James Baldwin wants you to change the way you think

Yesterday my brother sent me a link to a song by Mateo Senolia and his timing couldn’t have been better. The song, “Baldwin” uses sound clips of James Baldwin giving a speech and in this speech, as in most of his speeches, Baldwin displays a great rhetorical power and shows the strength of his ideas regarding identity in America – an issue a lot of us have been grappling with lately as it relates to race and justice.

What sets James Baldwin apart from his contemporaries in the Civil Rights era is his critique of the most insoluble problem in race politics – categorical thinking (i.e., aligning protest with ethnic categories). Baldwin was very clear that the use of categorical thinking as a means to overcome racial division is regrettably at odds with itself.

For example, to say that blacks and whites should be seen as equal is to reinforce a sense that these two categories are actual and distinct. …Is to perpetuate division. …Is to solidify a belief in the validity of these categorical terms. …Is to leave unchallenged the underlying modes of thought that make prejudice possible in the first place.

Baldwin proposed that the ultimate solution to problems of race politics is to address humans as humans and so to do away with a belief in the meaningfulness of race categories. To offer protest otherwise is to solicit failure because the complexity of the human is unacknowledged in a (political) rhetoric that reinforces the notion of race as a categorical, biological reality when it is anything but.

This is his argument against protest novels as well. Baldwin takes the position that Native Son and Uncle Tom’s Cabin both suffer from the same flaws, treating characters categorically and politically (and thus simplistically) instead of treating them as complex beings.

When he claims that the “failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended,” Baldwin is offering a criticism also of a larger logic of protest that would similarly rely on categories instead of tearing them down.

So, why is this song apropos of the current moment?

I’m sure you can guess where this is going. The headlines are so profligate at this point that there should be news of congressional hearings added to the mix. And that is, in part, the point. People of a certain category are being killed by people of a different category and public outrage has not led to a reckoning. Why?

My point here is modest, I think, and it can be put in the form of a question. If the officers shooting and killing unarmed black men had not been trained by the culture at large (and its language) to believe deeply and actively in the validity of racial categories, would they still be pulling the trigger?

If violence is being enacted and tolerated because our culture has failed to heed Baldwin’s warnings that categorical thinking will not lead to actual, lasting progress, then it is not only up to the police departments of America to make a change.

If we ask where change is going to come from, we should take a listen to James Baldwin. He knew that change won’t come from punishing a few transgressors or pointing the finger – not the deep kind of change we want.

That change is going to come when we do some work to dematerialize our racial categories, invalidate them.  Raise humanity above categories, put the man first, put the woman first, and we may see the change we hope for.

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