thought the work of understanding and practicing democracy needed to take place, was what we call autobiography qua cultural history, autobiography qua political history. Baldwin’s gift was to be able to navigate the passages between private and public, self and history, and to do so concretely, evocatively, and with devastating political effect.
In No Name, Baldwin reflected on the suit’s peregrinations. Of course, there was the plain reality that his friend could not “afford” Baldwin’s “elegant despair”: “Martin was dead, but he was living and he needed a suit.” But Baldwin went on to observe that, in a deeper sense, the suit belonged to his friend and his family. “That bloody suit was their suit, after all, it had been bought for them, it had even been bought by them. They had created Martin, he had not created them, and the blood in which the fabric of that suit was stiffening was theirs. The distance between us, and I had never thought of this before, was that they did not know this, and I now dared to realize that I loved them more than they loved me. And I do not mean that my love was greater … No, the way the cards had fallen meant that I had to face more about them than they could know about me, knew their rent, whereas they did not know mine, and was condemned to make them uncomfortable … they certainly wanted that freedom which they thought was mine—that frightening limousine, for example, or the power to give away a suit, or my increasingly terrifying trans-Atlantic journeys. How can one say that freedom is taken, not given, and that no one is free until all are free? and that the price is high.”
The suit, with its travels and meanings—an object imbued with memories of love and trauma, a symbol of rupture and connection between self and other, self and personal past, self and national history—represents a fitting way to frame a group of essays about Baldwin and democracy. Baldwin’s elusive terrain, where he thought the work of understanding and practicing democracy needed to take place, was what we call autobiography qua cultural history, autobiography qua political history. Baldwin’s gift was to be able to navigate the passages between private and public, self and history, and to do so concretely, evocatively, and with devastating political effect. All of the essays in this collection are broadly autobiographical, though some are more forthrightly personal than others. But none of them are narrowly personal: they all explore, in their various ways, the interplay between intimate encounters and national narrative. That interplay was where Baldwin believed the greatest damage to society and self could be found and the greatest potential for redemption lay.
All of the essayists find in their engagement with Baldwin a version of that suit and its itinerary. That is to say, each essayist finds, as Baldwin does with the suit, an opening to explore the alienation and trauma that result when public categories and myths distort or erase the daily realities of personal history. In the same way that the story of the suit is about matters of non-fit and fit, all of the essays probe that domain of non-fit between distorting myths and self, and find in Baldwin that needful thing, that suitable garment, that allows for the work of self-understanding and democratic connection with other selves to go forward. To call this project “anti-identitarian” captures its skepticism of social categories of all kinds, but it is at the same time, fundamentally identitarian, and fundamentally historical, in Baldwin’s sense of identity, as a so often contradictory cluster of beliefs, influences, and histories that need to be honestly reckoned before any lasting and meaningful work of democratic union can occur. And anyone can take up that suit, much as Baldwin’s old friend did, appropriate it for their own needs and purposes, a kind of open-ended process of collective education, of gifting and circulation, teaching and learning, that is the explicit or implicit theme of so many of our essays.
This collection grew out of an informal lunch panel at Washington University in 2013 in which a group of scholars were asked to explore in brief their personal relationship with Baldwin’s writings. These musings— and several of these essays started out as not much more than that—were all expressed in this Baldwinian mode of autobiography qua cultural history. While participants in that panel and the writers who have joined them in this collection are by no means all historians by trade, they all engage history in the Baldwinian sense. We believe that such an approach to history is particularly appropriate to the political moment that we live in: a moment in which everyday neoliberal nostrums about racial harmony and the advent of post-racial America, are revealed as brutally inadequate. Ferguson, Missouri, was just another segregated suburb when the Baldwin lunch panel met, but the disjunction between liberal pieties and the reality of living as a person of color was plenty evident. Ferguson was quickly joined by Baltimore, Chicago, Charleston, and countless other American cities. It is tempting to fall into reciting these place names as a litany of despair, but Baldwin calls us to confront what these events can reveal about our deepest selves and our aspirations for a more perfect democratic union.
All of the essayists find in their engagement with Baldwin a version of that suit and its itinerary. That is to say, each essayist finds, as Baldwin does with the suit, an opening to explore the alienation and trauma that result when public categories and myths distort or erase the daily realities of personal history.
