James Baldwin would not have been surprised by Donald Trump’s presidency.
This is not to say that the celebrated author, essayist, and social critic predicted Trump’s unfathomable straight shot from narcissistic public nuisance to Leader of the Free World. Still, unlike tens of millions who expected a different result last November, Baldwin would probably have understood the inevitability of an unstable demagogue rising to the highest office in a nation pockmarked, from its inception, by racism, white supremacy, and the thwarted attempts to permanently eradicate them.
“I’m terrified,” he said, “by the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country.”
Baldwin spoke these words during a segment on “The Negro and the American Promise,” a 1963 PBS special that also featured Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It is this nation’s tragedy that rather than echoes from history, his thoughts still resonate with bone-weary familiarity in our perilous present and near future.
In recent years, Baldwin’s provocative ideas have often been reduced to 140 characters or the punchy wisdom of refrigerator magnets. Now his voice and his words can be experienced in full in “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck’s Academy-Award nominated documentary with a narrative derived from 30 pages of Baldwin’s unfinished book, “Remember This House.” Baldwin’s observations are juxtaposed with old images of white mobs jeering and pummeling African-Americans, and more recent atrocities such as the police killings of unarmed African-Americans like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice. At one point, Baldwin, in considering this nation’s deep investment in racial subjugation, says its practitioners have become “moral monsters.”
Today, those moral monsters occupy the White House.
As a black gay man in a nation that embraced neither, Baldwin would have loathed Trump’s emptiness, anti-intellectualism, and incitement of this nation’s dark suspicions and easily ratcheted fears. He would have excoriated Steve Bannon’s open embrace of white nationalism and his obsession with tarring all Muslims as enemies of the world. And he would have had no patience for a megalomaniac who threatens world order and seeks even greater power by trying to bully, insult, and delegitimize the very institutions that allow this nation to remain itself, however flawed, a democracy.
Baldwin speaks to America now, as he spoke to America for most of his life. He’s in the spirit of both the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-Trump resistance; he knelt alongside NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and every athlete who made a quiet statement during the National Anthem. And he stands in solidarity with Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty, two New England Patriots who, to protest the president’s policies, plan to boycott the customary White House visit for championship-winning teams.
That we still need Baldwin’s defiance speaks to how little we’ve progressed, in an aggregate sense, as a nation. Whether in his novels such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Giovanni’s Room,” or his collected essays in “The Fire Next Time” and “The Devil Finds Work,” he achieved “perception at the pitch of passion,” a line he borrowed from Henry James.
To read or hear Baldwin today is to understand America with all its promise and despair in a way that many of its citizens would still rather ignore than abide. Now nearly 30 years gone, Baldwin is still the North Star that guides those willing to listen and learn. He spent his life fighting with and for a nation he loved even as he knew that, as a black person, it would always find a way, either through the bullet or the ballot, to break his heart.