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American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist, and civil rights activist James Baldwin poses at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on Nov. 6, 1979Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
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James Baldwin and the After Times of America

Literature is a speck of hope in the age of Kyle Rittenhouse

Shaul Magid
September 10, 2020
Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist, and civil rights activist James Baldwin poses at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on Nov. 6, 1979Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
“We must tell the truth till we can no longer bear it.”
—James Baldwin

Of all the horrifying videos I have seen lately, the most horrifying was the one in which 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a semi-automatic wrapped over his shoulder, walks by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, arms raised, as if to surrender, as police wave him by. In the video you can hear people screaming, “That guy just shot someone!” I guess when you’re white and you hold up your hands it means you must be innocent. If you’re Black it may be the last thing you do. Kyle Rittenhouse is not an anomaly. He knows his privilege, he knows his police, and he knows his president. If Rittenhouse was Black, he would probably not be alive today.

Nikki Haley stood in front of the cameras at the Republican National Convention last month and said, “America is not a racist country.” Rittenhouse shot and killed two people then walked by police officers with no interest in investigating a young white man with a semi-automatic rifle. For anyone who questions the white supremacist nature of the United States, there’s a video for you to watch.

As I watched the video of Rittenhouse walk by the police, I thought about James Baldwin, and especially Eddie Glaude’s recent book Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, which I had read a few weeks before. Glaude chooses Baldwin as a lens to view our present circumstances. Why not Martin Luther King or Malcolm X? In part, I think, because Glaude sees in Baldwin aspects of the Black experience that are missing in both King and Malcolm.

Baldwin, who felt King never quite understood him, but who was devastated almost to suicide when King was assassinated, was wary of King’s commitment to nonviolence. Baldwin writes, “Martin and I had never got to know each other well, circumstances, if not temperament, made that impossible.” And while Baldwin was sympathetic to Black Power and certainly experienced rage against white supremacy, Glaude notes how he never gave up on America. For Baldwin, “White America’s choice to remain racist made Black Power necessary.” But as Baldwin said in a 1970 Ebony interview, “Hope is invented every day.” Even as he wrote the original screenplay for the movie version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and even as he shared Malcolm’s rage, Baldwin could not follow him down the road to separatism.

Yet Baldwin never gave up on pointing out the “lie” that is the liberal claim of equality—the denial that America is founded on anti-Blackness. And this is the lie, according to Glaude, that has now become the spine of Trump’s America. It is not just that Trump lies. It is that he represents the big lie; he embodies the trauma that is never acknowledged. Glaude writes, “It has never been America’s way to confront the trauma directly, largely because the lie does not allow for it … The lie works like a barrier and keeps the nastiness of our lives from becoming a part of the American story, while those who truly know what happened remember differently.”

It seems to Glaude that Black Lives Matter is closer to the spirit of Baldwin than to King or Malcolm. Unlike King, Baldwin knew nonviolence could not be the only solution (where does one put all the rage?). Unlike Malcolm, Baldwin believed in the possibility of America. The centerpiece of Glaude’s excellent book is an observation made by Walt Whitman in his 1871 Democratic Vistas. Whitman, observing the aftermath of the Civil War in America—a country rattled to its very core, a country where hundreds of thousands died to protect the horrific industry of slavery—wrote about what he called “the after times.” Whitman witnessed a country that was bursting with commerce, with energy, but a country that “had little or no soul.” It was still stuck in the rings of Dante’s hell of its own creation. Glaude defines the “after times” as “the disruption and splintering of old ways of living and the making of a new community after the fall. The after times characterize what was before and what is coming into view. On one level, it is the interregnum surrounded by the ghosts of a dying moment, and on another, the moment that is desperately trying to be born with a lie wrapped around its neck.”

After times are moments when the possibility of change is smothered by the “big lie” that a nation can’t shake loose. The big lie of course is not racism; it is anti-Blackness. It is not slavery as a historical phenomenon but slavery as social positionality, what Afro-pessimists call (misreading the sociologist Orlando Patterson) “social death.” It’s not that Blacks are “different,” but that their very identity is founded on their negation. Baldwin lived his after times as Civil Rights dwindled back into a Nixonian “law and order” America, King and Robert Kennedy pushed into their grave to make way for another iteration of the same big lie. Glaude turns to Baldwin as he witnesses this happening yet again. The Obama presidency that began in 2009 was supposed to be a completion of sorts of what King began in Montgomery in 1955. But the big lie that Whitman witnessed in the 1870s, and Baldwin witnessed in the 1970s, would not die. It created a Frankenstein monster of its own image, elected president. Trump is not the problem. Trump is the project.

Baldwin was so powerful because he was so vulnerable. A small, frail, gay, Black man in a society that venerated muscle and power. A writer not a politician, more the inheritor of Langston Hughes than Marcus Garvey. A physically weak Black man with tremendous rage wrapped in beautiful and elegant prose and fiery rhetoric. In a way, Baldwin was so hard to hate because he was so unthreatening to the eye. That enabled him to say what he pleased. And he never gave up.

For Baldwin the “big lie” was embodied in Ronald Reagan, even more so than Richard Nixon—the movie star with “Morning in America” on his lips who made white America believe in itself again. For Glaude, Trump comes next and he does not pull his punches. “Trump cannot be cordoned off into a corner of evil, racist demagogues,” Glaude writes. “We make him wholly bad in order to protect our innocence. He is made to bear the burden of all our sins, when he is in fact a clear reflection of who we are … [W]e have to avoid the trap of placing the burden of our national sins on the shoulders of Donald Trump. We need to look inward. Trump is us. Or better, Trump is you.”

Why does Glaude need Baldwin? Because King’s message is no longer sufficient. The optimism of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has been drenched in too much Black blood. And Glaude cannot turn to Malcolm X, although he seems to me closer to him than King. Glaude wants a revolution, but he doesn’t want to burn down the house. Baldwin’s vision of America as a “New Jerusalem” gives Glaude the ability to, as Du Bois said, hold onto “a hope that is unhopeful.” Glaude calls it “a third American founding.” The first was in the wake of the American Revolution, and the second was after Reconstruction. The third will be the one where “being white is no longer the price of the ticket.” This will not happen incrementally. It will require an entirely new political system.

Who would not despair from such a prospect? Apparently, James Baldwin. “When you read him no matter the intensity of his anger, he keeps you from free-falling into despair in the face of the country’s betrayals (even as he struggles with despair),” Glaude writes. “He holds off the conclusion that you should throw your hands up in defeat and accept the world as it is.” I thought of those words after watching Kyle Rittenhouse, hands up in the air after killing two men and seriously wounding another, ready to surrender, as he was waved on by police.

James Baldwin is a model for Eddie Glaude, I suppose, because he was able to hold his rage and his hope in a way that did not result in his head exploding. Instead he suffered, he smoked, he drank, he left America to live in France and Turkey and then returned, and he wrote beautiful poetry and prose. Glaude offers us a depiction of Baldwin as an anchor of sanity in an increasingly insane world. A small, gay, Black man against a big lie moving relentlessly to erase his humanity. But I suppose in the end, Baldwin is a native son of this country, born and raised in Harlem, as Glaude was born and raised in Mississippi. As a white man, and as a Jew, I find in both of them inspiration to believe the lie cannot exist forever. And even if it does, as Samuel Beckett wrote in 1983, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.