by Kai Wright
Baldwin’s biographer and close friend, David Leeming, called his essays “prophetic,” as they articulated an eerily clear-eyed view of America’s peril at the hands of what, in Baldwin’s day, was politely called the “race problem.”
Perhaps Leeming has it right and Baldwin was a soothsayer. But a more plausible explanation is that Baldwin’s work remains contemporary because America’s racial caste system changed so little over the generations that his writing spans.
Baldwin considered race America’s poison pill. And he deftly portrayed Americans of all colors struggling to concoct their own individual antidotes—solutions that are temporary at best and always crazy-making because, at root, the problem is structural not individual.
Today, we still have not reached Baldwin’s understanding of race and racism. It remains a collective problem that we insist upon dealing with on an individual basis. As a result, even our greatest triumphs—the end of legal segregation, broadened opportunity for the slim black middle class—are undermined by broader forces.
In his first essay collection, 1955’s Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin describes an urban ghetto that since has changed only in aesthetic. “All over Harlem now,” he wrote, “there is felt the same bitter expectancy with which, in my childhood, we awaited winter: it is coming and it will be hard; there is nothing anyone can do about it.”
Then and now, reform efforts have failed to alter that bleak reality because they’ve made no fundamental changes. As Baldwin wrote, “Steps are taken to right the wrong, without, however, expanding or demolishing the ghetto. The idea is to make it less of a social liability, a process about as helpful as make-up to a leper.”
So today Baldwin’s Harlem still lingers atop the list of New York neighborhoods with problems ranging from dilapidated housing stock to communicable disease to food establishments that simply fail to pass health inspection. The same is true for other racially defined ghettos around the country.
What is different today is that few discuss race in Baldwin’s structural terms. Instead, we busy ourselves with word games.
We play gotcha with celebrities who use slurs, rather than noticing the morbid conditions African Americans are disproportionately asked to live within. We eagerly embrace commentators like Bill Cosby when they decry the way individuals have adapted to generations of ghetto life. But we nickel and dime any policy effort to change those conditions. We ban the N-word, and we leave the ghetto intact.
This neglect has the same impact today that it had when Baldwin dissected it in 1955. “All over Harlem, Negro boys and girls are growing into stunted maturity, trying desperately to find a place to stand,” he wrote, “and the wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive.”
Kai Wright, a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. His new book, Drifting Towards Love: Black, Brown, Gay, and Coming Out on the Streets of New York, will be published in January by Beacon Press. He is also publications editor for the Black AIDS Institute and author of two previous books on African American history.