- Baldwin’s Three Africans
The time of my youth was far less hopeful. I speak of this savage irony because the political and spiritual currents of my very early youth involved a return to Africa, or a rejection of it; either choice would lead to suicide, or madness, for, in fact, neither choice was possible.—James Baldwin, “A Lonely Rage by Bobby Seale” (1978)
Among the many paths into Baldwin’s work, few have examined his engagement with the post–World War II francophone tradition. In particular, I have in mind how Baldwin emerges as a serious writer at the very same moment that the francophone tradition, having set out from origins in the early Négritude and surrealist movements in Martinique, emerges as a revolutionary intervention in theorizing the meaning of blackness, liberation, and revolutionary culture. All of which, of course, proceeded from a sense of solidarity between black people, across the cultural geography of the diaspora. Their proposal for such solidarity was metaphysical and unrestrained, [End Page 81] taking the ultimate chance on blackness by putting that identity in old roots, the singular ancient root: the geographic and spiritual wellspring of Africa. This root tells a now familiar story. Between genealogy and what is spiritually real and effective and affective, Africa functions in so many postwar diasporic thinkers as the animating force, source of pride, unity, and final appeal of diasporic thinking’s alpha and omega: what makes us a people?
In the francophone tradition, though forged by demoralized and revolutionary students in Parisian cafés, the postwar moment was nothing if not a moment of excess and exuberance. Aimé Césaire’s blend of René Ménil’s afro-surrealism with a cultural and civilizational commitment to Africa as a metaphysical force set the itinerary for a quarter century of work dedicated to the imagination of an unbroken blackness. The promise of Négritude was that such unbrokenness, born in the imagination and borne by the poetic word, could become culturally actual, effective, affective, real, and, in the crucial word of the movement, vital. This vision of Africa is hardly set out from a place of desperation or despair, however. Rather, and this is part of the force of Césaire’s work as an essayist and poet, this vision of Africa describes an intensity of life and creative explosion that seeks to account for how and why life and creativity is still possible amid the ruins and ruination of colonial violence. Africa, in this francophone moment, is nothing like a savior or saving force precisely because the poetic word and its life-vitality does not need saving; precarity under colonialism is nothing like being lost, there is no need for words of salvation. Something, perhaps everything, survives. Like the morne of the Martiniquan landscape, the survival of Africanness has sat quiet and suppressed, or even, after independence, repressed. For Césaire and this particular black Atlantic constellation of thinkers, poetry makes the explosive madness of the word happen. In the madness of the word, white colonial space is revealed to have never fully occupied the black body. The life of that body has been African through and through. Négritude was never famous for its modesty.
As we track this discovery of the intractable, suppressed, then released élan vital of blackness, of Africa, in the midcentury francophone world, witnessing the grandeur of its liberatory claims, we find no better contrast to it than the early fiction and nonfiction of Baldwin. I am thinking here of his essay [End Page 82] “Princes and Powers,” the key work for what follows below, and how Baldwin so carefully examines the existential, metaphysical, and affective attachments of the midcentury moment, its fixation on Africa, and how that fixation, for him, says too much about the meaning of blackness. And yet Africa and the African are found across Baldwin’s work. What can be said about that presence? What is Africa to Baldwin? Who is the African to him, and how does that meaning speak to how black identity and the meaning of history function in Baldwin’s imagination of African American life?
In the following reflections...