James Baldwin On The Non-Existence Of The American Worker

In The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, New York, 1993(1962), p. 88), James Baldwin writes:

People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal…but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here [in America], where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hands of the boss’ daughter.)

What does it mean to say that in this country, ‘spiritually speaking, there are no workers’? I can only venture an educated guess here as someone who has read a bit of Baldwin and been awed by the catholic generosity of spirit that is visible in the angriest of voices; I do not claim to understand Baldwin’s complicated relationship with spirituality for this is a man who was of the church, and left it, and indeed, claims that a certain kind of membership in, and affiliation with, the Christian Church is incompatible with morality (p. 47). So, to be a worker, spiritually speaking, for Baldwin would be to envision yourself as a member of a community first and foremost, a brotherhood and fraternity, a sorority and a sisterhood, one drawn together by common purpose and shared ideals, by a vision of a shared life and a common good, one achieved by joint effort, where the inevitable pitfalls of life are safeguarded by mutual security and respect and love. The workers’ union in this vision is a collective community, one dedicated to the common good of all its members, safeguarded with the passion that can only spring from mutual love. Idealized yes, but that is nature of visions imbued with love.

Such is not the community of workers here in America; here instead, workers are caught up in a zero-sum fantasy in which the rights and privileges earned by others are occasion for envy and rancor and self-hatred. As I’ve noted here, the American worker wants company in his misery, his lack of vacations, his shrinking wages, his implacable downward mobility; the unionized worker, one who has bargained collectively to secure better wages and working hours and vacation and healthcare, is not an object of admiration, but of envious fury. There is no aspirational ideal here.

Candidates for the boss’ daughter know there can only be one ‘winner’; all others are competitors to be vanquished. There can be no co-operation here; no mutual support; a ‘win’ by one is a ‘loss’ for another. Suitors compete; they are racked by envy and jealousy alike; they do not entertain noble emotions. They are hoping for luck, for recognition, for the hand of fortune to reach out and touch and elevate them; they are possessed by the desire to possess’ the boss’ riches as an inheritance that will make their dream come true, that of wealth and power and fortune made theirs by dint of a magical selection. Not by collective effort and solidarity.

How can the suitor ever see another suitor as a brother?

Rereading Native Son

I’ve begun re-reading a book (with the students in my philosophical issues in literature class this semester) which, as I noted here a while ago, made a dramatic impact on me on my first reading of it: Richard Wright‘s Native Son. Thus far, I’ve read and discussed Book One with my students (on Wednesday last week); we will resume discussions on April 8th once spring break is over. But even on this brief revisitation I’m struck by how my reading has changed. I’m now twenty-six years older than I was on my first reading. Then, I was thinking about returning to graduate school; now, I’m a tenured professor assigning the same text to my undergraduates. Then, I read Native Son in the anticipation of discussing it with my girlfriend, who had gifted it to me; I think I subconsciously hoped to impress an older and wiser woman with my sensitive and nuanced take on Bigger Thomas’ fate. Now, I read Book One (Fear) of Native Son in anticipation of discussing it with my students, many of whom have already shown themselves capable of sensitive and nuanced readings of the novels I have assigned them thus far; I therefore look forward to their understanding of this classic novel, daring to hope that they will bring a new interpretation and understanding of this material to my attention.  For my part, I’m far more attentive to many plot details and devices on this reading; I’ve become, I think, a more careful and sensitive reader over the years, looking for more, and often finding it, in the texts I read.

Before we began class discussions I subjected my students to a little autobiographical detail: I informed them of my prior reading, of the book’s influence on me, of the passage of time since then, how I would be re-reading the text with them, and so on. I did not detail the full extent of Native Son‘s impact on me; that discussion will have to wait till Bigger’s trial and his defense by Max. But I cannot wait to do so; I wonder if I will be able to capture the sense I had twenty-six years ago of suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light. One part of that anticipation also fills me with dread; what if my students simply do not ‘get’ from it what I was able to? What if, indeed, as I read on, I find myself disappointed by Native Son?

But if the first class discussion last week was any indicator, I needn’t entertain such fears. My students ‘came through’: they had read the first book closely; they had responded to Wright’s dramatic evocation of a fearful, angry, and violent Bigger, living in a ‘black world’ disjoint from a ‘white world,’ destined to run afoul of those forces that had conspired to make him who he was, to drive him to kill, negligently and willfully alike, onwards to his fatal rendezvous with America, his home and his graveyard. Bigger’s story endures; it does so because much else–like the forces that harried him–has too.

Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.


But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.


