For Baldwin, the past had always been bent in service of a lie. Could a true story be told?
On March 16, 1968, James Baldwin walked to the podium at a fund-raiser, at Anaheim’s Disneyland Hotel, to introduce Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin had recently arrived in Los Angeles from New York, after Columbia Pictures had bought the rights to Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and asked Baldwin to write the script. Though eager, he had ended up fighting desperately to bring his story of Malcolm to the screen. Baldwin wanted Billy Dee Williams to play the lead, but the studio had other actors in mind. There were even rumors that someone had suggested a darkened Charlton Heston.
The fund-raiser was meant to replenish the coffers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) and to help fund King’s latest project, the Poor People’s Campaign. King wanted to make the case for massive direct action, in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the country’s impoverished. To do so, he would need to marshal greater financial resources than ever before. Desegregating lunch counters didn’t cost much, but ending poverty would cost the nation billions of dollars.
King found that many who once supported his desegregation efforts were less than enthusiastic about his agenda on jobs and poverty. The idea of occupying the nation’s capital with poor people scared many activists—even some on the board of the S.C.L.C. For others, such as Bayard Rustin, a trusted adviser to King since the days of the Montgomery bus boycott, such an act of civil disobedience courted violence and threatened to turn even more white Americans against the civil-rights agenda. Rustin wanted the S.C.L.C. to focus on electing Democrats to political office, not on building a tent city or staging sit-ins at congressional offices.
How Baldwin ended up at the fund-raiser is unclear, although Marlon Brando, who organized it, may have invited him; the two were close. In any case, Baldwin had not been expecting to introduce King, and his short speech said little about the leader. Instead, he told a brief story about the promise of the early days of the civil-rights movement, a promise that was betrayed by the country. “What Rosa Parks was saying in Montgomery, in 1956, and what the Negroes were saying in their march . . . the country did not want to hear or did not hear,” Baldwin told the audience. “And as time rolled on and kids, including people like Stokely Carmichael, were being beaten with chains, going to jail, marching up and down those dusty highways, trying to change the conscience of this country, still nobody heard and nobody really cared.” Baldwin’s speech was all about the wall of white supremacy that stood in the way of fundamental transformation. His was an effort to jog the memory and, by extension, the morality of the audience, by telling a different story about what happened to a movement on the brink of failure.
When King reached the podium, he did not acknowledge Baldwin specifically, and instead offered a generic thanks to all those who had spoken before him. It was only later that the two men conferred privately. “We sat down in a relatively secluded corner and tried to bring each other up to date. Alas, it would never be possible. . . .” Baldwin recalled in his book “No Name in the Street,” from 1972. “We had first met during the last days of the Montgomery bus boycott—and how long ago was that? It was senseless to say, eight years, ten years ago—it was longer ago than time can reckon.”
Baldwin’s general sense of the encounter was that King was a bit skeptical of him. Although Baldwin had known King since his first trip to the South, in 1957, and had worked beside him over the years, he felt that King was discomfited by his presence. “Martin and I had never got to know each other well,” he wrote. “Circumstances, if not temperament, made that impossible.” In 1963, King was caught on tape, by the F.B.I., expressing concern about Baldwin. He didn’t want to appear on television with the writer, he said, because Baldwin “was uninformed regarding his movement.” To King, Baldwin was not a civil-rights leader; he was just one celebrity, among many, willing to lend his star power to the movement. It’s not impossible to imagine, too, that Baldwin’s queerness unsettled him.
By the time of the fund-raiser, the distance between the two men had been widened by Baldwin’s sympathies for the militancy of the younger generation. He was in Hollywood, after all, writing a screenplay on Malcolm X. And, just a month earlier, Baldwin had hosted a birthday party and fund-raiser for Huey P. Newton, the jailed leader of the Black Panther Party. In 1968, King felt intense pressure from such radical groups, and from recent shifts in the political climate. The nation had seemed to turn its back on his moral vision. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Andrew Kopkind, a white journalist of the New Left, declared that King had been “outstripped by his times.” A young black woman, who supported Carmichael’s Black Power philosophy, had even accused King of selling out the Selma movement, as he and other members of the S.C.L.C. board arrived for a meeting in Washington, D.C.
Baldwin had long seen this turn against King on the horizon. In 1961, he had written an article for Harper’s Magazine titled “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King.” In it, he noted how King’s voice had changed from the heady days of the bus boycott, and detailed the challenges that King was destined to face as a black leader in a revolutionary time. “He was more beleaguered than he had ever been before, and not only by his enemies in the white South,” Baldwin wrote. “Three years earlier, I had not encountered very many people—I am speaking now of Negroes—who were really critical of him. But many more people seemed critical of him now, were bitter, disappointed, skeptical.”
