James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael first met during the heady days of the movement to desegregate the South. Carmichael was a young activist and a member of a student group at Howard University called the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), which sought to combat racism and segregation in Washington, D.C., and in the surrounding areas of Virginia and Maryland.
NAG offered a snapshot of the civil rights movement’s future: Carmichael’s fellow students in the group included Courtland Cox, Michael Thelwell, Muriel Tillinghast, and Ruth Brown, all of whom would go on to be influential leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). On Howard’s campus, NAG sponsored a series of programs called Project Awareness, which was designed to explore the full complexity and richness of black life and to engage the controversies surrounding the black freedom movement. It was through these programs that James Baldwin was invited to campus.
During the spring semester of 1963, after the violent response directed at the movement in Birmingham, the group organized a symposium about the role and responsibility of the black writer in the civil rights struggle. They invited Baldwin, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, novelists John O. Killens and Ralph Ellison, and actor and playwright Ossie Davis. Ellison sent his regrets, and Hansberry was too ill to attend, but students packed the auditorium.
Baldwin had just finished a speaking tour on behalf of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), and this audience was hungry to hear him speak. Malcolm X, in town by happenstance, dropped in to hear Jimmy hold forth. “Whenever I hear that this little brother is going to speak in any town where I am,” he said, “I always make a point of going to listen, because I learn something.”
Baldwin didn’t disappoint. He was a captivating speaker, with a powerful, almost hypnotic cadence; if the desire to be a preacher had long ago left him, his ability to hold a crowd in his hand had not. “It is the responsibility of the Negro writer to excavate the real history of this country . . . to tell us what really happened to get us where we are now,” he boldly declared from the stage at Howard. “We must tell the truth till we can no longer bear it.”
After the symposium ended, Baldwin, Killens, and Davis joined a group of students in the small, cramped apartment of a few NAG members. The hour was late. Jimmy needed a glass of Johnnie Walker Black, but the liquor stores were closed. Someone knew a bootlegger. The impromptu rap session went on until sunrise. “Our older brothers reasoned with us like family,” Carmichael, who would become known as Kwame Ture, later recalled, even though he confused the date of the panel and the subsequent events.
“We had three years of struggle behind us,” he said. “So was the March on Washington and Dr. King’s Dream. John F. Kennedy had recently been gunned down. The national mood was sore, tense, and uncertain, as was our mood.” Everyone understood the burden the students carried on their shoulders. Despite their relative youth, they had already confronted the brutality of the South in an effort to desegregate lunch counters and to register black people to vote.
The lie is the mechanism that allows, and has always allowed, America to avoid facing the truth about its unjust treatment of black people and how it deforms the soul of the country.
Many had been beaten and chased down dusty roads in Mississippi and Alabama by the Klan and by white sheriffs. These students were the shock troops of the civil rights movement, and many suffered from the trauma induced by a region and a country reluctant to change. Pessimism and rage threatened to overwhelm them.
Baldwin worried about the young men and women like an older brother who did not know exactly how to protect them from the dangers he already glimpsed ahead. For him, the brutality of “Bull” Connor’s dogs and firehoses in Birmingham had already foreshadowed what was to come, revealing a depth to the country’s depravity that no single piece of legislation could cure.
As the meeting wound down, Baldwin was left to say the final words, and he brought the conversation full circle to the reason why the students had invited him to campus. “Well, here we are, my young brothers and sisters. Here’s how matters stand. I, Jimmy Baldwin, as a black writer, must in some way represent you. Now, you didn’t elect me and I didn’t ask for it, but here we are.”
All eyes were fixed on him. “Everything I write will in some way reflect on you. So . . . what do we do? I’ll make you a pledge. If you will promise your elder brother that you will never, ever accept any of the many derogatory, degrading, and reductive definitions that this society has ready for you, then I, Jimmy Baldwin, promise you I shall never betray you.”
It was an avowal of love, and a declaration of his responsibility as a writer dedicated to speaking the truth.
“It is, alas, the truth that to be an American writer today means mounting an unending attack on all that Americans believe themselves to hold sacred,” Baldwin wrote in 1962. “It means fighting an astute and agile guerrilla warfare with that American complacency which so inadequately masks the American panic.” In this sense, Baldwin’s view of the writer was a decidedly moral one. The writer puts aside America’s myths and legends and forces a kind of confrontation with the society as it is, becoming a disturber of the peace in doing so.
By the time Baldwin sat down with the Howard students in 1963, he was at the height of his powers, if not yet the full-on disturber of the peace he would soon become. In a relatively short period of time since the publication of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, in 1953, his play Amen Corner in 1954, and his first book of essays, Notes of a Native Son, in 1955, he had become one of the most prominent African American writers and critics in the United States.
With his view of the moral role of the writer; his faith in the redemptive possibilities of human beings, no matter their color; and his initial faith in the possibility that the country could change, Baldwin was catapulted to literary fame and emerged as one of the most incisive and honest critics of America and its race problem. His admirers stretched across racial and political spectrums. Malcolm X referred to him as “the poet of the revolution.” Edmund Wilson described him as one of the great creative artists of the country.
Since the publication of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin had insisted that the country grapple with the contradiction at the heart of its self-understanding: the fact that in this so-called democracy, people believed that the color of one’s skin determined the relative value of an individual’s life and justified the way American society was organized. That belief and justification had dehumanized entire groups of people. White Americans were not excluded from its effects. “In this debasement and definition of black people,” Baldwin argued, white people “debased and defined themselves.”
