My friend, writer J. L. Moultrie, recommended Letter from a Region in My Mind,a long essay James Baldwin published in The New Yorker (1962). This essay was my first experience with Baldwin; I found it emotionally demanding, intellectually largely novel territory – and a rewarding read. Baldwin published Letter fourteen years after emigrating from the US: it was in France that he would spend most of the rest of his life. He had concluded that, for an African American of his day, it was impossible to live, in the U.S., simply as a human being. Letter weaves multiple strands of Baldwin’s experiences with racism: its historical roots, its interactions with religion, its effects on white and black Americans, some of the solutions or palliatives various groups were trying – and the prognosis for America’s racism problem.
Letter transitions deftly between episodic anecdotes, assessments of Baldwin’s own life-phases, and systemic analyses of the social-cultural factors behind racism. This scope accommodates a breadth of perspective: from close readings of the Bible to an assessment of Elijah Muhammad’s charisma and goals. Letter traverses multiple levels of analysis – intrapersonal, interpersonal, inter-communal, and national – to offer an ambitious examination of racism as a personal and political problem.
It is an examination of racism very specific to its time and place: mid-century U.S. Outside this context, many of Baldwin’s generalisations make little sense. E.g. “God had come a long way from the desert—but then so had Allah, though in a very different direction. God, going north, and rising on the wings of power, had become white, and Allah, out of power, and on the dark side of Heaven, had become—for all practical purposes, anyway—black.” Given that the Muslim-dominated Middle East posed, for centuries, a formidable cultural and political challenge to the Christian-dominated west, it’s important to remember, when facing such big generalisations, that Baldwin means to apply them only to his time and place.
Baldwin’s gaze is compassionate and unflinching. This combination shines clearest when he examines himself. He narrates becoming a youth pastor, partly motivated by his dynamics with his father, a Baptist preacher. The writer’s attraction to the church was multifactorial: competing with his father; escaping his father’s power – “When I was writing sermons, there were hours and even days when I could not be disturbed”; and relishing the power to move his congregation to agony and ecstasy. As youth pastor, Baldwin achieved early insights into the moral bankruptcy of the church as an institution. But these insights came via subjecting himself to scrutiny, and finding there much that was dubious.
In this climate, interpersonal relationships are polluted early, almost inescapably. Baldwin describes young black girls, barely past puberty, schooling their male peers in chastity: for a single slip would spell, for the girls themselves, almost certain doom (pregnancy, dropping out of school, prostitution, substance abuse). When the adolescent writer brought home a white friend for dinner, and his father afterwards discovered the friend was Jewish – the writer was physically castigated for his transgression. Equally clear, in this anecdote, are the father’s aggressive devotion to a religion that serves primarily to keep his fellow-blacks pacified; and the writer’s defiance and hatred of his father (while himself failing to live with or in his nation). The disturbing fact is that in this anecdote – as in every anecdote and analysis Letter offers – a final assignment of culpability is impossible. As in a tritone, resolution remains elusive. The reader is forced to conclude: in a system so corrupt, everyone is culpable.
Letter’s central insight is that the negro exists only in the US. Less cryptically, Baldwin’s meaning is that the black American has been socially constructed by the white American’s hostility, fear, and guilt about the past. (He describes black household help stealing from their white employers, and the latter feeling rather relieved than otherwise.) Baldwin astutely traces the origins of individual instances of racism back to structural forces. One anecdote narrates Baldwin and two black friends being denied service at the bar of an airport lounge. The bartender, however, dared not cite their race for this denial (is it progress when racism is ashamed to identify itself as racism?); he cited, instead, their age. “We were all well past 30, and looked it,” counter Baldwin. He then points out that the practice of calling African American adult men “boys” enacts, in language, the marginalisation of African Americans in material reality. This linguistic holdover from the days of slavery perpetuates a culture of racism, even when slavery’s socioeconomic structures have been dismantled.
Inertia characterises Baldwin’s view of contemporary black American society. Crime and prostitution are the twin prospects for his peers, palliated by alcoholism. His poignant evocation of “wine and urine soaked alleys” suggests an ongoing, enormous crime against a people. Baldwin points at the two key systems that perpetuate racism: Christianity and American “he-man” culture. But, if the Bible curses the ‘sons of Ham’ to eternal suffering – and if, as Baldwin describes, he had to renounce both America and Christianity to find his own humanity – the solution, he warns, cannot be simply to reverse the status quo.
Letter’s most illuminating passages address the Nation of Islam movement, primarily via Baldwin’s meeting with Elijah Muhammed. Baldwin portrays an Elijah who has clearly suffered, is angry (as a boy, he watched his father get lynched), is a good judge of men, and has confidence that sooner or later all right-thinking individuals will converge to his truth. Elijah is surrounded by young men who endorse uncritically everything their leader says; and by young women who “are not expected to participate in the [political] discussion.” Here Baldwin gives us all the ingredients for a cult: a charismatic leader, uncritical and much younger followers, strict division of labour along lines of age and sex, and an unquestioning acceptance of an in-group (blacks) and an out-group locked in a zero-sum game.
But Baldwin draws back from offering the obvious criticism. What follows targets not the Nation of Islam movement specifically, but black nationalism more generally. Briefly, Baldwin wonders about the pragmatics of a black separatist movement: how would such a thing be achieved politically, and sustained economically? But Baldwin’s primary concern is not pragmatic: it is humanistic. Not by replacing an anti-black Christianity with an anti-white Islam can a people reach maturity. It is for their own sake, argues Baldwin, that black people must find a better way to achieve equality than simply reversing the status quo.
Letter combines social commentary with personal essay, compassion with intelligence. It is a difficult read, but a rewarding one. That Letter is as relevant today as it was in 1962 is a testament as much to our collective failure to have made enough progress, as to Baldwin’s humanity and genius.