Nothing Personal is an extraordinary piece of writing—perhaps one of James Baldwin’s most complex essays. In a moment of profound transition in his life as a “witness” and within the compact space of four relatively brief sections, Baldwin lays bare many of the central themes of his corpus. He writes about history, identity, death, and loneliness. The reader gets a sense of the depth of his despair and his desperate hold on to the power of love in what is, by any measure, a loveless world—especially in a country so obsessed with money. In a sense, Nothing Personal sits at the crossroads of his work. The Fire Next Time solidified his fame and status as one of America’s most insightful writers about race and democracy, but the brutal reality of the black freedom struggle—the murder of Medgar Evers, for example, and the terror of Southern sheriffs—forced him to confront, again, the country’s ongoing betrayal. Baldwin, like a conductor approaching a railway switch, signals with this essay the beginning of a shift in tone. Darkness hovers over the writing. One feels his vulnerability on the page.
I must confess that I have rarely lingered here before. I have always read Nothing Personal in relation to Richard Avedon’s photographs: as if the words only offered an interpretation of what I was seeing. Baldwin’s prose was my crutch, because I don’t think I am very good at “seeing” such things. So, I skipped the essay when it was included in the collection The Price of the Ticket; I preferred reading it alongside the images. But in doing so, I missed something essential: that Nothing Personal was, in its own way, an existential coda for the nation (a fugitive thought, perhaps, in a time when one has to steal moments to think). Baldwin wanted us to confront the loveless character of our lives, the prison of our myths, and the illusion of what we take to be “safety.” Avedon’s images themselves broke up the writing and fragmented the argument about who we are as a nation and, in doing so, somewhat obscured the claim about the perils of American adolescence. I was so focused on the images I couldn’t see the sophisticated stitching of Baldwin’s plea. And, my God, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency, we need to hear that plea clearly in all of its complexity.
In all of these years of reading Baldwin, I never noticed the third sentence of the first section of Nothing Personal. Baldwin begins this section by laying bare the consequences of living in a society so overdetermined by consumerism. He opens with the image of channel surfing (I imagine him holding an old remote control. A recently lit cigarette in one hand, the other clicking the remote over and over again). He describes commercials that promise Americans all sorts of material things that will make our lives meaningful—things that keep us forever young and trap us in our illusions of the wonderful life. It’s like reading Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno about the modern condition and the manipulative nature of the culture industry. Much of this happens in one, seemingly interminable sentence. With dashes and semi-colons Baldwin relentlessly describes what America puts on offer and how we drown in it all. Here, ironically I suppose, he echoes Walt Whitman’s “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up”—one long sentence about our dead—as he accounts for the death of the American heart.
The long sentence mimics the onslaught of never-ending commercials that affirm the fantasy of American strength and prowess, a fantasy that leaves those of us who bear the brunt of its nonsense, here and abroad, in a state of despair and wonder. (Toni Morrison’s character in Beloved, Stamp Paid, comes to mind: “What are these people?” he asked.) This powerful nation cleaves to myths about itself to evade what Baldwin describes as its “unspeakable loneliness.” Here the modern condition as evidenced in those ghastly commercials takes on a particular kind of resonance—especially in the Jim Crow South.
White Americans, within an “iron cage,” are shackled to a mythical past that blocks them from confronting who they actually are. And this is a key insight for Baldwin, one he takes from The Fire Next Time and rewrites for Nothing Personal: “To be locked in the past means, in effect, that one has no past, since one can never assess it, or use it: and if one cannot use the past, one cannot function in the present, and so one can never be free. I take this to be . . . the American situation in relief, the root of our unadmitted sorrow. . . .” These particular people are trapped in a history they refused to know but carry within them. The terrors and panic they experience have everything to do with the gap between who they imagine themselves to be and who, deep down, they really are. That the nation actively evades confronting this gap locks the country into a kind of perpetual adolescence where those who desperately hold on to the American myth as some kind of new world Eden refuse to grow up. And, for Baldwin, condemnation to eternal youth is “a synonym for corruption.” Imagine being stuck forever in “Never, Never Land.”Baldwin exposes what motivates our nightly terrors.
I can’t help but connect this insight to what I witnessed over the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Americans who refused to grow up reveled in the fantasy that Trump represented: that ours would remain a white nation in the vein of old Europe. All along it felt like a suppressed terror and panic lurked beneath the surface of their rants and hatreds—that the seams would unravel and reveal the true monstrosity hidden underneath a cheap-ass MAGA hat and T-shirt.
Baldwin opens Nothing Personal then with an extended riff on modern alienation in the context of the unique madness of the United States, a form of madness that still has a claim on us. Here the cold rationalization of modernity with its loss of genuine human intimacy combined with an unwavering faith in money and an unflinching commitment to white supremacy. All of which made the people who furiously walked the streets of this country, avoiding the eyes of those right in front of their faces, vapid and desperately lonely. In the place where dreams supposedly come true, Baldwin seemed to suggest that true joy was both fleeting and fugitive, and this made America a particularly nasty and sad place.
