Not the Country We’re Sitting in Now

The first in a series of four posts to commemorate what would have been James Baldwin's 90th birthday.

A portrait of James Baldwin at a Shakespeare monument, 1968. Image by Allan Warren. Credit: Wiki Commons.

By May, 1963, James Baldwin had become the most visible “spokesman”—a term he hated—for the Civil Rights Movement—a phrase he didn’t like much more. May was an intense month. In an inauspicious beginning, Harper’s published a set of his letters to his agent Bob Mills (1). Early in the month, going from San Francisco “to Sacramento, then to San Diego and Los Angeles and back to San Francisco,” Baldwin travelled with his “personal secretary,” Eddie Fales, and Time magazine correspondent Roger Stone on a tour of California sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (Time dispatches). Stone described the schedule as “bonejarring” and, signaling attitudes (in this case, relatively mild ones) that would inflect Baldwin’s life in uncountable ways, Baldwin as: “James Baldwin, an eloquent pixy with a sharp tongue.”

Climbing on and off planes, in and out of cars, moving between venues while snatching papers from newsstands to stay abreast of news coming out of Birmingham, and averaging more than two speeches per day, Baldwin sent a telegram to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy on May 12th. The message blamed the violence in Birmingham, AL on the apathy of the federal government. Baldwin didn’t go to Birmingham during the tumult of that week, but he told Stone: “If I’m called, I will go. I don’t want to get castrated any more than anyone else. But I will go.” On May 17th, a week after the centennial anniversary of Emancipation, his portrait appeared on the cover of Time magazine. During that week, he filmed the documentary Take This Hammer in San Francisco (2).

On May 22nd, he traveled to Wesleyan University as guest of Kay Boyle, an engagement that lasted until 2:30 a.m. On Thursday May 23rd, after catching (barely!) the 7am shuttle from LaGuardia, he ate breakfast with Kennedy at the Kennedy home in McLean, Virginia. He returned to New York and spent the rest of the day attending to several business matters, contacting participants for the agreed upon meeting with Kennedy the following day, and then hosting an all-night dance party / planning session for the meeting.

A story titled “At a Crucial Time A Negro Talks Tough” about a recent, “hectic, two-day speaking tour to New Orleans for the Congress of Racial Equality ” in which Baldwin “gave five planned and three spontaneous talks,” appeared in Life magazine (3) on Friday, May 24th. That day, Baldwin led a group of friends and family (including Lena Horne, Lorraine Hansberry, Harry Belafonte, Rip Torn, his brother David, and freedom rider Jerome Smith) to a meeting with Robert Kennedy in their family’s apartment at 24 Central Park South in New York City.

Directly after that (by all accounts) disastrous attempt to communicate with the Attorney General of the United States, he went directly with Kenneth B. Clark to tape an interview with WGBH-TV in New York. On May 27, agents from the New York office of the F.B.I. attempted and failed to gain entry to Baldwin’s Horatio Street apartment in The Village, initiating intense surveillance that would continue until 1974 and amass a file nearing 2000 pages (4). A friction at the center of the month’s events offers a lens through which to clarify core tensions, nuances, and contradictions in Baldwin’s life and work. Such a point of view, twenty five years after Baldwin’s death, can also offer valuable points of view on our own lives and the cultural and political worlds around us. In short, Baldwin’s work offers a unique gauge for measuring who has how much, and of what, in the bank. At the end of the dispatch for Time, Stone concluded that “Baldwin has a face that could soon be forgotten, not so his lengthening shadow, as it steals across the nation.” What appears in that shadow can also be approached, by us, today, as a measure for who has what, and often of how much, in the bank.

