This weekend I read James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, a swirling, Emersonian, apocalyptic, and famous essay, most of which was first published in the New Yorker in November of 1962. Near the end of the essay, Baldwin makes the following pronouncement:
Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro's situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them.
Reading this essay nearly fifty years later, I find myself asking the obvious questions. First of all, have there been real changes in what Baldwin calls "the Negro's situation" in the years since this piece was written?
My impulse is to say yes—and that is also the impulse of some pretty significant African American writers.
In this piece called "The End of Race as We Know It," published in the Chronicle of Higher Education just before the 2008 Presidental election, Gerald Early ponders the implications of the possibility of Obama's victory:
The accomplishments of those people and thousands more did not indicate to many African-Americans that America had advanced beyond racism and that blacks had transcended their victimization....
Might the presidency of Barack Obama be the tipping point? Blacks may become famous authors, film directors, diplomats, CEO's, fashion models, entertainers, and physicists. But the presidency of the country, the most powerful person in the world, is the ultimate — to have authority that all whites, everyone in the world, would be bound to respect. What could mean more to a people who have endured a history of powerlessness? Black people were convinced that no black would become president of the United States during the lifetime of the baby-boom generation, not in the lifetime of any African-American adult currently living. That may change in a matter of weeks.
Early also quotes an American Scholar piece from earlier that year by novelist and scholar Charles Johnson, who declared the tipping point already to have been reached:
It simply is no longer the case that the essence of black American life is racial victimization and disenfranchisement, a curse and a condemnation, a destiny based on color in which the meaning of one's life is thinghood, created even before one is born.
Of course, the degree of this real change in black American life is still open to debate. I saw Cornel West speak at St. Louis University a number of weeks ago. West, who calls himself a "Socratic supporter" of Obama, cautioned his audience not to let its excitement about those at the top (i.e., the thrilling spectacle of Obama and his beautiful family occupying the White House) distract attention from all those who are still at the bottom. (Granted, he meant everyone at the bottom—not just African Americans.)
Nevertheless, nearly everyone seems to agree that some real change has occurred since the publication of Baldwin's essay. And so I come to my second obvious question: Did that change require "the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure"?
Remarkably, Charles Johnson asserts that the crucial changes occurred within a few years (and even months) of Baldwin's essay's publication:
The specific conflict of this narrative reached its dramatic climax in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, and at the breathtaking March on Washington; its resolution arrived in 1965, the year before I graduated from high school, with the Voting Rights Act. Everything since then has been a coda for almost half a century. We call this long-extended and still ongoing anticlimax the post-civil-rights period.
If this is the case, that these were the crucial changes, then a few conclusions seem to follow:
1) Baldwin, in the statement quoted above, is completely wrong. The changes, evidently effective ones, were not the most radical and far-reaching ones imaginable. Nor were white Americans unwilling or unable to envision or effect them.
2) The Civil Rights Movement must be considered one of the most, if not the most, effective and peaceful political movements in human history.
3) LBJ ought to be considered as important a President as Abraham Lincoln.
Back to Baldwin, though: How should we wrap our minds around the fact that he was completely wrong? Was it simply that he was caught up in the extreme tension of the moment, despairing in the darkness just before dawn? Was his feverish and lyrical jeremiad a necessary aspect of the Civil Rights Movement, a spur to white liberals to help create the push necessary to bring about the remarkable changes of the mid-1960s?
And is there a lesson to be learned from all this? How should we respond to the Baldwinesque voices of our own time, those eloquent and stirring voices that seem at times to stray into extreme and ultimately incorrect pronouncements?