Cornel West on Why James Baldwin Matters More Than Ever
In Conversation with Christopher Lydon
James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago he was the intense man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his version of a civil-rights movement. Over the ruins of the 1960s, and specially the assassination of key leaders, black and white, James Baldwin spoke a sort of furious sad song for his country.
Activist-philosopher Cornel West writes and speaks in the James Baldwin tradition, in books like Race Matters and Black Prophetic Fire. You see him on television between Amy Goodman on Democracy Now and Sean Hannity on Fox, he’s back and forth as a teacher too, at Princeton and now at Harvard. In Andover Hall, the only gothic building on the Harvard campus, we sat down with West to learn about James Baldwin’s resonance today, in “as blues-like a moment as we can imagine.”
Cornel West: You said, Why Baldwin?
Christopher Lydon: Baldwin today.
CW: Baldwin today. Well one is that we live in an age in which there is such a paucity of eloquence. Baldwin exemplifies eloquence at its highest level. Now, when Cicero and Quintillian define eloquence as “wisdom speaking,” I think we’d have to add it’s “wisdom speaking” that’s rooted in a courage that refuses to sell out. We live in an age in which everybody’s for sale, everything is for sale. Baldwin would never have sold out. He was true to himself. He was true to his soul. This is in many ways the Baldwin moment, and it’s primarily because we know here’s somebody who’s committed to intellectual integrity, committed to a moral honesty.
Remember what he says at the end of Notes of a Native Son in the introduction: “All I want to be is an honest man and who, like Hemingway, endures in my work.” Now you see, in an age of mendacity and criminality, which is our own, just telling the truth and having integrity is revolutionary. It’s subversive. It’s countercultural. So, Baldwin comes back bringing this rich tradition of eloquent, truth-telling, witness-bearing, soul-stirring writing, and he’s got the black church as a backdrop. He’s listening to Bessie Smith. He’s listening to Mahalia Jackson when he’s writing, so you could feel the vibrations and the vibes on the page that are connected to the sonic expressions of geniuses like Bessie Smith and like a Ray Charles, of course, was probably his favorite. They were together at Carnegie Hall. That was a very historical moment at Carnegie Hall with the two of them.
All that to say is what? In this Trump moment, Baldwin comes back with tremendous power, potency, vitality and vibrancy, in part, because he’s willing to speak the truth not just about the country in the abstract but the truth about legacies of white supremacy, the truth about indifference, the truth about callousness, the truth about the spiritual blackout, which is the relative eclipse of integrity, honesty and decency in public life in the country. That’s true for Democrats, true for Republicans, true for right-wing, true for left-wing. It cuts across the board. But Baldwin is one of the few black intellectuals who was the darling of a slice of liberal elites for a while, and then, becomes demonized by them later on. That’s why you get the narrative of “the early Baldwin” and “the later Baldwin” as this decline, you see. Baldwin went his own way. He was Emersonian, he was Socratic and in some ways he was Jesus-like even though he left the church in order to preach his own gospel.
CL: Can we go back to that moment in the Church? Because he kept going back to it. In The Fire Next Time. In Go Tell It on the Mountain. In everything. He’s a 14-year-old boy on Lenox Avenue, and he’s scared on the outside and he’s scared on the inside. He’s desperate. And he surrenders to Jesus, but it’s the beginning of the end of the Church story, too. I mean, that to me is a definition of his anger, his guilt, his fear. But his indomitability too—with a vengeance. And still—then and ever—he’s a good person. He’s a lover, not a hater.
CL: He’s not a racist. People said that he complained too much. But he was never defeated. Can you go back there?