Baldwin argued that King had to confront the meaning of a new, uncompromising spirit in the movement. Leaders like him were being challenged by their children, who rejected the underlying premise that made “the traditional black leader” necessary in the first place. As Baldwin put it, “These young people have never believed in the American image of the Negro and have never bargained with the Republic, and now they never will. There is no longer any basis on which to bargain.”
Even in 1961, Baldwin had sensed that these young people might have a point. By 1968, when he gave his speech in Anaheim, he saw clearly how the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, a few years earlier, might offer white America the sense of self-congratulation that Black Power was now denying it. He knew that the civil-rights movement could easily be conscripted into the story of how Americans, in their inherent goodness, had perfected the Union. The history being made could be bent in service of the lie. For Baldwin, that lie had to be challenged at its root—which is why, perhaps, he devoted his introduction to telling a true story of the movement.
Surprisingly, after Baldwin had finished speaking, King gave a speech that echoed Baldwin’s account. It wasn’t a story of American triumphalism. Instead, King expressed concern that the movement was losing the battle for the soul of the nation. He conjured, without a hint of nostalgia, a history of people acting heroically against the odds, a history full of disappointment and trauma. He did not mince words: America was a decidedly racist country. “The problem can only be solved when there is a kind of coalition of conscience,” he said. “Now I am not sure if we have that many consciences left. Too many have gone to sleep.”
Like Baldwin, King struggled with America’s commitment to the belief that white people mattered more, and to the lie that made that belief palatable. “I must honestly confess that I go through those moments of disappointment when I have to recognize the fact that there aren’t enough white persons in our country who are willing to cherish democratic principles over privilege,” he said. “But I’m grateful to God that some are left.” As King brought his speech to a close, he tried, once more, to reach for the promise of America, vowing that the country would one day move forward because, “however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom.” His sombre tone betrayed his words.
The importance of history had been in full view for both Baldwin and King just a few weeks earlier, at a Carnegie Hall event, in New York City, celebrating what would have been the hundredth birthday of W. E. B. Du Bois, the great African-American intellectual and the co-founder of the N.A.A.C.P. Du Bois, after seven decades of fighting for racial justice in the United States, had given up on America and died, in exile, in Accra, Ghana, on the eve of the March on Washington, in 1963. Although Baldwin had been working on an essay about Du Bois, he chose the occasion at Carnegie Hall to read a recently published piece, “Black Power.” Here, at this celebration of Du Bois, who dedicated his life to exposing America’s lies, Baldwin sought to shift the balance of concern from criticism of militancy among young black people to an honest assessment of the conditions that made such a turn necessary.
King disagreed with the rhetoric and symbolism of Black Power. He found no use for what he called a “mystique of blackness” or “the angry militant who fails to organize.” But he, too, was a student of Du Bois’s work, and he understood what Du Bois taught regarding “our tasks of emancipation.” “One idea he insistently taught,” King said in his speech at the event, “was that black people have been kept in oppression and deprivation by a poisonous fog of lies that depicted them as inferior, born deficient, and deservedly doomed to servitude to the grave.”
King’s remarks at Carnegie Hall, like his remarks in Anaheim, were shadowed by a note of despair. The country was in turmoil. “Negroes have heavy tasks today,” he said. “We were partially liberated and then reënslaved.” Although black people had been fighting for freedom “for more than a hundred years,” the only thing that was “explicitly certain is that the struggle for it will endure.”
Baldwin and King would be together one last time, at a fund-raiser in New York City. Baldwin didn’t have a suit for the occasion, so he ran out to have one fitted. Later, he returned to California to work on the Malcolm X film, the direction of which he was still debating with studio executives. On the night of April 4, 1968, Baldwin was sitting by his swimming pool with Billy Dee Williams, listening to an Aretha Franklin record, when the phone rang. It was his friend David Moses. “Jimmy,” Moses said. “Martin’s just been shot. He’s not dead yet, but it’s a head wound, so . . .” Baldwin dropped the phone and wept. A few days later, he wore his new suit to King’s funeral.