The meeting with Kennedy in New York became famous as a flashpoint for the tension between mainstream liberal politics and the street-level realities of race and black consciousness in the early 60s. In his 1979 essay, “Lorraine Hansberry at the Summit,” Baldwin recalls Kennedy’s invocation of his own immigrant roots and his attempt to calm the group by saying that “a Negro could be president in 40 years” (p270). Baldwin adds: “He really didn’t know why black people were so offended by this attempt at reassurance” (p270). Of the gap between perspectives, he wrote, “the meeting took place in that panic stricken vacuum in which black and white, for the most part, meet in this country” (p269). Although the complexity of his response was lost on the vast majority of his original readers, the “panic stricken vacuum” Baldwin notes both does and doesn’t refer to meetings between people of different skin color. Baldwin’s prose is exact. The abstract situation, “when black and white, for the most part, meet in this country,” refers to individual people as well as racialized cultural codes that operate between and within people in American life. As he had begun to do with his earlier essays and as he would continue to do for the rest of his life, Baldwin portrayed meetings of “black and white” as meetings between persons and, more importantly, as intersections of racialized codes that played out on every level of our psychic and civic lives.

In his 1955 “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin associates this social / psychological collision with the metaphoric risks of “gangrene” and “amputation.” For him, gangrene results as a black American subject continues a negotiation with the “panic stricken vacuum” thereby absorbing the power, complacency, ignorance and innocence which characterize the white codes’ regard for the black ones. This is poisonous chemistry. Amputation is the term Baldwin uses to describe the attempt to cease the negotiation, compartmentalize the self to rid one’s black self of the contemptuous assumptions of its white image, and one’s “white” self of the contempt of the black one, in the mirror. Baldwin then sets his terms in motion in his most effective and terrifying mid-20th century portrait of what Du Bois had termed double-consciousness in 1903:

One is absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one’s own reactions are always cancelling each other out. It is this, really, which has driven so many people mad, both white and black. One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene. Amputation is swift but time may prove that the amputation was not necessary—or one may delay the amputation too long. Gangrene is slow, but it is impossible to be sure that one is reading one’s symptoms right. The idea of going through life as a cripple is more than one can bear, and equally unbearable is the risk of swelling up slowly, in agony, with poison (p.83).

In Baldwin’s mind, there are power dynamics to take into account, but no American escapes these impossible negotiations between amputation and gangrene imposed upon them by the way in which the components of the social/psychological terrain of American life that are coded white relate to those coded black and vice versa. No matter the level of consciousness and / or the relative pressure at which that panic stricken drama plays out, Baldwin knew that every American faced the dilemma that “the trouble, finally, is that the risks are real even if the choices don’t exist” (p.83). Appearances, however, at the surface of behavior and in the way American culture regards itself seemed to belie Baldwin’s insight. For the most part, at the time of the meeting between Kennedy and Baldwin’s group, most mainstream white Americans claimed not to know much about this at all. Whiteness understood, still understands, itself as a kind of privilege that allowed people to avoid dues of the gangrene/amputation dilemmas in the American inheritance. Baldwin knew better, knew, no matter the income bracket, the result of such avoidance was bankruptcy.

In his biography of Baldwin, about the meeting in New York City, David Leeming writes that it was Kennedy’s 1963 quip about the presidency that brought Baldwin out of his silence to say, in anger, that “the point was, a Kennedy could already be president while the black man was. . . ‘still required to supplicate and beg you for justice’” (p.224). Baldwin had been in rhetorical territory surprisingly similar to Kennedy’s earlier that same month, May 1963. Just before leaving California to return east, Baldwin had participated in a film documentary titled Take This Hammer in which he talked with different groups of black people about their experiences in San Francisco. In one meeting, a young black man in his late teens or early twenties says, “There’ll never be a Negro president in this country.” When Baldwin, responding to the man’s attempts at amputation, asks why he believes that, the man responds, “We can’t get jobs how we gonna be a president?” By which he meant, in a sense, why carry the poison of impossible and abstract ambition around in one’s body? To which Baldwin answers, “You got me. But, I want you to think about this. There will be a Negro president of this country. But it will not be the country we’re sitting in now. . . It’s not important really, you know, whether or not there’s a Negro president. I mean, in that way.” Now in a rhetorical position similar to Kennedy’s, Baldwin’s struggles to suggest a tolerance for the risks of gangrene fall on palpably skeptical ears. While he makes his attempt, one of the two men he’s facing, with a thoroughly stylized theatricality, carefully puts on his sunglasses. Be cool.[vi] “What’s important,” Baldwin concluded, “is that you should realize that you can, that you can become the president. There’s nothing anybody can do that you can’t do.”


