This essay presents the idea of James Baldwin as a freedom writer, the organizing idea of
my biography in progress. As a freedom writer, Baldwin was a revolutionary intellectual,
an essayist and novelist committed unfailingly to the realization of racial justice,
interracial political equality, and economic democracy. While the book is still in
process, this short essay narrates autobiographically how I came to meet and know
Baldwin’s work, explains in critical fashion my work in relation to existing biographies,
and reflects interpretively my thoughts-in- progress on this fascinating and captivating
figure of immense historical and social consequence.
James Baldwin and the Broken Silences of Black Queer
McKinley E Melton
James Baldwin writes within and against the testimonial tradition emerging from the Black
Church, challenging the institution’s refusal to acknowledge the voices and experiences of
black queer men. Baldwin’s autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, creates a
space for Baldwin’s testimony to be expressed, and also lays the foundation for a
tradition of black queer artists to follow. In the contemporary moment, poet Danez Smith
inhabits Baldwin’s legacy, offering continuing critiques of the rigidity of conservative
Christian ideologies, while publishing and performing poetry that gives voice to their own
experiences, and those of the black queer community at large. These testimonies ultimately
function as a means of rhetorical resistance, which not only articulates black queer lives
and identities, but affirms them.
This essay proposes that we turn to James Baldwin’s work to assess the cost of, and think alternatives to, the cultures of traumatization whose proliferation one witnesses in contemporary U.S. academia. Beginning with some recent examples, the essay briefly places these cultures into a genealogy of onto-ethics whose contemporary forms arose with the reconfiguration of diasporic histories in the idioms of psychoanalysis and deconstructive philosophy in 1990s trauma theory. Baldwin speaks to the contemporary moment as he considers the outcome of trauma’s perpetuation in an autobiographical scene from “Notes of a Native Son.” In this scene—which restages Bigger Thomas’s murderous compulsion in Native Son—he warns us against embracing one’s traumatization as a mode of negotiating the world. In foregoing what Sarah Schulman has recently called the “duty of repair,” such traumatized engagement prevents all search for the kind of “commonness” whose early articulation can be found in Aristotle’s query after “the common good” (to koinon agathon). With Baldwin, the present essay suggests the urgency of returning to the question of “the common good”: while mindful of past critiques, which have observed in this concept’s deployment a sleight-of-hand by which hegemonic positions universalize their interests, we should work to actualize the unfinished potential of Aristotle’s idea. Baldwin’s work on diasporic modernity provides an indispensable archive for this effort.