Thursday, April 30, 2009

James Baldwin's Intuition

In his collection of brilliant essays entitled Notes of a Native Son, civil rights activist James Baldwin advances more than a few poignant axioms about selfhood, critique and the function of literary arts. I have listed and reflected on some of my favorite points below:

1) Rock of Ages: Baldwin - foreshadowing the post-structuralist work of Butler et al - puts forth the supposition that the accumulated 'rock of ages' stands between the singular ego and the self-in-community. In other words, our own past - in Baldwin's case, the oppressive burden, overwhelming responsibility and emancipatory imperatives of being black in mid-20th century America - serves as the rock against which our identities are shaped. In his words, "in order to claim my was necessary to challenge and claim the rock." What socio-cultural inheritances, justly received and unjustly imposed, must we claim to achieve "the hope of salvation - identity"?

2) Connected Critic: Americans should perpetually criticize America as Americans, Baldwin suggests - it is through a deep and implicated connection to a culture and a people that visions of improvement emerge. Further, all theories are suspect to the demands of life, such that the 'common citizen' possesses a pragmatic agency to reform. How does the element of connection to - of a bonding with - community alter our understanding of and approach to critique? How are we thereby stripped of our 'objective' distance as an outsider?

3) Unending Circle: Anticipating Foucault, Baldwin illuminates the relationship between master and slave: "It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality." Here, Baldwin gives voice to the power of discourse to shape reality as it circulates through and maintains institutions, convictions and rhetoric. As many post-colonial theorists note, victims of imperialism frequently internalize the tactics and logic of the colonizer. Are we left lamenting with the biblical writers that "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9)? Where is the ark in which to escape the waters of the all-pervasive flood (Genesis 7:7)?

4) Literary Care: Any piece of literature with a social purpose to persuade must also carefully attend to its art. This is also true in our justice work and daily lives: we must resist the tendency to dehumanization, whereby we depict persons as carriers of a moral or political agendas, i.e. as types. On the contrary, we must learn to operate within the complex human web of ambiguity.

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