Baldwin was hardly naïve about the human capacity for evil, especially in white folk. “If you’re a Negro, you’re in the center of that peculiar affliction,” he said, “because anybody can touch you—when the sun goes down. You know, you’re the target of everybody’s fantasies.” But what shocked him was that white America had killed someone who espoused love, an apostle of nonviolence. King’s death revealed the depths of white America’s debasement and the scope of black America’s peril. “Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make,” he wrote. “Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”
If King was the preacher, Baldwin was the poet, and he sought to account for his confusion by gathering up the pieces—of himself, of black folk—buried beneath the disaster that was the country. That work kept his despair at arm’s length. To be sure, King’s death, just like those of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and all the others, did not stop time. White people did not stop being white people. Two days after King’s murder, the Black Panther Bobby Hutton was killed by Oakland police officers. Later, police rioted in Chicago, during the Democratic National Convention. The nastiness of the white world kept coming, and it gave black politics—and Baldwin’s voice—an edge. King’s death had revealed the bitterness at the bottom of the cup. What Baldwin saw on that dangerous road that led to King’s death, in Memphis, was the difficult question of whether or not the country had the courage to confront its demons. Could America tell itself the truth about how it had arrived at this moment? And did it have the moral stamina to surrender the comfort of its lies?
In July of 1968, just a few months after King’s assassination and against the backdrop of American cities burning, Baldwin gave an interview to Esquire. He set the tone of the exchange from the very start:
Q. How can we get the black people to cool it?
A. It is not for us to cool it.
Q. But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?
A. No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.
The editors did not seem to grasp how the moral burden of America’s nightmare rested not on the black people rioting in the streets but on the white people who held tightly to the belief that they were somehow, because of the color of their skin, better than others. These people, Baldwin argued, had to see themselves otherwise. New laws, gestures of sympathy, and acts of racial charity would never suffice to change the course of the country. Something more radical had to be done; a different history had to be told. “All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history . . . which is not your past, but your present,” Baldwin said. “Your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history.”
On August 12, 2017, James Fields, Jr., a twenty-year-old self-proclaimed neo-Nazi from Kenton, Kentucky, floored the gas pedal of his 2010 Dodge Challenger and roared down a narrow street full of anti-racist protesters, during the “Unite the Right” rally, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Heather Heyer, who was raised in nearby Ruckersville, was in the crowd. According to people who knew her, Heyer, thirty-two, had spent much of her life “standing up against any type of discrimination.” As Fields’s speeding car sent shoes, cell phones, and bodies flying into the air, Ryan Kelly, a photographer for the Daily Progress, captured the carnage. Heyer is framed between a man falling behind the car’s back bumper, one Air Jordan-clad foot twisted horribly in the air, and the tattooed torso of a white man in mid-somersault. She is leaning to the side as the muscle car hits her and plows through the crowd. Heyer died at the scene, and dozens more were injured. Fields was eventually convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The occasion of this violence was a bitter battle over American history and how we ought to remember it. In March, 2016, Wes Bellamy, Charlottesville’s vice-mayor and a member of its city council, advocated for the removal of Confederate monuments to Robert E. Lee and Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson. Zyahna Bryant, a high-school freshman in Charlottesville, joined Bellamy’s effort. She circulated a petition demanding the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in a local park and submitted it to the council. The council agreed to remove the statue by a vote of three to two.
Then, in 2017, all hell broke loose. Emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, who had often and overtly appealed to white identity, local white nationalists saw an opportunity to exploit the council’s decision. The nationalists believed that the actions of the council were an assault on white people. In their view, the soldiers of political correctness had disfigured and distorted American history, in general, and Southern history, in particular. Their outrage prompted the “Unite the Right” rally, the largest gathering of white nationalists and neo-Nazis in recent memory. That day ended with Fields’s murderous drive on Fourth Street.
It is telling that such brutality broke out over a fight regarding the symbols and uses of American history. As both Baldwin and King insisted, each in their own way, America is an identity that white people will protect at any cost, and the country’s history—its founding documents, its national heroes, its claim to be a moral force in the world—is the supporting argument that underpins that identity. This history is inseparable from the nation’s built environment; both monuments and the ways in which communities are spatially organized reinforce it. When King declared that the country’s moral vision had been clouded by “a poisonous fog of lies,” and when Baldwin said in Esquire that we needed to look at what we are doing in the name of our history, both were arguing that this history, the story we tell ourselves about what the country is, shapes the world we make going forward.
The debate over Confederate monuments makes this plain. For white nationalists, the Confederacy represents a triumph of a certain understanding of America, in which the superiority of white people in all social, political, and cultural arrangements is enshrined. From that perspective, open-air tributes to white supremacy make sense. The more complex question is what we do with those who are willing to condemn neo-Nazis but who still claim Confederate statues as part of their “heritage.” These are the people for whom Judge Richard E. Moore, of the Charlottesville Circuit Court, ruled, in April, 2019, that the Confederate statues must remain in the area. “While some people obviously see Lee and Jackson as symbols of white supremacy, others see them as brilliant military tacticians or complex leaders in a difficult time,” Moore wrote in his decision.
