(I apologize for having to include the N-word in the following reflection on the themes of shame, self-awareness, and social identity in James Baldwin’s writing and public speaking, but this term is the most accurate one, according to Baldwin, to describe the typical conception a white American has of an African American. According to Baldwin, African Americans have historically been seen and treated as inferiors by white Americans, who have often addressed them by using this racial epithet.)
James Arthur Baldwin (1924-1987) was an American novelist, playwright, essayist, social critic, and civil rights activist. He was born August 2, 1924, in New York City. His mother, Emma Berdis Jones, married a preacher, David Baldwin, in 1927, who became his stepfather. James was the oldest of nine children. He never knew the name of his biological father, and he had a strained relationship with his stepfather. In 1938, he began to preach at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, but he renounced the ministry four years later when he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. He began his career as a writer, and his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953. It was nominated for the National Book Award. He left the United States in 1948, and settled in Paris. However, he returned to the United States in 1957, and was active in the American civil rights movement. He settled in Saint Paul de Vence, southern France, in 1970. He died of stomach cancer at the age of 63, on December 1, 1987, in Saint Paul de Vence.
Baldwin’s writings include the novels Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room (1956), Another Country (1962), Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just Above My Head (1979). His plays include The Amen Corner (1954), and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964). His essay collections include Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), The Devil Finds Work (1976), The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), and The Price of the Ticket (1985).
In an interview with the oral historian, writer, and radio broadcaster Studs Terkel (1961), Baldwin describes working on his first novel and being unable to finish it:
“I finally realized that one of the reasons that I couldn’t finish the novel was that I was ashamed of where I came from and where I had been. I was ashamed of the life in the Negro church, ashamed of my father, ashamed of the Blues, ashamed of Jazz, and, of course, ashamed of watermelon; all of these stereotypes that the country inflicts on Negroes, that we all eat watermelon or we all do nothing but sing the Blues. Well, I was afraid of that; and I ran from it.”1
It is this sense of shame that white people attempt to inflict on black people when they call them “niggers,” says Baldwin. But perhaps the white policeman will call the black man “nigger” once too often, and one of them will die.2
Black people are therefore faced with the question, “If we’re going to be called “niggers,” then should we resist the notion of acting like “niggers”?” Perhaps we might as well act like “niggers,” even though we know we’re not “niggers,” and never were. But why should we act like something we aren't? And if white people are calling us "niggers" in order to keep us in our place, then maybe we should show them that we're not going to be kept in our place!
A question that both white people and black people must also ask themselves is, “Why was it necessary for white people to call black people “niggers” in the first place?” What system of power and privilege was it necessary for this term to reinforce? What system of epistemic, social, and cultural values was it necessary for this term to support?
Because black people know why (some) white people feel it necessary to call them “niggers”—it’s necessary for (some) white people, in order to help them maintain an unjust system of white power and privilege—black people know white people in a way that white people don’t know themselves (and know things about white people that they don’t know about themselves).
Baldwin describes another kind of shame—not a shame associated with humiliation, but a shame associated with regret—when he writes of seeing a photograph of Dorothy Counts, one of the first black students admitted to Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina in September 1957, showing her being taunted and harassed by white students.
"That’s when I saw the photograph.
"That’s when I saw the photograph.
Facing us, on every newspaper kiosk
on that wide, tree-shaded boulevard in Paris
were photographs of fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts
being reviled and spat upon by the mob
as she was making her way to school
in Charlotte, North Carolina.
There was unutterable pride, tension, and anguish
in that girl’s face
as she approached the halls of learning
with history, jeering, at her back.
It made me furious,
it filled me with both hatred and pity.
And it made me ashamed.