Rather than attempt a summary of each essay, in the manner of a conventional Preface, it makes more sense for us to mention in brief some of the ways of thinking, some of the shared emphases and modes of engagement, of the writers in this volume. Separation and loss were preoccupations of Baldwin’s, and they represent the point of departure for Anthony Abraham Jack, in his meditation on Baldwin, family, and educational inequality, in the form of a love letter to his niece Noony. Jack explores what it means to be the child who lives betwixt and between, trying to offer some guidance and solace to another child—a demonstration of love both personal and political. He speaks to the existential “separation” of having historicized the context of one’s own life but finding one’s self nonetheless divided from it. The closely related theme of estrangement lies at the heart of Gerald Early’s fittingly ambivalent love letter to Baldwin, a tribute to another essayist for whom there was “always this sense of doubt about one’s racial identity, a sense that, after all, one can be, in spite of it all, a stranger to one’s own people, helplessly so, or that maybe one might want to be a stranger to one’s own people.” This way of thinking about identity and estrangement shape Baldwin’s relation to the controversial Bessie Smith, and what LeRoi Jones called “her unruly black ass,” as it shapes Early’s relationship with Smith (and Baldwin), as he came of age as a writer. (Editor’s note: Early’s essay “Talkin’ ’Bout My Generation” is available only in the print edition of this special issue. To obtain it, purchase a full digital subscription through the “Subscribe” box at the site’s upper right-hand corner.)
Cecil Brown engages themes of estrangement and belonging in a less ambivalent and more warmly nostalgic way, evoking the community of exiles that Baldwin gathered around him in France of the early 1970s, of which Brown was a part. Brown understands estrangement in national and geographic terms, but perhaps more fundamentally, in racial and linguistic terms: he writes of how Baldwin, in the moment he was composing the novel If Beale Street Could Talk (upon which the 2018 movie directed by Barry Jenkins was based), was striving to articulate “experience”—a kind of authentic rendering of black experience—conjured through “poetry.” Baldwin’s ideal of the poet, says Brown, was Nina Simone, whose lyrics were poetry insofar as “she gives you back your experience” and “makes you conscious of the things you don’t see.” The love between a “people,” in all their passion and vulnerability, and the “poet,” that Baldwin was striving to be: this was the love that he sought to evoke in Beale Street. That love could be an antidote to estrangement, personal and collective. Another antidote, Brown suggests, was, friendship—the rich friendship that he and Baldwin sustained.
Coming of age, as a torturous, defining, and never-realized process, and a foundational matter for James Baldwin, is Joshua Aiken’s concern. Confusion, for Aiken, is the very foundation of racial identity, both for the black child and for American society, both of which he encounters from his outpost at Oxford University. Aiken discovers the catharsis of being and living his own irreducible self at the same time he learns the power of entering the intellectual and political world as an un-maker of myths. Myth-making and unmaking is likewise the revelatory theme of Cynthia Barounis, who, exploring her own encounter with Baldwin, sees “bodies that leak,” like that of transgender military intelligence officer Chelsea Manning. Barounis situates Manning in the controversy over Manning’s selection as grand marshal of San Francisco’s annual gay pride parade and, in so doing, gives the lie to ossified liberal myths of “autonomy” and “independence.” Complex and so often ambivalent sexual identities and encounters also provide Barounis with an opening to challenge psychiatric and medicalized mythologies of homosexuality and to explore the deepest premises of the war on terror. Finally, Lawrie Balfour frames the problem of estrangement, the courage and existential crisis and opportunity to live outside official myths, as the courage to be unloved. Love in a racialized democracy is braver and better because it does not anticipate return. For Balfour, democracy ultimately is a faith, based on the cultivation of this love.
But that faith and love can only be achieved through an intimate encounter with the racialized and violated black body, writes Rashida Braggs, who takes as her subject the racial murder of a black man by white men on a spree depicted in Baldwin’s 1957 short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” The dismembered body of Sonny’s uncle, its “blood and pulp,” the discordant sounds of his uncle’s guitar smashed, together form the traumatic visual, auditory, and emotional centerpiece of Rashida Braggs’s essay. To conjure up a loved brother’s vital humanity and to feel the loss of that embodied humanity—that, says Braggs, was Baldwin’s challenge in “Sonny’s Blues” and her challenge as a performer. To experience such trauma, to “sound it out” in all its sensory particularities, is the all but impossible but surpassingly necessary task called for. Only in so doing can we engage the full measure of the “democratic misencounters” among biological and political “brothers” that lay at the heart of American life; only through such reckoning can any meaningful democratic life go forward.