Baldwin’s understanding of the American condition cohered around a set of practices that, taken together, constitute something I will refer to as the lie. The idea of facing the lie was always at the heart of Jimmy’s witness, because he thought that it, as opposed to our claim to the shining city on a hill, was what made America truly exceptional. The lie is more properly several sets of lies with a single purpose. If what I have called the “value gap” is the idea that in America white lives have always mattered more than the lives of others, then the lie is a broad and powerful architecture of false assumptions by which the value gap is maintained. These are the narrative assumptions that support the everyday order of American life, which means we breathe them like air. We count them as truths. We absorb them into our character.
One set of lies debases black people; examples stretch from the writings of the Founding Fathers to The Bell Curve. According to these lies, black people are essentially inferior, less human than white people, and therefore deserving of their particular station in American life. We see these lies every day in the stereotypes that black people are lazy, dishonest, sexually promiscuous, prone to criminal behavior, and only seeking a handout from big government.
Baldwin made the Howard students promise him that they would never believe the lies the country told about them, because he knew that the lie would do irreparable harm to their souls, as it had done to the country.
Another constituent part of the lie involves lies about American history and about the trauma that America has visited throughout that history on people of color both at home and abroad. According to these lies, America is fundamentally good and innocent, its bad deeds dismissed as mistakes corrected on the way to “a more perfect union.”
The United States has always been shadowed by practices that contradict our most cherished principles. The genocide of native peoples, slavery, racial apartheid, Japanese internment camps, and the subordination of women reveal that our basic creed that “all men are created equal” was a lie, at least in practice.
These weren’t minor events in the grand history of the “redeemer nation,” nor were they simply the outcomes of a time when such views were widely held. Each moment represented a profound revelation about who we were as a country— just as the moments of resistance against them said something about who we aspired to be.
But the lie’s most pernicious effect when it comes to our history is to malform events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened by reality. When measured against our actions, the story we have told ourselves about America being a divinely sanctioned nation called to be a beacon of light and a moral force in the world is a lie.
The idea of the “Lost Cause” as just an honest assessment of what happened after the Civil War is a lie. The stories we often tell ourselves of the civil rights movement and racial progress in this country, with Rosa Parks’s courage, Dr. King’s moral vision, and the unreasonable venom of Black Power, culminating in the election of Barack Obama, are all too often lies.
Behind James Baldwin was the sweetness and power of everyday people fighting for their freedom.
Taken as a whole, then, the lie is the mechanism that allows, and has always allowed, America to avoid facing the truth about its unjust treatment of black people and how it deforms the soul of the country. The lie cuts deep into the American psyche. It secures our national innocence in the face of the ugliness and evil we have done.
In his 1964 essay “The White Problem,” published in Robert A. Goodwin’s edited volume 100 Years of Emancipation, Baldwin placed the lie at the heart of the country’s founding.
The people who settled the country had a fatal flaw. They could recognize a man when they saw one. They knew he wasn’t . . . anything else but a man; but since they were Christian, and since they had already decided that they came here to establish a free country, the only way to justify the role this chattel was playing in one’s life was to say that he was not a man. For if he wasn’t, then no crime had been committed. That lie is the basis of our present trouble.
American history would be contorted in the service of it: where efforts to resist the likes of slavery or to break the back of Jim Crow segregation would be conscripted into the grand story of America’s greatness and its ongoing perfection. Slavery would be banished from view or seen as a mistake instead of a defining institution of systemic cruelty in pursuit of profit.
That history would fortify our national identity, and any attempt to confront the lie itself would be sabotaged by the fear that we may not be who we say we are. For white people in this country, “America” is an identity worth protecting at any cost.
The symposium at Howard took place a few months after the publication of The Fire Next Time, and though the students may not have known it, like them, Baldwin stood at a crossroads. Behind him was the poverty of his Harlem childhood and the anguish of years in Paris. He had finally made himself into a writer. But from his perch in France, he had also seen the dawning of a mass movement in the United States and returned to bear witness to the courage and sacrifice of those he called “improbable aristocrats,” like the Little Rock Nine, Dr. King, and the young people who sat in at lunch counters across the South.
Behind him was the senseless murder of Medgar Evers and the carnage of Birmingham. In front of him was the promise of the March on Washington, and the death of those four little girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which broke that promise. Behind him was the sweetness and power of everyday people fighting for their freedom. In front of him was the bitterness and disappointment in a country that fought them at every turn.
What Baldwin saw in the eyes of the young people in that cramped little apartment in 1963, he felt in his bones. He knew the country was poised to betray them on behalf of the lie. Medgar’s body offered ample evidence of that. In the face of such evil, the federal government continued to slow-walk substantive reform, and white people continued to be white people.
Baldwin viscerally felt the students’ rage and could easily understand how, in just two years, Carmichael would stand atop a bus in Greenwood, Mississippi, and shout “Black Power” and scare the hell out of the nation. Chickens must, after all, come home to roost.
Baldwin knew then that he would have to tell as much of the truth as possible about the betrayal and the rage, no matter the costs for him personally, and then tell a little more about what we would have to do to achieve our country. Such was the responsibility of the writer as he understood it, and especially in light of his promise to the Howard students that late night in a small apartment in Washington, D.C.
In 1963, Baldwin could still hold out some hope that his work, and indeed, the work of Carmichael, King, and all of those unknown men and women who engaged in the movement, might have the effect of forcing white America to confront its belief in the lie.
[Originally published on July 28, 2020 via Literary Hub]