In his biography, Leeming, noting Baldwin’s spokesman status, describes his role in Take This Hammer: “he walked through the city commenting in a guru-like manner on its possibilities and its inequities” (p221).(8) Indeed, Baldwin’s monologues in the film take on a kind of oracular if not “gurulike” effect. But, Leeming’s account of the documentary misconstrues the complexity of Baldwin’s position, neither stable nor as self-assured as Leeming implies, in the conversations it chronicles. Often, Baldwin positions himself on an untrustworthy bridge between the anger of young black people in San Francisco and the liberal audience of KQED public television in the Bay Area. At one point in the film, Baldwin stands in front of a construction project that has displaced black residents and will result in high-rise apartments at prices no black former resident of the neighborhood could afford. Addressing the role of such gentrification in the American narrative of progress, Baldwin translates the rage that results in (if it doesn’t require) amputations in the minds and lives of the black community. In the film, a working class black man addresses the racially coded role of nepotism in San Francisco: “you got to know somebody in San Francisco to get somewhere, and by knowing somebody it got to somebody with authority and nobody in San Francisco, no colored man got no authority.” Immediately afterward, the film cuts to Baldwin in front of the construction site where he says:

Even the least damaged of those kids would have to, to put it as mildly as it can be put at the moment, would have to be a little sardonic, a little sardonic about the, um, the things he sees on television and what the president says and all those movies about being a good American and all that jazz and he’ll look at this, look over there and look up here and he will despise the people, you know, who are able to have such a tremendous gap between their performance and their profession. But the more damaged kids will simply feel like blowing it up, simply feel like blowing it up. Speaking for myself I feel a little sardonic and I’m civilized, I think, but there was a time in my life when I would have felt like blowing it up. . . how do you get through to the least damaged kids. . . I don’t know what I would say that would make any sense to them, because in fact this doesn’t make any sense. [The people who will live in a building like this] will walk down the street and wonder why the first Negro boy they see looks at them like he wants to kill them and if he gets a chance tries. . . he has no ground to stand here the cat said yesterday “I’ve got no country I’ve got no flag. . .” and it isn’t because he was born paranoiac that he said that, it’s because the performance of the country for his 18 years on Earth has proven that to him. . . I’ll tell you something about that building. It has absolutely no foundation. It really does not have any foundation. It’s going to come down, one way or another. Either we will correct what’s wrong or it will be corrected for us. . .

Baldwin and Kennedy’s positions in these exchanges are in no way identical. His position with the young men and his comments do, however, echo into a vacuum similar to the one over which Robert Kennedy, days later, offered his naïve reassurance to Baldwin and his group. All the parties in both meetings are connected, and none of them can communicate. That language didn’t exist. It still doesn’t. Baldwin’s obsession with revising the basic terms of American conversations targets these vacuums. He knew that the American vocabulary was designed to thwart such conversations. Without question, an echo of the insufficiency of his own assurance to the men in Take This Hammer about the future of a black presidency was part of what made Baldwin so angry at Kennedy. Baldwin was a connoisseur of ironies, the always-angular relationships between conceptual, at times, political, identity and lived reality, lives, as well as the necessary, if partial, disjunction between private and public life. He also understood that ironic angularity must inform, not prevent, sense being made, communicated, and lived out privately and publicly in a world people share. These demonstrated facets of his work and consciousness confirm that he was certainly aware of the vacuum he, in fact, shared with Kennedy in that moment in New York City on Friday, May 24th 1963. The friction in that vacuum fired his rhetorical precision, “supplicate and beg” he charged, and his rage.

