Last night I listened completely to the audio-book, ‘The Fire Next Time’ by James Baldwin.
Cornel West is right, from a recent interview, Baldwin was unpopular with the largest section of the population, and he was often misunderstood by his ‘white liberal’ friends whom he mercilessly criticised. West too was unpopular with the largest section of the population, and he too was often misunderstood by his ‘white liberal’ friends.
I understand well this unpopularity, and the failure to understand both Baldwin and West. I have realised that I have been subjugated to a false narrative which attempts to de-legitimise the contentious arguments from ‘radical’ black writers.
This revelation takes nothing away from the argument of Martin Luther King Jr. What Baldwin is saying is different to King, but it is not that different. Fools we were to fall for the ‘divide-and-rule’ tactic of the neo-conservatives; those reactionaries who want to take us back to a past which did not exist.
Perhaps, Baldwin and West do not make it easy for ‘whites’ to understand the message, but, listening to Baldwin carefully, I realise that it is a matter of – as Emmanuel Levinas explained – coming to the ‘Humanism of the Other’. Indeed, when you do listen carefully to Baldwin, his message is to save ‘whites’ from the construction of ‘whiteness’ and arrive safely in the shared humanity, which is the ‘Humanism of the Other’.
It is not that disagreement cannot occur. If Baldwin’s and West’s mission was different – which is that of explaining the unjust conditions of black persons in ‘the white world’ – I believe that those disagreements between us would come to naught. In many ways, it was King who explained basically the same message in a way that avoided the unnecessary disagreement; in the language of white Protestant America. It is James Baldwin who explains the unjustness in the ‘whiteness’ of Protestant America – to which King was part of, but without the ‘whiteness’. I fully agree with both King and Baldwin as a historian of Protestant America.
Where there is great insight from Baldwin too is in his strongly empathetic critique of the Black Muslim’s separatism. He is right to demonstrate that the reasoning of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz; Arabic: ٱلْحَاجّ مَالِك ٱلشَّبَازّ, romanized: al-Ḥājj Mālik ash-Shabāzz) and Elijah Muhammad is legitimate; it is logically valid. But it is not sound because it pays too little attention to the way politics really works in the world. For good or worse, we live in global interconnectivity. Ultimately, this is the message of James Baldwin, and Cornel West too.
We need to stop the aesthetics of ‘colour’ to divide us, so we are wrongfully ruled in the absence of colour (‘white’). It can stop with that knowledge.