Moore was presenting a different narrative about the statues. After Charlottesville, though, American historians made clear that the monuments were not, in fact, erected as contemporaneous memorials of the Civil War. Most were built many years later, either between the eighteen-nineties and the first decades of the twentieth century, when most of the Confederate veterans began to die, or in the nineteen-fifties, when the demand for racial equality intensified. They were, in other words, monuments to an ideology, physical representations of the “Lost Cause” in public space. They insisted on the false claim that the Civil War centered not on slavery but on the heroic defense of the Southern way of life.
Black people challenged these monuments even as they were being built. In “Black Reconstruction in America,” from 1935, Du Bois exposed the lies at the heart of that era’s historiography, unmasking the influential works of the political scientist John W. Burgess and the historian William A. Dunning. The Dunning School, the first generation of trained historians to write about Reconstruction, told the story of the period as one of extensive overreach of federal power and the corruption of northern carpetbaggers; Dunning viewed the granting of political rights to former slaves as a monstrous mistake. Du Bois cast scorn on this attempt to write history as “pleasant reading for Americans.” For him, the Confederate statues represented the triumph of Dunning’s sensibility. The history that justified their construction banished, once and for all, the horrors of slavery, and left American identity safe and secure.
Nearly a century later, we are still trying to transcend such “pleasant reading.” Three days after the display of white supremacy in Charlottesville, the President held an infamous press conference in Trump Tower. He blamed “both sides” for the violence, and went on to flatly reject the idea of removing Confederate statues, employing a not-so-deft piece of moral relativism: “George Washington was a slave owner. . . . So will George Washington lose his statues? . . . How about Thomas Jefferson? . . . He was a major slave owner.” For Trump, celebration of the Confederacy—a region that committed treason to defend the institution of slavery—was American history. By playing on the knowledge that Washington and Jefferson were, to most Americans, unimpeachable, he sought to suggest that there was an argument for Lee, too, and to imply that taking down statues of the general was a slippery slope which would somehow unravel our most basic assumptions about America. His then chief of staff, General John Kelly, agreed, giving an interview, on Fox News, in which he said that protests of the statues showed “a lack of appreciation of history, and what history is.”
Trump’s and Kelly’s understanding of history is precisely what Baldwin critiqued in 1968. But Baldwin also insisted that such lies might enable us, if we’re honest, to tell the story of America differently. Trump, for all his bluster, asked a necessary question: What do we do with George Washington? For the President, this question was simplistic, binary: Do Washington’s statues stay up or come down? But that’s not how history works. We might ask, instead, what the story of slavery and Reconstruction—or of Washington and Jefferson—looks like when it neither glosses over the cruelty of this country nor rejects its potential for betterment.
Something like this question confronted the community of Princeton University, where I teach, in November, 2015. That month, the Black Justice League, a student activist organization on campus, staged a thirty-three-hour sit-in at the president’s office. The action was part of a national student movement in support of anti-racism protests at the University of Missouri. In one of the Black Justice League’s many demands, the students requested that the administration “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” rename the Wilson residential college and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and remove a mural of Wilson in one of the school’s dining halls.
This demand cut to the heart of Princeton’s self-understanding. Wilson was the president of the university from 1902 to 1910; much of what the school is, as a serious institution of higher learning, has been attributed to him. But the students wanted the university to complicate the story it told itself about Wilson, to acknowledge what his racist legacy meant to its black students, and to consider how that legacy, represented in public space, devalued them. There was indignity, they argued, in sleeping or eating in a building named after someone who thought you an inferior human being.
Spurred by the students’ protest, Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, and the school’s board of trustees established a committee to reëxamine the ways in which the university commemorated Wilson. Scholars, biographers, and members of the school community were invited to contribute to the conversation. Nell Painter, an emerita professor and the author of “The History of White People,” spoke to the heart of the matter. “It’s all about the questions we ask,” she said. “The questions have changed. I mean, the questions always change. That’s why we keep writing history.”
In the end, Princeton chose not to remove Wilson’s name from the buildings, but it did agree to deepen its story of Wilson. Signage around campus and within dormitories now gives a fuller sense of Wilson’s segregationist views, and of Princeton’s exclusionary history. The school also agreed to diversify representation across the campus. One of the administration’s most important decisions was to rename West College, which houses the dean of the college and the undergraduate admissions office, after Toni Morrison, who taught for many years at the university.
