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.
This essay analyzes how James Baldwin’s late novel If Beale Street Could Talk represents Black women’s care work in the face of social death as an example of how Black women act as surrogates for Black liberation giving birth to a new world and possibilities of freedom for Black (male) people. Within the politics of Black nationalism, Black women were affective workers playing a vital role in the (re)creation of heteronormative family structures that formed the basis of Black liberation cohered by a belief in the power of patriarchy to make way for communal freedom. This essay demonstrates how Beale Street’s imagining of freedom centers not on what Black women do to support themselves or each other, but on the needs of the community at large, with embodied sacrifice as a presumed condition of such liberation.
This essay explores Black queer feminist readings of the sexual politics of James Baldwin’s Another Country. Recent work at the intersection of queer of color critique and Black feminism allows us to newly appreciate Baldwin’s prescient theorization of the workings of racialized and gendered power within the erotic. Previous interpretations of Another Country have focused on what is perceived as a liberal idealization of white gay male intimacy. I argue that this approach requires a selective reading of the novel that occludes its more complex portrayal of a web of racially fraught, power-stricken, and often violent sexual relationships. When we de-prioritize white gay male eroticism and pursue analyses of a broader range of erotic scenes, a different vision of Baldwin’s sexual imaginary emerges. I argue that far from idealizing, Another Country presents sex within a racist, homophobic, and sexist world to be a messy terrain of pleasure, pain, and political urgency. An unsettling vision, to be sure, but one that, if we as readers are to seek more equitable erotic imaginaries, must be reckoned with.