When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

James Baldwin On A White Policeman’s Eyes

In James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974) Fonny, a young black man, is in jail for rape–his supposed victim’s eyewitness identification is probably mistaken; ‘outside,’ his pregnant girlfriend, Tish, wonders about the policeman, Bell, who arrested Fonny. Bell had wanted to arrest Fonny for assault ever since he had violently defended Tish from a young Italian man’s unwelcome advances, and had only been thwarted by a white bystander, an Italian woman who owned the store Tish was shopping in.

Now, as the Tish’s family fights to prove Fonny’s innocence, Tish is haunted by Bell; she knows his name; she ‘sees’ him everywhere; she has memorized his badge number. Since that day Tish first met Bell, he has come to reside in her self as an abiding memory, an unforgettable and disturbing impression:

I had certainly seen him before that particular afternoon, but he had been just another cop. After that afternoon, he had read hair and blue eyes. He walked the way John Wayne walks, striding out to clean up the universe, and he believed all that shit: a wicked, stupid, infantile motherfucker. Like his heroes, he was kind of pigheaded, heavy gutted, big assed, and his eyes were as blank as George Washington’s eyes. But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of those eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death. If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the center of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist: if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view. Presently, the black overcoat will be still, turning red with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all. Sometimes I was with Fonny when I crossed Bell’s path, sometimes I was alone. When I was with Fonny, the eyes looked straight ahead, into a freezing sun. When I was alone, the eyes clawed me like a cat’s claws, raked me like a rake. These eyes look only into the eyes of the conquered victim. They cannot look into any other eyes. When Fonny was alone, the same thing happened. Bell’s eyes swept over Fonny’s black body with the unanswerable cruelty of lust, as though he had lit the blowtorch and had it aimed at Fonny’s sex. When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said. [pp. 185-186.]

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Parable of the Sower: Octavia Butler’s Parable

Octavia Butler‘s Parable of the Sower, the richly symbolic and subversive.story of Lauren Olamina, a prophet in the making, one finding her voice and her people in the midst of an America whose social order is collapsing around her, grows on you.  The story line is sparse: the US’ accumulated social, political and environmental dysfunctions have grown out of control thanks to a myopic complacent populace; some fortunate families shelter in gated communities while urban war rages outside; rape, murder, and mayhem rule rampant; a young girl, convinced she has devised a new religion, Earthseed–whose central principles are that ‘God is Change’ and can be ‘shaped’–finds her sheltering life within these walls untenable, and leaves after yet another attack on them convinces her it is more dangerous inside than outside. From that point on, she accumulates a small band of fellow travelers and heads north to possible safety. On the way she finds further gruesome evidence of the end of the new world and dreams about a new one. The haven promised them turns out to be a burnt-out shelter, the larger world on a smaller scale–but she chooses to drop anchor and get to work on it. (I’ve not read the sequel Parable of the Talents yet, but I intend to. Parable of the Sower was written in 1993, and it sets its action in the years 2025-2027. Though perhaps inevitable, I suspect it is besides the point to wonder if its speculations about a collapsing US are on the mark. The real story lies elsewhere. )

Parable of the Sower is subversive because the prophet is a young black girl, not an old white man. She is wise beyond her years. She is sexually active with young and old men alike; she can be harsh and soft.  She is scientifically literate. She is hyperempathic–she can literally feel the pain of others. (This is a dangerous ‘blessing’ in a world with so much pain but Lauren comes to learn its limits and to live with it.)  She is tough and resourceful and clever; we come to admire her as her dangerous journey progresses. We do not normally associate these qualities with people meeting Lauren’s description–not in this society anyway, with its dominant stereotypes and ideological frames of understanding.  Just for this character, Parable of the Sower would have been an interesting and enlightening read.

But there is more. Earthseed seems a little new-ageish, but teasing out some of Lauren’s pronouncements enable an understanding of it as a kind of existentialist creed, one grounded in a richly interactionist. embedded, dynamic view of man and nature and cosmos. Heaven and hell are found here, around us, made by us, shaped by our actions; the old religions shrouded them in mystery but we live in them everyday. (The shrewd prophet uses that old word ‘God’ to make her religion easier to follow by those accustomed to old anthropomorphic deities.) In a world headed for hell in a handbasket this religion offers no solace, facilitates no finger-pointing; the blame is ours, but so may be the rewards for reconstructing it.  No creed can, or should, offer more.


The Black Absence in Academic Philosophy

Jason Stanley recently posted the following interesting status message on his Facebook page:

The first sentence of this article is “Nationwide, just over 5 percent of all full-time faculty members at colleges and universities in the United States are black”. If that is so disturbing as to give rise to this headline, what are we to say about the fact that fewer than 125 members of the 11,000+ members of the American Philosophical Association are black. If *just over 5 percent* is disturbing, what about *1 percent*?