The issue is far from resolved. Black students at Princeton aren’t interlopers. They are not guests on campus or beneficiaries of charity who should be grateful to the school. They are, unlike in Wilson’s day, an integral part of the community. And, like all students on campus, they should feel a sense of possession of the university. Much more work needs to be done, but their protest brilliantly forced the university to reassess its past in the full light of its current values.
Their protest might also help us think about Trump’s and Kelly’s view of “what history is.” As a first principle, history cannot be equated with comfort, nostalgia, or a fixed arc of progress. We need to get the facts right; otherwise, we are trading only in what Du Bois called “lies agreed upon.” In particular, we can’t elide the facts that complicate how we might see a historical figure or event. Washington held slaves, and he didn’t treat them very well. Jefferson wrote brilliantly about democracy, and he also owned slaves, exploited Sally Hemings, the enslaved mother of his children, and wondered aloud if black people were biologically inferior. The record shows this to be true.
And yet the facts alone aren’t enough. What we do with them, the kinds of questions we ask about them, and for what ends, matter. For some, the fact that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves disqualifies them as moral exemplars. For others, the men may have been wrong in owning slaves, but that fact stands alongside other, more admirable aspects of their lives. William Dunning’s interpretation of Reconstruction was different from Du Bois’s. Each of these interpretations reveals something about what is valued, and about how the past as told speaks to the present. Our appeals to history can never be entirely objective; they aim, just as often, to clarify our commitments today.
This is why, in moments of revolution or profound cultural shifts, one of the first things that people remove are symbols of old values. Many of Lenin’s and Stalin’s statues, for example, had to fall. Since the murder of George Floyd, in May, by a white police officer, Confederate monuments across the country have been either toppled or removed. But it’s telling that Robert E. Lee continues to stand tall in Charlottesville, where Heyer died. We have the facts straight, and know what values Lee represented, but there remains, no matter the protests, disagreement on what story should be told. As Baldwin put it, in “No Name in the Street,” “One may see that the history, which is now indivisible from oneself, has been full of errors and excesses; but this is not the same thing as seeing that, for millions of people, this history . . . has been nothing but an intolerable yoke, a stinking prison, a shrieking grave.” If white people in America choose to accept the lie, Baldwin argued, others would never be free to reject it. And rejecting the lie was, for him, the precondition to progress.
This is not an easy conclusion to accept. One of the unique features of American nationalism is how closely interwoven the idea of America is with the identity of the white people who live in it. For those who cling to this idea, the fear is that admitting the evils of slavery, or the continued harms of oppression, will make the idea of America—and they themselves—irredeemable. They would rather find safety in the lie. But if the condition of our love for country is a lie then the love itself, no matter how genuine, is a lie. The idea may be irredeemable. That does not mean we are, too.
In August, 1965, Baldwin published an essay in Ebony called “The White Man’s Guilt.” It had been a difficult year. Malcolm X was assassinated in February. In March, the world witnessed the brutality of Alabama state troopers attacking protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. And, on August 11th, the Watts riots exploded across Los Angeles, largely in response to violence by the police. In his essay, Baldwin demanded a confrontation with a history that white America desperately avoided. “White man, hear me!” he wrote. “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us.”
An honest encounter with the past, then, had everything to do with the kinds of people we understood ourselves to be and the kinds of people we aspired to become. Baldwin wanted to free us from the shackles of a particular national story, so that we might create ourselves anew. For this to happen, white America needed to shatter the myths that secured its innocence. “People who imagine that history flatters them,” he wrote, “are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.” Trump and his followers stand in a long lineage of such people, who use a certain understanding of the past to reinforce the injustices of the present. Baldwin’s vision demanded a reckoning with this understanding—not to posit the greatness of America but to establish the ground upon which that greatness could be built.
In his reflections on King, Baldwin wrote that we were witnessing the death of segregation, and that the question was how long and how expensive the funeral would be. If only he knew. More than fifty years later, we are still marching in the procession and fighting in the streets. A world is dying, but we have been slow to put it in the grave, and the costs are mounting. How many of our loved ones are rotting in prisons and jails? How many are breaking their backs trying to make ends meet? And how many souls have been darkened from the effects of America’s original sin? True freedom, for all Americans, requires that we tell a better story, a true story, about how we arrived here. It is time to bury that old Negro, and the white people who so desperately need him, and to finally begin again.
This essay was drawn from “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” which will be published, by Crown, in June.
[Originally published on June 19, 2020 via The New Yorker]