James Baldwin: "Baldwin's Nigger"

James BaldwinJames Baldwin (1924-1987), known for his writing, also happened to be a very good orator. In 1969, Baldwin delivered a speech titled “Baldwin’s Nigger” at the West Indian Student Centre in London. This talk, in my mind, stands as one of the best talks ever publically given on the topic of race in America. There is a lot of ground that is covered here: race as socially constructed, race and the legacy of slavery/colonialism, politics, whiteness, Pan-Africanism et al. From systemic injustice to psychology and personal empowerment, Baldwin is able to address race in a way that is holistic. Most importantly, the speech—delivered from deep personal anguish and a sense of historical urgency—touches the central nerves of colonialism and race that continue to haunt us today. Among the numerous PC talks about diversity, multiculturalism, and a “post-racial America” that are given today, Baldwin’s talk remains unsurpassed. In the video (below), Baldwin’s speech goes only for about 19 minutes. After that, there is some very lively Q & A.

Here are a few highlights:

1. Listening to the entire talk, it is interesting to observe how Baldwin—on more than one occasion—resorts to the theological (i.e. Christian language, Christian theological problems) to explain the problem of race. In one instance, he attempts to go beyond a language merely of civil rights:

 “…what is really happening is that brother has murdered brother knowing it was his brother…white men have lynched blacks knowing them to be their sons, white women have had blacks burned knowing them to be their lovers, it’s not merely a racial problem…it’s a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it…the American people are unable to face the fact that I’m flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone.”

Someone might say that there is not really anything theological going on here. Baldwin, as its been noted in English studies, has a tendency to resort to the religious language of his Pentecostal upbringing even though he was self-admittedly no longer Christian. To be sure, Baldwin did have a very complicated relationship to religion and to Christianity in particular. But I don’t think that the theological/biblical language in the speech can be dismissed merely as an accidental result of Baldwin’s given/limited set of vocabularies and narratives (e.g. many writers have been influenced by the language of the King James bible). There is more going on here.

2. In another instance, Baldwin explicitly links the problem of race to the larger problem of how Christianity has dealt with the flesh:

“I think that Europeans, the European personality in the main, and this implies a very severe judgment of Christianity—a very severe judgment, not an indictment—I think that they are terribly worried about the flesh, the senses…I think that they live in checks and balances that are very nearly pathological, and you see them in relief in America…because in America I, precisely, am the flesh which the Christians must mortify.”

What all of this precisely means may not be clear at first. But that Baldwin’s discussion of race is theologically freighted, and makes explicit connections to Christianity, is significant.

3. And finally, here’s a valuable snippet where Baldwin responds to a question from a white liberal:

“It’s not a matter of my liberation, for example. It is also a matter of yours. And if we’re working together it’s not because we’re going to do something for ‘the poor black people’. We’re going to do something for each other to save this really rather frightening world.” 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryuAW_gnjYQ]