CW: Well, I mean, you know, he tried to commit suicide twice. I mean those are moments in which despair seems to have overwhelmed him. He just happened to get out from under and escape so that despair that haunted him every day of his life. At moments it looked as if it would triumph. He is certainly—you are so right—he is certainly a love warrior. He’s on the Love Train. He learns that early on in the gospel with this Palestinian Jew named Jesus, and he encounters the lack of that love in the church, the lack of that love in his step father who’s a pastor, the lack of that love in his community. He finds the love in Sister ‘Bill’, the white teacher who takes him to Shakespeare, who takes him to various plays, and he says quite explicitly that he loses his faith owing to the hypocrisy of the church but also from reading Dostoevsky, and when he gets cussed out for coming back from the Shakespeare play that Bill, the white woman teacher loved him to death and would take him around, and his father says, “you will no longer go see those plays. That’s of the devil.” He just got Shakespeare. He says no. The incongruity, the contradictions, the inconsistencies are too overwhelming. The church must go. Now, there’s a sense in which, like so many church women and church men, that he leaves the church for wonderful reasons because he encounters a love in what that church has to offer at its best. And he remains that love warrior his whole life, and he can’t conceive of himself without the metaphors and the stories and the narratives and songs—
CL: And the language.
CW: And the language that come out of that church, especially that black church experience. But he refuses to be parochial. He refuses to be provincial. He refuses to be myopic, and most importantly he refuses to be xenophobic. Now unfortunately, you know, most of the church has accommodated itself to myopia, domination, xenophobia and so on, and therefore, many of us can understand why he left the church, but there’s a sense in which the best of the church never left him, just like he never went to college but a college went through him. He was self-taught. He was a voracious reader, and he was really a kind of Democratic saint, if you define a saint as a sinner who looks at the world through the lens of the heart. He was heartbroken. America broke his heart, day in and day out.
CL: What is that love that still speaks in Baldwin?
CW: You know, when he says “love forces us to take off the mask we know we cannot live within but fear we cannot live without,” I think for Baldwin it has to do with a certain sense of a self that is willing to be humble, vulnerable as well as confident and fortified in order to meet the darkness and bleakness of the world, especially American civilization, white supremacist American civilization.
Baldwin’s story is profoundly autobiographical. Because in Baldwin’s own life there’s so much hatred and self-hatred and so much fear. He’s being terrorized and traumatized. All. The. Time. And yet, he’s got to fortify himself. He fortifies himself intellectually, reading voraciously. He fortifies himself spiritually, by yearning and trying to unearth sources of love, deep love. He doesn’t want to be like Socrates and Hamlet, which is those who suffer from the incapacity to love even given an intellectual sophistication. That’s the last thing he wants. He wants to be more like Amos Jesus, and, in the end, like the blues men and women. And in the end, it’s the blues men and women who become the very model. You know his wonderful essay “The Uses of the Blues.” Oh that’s a classic piece. Classic piece. You really see what is keeping Baldwin afloat, what is in some way allowing all of those composite contradictory tendencies within his own soul to hang together. And it is the blues. It is being on intimate terms with catastrophe and yet responding to that catastrophe with unbelievable style, with a smile, with courage and compassion.
CL: With lyricism, as Ralph Ellison said.
CW: Yeah, that’s what it is. How do you hone a self with integrity in a context of such chronic misery? How do you produce a sound that is full of delicacy and vulnerability, given the mastercraft and technique, but unbelievable delicacy and vulnerability in a world that’s trying to crush you. The last thing you want to be is vulnerable in a world that’s trying to crush you. And so you separate the flawed self from the unbelievable sonic expression that’s rooted in the soul-wrestling of that flawed self.
CL: Cornel, speak to Baldwin as he speaks about white America—about America—[how he] speaks to us today. For example, this is more than 50 years ago, he said: “Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them.” That’s us one-to-one. “Domestically, we take no responsibility for and no pride in what goes on in our country, and internationally, from millions, for many millions of people we are an unmitigated disaster.”
CW: Since 2001, how many precious Muslim brothers and sisters have been killed? Innocent ones. A million. That’s a lot of human beings. We’re in denial. Is there any public discourse about a million Muslims killed since 2001? Absolutely not. We don’t even count. We don’t even keep track of the bodies. We don’t even keep track of the bodies publicly of the American soldiers who have been involved in the invasions and occupations.
