Death of paradox

April 30, 2011


James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist. Baldwin described the ambiguous situation of black Americans in the 1950s as Kafkaesque. He predicted that American nation will be put to death by paradox, itself a paradox since Americans seemed intent on putting paradox to death. He then situates American author Richard Wright fictional character Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940) as a character controlled, defined by hatred and fear as a descendant of Uncle Tom. Bigger Tom’s hatred and fear later drive him to murder and rape. Baldwin saw Richard Wright as the 1940s Negro novelist locked with the 19th century New England author in a deadly timeless battle. He decries the fact that Bigger Tom’s tragedy is that he has accepted a theology that situates him as subhuman eternally constrained to fight for his humanity. Baldwin then summarizes, “But our humanity is our burden, our life, we need not battle for it; we need only do what is infinitely more difficult, that is accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended (Baldwin “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in Zero 1955: 58).”

1852 American author Harriet Beecher Stowe published her anti-slavery novel entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. Although some argued that the novel “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War” (Will Kaufman) James Baldwin claimed that is reeked of self-righteousness and virtuous sentimentality. Baldwin argued that sentimentality is the mark of dishonesty which betray the sentamentalist’s aversion of experience, fear of life and an arid heart. Baldwin states that sentimentalism is a signal of secret and violent inhumanity, a mask for cruelty. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a “catalogue of violence”. He described Harriet Beecher Stowe as an impassioned pampheteer not a novelist who wrote solely to reveal the immorality of slavery (Baldwin “Everybody’s Protest Novel” Zero 1955: 57).

1924 James Baldwin was born

1938 Shoghi Effendi (1938:36) Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote that racial prejudice was the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Americas.

“Freedom from racial prejudice, in any of its forms, should, at such a time as this when an increasingly large section of the human race is falling a victim to its devastating ferocity, be adopted as the watchword of the entire body of the…believers, in whichever state they reside, in whatever circles they move, whatever their age, traditions, tastes, and habits (1938:36).”

“The ceaseless exertions which this issue of paramount importance calls for, the sacrifices it must impose, the care and vigilance it demands, the moral courage and fortitude it requires, the tact and sympathy it necessitates, invest this problem…with an urgency and importance that cannot be overestimated (1938:34).”

” [Freedom from racial prejudice] should be deliberately cultivated through the various and everyday opportunities, no matter how insignificant, that present themselves, whether in their homes, their business offices, their schools and colleges, their social parties and recreation grounds, their Bahá’í meetings, conferences, conventions, summer schools and Assemblies (1938:36).”

1940 American author Richard Wright published Native Son. James Baldwin in his essay entitled “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (c. 1950s?: 54-59) published in Zero situated American author Richard Wright fictional character Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940) as a character controlled, defined by hatred and fear as a descendant of Uncle Tom. Bigger Tom’s hatred and fear later drive him to murder and rape. Baldwin saw Richard Wright as the 1940s Negro novelist locked with the 19th century New England author in a deadly timeless battle. He decries the fact that Bigger Tom’s tragedy is that he has accepted a theology that situates him as subhuman eternally constrained to fight for his humanity. Native Son is number 71 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. The Modern Library placed it number 20 on its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. Time Magazine also included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

1941 Seventeen-year-old James Baldwin studied at The New School, Greenwich Village, New York City.

1948 James Baldwin lived in Paris, France and became involved in the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank. His work started to be published in literary anthologies, notably Zero.

1949-1956 Albert Benveniste and Themistocles and Hoetis were editors of Zero, Gotham Book Mart Selection. James Baldwin’s essay entitled “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (pp 54-59) was published in Zero. http://books.google.com/books?id=9wdVDKAZZFoC&pg=PP5&lpg=PP5&dq=New+York+Times+’Zero’+Themistocles+Hoetis&q=New+York+Times+’Zero’+Themistocles+Hoetis&hl=en#v=snippet&q=New%20York%20Times%20’Zero’%20Themistocles%20Hoetis&f=false

“It is the peculiar triumph of society – and its loss – that it is able to convince those people to whom it has given inferior status of the reality of this decree; it has the force and the weapons to translate its dictum into fact, so that the allegedly inferior are actually made so, insofar as the societal realities are concerned. This is a hidden phenomenon now than it was in the days of serfdom, but it is no less implacable. Now, as then, we find ourselves bound, first without, then within, by the nature of categorization. And escape is not effected through a bitter railing against this trap upon us. We take our shape, it is true, within and against that cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth; and yet it is precisely betrayed. Society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled into that void, within which, like the earth before the Word was spoken, the foundations of society are hidden. From this void – ourselves – it is the function of society to protect us; but it is only this void, our unknown selves, demanding forever, a new act of creation, which can save us – “from the evil that is in the world.” With the same motion, at the same time, it is this toward which we endlessly struggle and from which, endlessly, we struggle to escape(Baldwin “Everybody’s Protest Novel” Zero 1955: 57).”

“It must be remembered that the oppressed and oppressor are bound within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality. Within this cage it is (Baldwin “Everybody’s Protest Novel” Zero 1955: 57) romantic, more, meaningless, to speak of a “new” society as the desire of the oppressed, for that shivering independence on the props of reality wyhich he shares with the herrenvolk makes a truly “new” society impossible to conceive. What vengeance will be exacted; either there will be no oppressed at all or the oppressed and the oppressor will change places (Baldwin “Everybody’s Protest Novel” Zero 1955: 58).”

1955 James Baldwin published Notes of a Native Son. The title refers to Richard Wright’s 1940 protest novel entitled Native Son.

1963 James Baldwin’s book entitled The Fire Next Time was considered to be one of the most influential books about race relations. In it Baldwin predicted, “The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.” Could he have imagined President Obama?

“James Baldwin’s collection of essays, The Fire Next Time, is considered one of the most influential books on race relations published during the 1960s. Divided into two sections, the book urges the politicization of both African Americans and European Americans on the issue of racism. Baldwin explains that the radicalism and militancy of many prominent African Americans is a reaction to feelings of alienation inspired by traditional American society. Originally published as two separate works – “Letter from a Region in My Mind” in The New Yorker and “A Letter to My Nephew” in the Progressive – the essays were retitled “Down at the Cross” and “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation” for their appearance in book form. Using rhetorical devices learned in his youth as a Pentecostal preacher and examples from his own life, Baldwin argues for an end to racism (Gale Free Resources).”

“In order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long (Baldwin).”

1979-1981 Atlanta Child Murders were a series of murders committed in Atlanta, Georgia, United States in which a minimum of twenty-eight African-American children, adolescents and adults were killed creating an atmosphere of panic and paranoia. James Baldwin documented these murders in his nonfiction book entitled The Evidence of Things Not Seen. Although Atlanta African American Wayne Williams was convicted of two murders and suspected to be guilty of more Baldwin criticized the “untidy” criminal investigation process and felt it was incomplete.

1987 James Baldwin died.

Who’s Who

James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist.

Webliography and Bibliography

Baldwin, James. 1962-11-17. “Letter From a Region of My Mind.The New Yorker. “Letter from a Region in My Mind.” p. 59.

Baldwin, James. 1963. “Down At the Cross; Letter From a Region of My Mind.” The Fire Next Time. Dial Press. USA.
Baldwin, James. 1963. The Fire Next Time. Dial Press. USA.
Baldwin, James. 1964. The Fire Next Time. Penguin Books. UK.

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