Who and what we have become as individuals in this country, tethered to a past filled with “n*****s” and the white people who so desperately needed them, shape the substance of our living together as well as the self-understanding of the nation, which in turn shapes our individual identities. This hermeneutical circle (as that tortuous sentence reveals) amounts to a distinctive form of hell.
Americans, Baldwin wrote, “are afraid to reveal ourselves because we trust ourselves so little.” We lie about our virtue. We lie about our history to conceal our torment. In effect, Baldwin declared, “we live by lies.” And those lies extend beyond matters of race and cut to the heart of our self-conception. Baldwin understood that our problems in the United States went beyond politics or the latest example of American racism. In a post-Trump world, we will soon see that he was not our only problem—just another indication of a more deep-seated American malaise. Baldwin wrote of the lies that take root in the “secret chambers of our hearts”:
Nothing more sinister can happen, in any society, to any people. And when it happens, it means that the people are caught in a kind of vacuum between their present and their past—the romanticized, that is, the maligned past, and the denied and dishonored present. It is a crisis of identity. And in such a crisis, at such a pressure, it becomes absolutely indispensable to discover, or invent . . . the stranger, the barbarian, who is responsible for our confusion and our pain. Once he is driven out—destroyed—then we can be at peace: those questions will be gone. Of course, those questions never go, but it has always seemed much easier to murder than to change. And this is really the choice with which we are confronted now.
The country needs its “n*****s,” its Islamic “terrorists,” its “illegal aliens” to hold together a fragile identity that always seems to be on the verge of falling apart. The dangers, on this view, lie without and not within. (But Baldwin had already written in 1962 in an essay for the New York Times Book Review, after saying that the loneliness Dos Passos wrote about is now greater than ever before, that “the trouble is deeper than we wished to think: the trouble is in us.”) If I am reading Nothing Personal correctly, the country needs its “strangers” to resolve the sense of alienation that threatens to suffocate this place. The enemy and evil without, and the violence we exact upon the threat they present or directly upon them, keeps us whole while the rot within corrupts everything.
Nothing Personal exposes all of this without a hint of sentimentality: that our failure to trust others, and more importantly, ourselves makes us mysteries to one another. Our greed and insatiable desire to hold on to what we have makes us susceptible to the lies; in fact, we become apostles of lies that justify the evils that make our way of life possible.
All of which makes love, genuine love, damn near impossible here. As Baldwin put it, “This is no place for love.” He echoed this sentiment in No Name in the Street (1972): “I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep, that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life. This is what makes them so baffling, so moving, so exasperating, and so untrustworthy.” Here we are today, even after the Trump presidency, and much remains the same.Even the emptiness of America can be overcome, Baldwin maintained.
In this essay, Baldwin exposes what motivates our nightly terrors. There is an emptiness here, and no amount of material possessions can fill it. There is an emptiness in us. And if we are to get at the root of white supremacy’s hold on our lives, we will have to confront that emptiness directly, without the security of our legends. For Baldwin, this is no abstract matter, and one sees this at the end of Nothing Personal. Baldwin reveals his own torment—the desperation felt in the four a.m. hour that leads to a version of the question William James asked himself in 1895, “Is life worth living?” He knew, in his bones, that the specter of death, in the full light of our own failures and inadequacies, shadows our living and that our only recourse is the love of another human being.
The irony, of course, is that this must happen in such a loveless place. Baldwin has already said that America is not a place for love, but those words reflect the license of an artist. He knows love saved him, even though he never really believed that anyone could actually love him. And it is in this contrast that his faith in us is expressed: that in this country which refuses to grow up—that longs to be “the ageless American boy” and seeks refuge from responsibility in titillating and fleeting pleasures that offer the illusion of safety—we will one day “evolve into the knowledge that human beings are more important than real estate and will permit this knowledge to become the ruling principle of our lives.”
While in Puerto Rico on vacation with his lover, Lucien Happersberger, Baldwin heard the news of the assassination of Medgar Evers, and he began writing Nothing Personal under the shadow of that death. Baldwin’s family would later join him on the island—even his mother, Berdis, who did not like to fly, came. Among the many joys experienced, the family sat and read parts of Baldwin’s new play, Blues for Mister Charlie. Between death and love, Baldwin found a way. Nothing Personal is a eulogy of sorts and a declaration of the will.
In the end, the power of love, of loving someone and of being loved, equips us to endure the world as it is and to imagine the world as it could be. Even the emptiness of America can be overcome, Baldwin maintained. We have the litany of the saints to bear witness to such a fact. They are those who through the horror and brutality of American life still loved and refused to die. William James answered the question “Is life worth living?” by asserting the power of belief: if you believe life is worth living, that belief will help create the fact. Baldwin finds no comfort in such abstractions, especially at four o’clock in the morning, when despair has one by the throat. Instead, the answer is found in the love of others who brought us through the storming sea—a kind of love that can break the sickness at the heart of America’s darkness.
Excerpted from Nothing Personal by James Baldwin. Foreword by Imani Perry. Afterword by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.