Now, each life is precious no matter which they’re country from, but we’re in denial. That’s on the international front: the Empire working in denial. Then, you come home, and the claim is innocence. What does Baldwin say? Innocence itself is the crime. Innocence itself is the crime. We’re innocent. Why don’t we take responsibility for what’s going on here? Poverty, wealth inequality… “All you have to do is work hard. All you have to do is sacrifice, defer ratification.” No, there’s structures and institutions in place that make it very difficult for people to have access to the things requisite for that quest for the American Dream that people are still valorizing. Baldwin is hitting it head-on. Innocence itself is a crime; you’re living in a state of denial and, back to Socrates again, who has the courage to critically examine themselves and their country in order to become more courageous, more service-oriented citizens and human beings? Baldwin’s challenge is more relevant now than it’s ever been.
CL: He writes in The Fire Next Time that “The American Negro”—this is 1963—“has the great advantage of’ the Kennedy administration”—JFK in the White House. Baldwin had had a bout or two with Bobby Kennedy. He writes, ‘The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans claim: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace. The tendency,” he says, “in African America has really been to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”
CW: Mmmhmm. But you know what, things have changed since Obama in regard to that claim. We know based on empirical data that historically black people have been the most anti-war constituency in the history of the nation. After six and a half years with a black president, a black face at the head of the American Empire, the black community waving the flag, defending Obama, defending the status quo… more pro-war. That quick. That fast. If Obama wants to undermine Libya and kill Gaddafi, wave the flag. We protect a black president. If Obama wants to drop bombs on seven countries that happen to be Muslim, we wave the flag and defend the black president. You see, all of a sudden now, blackness becomes, in part, of species of blindness in regard to moral integrity. It’s just a matter of success: he won, he won, we’ve got to defend him. It’s a beautiful thing he won, especially given who he was running against, but Baldwin’s about integrity. He’s about moral consistency. 25,000 bombs dropped year after year under Obama. What did black spokesmen say? Not a mumbling word. Would Baldwin have spoken out? Hell yes. How come? Because he’s got moral integrity. He’s not concerned about popularity. That’s a shift.
What happened about the critique of the Empire? We no longer launch a critique at the empire when there’s a black face running it? But when there’s a white face running it we still militant and resistant? That’s what Baldwin would be radically calling into question. That changes our moment. We’re in a post-Obama moment, which is a neo-fascist moment linked to Trump and Bannon and others, but we also are dealing with a black community very different than what Baldwin was talking about. We’re dealing with a black community that was involved in symbolic celebration but concrete hibernation in terms of critique of empire, critique of wealth inequality, critique of class inequality and so forth, you see.
One way of putting it is that too many black people who I love very dearly have been involved in breakdancing in the air but sleep-walking on the ground. Sleep-walking on the ground time. Time to wake up. Black lives matter. The movement for black lives was a rude awakening among the young folk. How do you have a black lives matter movement with a black president? You gotta remind a black president that black lives matter? Yes you do. Yes you do because these policemen are getting shot and not one of them is going to jail with the black president, the black attorney general and the black homeland security cabinet member. Something is wrong, right?
And Baldwin in the 60s, he’s writing about a black community that hadn’t succumbed to the myths of the flag. More black folk were cross-bearers than flag-wavers. Now, we’ve got more black folk who are flag-wavers than cross-bearers. That’s not good, not on the moral spiritual tip, no no. It’s good in terms of celebrating black success at the highest level, but you can imagine how celebrating black success at the highest level becomes a way of hiding and concealing social misery and suffering and black social misery, black suffering in the Empire in which we find ourselves.
CL: That line “Innocence is the crime.” What an aphorist this man was and what and ear for aphorisms…
CW: I know. Isn’t that the truth… Isn’t that the truth…
CL: I love that line. He says to his nephew James, he says, “Remember, you come from a line of poets,” in that line from the spiritual: “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” He’s up to it himself so many times. The line that people love to quote from the end of The Fire Next Time, or no, that other line to his nephew, but it’s his own. He says, “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you and, please don’t you ever forget it.” Speak of the language master here, and you’re one in your own right.
