- On Witnessing: James Baldwin’s Southern Experience and the Quareness of Black Sociality
More than five years after the publication of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and two years after his return to the United States, James Baldwin writes of his first visit to the “rust-red earth of Georgia,” as if of a mythic return (Price of the Ticket 184). In what would become the titular essay of his second collection, Nobody Knows My Name (1961), Baldwin addresses the contested history of the American South against the backdrop of social upheavals wrought by the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Writing in the winter of 1959, in the midst of the ongoing harassment and violence against black students, Baldwin charges, “This is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on, in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people” (Price of the Ticket 185). Using language commonly reserved for ascriptions of pathological blackness, Baldwin castigates anti-integrationists as “frivolous,” “criminal,” “completely uneducated.” This rhetorical inversion, casting whites into the roles and behaviors said to be constitutive of blackness and black people, signals no corresponding optimism for a political turnabout, however, and is perhaps more upheaval than inversion, calling forth only to undo the racialized logic that structures different modalities of national belonging. The cut of Baldwin’s bladed irony marks what speculative historian and critical theorist Saidiya Hartman calls “the illusory universality of citizenship,” the nonvictory at the heart of the [End Page 115] nonevent of Emancipation (117). Rather than emancipate black citizens from corporeal and material dispossession or gratuitous violence, rather than endow black citizens with the protections and entitlements that accrue, albeit unevenly, to their nonblack counterparts, black citizenship produces a new category of subjection, a new inroad for degradation—a new “burdened individuality” (Hartman 115).
The imposed subjection of that burdened individuality is manifested in a visual call, a photograph that Tina Campt might term a “still-moving-image”—an image “that [requires] the labor of feeling with or through it” (80)—that hails Baldwin from the streets of Paris to the inexhaustible dark of the United States in 1956. An apocryphal story from his 1972 memoir No Name in the Street recounts Baldwin being struck by the image of a fifteen-year-old black schoolgirl, Dorothy Counts, naked in her burdened individuality, surrounded by the angry contortions of white faces and bodies, adults and student peers, flanking her entry into Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Baldwin credits the image, his fury after seeing it, his fury for not being at the scene, for his return stateside. The monochrome photograph, which originally covered the front page of the New York Times, eventually gained distinction as the 1957 World Press Photo of the Year, but as Ed Pavlić has pointed out, it was published well after Baldwin had found his way back to New York City, after he had already begun to prepare for his fateful trip, the first ever of his life, to the American South.
What to do with this apocryphal story, this recollected origin for a southern tour that gives flight to Baldwin’s fugitive imagination and radicalizes his practice as writer and witness? What can we learn if we understand Baldwin’s imaginative remembering as a heuristic, as an opportunity to not only consider the importance of black children and the American South to and in his work, but also to study the kind of imaginative leave-taking that is also always, especially for Baldwin, a homecoming, a sensuous return? How might this shift of frame, a dance with perspective, from—beyond, below, before, between—the deadening folds and discourses of liberal humanism to the quare world-making and world-destroying possibilities of the flesh give way to a nuanced account of Baldwin’s evolving relationship to and with what might be called black radicalism? Finally, how might an investigation of Baldwin’s southern experience allow us to approach his imaginative practice of witnessing as an active refusal of “burdened individuality”—that liberal ideal of [End Page 116] individual sovereignty...