How Did James Baldwin Become a 21st-Century Influencer?
Marc Lamont Hill and Todd Brewster on the Blessing and Curse of Shareability on Twitter
James Baldwin, who came of age as a cultural figure in the 1950s, is a 21st-century influencer.
Two quotes in particular—“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced” and “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage”—have been perhaps the most shared, but it will surprise no one who knows something about the man that scholars have uncovered James Baldwin quotes on Twitter representing multiple sides of the author’s personality. One researcher used reverse engineering to delineate “six subtly different Baldwins” crafted from quotations that have “excised, revised, botched, remediated, and wielded Baldwin’s words anew.”
In fact, Baldwin reduces nicely to Twitter, which may seem surprising for a writer of novels and long essays, but he had a knack for language that was well suited to oratory (which may be another reason why he’s so captivating as a speaker), and Twitter, while a silent medium itself, likes the pithy phrase that can “silence” a room.
Then, too, a key part of Baldwin’s use of language is the way that he creates the confrontation of opposites—“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced”—and the reversal of accepted truths: “I object to the term ‘looters’ because I wonder who is looting whom, baby.” He can also be found combining both approaches, as in “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.”
In the Twitter age, these are the kind of concise expressions, twisting accepted wisdom, that can carry a movement, for they transfer comfortably from the screen to the street and back again.Baldwin reduces nicely to Twitter, which may seem surprising for a writer of novels and long essays, but he had a knack for language that was well suited to oratory.
One could argue that the Baldwin we meet on social media trivializes the man, or simply that any representation of Baldwin, broken into fragments, is not Baldwin at all. But Twitter can be deceptive, and in the case of Baldwin, the quotes are often just the tease that brings you to a fuller excerpt or a broader comment, and from there to a deeper conversation, one triggered by Baldwin’s words. Soon, connections start to be made, from Baldwin to Trayvon Martin, to Eric Garner, to Michael Brown, to George Floyd, to, say, Assata Shakur and Richard Wright and then back to Baldwin in a never-ending loop.
Someone, for instance, provides context by inserting the origin of the “looters” quote—an interview that Baldwin gave Esquire magazine in July 1968 (three months after the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots that followed)—and the conversation expands.
Someone else cites the next line in the interview, where Baldwin says that “The looter doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you.” Soon the entire article is being shared, diced, minced. Someone with the user handle @ThisIs AfricaTIA takes a screenshot of it, focusing on the passage where Baldwin says, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” Another, with the handle @larwoolf but who goes by the name “La femme merveilleuse” (“The Wonderful Invisible Woman”), posts a 1963 picture of Baldwin outside the “Colored Entrance Only” to a Durham, North Carolina, ice cream shop.
It turns out that in Esquire, Baldwin offers not only a reversal of the moral standing of “looting” but a very prescient critique of how television accounts of the looting lead the viewer to think about what they’re seeing in a certain way. “The mass media—television and all the major news agencies—endlessly use that word ‘looter.’ On television you always see Black hands reaching in, you know. And so the American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us. And no one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.”
Critically, Twitter is also the way that a new generation “teaches” Baldwin, for mediating is what “media”—be it social or any other form—does. Just as a still picture carries a different meaning from a picture in motion, so, too, words read on a printed page become different when heard spoken, different still when they are excerpted and mounted on placards or chanted in protest, and different again when they are sent electronically over a pixelated portal that links people across the world.
Twitter distorts and even maims words, taking them out of context and flipping them upside down. But what emerges can be instructive in a new way, words peppered with emojis and GIF files, surrounded by an audience of others tweeting back with their own, like a crowdsourced rap without audio.
The operative goal is not to simply state something but to change it, make it your own. Consider, for instance, that Baldwin’s comment that “not everything that is faced can be changed” comes from a January 1962 New York Times essay on the future of the American novel. There, Baldwin is in fact complaining that he and other young writers are being unfairly compared to Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, if only because the past, being past, was a more comfortable subject to contemplate than the unjust present that Baldwin and others were revealing in their own literature.
Baldwin’s “to be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage” has different issues with its origins that are equally compelling. It comes from the writer’s participation in a January 1961 WBAI radio roundtable on “The Negro in American Culture,” when the moderator, Nat Hentoff, asked him if he found it hard to reconcile his artistic responsibilities with his responsibilities to speak out for his race. Baldwin then says something slightly different than what he’s commonly credited as saying today: “To be a Negro in this country, and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
It was the Black Panthers Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver (otherwise a critic of Baldwin who published demeaning statements about Baldwin’s being gay) who picked it up and made it a rallying cry. When they did, they not only shifted the language to be more direct and incendiary but they took it out of context as well. For Baldwin is again addressing his profession as a writer, and he follows those words by saying that ultimately, as a Black writer, you have to “control” the rage, and determine “that what is really important is not that the people you write about are Negroes, but that they are people, and that the suffering of any person is really universal.” In other words, he was arguing for rebellion, but it was a controlled rebellion.