We don’t know what happened to the young people with whom Baldwin spoke in San Francisco. But, we do know that Baldwin and Kennedy were both right. November, 2008 proved it. Or did it? Kennedy’s easy assumption about the future was off by five years, a few months longer than he, at the time age 38, had to live when he met with Baldwin and his delegation. But, what of Baldwin’s idea that the country that elects a black president “won’t be the country” in which he sat with those young men in San Francisco? Certainly massive shifts have occurred in what “black and white” mean to themselves, each other as well as in the contours of the vacuum (panic stricken or not) between them. Just as certainly, the dialectics of amputation and gangrene still propel dangerous racialized codes that operate between and within people.

The questions which connect Baldwin’s meetings with Kennedy and with the people on the streets of San Francisco are still unasked. The American idiom to ask and answer them in still eludes us. Today, huge numbers of people assume they can avoid—are clueless as to how connect to—such questions. Post-Racialists. Others, trapped inside the questions, can’t afford to suspect they don’t know the answers. Racial essentialists. The result is widespread dues unpaid as much American experience occurs in denied territory, being uncharted within and un-communicated between people. Panic stricken vacuums abound. What changes, what constants and what illusions made the United States the place that elects a black President? What does black President actually mean? And, for whom does what change, exactly? And, what then? No one engaged these questions and sought terms that would force still deeper ones more intensely than James Baldwin. If we’re serious about what Baldwin’s work can mean in the contemporary world—and evidence mounts indicating that we aren’t[ix]—the place to begin is with a brief look at the structure of the constant changes and changing constants in the musically inflected dimensions of Baldwin’s thought. After that, we’ll examine a few moments in the contemporary culture: a viral Youtube film of street dancers in East Oakland and President Obama’s joking comments about his Predator Drone campaign in the war on terror.


(1) The letters portray Baldwin as a sensitive, reflective and above all international literary and political sensibility. In the five-page piece, Baldwin posts letters to Mills from France, Switzerland, Israel, Turkey and discusses impending engagements in Dakar, Brazzaville, Monterey, Mallorca, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya.

(2) In the televised interview with Kenneth B. Clark on May 24, 1963 Baldwin, referring to the filming of Take This Hammer, said “A boy last week, he was sixteen, in San Francisco, told me on television—thank God we got him to talk. . . He said, ‘I got no country, I got no flag. . .’”. That’s the best date I’ve been able to come up with for the filming. See Conversations with James Baldwin, 42.

(3) Of the many photos in the Life magazine story taken with kids on the streets of New Orleans, in homes, and at a party in New York with Geraldine Page and Rip Torn, one shows a young “Negro girl” in New York thrusting her finger in Baldwin’s face and saying “You’re not my spokesman, James Baldwin!” Baldwin looks surprised by the confrontation but ready to engage.

(4) See Baldwin biographies : Fern Eckman’s The Furious Passage of James Baldwin (Lippincott, 1966), David Leeming’s James Baldwin : A Biography (Knopf, 1994), James Campbell’s Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin (U. CA Press, 1991) and James Weatherby’s James Baldwin: Artist on Fire (Donald I. Fine, 1989).

(5) Photo: Baldwin with young people in opening credits of Take This Hammer.

(6) Langston Hughes marked this amputative wisdom in his 1951 poem “Children’s Rhymes”: “By what sends / the white kids / I ain’t sent: / I know I can’t / be president” (390).

(7) Photo: Young man listening, skeptically, to Baldwin in Take This Hammer.

(8) Baldwin’s other biographers make no mention of the film.

(9) Evidence such as James Campbell’s dismissive review of The Cross of Redemption, “Sorrow Wears and Uses Us,” in The New York Times Sept 12, 2010. Campbell avoids any engagement with Baldwin’s political vision and dismisses the importance of much of the material in The Cross of Redemption. See: Ed Pavlic, “‘do something’: A Review of James Campbell’s Review of James Baldwin’s The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings.”

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.