CW: Well, I’m not in Baldwin’s league… So, the beauty of the language, the vitality of the language—just like in the music—is a way of sustaining selves that are in the process of being crushed, demeaned, devalued, dominated, exploited, subjugated and so forth, and so, Baldwin does understand that life is a battlefield. Baldwin’s got that fusion of Athens and Jerusalem that is magnificent but is rooted in gutbucket blues, catastrophe and the lyricism as weaponry. Against what’s coming at him, you see. Now, why is that important?
Well, because these days, you can imagine a reduced Baldwin who would use his language as a way of bringing attention to his gifts rather than using his gifts to be of service to the cause because now we’ve got brands rather than causes. So, persons who do have wonderful language it’s primarily to bring attention to themselves to promote their brand for their careers, whereas for Baldwin the gifts that he had was to give to others to try to empower others for a cause. Baldwin was never reducible to a brand. If he was reducible to a brand, he would have remained a darling of the liberal establishment because that’s where his brand was unbelievably popular and flourishing. He made the most money at that time and so forth. When he shifted, it was a shift in cash, money, livelihood. He had to choose between career and calling. He had to choose between profession and vocation. Professional writer? No, my vocation is truth teller, very different. He would have to cut more radically against the grain these days because these days, brands are hegemonic. Causes are pushed to the margins.
CL: This is important. Speak to this. How do we explain the decline, shall we say, of eloquence, of truth-telling, of the church heritage, the spiritual tradition of the urgency, the independence of a man like James Baldwin. I mean, look around: all kinds of stars out there but that voice?
CW: Well, as I say, we live in the moment of a spiritual blackout though, brother. The eclipse of integrity is so pervasive. The commodification, the marketization, the commercialization of everything and everybody, which is expedited intensely every moment, makes it much more difficult for a person to sustain a commitment to something broader than just the next moment of consumption and the next moment of self-promotion. It’s a very different kind of moment. It really is. And you see it in Baldwin. I mean, Baldwin’s at the end of Fire Next Time in ‘62, The New Yorker in ‘63 in publication that he’s got hopes, but after the death of Medgar and Malcolm and Martin and so many precious nameless ones in the South and Schwerner and Chaney and others, his hopes really begin to wane and he becomes much more a severe critic with almost an apocalyptic sensibility… And that’s part of his legacy too. You’ve got a whole school of afro-pessimism that’s growing every day. It’s a whole school of thought, and it could pull from elements of Baldwin, even though we know Baldwin’s a prisoner of hope. We know Baldwin never gave up on possibility, but it got less, less and less space in his corpus.
CL: You’re so right. I mean, The Fire Next Time did end on a note of hope.
CW: Trump is the fire this time. It’s here. Neo-fascism is unfolding before our very eyes, undermining sources of opposition, be it press, be it courts, be it university, feeling as if it’s inevitable that you have to move in a right-wing, populist, xenophobic, nationalist, neo-fascist direction, trashing and demonizing the voices that would try to bring some critique to bear, and thank God we’re seeing the best of America: the women’s marches and the marches in airports and so forth. But how they will translate given the stranglehold of the institutions—because institutional capacity is very important for a movement, not just a matter of hitting the streets.
You see, you have to have some institutional capacity that can sustain the resistance and have some impact, and with Bannon and others, you know, these are folks who are reading very closely the Julius Evola and reading very closely the Guénon and other theorists of fascism. They’ve yet to apply it to US circumstances, but it’s very real. That’s the fire this time. But it’s as blues-like a moment as we can imagine. Let’s put it that way.
This interview comes from Open Source, a weekly program about arts, ideas and politics. To appreciate Cornel West’s prose, it’s best to hear the man, himself. You can listen to the full conversation here.