James Baldwin on Resisting the Mindless Majority, Not Running from Uncomfortable Realities, and What It Really Means to Grow Up
“We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.”
By Maria Popova
“I can conceive of no better service,” Walt Whitman wrote, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.” Nearly a century later, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) — another poet laureate of the human spirit — embodied this ethos in one of his shortest, most searing, and timeliest essays.
In 1963, the children’s book author Charlotte Pomerantz edited an anthology of prominent writers’ and artists’ critiques of the House Committee on Un-American Activities — the Orwellian investigative committee largely responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Hollywood blacklist. Titled A Quarter-Century of Un-Americana, 1938– 1963: A Tragico-Comical Memorabilia of HUAC, it featured writing and art by such titans of creative culture as Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and Ben Shahn. Baldwin’s contribution was later included in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library), which also gave us his abiding insight into the redemptive power of language and the artist’s role in society.
Reflecting on how such metastases of power imperil the moral climate of a society and corrupt the very foundation of democracy, Baldwin writes:
We are living through the most crucial moment of our history, the moment which will result in a new life for us, or a new death… a new vision of America, a vision which will allow us to face, and begin to change, the facts of American life… This seems a grim view to take of our situation, but it is scarcely grimmer than the facts. Our honesty and our courage in facing these facts is all that can save us from disaster. And one of these facts is that there has always been a segment of American life, and a powerful segment, too, which equated virtue with mindlessness… It always reminds me of a vast and totally untrustworthy bomb shelter in which groups of frightened people endlessly convince one another of its impregnability, while the real world outside — by which, again, I mean the facts of our private and public lives — calmly and inexorably prepares their destruction.
Baldwin notes that this is the reality he himself inhabits as a black man, but it is a reality from which the vast majority of Americans spend their lives taking flight. In a sentiment of excruciating timeliness today, he writes:
People in flight never can grow up, which means they can never, really, become citizens — and we simply must not surrender this great country to those people. We must not allow their fear to control us, and, indeed, we must not allow it to control them. Rather, we should attempt to release them from their panic and their unadmitted sorrow. We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.
A century after Kierkegaard insisted that “truth always rests with the minority… while the strength of a majority is illusory,” Baldwin adds:
We must dare to take another view of majority rule… taking it upon ourselves to become the majority by changing the moral climate. For it is upon this majority that the life of any nation really depends.
Half a century before Toni Morrison counseled young graduates that “true adulthood… is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of,” Baldwin examines this intensely hard won glory not on the individual level but on the collective, and considers what true adulthood really means for a society:
The time has come for us to grow up. A man grows up when he looks back, realizes what has happened to him, accepts it all, and begins to change himself. He cannot grow up until he reaches this moment and passes it. We are now at the end of our extraordinarily prolonged adolescence. A very great poet, an American, Miss Marianne Moore, wrote, many years ago, the following description of our terrors: “The weak overcomes its menace. The strong overcomes itself.”
Two generations after some of the world’s most prominent thought leaders co-signed the Declaration of the Independence of the Mind with the commitment “never to serve anything but the free Truth that has no frontiers and no limits and is without prejudice against races or castes,” Baldwin concludes:
That self-knowledge which matures a nation as well as a man presupposes free men and free minds.
Complement The Cross of Redemption — a trove of cultural and spiritual insight that has only fermented with time — with Baldwin on our capacity for transformation as individuals and nations, what it means to be an artist, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, and his fantastic forgotten conversations with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art, with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the experience of otherness, and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit Albert Camus on the artist as a voice of resistance and Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy.
Published August 2, 2018