Ordinary Intimacies in Emerson, Du Bois, and Baldwin

This essay reads James Baldwin in conversation with two unexpected interlocutors from the American nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Ralph Waldo Emerson and W. E. B. Du Bois. What draws these historically distant and intellectually different thinkers together, their differences making their convergences all the more resonant and provocative, is a shared mode of attention they bring to the social crises of their eras. It is a mode of attention foregrounding how the often unobserved particulars and emotional registers of human life vitally shape civic existence; more specifically, a mode of attention provoking us to see how “a larger, juster, and fuller future,” in Du Bois’s words, is a matter of the ordinary intimacies and estrangements in which we exist, human connections in all their expressions and suppressions. Emerson names them “facts [. . .] harder to read.” They are “the finer manifestations,” in Du Bois’s terms, “of social life, which history can but mention and which statistics can not count”; “All these things,” Baldwin says, “[. . .] which no chart can tell us.” In effect, from the 1830s to the 1980s these thinkers bear witness to what politics, legislation, and even all our knowledges can address only partially, and to the potentially transformative compensations we might realize in the way we conduct our daily lives. The immediate relevance and urgency this essay finds in their work exists not in proposed political actions, programs for reform, or systematic theories of social justice but in the way their words revitalize the ethical question “How shall I live?” Accumulative and suggestive rather than systematically comparative or polemical, this essay attempts to engage with Emerson, Du Bois, and Baldwin intimately, to proceed in the spirit of their commitment to questioning received disciplines, languages, and ways of inhabiting the world.

James Baldwin Review