With the election of Trump and the dismemberment of our freedom of religion clause, I’ve heard more and more people, people of color especially, talk about not feeling at home here in America, that this nation was slipping from their hands. Funny thing is that, whether it’s foolish or not, I don’t feel that way at all. I understand how foolish it will seem in hindsight when the ethnic cleansing hits full stride, for then, all I fought for, all I put my life on the line for becomes something less of a shield because in the end it’s about tribalism and not caring about America, not caring about her people, not caring about her future.
There’s a line in James Baldwin’s “Stranger in a Village” where he states that even the borderline-illiterate villagers in that Swiss village had more in common with the great whites to whom he owed much of his literary and cultural ancestry than he did. Sad statement. Sadder yet to consider it as a reality, especially in Trumplandia.
If you haven’t been reading much of my work, I’ll let you know that I first read James Baldwin only a few years ago, and he has immediately vaulted into the pantheon of my literary heroes. This was at a time of great personal, intellectual and—yes—literary discombobulation in my life. No, it wasn’t some moment of great ambition or research (something I might be silly enough to portray it as such in the future) but rather an aimless part of my life—horrific at that age. So it was something more like a point of anarchy, vacuum of power in a large, individual civil war of attrition. Thus I was nihilistic and violent towards the literary gods who brought me to this point. And everything I read I attacked with disdain. That James Baldwin’s words were able to break this cycle of mine, is a testament to his powerful insightful works. He gave me energy for the direction in which I now find myself writing. A direction that I think requires moral courage and pointing out injustice when I see it, even if inconvenient.
Of course, what exactly I had in common with Baldwin is only highlighted when I, a mixed-race man born in Africa, read his works. And in addition to what I have in common with him, or think I have in common with him, I feel the same when I look to other literary giants in the Western canon. In other words, I’m saying he was wrong to think that illiterate Swiss villagers have more in common with the giants of the past than he did.
My reaction, morally convenient, is to dismiss that one fraction of his worldview, and say that skin color is superseded by intellectual ties. Whatever that is—personal myth? A perversion of the national myths I despise so much?—it allows me to continue writing and using Baldwin as my guiding light.
There’s no doubt that Baldwin was a product of his time, even if he was leaps and bounds ahead of others in his generation. He was, ultimately, filled with a moral courage that’s easy to spot as time flows by. So maybe I’m being dismissive of my literary-god by saying he was wrong in thinking that ignorant Swiss villagers had more in common with Shakespeare and the like, than he did.
It’s my view that he had more in common with those greats simply by virtue of his legacy. See, I’ve gotten into these arguments a lot recently. Mainly, with the old guard, or its proponents, over our changing nation. What I mean is though the conversation is about our future: what route do we take moving forward from here—it’s also about our past: what we remember and how we remember it. So when Baldwin says some illiterate in a Swiss village has more in common with Shakespeare—the Western canon as it were—I balk.
Not only do I place Baldwin himself in that canon, I also sense he’s speaking for his time and for a different country when he accepts this frame of mind: he’s essentially saying the white race is stronger (the idea of it, that is) than any intellectual race.
And though I understand that even claiming some sort of universality is somewhat controversial, and that we can even argue about what should be in the Western canon—or if there should be one—I still think fighting for that intellectual universality, even a contentious one (no, it requires a contentious state) is worthwhile. In other words, Baldwin does have much more in common with Shakespeare than some illiterate with a temper and Twitter account.
Look, I’m not saying that white-supremacist structure from and about which Baldwin spoke was trivial. The trial of bodies it left and continues to leave can easily attest to that. But I am saying if we are to define what it means to be an American—hell what it means to be a human—in a way that advances us as a species, in a way that will allow us to actually be human, to actually have a chance to survive, then we will have to break free of how we think of the past and get rid of whatever heuristics grip our mind and which powers that be use to their own advantage.
Am I being too obtuse, too pie-in-the-sky when I speak of usurping the current power dynamics in our country? Maybe. Maybe it also speaks to my own mixed-race background—compounded by my middle class let’s-minimize-strife instincts.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that when I hear people react to the changes in the nation by an attempt at a slow-boil ethnic cleansing by embracing our worst instincts as humans and turning refugees into monsters. When their convoluted minds see only race and even the most dimwitted takes credit for everything that is worth being proud of in this country, something must change. And what must change is the very idea of humanity, and thus the subsection thereof, America, and thus the strings that should tie us together one of which should be a very specific form of intellectualism (which I take to oppose tribalism, in form and consequence). Therefore I will continue to make this case, even if the odds, and possibly human nature, are against me.