Anyone can take up that suit, much as Baldwin’s old friend did, appropriate it for their own needs and purposes, a kind of open-ended process of collective education, of gifting and circulation, teaching and learning, that is the explicit or implicit theme of so many of our essays.
Baldwin as teacher and teaching Baldwin, both and together, are the common subject of separate essays by Katherine C. Mooney and William J. Maxwell. Mooney explores the ways Baldwin’s writing resonates for her students and reminds us how central the responsibilities of teaching are to Baldwin’s understanding of how democratic life can be imagined, built, re-made. An ethic of care, grounded in the teacher’s humility and tenderness towards the student, whose complex individuality the teacher can hardly presume to know, lay at the heart of Baldwin’s educational enterprise, as it does Mooney’s own hoped-for relationship with her students. The “stretching of scar tissue,” a bodily metaphor that calls to mind Braggs’s conception of how the overt and hidden wounds of racial life in America could be overcome, is how Mooney describes the process of mentorship. The relationship of teacher and student, which Mooney— and Baldwin—understand as always fraught with the lure of domination, demands of the teacher a gentleness deployed in the interest of creating an alliance of equals: the one who knows how to ask questions becoming equal with the one learning to ask questions, the two equal most of all in their shared status as human beings learning to live with those questions.
William J. Maxwell reports on the experience of teaching a literature course dedicated to works of James Baldwin to college students fully engaged with Black Lives Matter in the ongoing Ferguson moment. His essay probes a kind of dissonance that he experienced as instructor, between Baldwin in all of his mid-20th-century complexity and contradiction, and the expectations of his 21st century students; in other words, what happens when a “dearly departed exemplar … on second glance almost—but not quite—flatters the mood of the present.” The result of this dissonance is, for Maxwell, an “irony”: Baldwin’s revival “has taken place amid a re-hardening of racial essentialism, its causes easy to appreciate but terrible to accept, that warps facets of his pedagogy at its most contrary, distinctive, and profound.” Baldwin’s confrontations with his own teachers, his anti-identitarian provocations, and his willingness to have students confront their racialized selves in the classroom in ways that might strike today’s academy as “sharp and remarkably candid,” were all admirable, Maxwell concludes, full of unvarnished educational and democratic potential.
Baldwin calls us to recognize, as he does, the historical contexts that allow for an appreciation of the interconnectedness of self and other across fraught personal and political divides.
Baldwin teaching and teaching Baldwin, as well as the fraught terrain separating African-American history and experience from the dogmas of conservative and liberal mythmakers, are Nicholas Buccola’s themes in an essay that takes up James Baldwin’s fierce 1962 encounter with white supremacist provocateur James Jackson Kilpatrick on the NBC TV show The Open Mind. Moderated by the liberal historian Eric Goldman, the face-to-face encounter was one that “Baldwin did not relish”—would Baldwin be dignifying Kilpatrick’s racism (not to mention Goldman’s) by engaging with them on such a platform, especially at a moment of segregationist violence against African-American human and civil rights? Baldwin felt duty-bound to participate, in ways that Baldwin understood—and Buccola understands—as a moral-historical “teaching moment.” Baldwin’s genius was to flip the script on Kilpatrick, exposing him as a destroyer rather than a preserver of Western (that is to say, White) Civilization, but in a deeper sense, as a man of deep illusions and fears, which Baldwin was now in the powerful position of exposing. Though differently culpable, Goldman, like Kilpatrick, was invested in a kind of white innocence project. Buccola’s historical, but ultimately deeply personal challenge to himself and to the reader, is to do the work of self-interrogation as preliminary to the work of democratic reconstruction: “the question of color,” as Baldwin put it, “operates to hide graver questions of self.”
All of these essays call for a courageous love and humility of the sort that Baldwin invoked in his meditation on the suit. It took a certain courage and humility for Baldwin to confront the unbridgeable chasms between himself and his old friend. Baldwin calls us to recognize, as he does, the historical contexts that allow for an appreciation of the interconnectedness of self and other across fraught personal and political divides. It is precisely those passages that he negotiates to arrive at that appreciation that are the scaffolding for the building of democratic faith.