Why We Need the Secular Gospel of James Baldwin in Our Times
December 01, 2016
A Q&A with Rich Blint
“I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” So wrote James Baldwin in his introductory essay “Autobiographical Notes” from Notes of a Native Son. Today, on the twenty-ninth anniversary of his death, these words are especially poignant. The criticism in his incandescent essays and poetry is just the insight we need in our current age of persistent racial injustice and the renewed spirit of activism represented by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Our recently published eBook, Baldwin for Our Times: Writings from James Baldwin for an Age of Sorrow and Struggle, features specific works from Notes of a Native Son and his poetry collection Jimmy’s Blues to help us understand and confront the injustices in our times. We enlisted the talents of prominent Baldwin scholar Rich Blint, who wrote the notes and introduction for this collection. He spoke with Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman in this Q&A about the project as well as the importance and resonance Baldwin’s legacy will have during the upcoming administration.
Christian Coleman: For our readers who aren’t familiar with your work, tell us a little about how you became a James Baldwin scholar.
Rich Blint: I discovered Baldwin in high school as I sought out writers to add variety to the narrowly conceived Anglo-American curriculum of canonical texts with which I was being presented. The example of his life and work was always a non-academic endeavor, however, which sustained me as a young person attempting to make moral and critical sense of an actively hostile world. Years later, as a graduate student, I participated in a conference at The University of London, Queen Mary, organized to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death. There, I discovered a cohort of scholars deeply interested in investigating his work and rejuvenating his legacy. In 2011, I organized one of what had by then become a series of international conferences in New York, and later co-edited a special number of the first issue of an academic journal devoted to Baldwin. By strongly suggesting that I very purposefully center his work in my dissertation, and embrace my potential to contribute in significant ways to the emerging field of Baldwin studies, my doctoral advisors at NYU were also very impactful. Claiming Baldwin was a crucial turning point for me as someone committed to a career as a teacher and a scholar in this particular period of our nation’s long-troubled history.
CC: How did you get involved in writing the introduction and notes for this eBook collection?
RB: I met the director of Beacon, Helene Atwan, while working on The Year of James Baldwin, a fifteen-month slate of city-wide programs, theatrical performances, exhibitions, and other events staged in 2014 in celebration of Baldwin’s ninetieth birthday. That series coincided with the re-publication of Jimmy’s Blues, and Helene and I worked with the Poetry Society of America on a program called “Jimmy at High Noon” at New York Live Arts where poets read from the collection. When she reached out to me to contribute the introduction and notes to this eBook collection designed to consider Baldwin’s relevance to the present crisis in the nation, and to introduce him to a younger generation of activists and readers, I immediately accepted.
CC: You write in the introduction that “Baldwin’s words emerge less as prophecy...and more like a secular gospel.” What does that mean with regard to our upcoming administration?
RB: Baldwin’s consistent and insistent interrogation of how the mythology of race, class, and power operates in America to blind and divide us is singular in its analytical depth, sweep, and emotional power. His work reads as a kind of prophecy simply because he was clear about how profoundly dangerous it has always been for Americans not to confront the truth about the violent racial history of the country. His work must be read as testimony, as, yes, a secular witnessing to the serious perils of indulging in the American fiction of “whiteness” and its purported superiority. The nation’s ongoing refusal to take up this crucial labor and our deep interior and cognitive illiteracy about these complex matters is what has enabled the impoverished, cowardly, and dishonest rhetoric of the incoming administration to take hold. One can hope that the results of this election will finally disturb the American slumber sufficiently to enable us to confront the now exposed historical fault lines that have been so studiously avoided.
CC: The hate crimes and blatant intolerance on display throughout and after the election cycle stand out as an example of what Baldwin writes in his essay “Stranger in the Village”: “Joyce is right about history being a nightmare—but it may be a nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” With current labels such as ‘Alt-Right’ being normalized in the media, do you think Baldwin would see this as something new—and shocking—or as an extension of what’s already come before in our social history?
RB: The barely suppressed racial and xenophobic animus that has been unleashed since the peculiar ascendancy of the president-elect would not have surprised Baldwin. The movement being normalized as the “Alt-Right” is most usefully apprehended as the descendants of an American confederacy—north and south. It would not have shocked him that Americans would elect an inept businessman with no political experience who riled up supporters at rallies hardly distinguishable from the chaos, desperation, and charged, juvenile eroticism of a racial mob. Baldwin would have recognized our very recent history for what it is: the failure of white Americans and others to come to terms with the fact that their history (themselves) has been, as he notes in No Name in the Street, “nothing but an intolerable yoke, a stinking prison, a shrieking grave,” and that for “millions of people, life itself depends on the speediest possible demolition of this history.” If we are able to confront this sober and deadly fact, we might have an opportunity to remake this country and free ourselves enough to finally fulfill the egalitarian ideals that are at the core of this young experiment called America. If we cling to our categories and dawdle in the confused and sickly air of the history in which we have so long been trapped, we are courting disaster.
CC: In your recent Yale University lecture “The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin on American Cinema,” you note that for Baldwin, the most important is the human being, and respect for the human. Is there a particular poem or essay in this collection where you see this message most prevalent?
RB: “Many Thousands Gone,” Baldwin’s second major essay, is searing and pointed in elaborating the near pathological folly revealed in the invention of the “Negro” in American life and how that fabrication, “which we know endlessly battle,” diminishes all of us.
CC: What kind of effect do you expect to see Baldwin’s poems and essays having on twenty-first-century audiences?
RB: I can only hope that the clarity, courage, love, and beauty that characterize Baldwin’s decades-long engagement with matters crucial to the viability of our republic will enable a new generation to finally rend the veil and pay the “price of the ticket” for our collective liberation. Then, as now, this is work that truly matters. All of our lives depend on it.
About Rich Blint
Rich Blint is the 2016-2017 Scholar-in-Residence in the MFA Program in Performance + Performance Studies in the Department of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute. He is co-editor of a special issue of African American Review on James Baldwin; contributing editor of The James Baldwin Review; and provided the introduction and notes for the eBook, Baldwin for Our Times: Writings from James Baldwin for an Age of Sorrow and Struggle. He is presently at work on his monograph, A Radical Interiority: James Baldwin and the Personified Self in Modern American Culture. He earned his Ph.D. in American Studies at New York University, and has held faculty, research, and administrative appointments at Columbia University, Barnard College, Hunter College, and the Murphy Institute at the Graduate and University Center, CUNY. He has received fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon and Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundations, among others.