Some one of us should have been there with her!”3
He recalls the sense of shame he was made to feel by his stepfather:
“My father said, during all the years I lived with him, that I was the ugliest boy he had ever seen, and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him. But it was not my father’s hatred of my frog-eyes which hurt me, this hatred proving, in time, to be rather more resounding than real: I have my mother’s eyes. When my father called me ugly, he was not attacking me so much as he was attacking my mother.”4
He also recalls that as a boy, because he had been made to feel ugly, “I used to put pennies on my eyes to make them go back.”5 He was made to feel not only ugly, but queer and “strange.”6
“In order for me to live, I decided very early that some mistake had been made somewhere. I was not a “nigger” even though you called me one. But if I was a “nigger” in your eyes, there was something about you—there was something you needed. I had to realize when I was very young that I was none of those things I was told I was…So where we are now is that a whole country of people believe I’m a “nigger,” and I don’t, and the battle’s on! Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either!”7
In a film documentary entitled “Take This Hammer,” produced in 1963 by KQUED Public Television, Baldwin continues to explain why it's so important to be able to define one’s own personal identity:
“What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessity, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me. And here in this country we’ve got something called “the nigger,” who doesn’t in such terms, I beg you to remark, exist in any other country in the world. We have invented “the nigger.” I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always known—I had to know by the time I was 17 years old—what you were describing was not me, and what you were afraid of was not me. It had to be something else. You had invented it, so it had to be something you were afraid of, and you invested me with it. Now if that’s so, no matter what you’ve done to me, I can say to you this, and I mean it, I know you can’t do any more, and I got nothing to lose, and I know, and I’ve always known, you know, and really always, that’s part of the agony, I’ve always known that I’m not a nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? I’m not the victim here. I know one thing from another…I know a person is more important than anything else. Anything else. I’ve learned this because I had to learn it. But you still think, I gather, that “the nigger” is necessary. Well it’s unnecessary to me, so it must be necessary to you. So I’m going to give you your problem back. Your “nigger,” baby, isn’t me.”8
He also explains in an interview with the poet Quincy Troupe in November 1987,
“I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself, and myself only.”9
For white people to try to dehumanize non-white people is for white people to dehumanize themselves, says Baldwin.10 When white people try to strip non-white people of their humanity, white people strip themselves of their own humanity.
What is necessary now is not for black people to adjust themselves to the ways in which they have been seen and treated by white people, but for white people to adjust themselves to the fact that black people will no longer accept the unjust and shameful ways in which they've been seen and treated. Black people will no longer accept the demeaning and stereotypical conceptions of themselves that have been promoted by white people.
White people must therefore find a way of living with black people in order to live with themselves. They must see that “the nigger” they attempt to make of every black person has nothing to do with who black people really are, but instead arises from white people's own need to establish or maintain some form of white supremacy.
Just as black people must liberate themselves from the distorted conceptions of themselves promoted by white people, says Baldwin, white people must also liberate themselves from those same distorted conceptions. This is the only way for there to be a true understanding of the nature of racial relations in America.
He describes the experience of twice seeing the movie The Defiant Ones (1958)—once with a white audience in downtown New York City, and once with a black audience in uptown New York City—and how differently the two audiences responded to the moment at which the escaped black prisoner, played by Sidney Poitier, gives up his own chance for freedom in order not to leave behind his fellow white prisoner, played by Tony Curtis:
“at the end of that movie when Sidney jumps off the train to rescue Tony Curtis…I saw it twice, deliberately, in New York. I saw it Downtown with a white liberal audience. There was a great sigh of relief and clapping: they felt that this was a noble gesture on the part of a very noble black man. And I suppose, in a way, it was.
Then I saw it Uptown. When Sidney jumped off the train, there was a tremendous roar of fury from the audience, with which, I must say, I agreed. They told Sidney to “Get back on the train, you fool.” In any case, why in the world should he go back to the chain gang, when they were obviously going to be separated again: it’s still a Jim Crown chain gang.
What’s the movie supposed to prove? What the movie is designed to prove, really, to white people, is that Negroes are going to forgive them for their crimes, and that somehow they are going to escape scot-free. Now, I am not being vengeful at all when I say this…because I’d hate to see the nightmare begin all over again, with shoes on the other foot. But I’m talking about a human fact. The human fact is this: that one cannot escape anything one has done. One has got to pay for it. You either pay for it willingly or pay for it unwillingly.”11
Baldwin strikes a more hopeful note, however, in a televised interview with the psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark, entitled “The Negro and the American Promise” (1963):
“I can’t be a pessimist, because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”12
1James Baldwin, in “An Interview with James Baldwin,” by Studs Terkel, in Conversations with James Baldwin, edited by Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), p. 4.
2Ibid., p. 18.
3Baldwin, in I Am Not Your Negro, compiled and edited by Raoul Peck (New York: Vintage International, 2017), p. 12.
4Baldwin, “No Name in the Street,” in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), p. 501.
5Baldwin, “Disturber of the Peace: James Baldwin—An Interview,” by Eve Auchincloss and Nancy Lynch, in Conversations with James Baldwin, edited by Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), p. 79.
6Baldwin, “No Name in the Street," in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985, p. 502.
7Baldwin, “The Devil Finds Work,” in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), p. 559.
8Baldwin, in ”Take This Hammer,” 1963, WNET, online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0L5fciA6AU.
9Baldwin, in The Last Interview: and other Conversations (Melville House, 2014).
10Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone,” in Notes of a Native Son (New York: Bantam Books, 1955), p. 19.
11Ibid., pp. 11-12.
12Baldwin, in “The Negro and the American Promise,” 1963, WGBH Educational Foundation, online at https://www.pbs.org/video/american-experience-james-baldwin-from-the-negro-and-the-american-promise/.