The point, however, is not that Twitter users got it wrong, even where they objectively did. It is that through Twitter, ideas get massaged and pulled like taffy, and while sometimes they break, other times they simply get new applications or modifications that befit the times. What Baldwin said about the novel can certainly be applied to a sphere greater than its literary origins. The fact that he actually recommended modulating your rage “so that it won’t destroy you” may be an important distinction, but once released into the conversation, phrases, like tweets, take on a life of their own.
When you consider that Baldwin’s original language was first altered by Newton and Cleaver and then passed down through the ages until—in a decades-long process reminiscent of the game of Telephone—it was finally resurrected to apply to our own times, the issue may be less one of its contents than its unqualified attribution to Baldwin. Of course, since he reveled in his own inconsistencies, Baldwin might even have approved of the process.
For all his changeability, there is one consistent element to Baldwin’s vision, and it’s the assertion that race is a social construct. “Color,” he wrote in 1962, “is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.” That was not a new notion then, as scholars like Franz Boas had been making such a claim for more than half a century. It wasn’t even a new notion for Baldwin.
In 1947, at the age of twenty-three, in a review of a new biography of Frederick Douglass, he had written that “relations between Negroes and whites, like any other province of human experience, demand honesty and insight; they must be based on the assumption that there is one race and that we are all part of it.” Still, he understood how radical a proposition this was, and one imagines that he would not be surprised to learn that sixty years later, we’re still far from that place.Through Twitter, ideas get massaged and pulled like taffy, and while sometimes they break, other times they simply get new applications or modifications that befit the times.
To read Baldwin, or to listen to him, is to see racial identity as one more limiting sphere to be conquered by human expression. In an unpublished draft of his essay “The Price of the Ticket,” he describes the twentieth century as a time of “cataclysm” that “begins with the smashing of the clock—Proust, Joyce, Stein, for example, and even, in fact, Henry James—and the violent rearrangement of space—Picasso, for example—and reaches its terrifying climacteric with the smashing of the atom.” Baldwin doesn’t directly connect the thought to race, but one imagines that he intended to, or maybe, in a moment of uncharacteristic reticence, simply left it to his readers to do so.
For the idea of smashing things—breaking things up so that they have to be reconceived and rebuilt—is central to his thinking about race and is one of the reasons why, on the divide between the nonviolence of Martin and the radical urgency of Malcolm, Baldwin tended to feel more comfortable with Malcolm.
Baldwin was impatient with America because he saw it as trapped in its own history, and he wasn’t satisfied with half measures, nor interested in incremental change. “We talk about integration in America as though it was some great new conundrum,” he said in that Cambridge retort to Buckley. “The problem in America is that we’ve been integrated for a very long time. Put me next to any African and you will see what I mean. My grandmother was not a rapist. What we are not facing is the result of what we’ve done.”
Baldwin wanted white America to make this admission, to say that the nation hadn’t merely struggled with a few mistakes but that it owed its very existence to an ideology of white supremacy. And no papering over of this, no liberal social program aimed at raising the poor from the depths of despair, no “affirmative action” got at this central, throbbing issue. In light of that, it was the responsibility of the writer, he said, to persist, to “disrupt the comforting beat” of language and “tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.”
A favorite image of Baldwin’s was that of a rotting corpse in a closet, the result, he would postulate, of a friend having murdered his mother, and both he and the friend know it but have sort of wordlessly agreed not to talk about it. “Now this means very shortly since, after all, I know the corpse is in the closet, and he knows I know it, and we’re sitting around having a few drinks and trying to be buddy-buddy together, that very shortly, we can’t talk about anything because we can’t talk about that. No matter what I say I may inadvertently stumble on this corpse.”
Reading that passage today is chilling, and not just because the picture of injustice is so clear, the impasse between white America and Black America he describes so seemingly immovable, but also because now, a fifth of the way through the twenty-first century, it feels as though the tectonic plates of history have shifted. The explosion of our racial myths was perhaps a prospect too cataclysmic for the time of Picasso and Einstein, but the calendar has turned to a new age, one in which we cannot avoid the “corpse.” Our new forms of media simply will not let us. And Baldwin remains present to guide us through it all.
Excerpted from Seen Unseen: Technology, Social Media, and the Fight for Racial Justice by Marc Lamont Hill and Todd Brewster. Copyright © 2022. Available from Atria Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.