- Born-Again, Seen-Again James Baldwin: Post-Postracial Criticism and the Literary History of Black Lives Matter
21 July 2016
1. Born-Again Baldwin
James Baldwin, buried on 8 December 1987, often looks like today’s most vital and beloved new African American author. This impression doesn’t rest on the faith in bodily resurrection that Baldwin abandoned along with the Pentecostal pulpit, his teenage ministry sacrificed to the revelation that Christianity “began [its] conquest of the world with ... concerted surrender to distortion” (“Notes” 79). Nor does this impression slight Teju Cole, Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, and the rest of the emerging literary competition—though it’s true that one leading light in that competition, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has suffered, as well as profited, from Toni Morrison’s pronouncement that he fills “the intellectual void” that Baldwin’s official passing opened. (For a taste of the bitter under-side of appointment as Baldwin the Second, sample Cornel West’s Facebook post “In Defense of James Baldwin: Why Toni Morrison [a literary genius] is Wrong about Ta-Nehisi Coates,” a merely “journalistic talent.”) Instead, the impression that Baldwin’s work [End Page 812] has returned to preeminence, unbowed and unwrinkled, reflects its ubiquity in the imagination of Black Lives Matter. As Eddie Glaude Jr. observes, “Jimmy is everywhere” in the advocacy and self-scrutiny of the young activists who bravely transformed the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Natasha McKenna, and far too many others into a sweeping, now-embattled national movement against carceral and campus racism. For these activists—disruptive and creative and warning of new fires next time—Jimmy himself has filled the void traced to his death. Something like the Shakespeare of Stephen Dedalus, the Baldwin of Black Lives Matter is his own true father—one who rehearsed for the role, it’s worth remembering, by raising several of his eight younger siblings and peppering his live speech with the hip endearment of “baby.” With ironic paternalism, Baldwin habitually applied this sweet nothing to that set of permanent children proud of their whiteness. “So I give you your problem back,” he schooled a not especially fresh-faced interviewer in 1963, “You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me” (“Who Is”).
It’s no state secret that Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a movement fueled by electronic social media, by the graphic smartphone video-turned-Vine, followed by the mobile demonstration advertised on Facebook and choreographed in real time via Twitter. “The thing about [Martin Luther] King or Ella Baker” and the rest of the Civil Rights pantheon, explains DeRay Mckesson, the most prominent face of the movement’s techno-optimism, “is that they could not just wake up and sit at breakfast and talk to a million people. The tools that we have to organize and resist are fundamentally different than what’s existed before in black struggle” (qtd. in Stephen). Regardless of the new advantages of instantaneous communication, however, BLM has also begun to reorder the slow time of the African American print canon like the Civil Rights Movement before it. Whatever BLM’s cumulative political significance will be—the jury remains out amid white backlash, the tragic assassination of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and the slow fade of direct action as a defining tactic—it has already adopted more than one literary muse and project and has already stamped black literary history.
Considered in the widest sense as a sensibility indebted but not confined to the #BlackLivesMatter platform launched in 2013, BLM has embraced a lyrically withering essayist, the previously mentioned Coates, and has appointed an academic poet laureate, the 2014 National Book Award finalist in poetry, Claudia Rankine. Defying mounting skepticism about the value of reparative recovery work among professional African Americanists, BLM has recuperated a militant memoirist, Assata Shakur, whose 1987 autobiography, written in Cuban exile, now rivals The Autobiography of [End Page 813] Malcolm X (1965) as a passport to the Black Nationalism of the long 1960s. The medley of poetry, radical confession, selective legal history, and antiracist name-taking in Assata—an unexpected pre-echo of Rankine’s multigeneric collection Citizen (2014)—has also...