Baldwin: The Power of Dignity

By Gabriel Blanchard

Human dignity is not granted by society, but an inalienable possession of every person.

In an essay for the New York Times in 1967, James Baldwin wrote: “It is true that two wrongs don’t make a right, as we love to point out to the people we have wronged. But one wrong doesn’t make a right either. People who have been wronged will attempt to right the wrong; they wouldn’t be people if they didn’t.”

Baldwin was a powerful voice in the Civil Rights Movement. He was a familiar acquaintance of political and cultural icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou. Though he spent much of his life as an expatriate in France, he traveled back to the U.S. several times, touring and giving lectures, and on one such trip participated in the famous March on Washington in 1963. However, he did not view himself primarily as an activist, but defined himself principally by his writing: essays, novels, and plays.

That writing is not for the faint of heart. It is easy for us today to forget, or ignore, both the open hostility and the cowardly passiveness shown by most of American society to the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin’s writing, formed in that context, is appropriately uncomfortable to read.

Though he abandoned his Christian upbringing early in life, one can easily discern the influence of the stormily eloquent preacher in him. His rhetoric is (to borrow from T. S. Eliot) tongued with “Pentecostal fire”glowing with the language and imagery of the Bible, ranging from scorching contempt for racial arrogance to the gentle warmth of pity for human weakness and distress. And more than that, he writes like one who, however paradoxically, is convinced that every man is, as the Bible claims, a sacred image of God.

"I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain."

James Baldwin

Along with extensive memoirs, much of his writing consisted in social and artistic criticism. In Notes of a Native Son and The Devil Finds Work, he was merciless to shallow depictions of black characters, whether the shallowness was demeaning or sentimental (and regardless of who was writing it). He also delved into politics and culture, contrasting his experiences in Europe and America and discussing the effects of Jim Crow laws; memoir and politics coincided painfully in No Name In the Street, in which he reflected on the assassination of three personal friends of his (Dr. King, Medgar Evars, and Malcolm X) who had been leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.

Baldwin never granted an inch to the notion that society had the authority to grant or withhold that dignity from him or anyone else; and at the same time, for the same reason, he displayed an astonishing tenderness for the needs and fears of the very people who treated him as an enemy or an inferior because of his race. He perceived and understood the wretched motives that move people to console their egos with scorn for othershe saw humanity even behind hatred.

On the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote a letter to one of his nephews that perfectly exemplifies his combination of stinging clarity with unfailing compassion. “There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe, for many years and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”

This letter was published in the collection The Fire Next Time, whose title was drawn from a recurring pair of lines in an old spiritual. God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time! There is hardly a better summary of the atmosphere of Baldwin’s work than that, a promise of judgment and a warning of salvation.

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