I’d call that statistic disturbing several times over. It’s not a new one to me, but its capacity to induce deep discomfort does not go away. There’s no two ways about it: philosophy, as an academic field, does not seem up to the task of accommodating black students or faculty.  A problem as severe as the numbers indicate is not amenable to easy solutions either.

At Brooklyn College, our department has twice played host to black professors–Lewis Gordon and Tunde Bewaji–for visiting positions that lasted for a year. The enrollment of black students in their classes–Philosophy of Culture and African-American Philosophy–was through the roof; we had never seen as many black students register before for a class. This suggests one immediate step: the hiring of black faculty.  (Brooklyn College has failed to hire a black philosopher, so we aren’t doing too well in his regard.)

But black faculty will have first been black students earning Ph.Ds, which brings us to the problem of the lack of black students in philosophy graduate programs. During my graduate school years, I can only remember seeing one black student in the twenty or so graduate level courses I took; he simply disappeared after a while. All the usual suggested solutions still seem worth a shot: aggressive recruitment, careful, close mentoring. I have no idea, honestly, what steps major graduate programs nation-wide are taking in this direction.

Just getting black students into philosophy programs will not help if they find their curricula to not be of interest.  One possible way to get black students interested in philosophical curricula–at the undergraduate level for starters–is to bridge it for them somehow. For instance, Brooklyn College offers a class called ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ which is taught as a Upper-Tier core course. A variant of this could be ‘Philosophical Issues in African-American Literature’; it would serve to introduce black students to epistemic, ethical, metaphysical, and political issues through that canon. (Philosophy departments, of course, would have to get over their uptightness about philosophy only being taught from ‘classical texts.’) Given this introduction they might then be inclined to see what the ‘regular’ or ‘mainstream’ philosophical tradition has to offer them.

Of course, as Stanley noted, philosophy departments also could and should:

 [T]each the extremely rich tradition in African-American Philosophy, especially in Political Philosophy. Start with David Walker‘s *Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World*, go through to Du Bois‘ *The Souls of Black Folks*, and Alain LockeCLR James‘s *The Black Jacobins* is a brilliant way to think about the contradictions of liberalism. There is tons of great political philosophy and aesthetics there. [links added]

These changes to curricula and hiring and retention practices are still just scratches on the surface. What is perhaps needed is a deeper and more fundamental change, a reconceptualization of the nature of philosophical inquiry and practice. For that, Kristie Dotson‘s paper “How is this Paper Philosophy?” (Comparative Philosophy 3:2) makes for very useful reading. I hope to write more on it soon.

Can An Adult Read a Book Like a Child?

In ‘The Lost Childhood’ (from The Lost Childhood and Other Essays, Viking Press, New York, 1951), Graham Greene writes:

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back.

But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long  journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future. I suppose that is why books excite us so much. What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years….it is in those early years that I would look for the crisis, the moment when life took a new slant in its journey towards death.

As my posts here on Richard Wright’s Native Son and Toni Morrison’s writing in Sula would indicate, I’m inclined to disagree with Greene: I do think its possible for even adults to read books that they consider to have had a ‘deep influence on their lives.’

However, I think too, that I have a sense of what Greene is getting at. The ‘distance’–between one point of emotional and imaginative maturity and another–a childhood book helps you traverse is perhaps far greater than that any book read in adulthood could take you. The books we encounter in childhood find us having barely commenced many mental journeys; the first steps they help us take are often gigantic and accompanied by a kind of thrill we only rarely encounter in adult life. We are not yet jaded, not yet cynical. All of this is implied in the claims Greene makes above.

The reason a book read in adult life can have the ‘deep influence’ Greene speaks of is related to the childhood reading experience. We might grow up with our selves developed unevenly; we might find ourselves possessed  of great accomplishment and maturity in one domain and yet utterly lacking in sophistication and edification in another. Our formative years might have been biased by particular sorts of influences that drove out yet others; we are, so to speak, only well done on one side. Pockets of callow superficiality lurk within us.

At these moments then, thanks to fortuitous discovery, we are set up for an encounter that is like our childhood reading: we find ourselves experiencing an epiphany of sorts, the same giddiness that so thrilled us as children comes upon us again. And we speak of our newly found intellectual companion in the same breathless fashion as we did of our teenage crushes.

So, I think focusing on chronological age is a mistake. As long as–thanks to previous immaturity–we bear the potential for radical growth within us, we will continue to experience these ‘books of divination.’ Adults can read books like children.