George Washington, “Presidency, 1789-1797

I found Washington quite a bit more interesting and even likable as I read over some of the documents produced during his presidency.  Perhaps the position forced him to ponder (or at least to write down with more detail) his feelings on governance.  Where I need to remain critical of Washington is that while he was actively establishing the U.S. Empire in the West, as revealed through his Indian policies and his response to the Whiskey Rebellion, he stressed non-interventionism in European affairs.  Clearly he wanted the U.S. to be an equal with the Europeans and to do so he continued the imperial claims (if not the policies) of the British.  This is not a new observation, but it is notable how clearly stated it is in even this brief selection of documents.  Some of the highlights in the final part of the Library of American collection of Washington’s writings are his inaugural addresses, his diplomatic letters to some Indian tribes, his letters to ambassadors and cabinet members, and his yearly addresses to Congress.  Washington continued his correspondence with the Marquis de Lafayette, which provide one window into the French Revolution (as do his letters to Jefferson in the same period).  These are included as well in the collection.


First, to carry on from the previous post, Washington says even less about the slavery during his presidency than he did in the run-up to the drafting of the Constitution.  This may be due to politics, but I cannot help but think that Washington clearly saw slavery as domestic affair.  It only comes up in his private writings about the management of Mount Vernon or his plans for his estate.  He did free all of his slaves in his will and provided for the care of the young or elderly.  In a letter to the French ambassador to the United States, Jean Baptiste Ternant, Washington offered support to help put down the slave revolt in Saint Domingue.  “I am happy in the opportunity of testifying how well disposed the United States are to render every aid in their power to our good friends and Allies the French to quell ‘the alarming insurrection of the Negroes in Hispaniola’ and of the ready disposition to effect it.” (785)  Otherwise, as I suggested, the issue of slavery is simply not there in Washington’s public eye, either due to political savvy or an odd blindness (given the large slave population in his home).

Washington also addresses the question of religious liberty, only in passing.  In a letter to the United Baptist Churches he strove to convince them that the Bill of Rights (still being debated and implemented at the time) and the Constitution would not undermined religious societies.  It seems clear to me that Washington saw little role for religion in government outside of a defense of liberty.   (I know that is an obvious point, but I never actually read Washington to any significant degree before so some of this is confirmation of textbook knowledge.)  “If I could not conceive that the general Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to established effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.” (739)  Notice that he asserted the need for positive barriers to religious tyranny, not simply the absence of an established religion.

Let me get to my main point, Washington not only envisioned a U.S. empire in the West, but he worked hard to establish it.  Evidence of this comes from his view of the people living on the frontier.  Many of his official documents such as his yearly messages to Congress call for a stronger military, more respectable foreign affairs, and unity across regions (that is bringing the West into the national fold).  In his second message, the need for a stronger military is tied directly to maintaining power on the frontier.  The most earnest of these reports to Congress on the difficulties on the frontier was his fourth, delivered in 1792.  Controlling the ambitions of frontiersmen, which might undermine the U.S. relations with Indians, was a core concern of his when drafting the message.  The central event of his Presidency, in regards to the frontier, was the 1794 Whiskey tax rebellion, which can be seen as the culmination of many 18th century anti-state movements by people in the American frontier.  However it was looked upon by the people who participated in the rebellion, Washington saw it as an anti-statist movement.  In his call to mobilize the militia he listed their crimes as including “intercepting the public officials on the highways” and tormenting private citizens who supported the whiskey tax and its collection.  We can learn a bit from his language.  One is that it was not the tax itself that was seen as odious, but rather its implementation and enforcement.  (This may be a moot point for what is a law that is not enforced, but most of us do not feel conscious of how disgusting the state is until its laws inconvenience us.  It is the moment of truth.  Many who admit to the justness of the law will cheat on their taxes to the extend they get away with it, complain about bureaucratic regulations, or even perform acts of everyday civil disobedience, while never being conscious that they are undermining the very foundation of state authority.)  Washington was also worried about the emergence of armed bands on the frontier at the very time he was mobilizing the formal militia for action.  In classic state-making, there can be only one authority. (See 870–873 and 882-884 for documents on the Whiskey Rebellion).

The Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion

To the conquered Seneca, forced into the American empire through the treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain opens the door to the continued exploitation of Seneca lands.  Most of 1790 letter to the Seneca dealt with the proper approach to selling more land to citizens of the U.S.  He insists that “in the future you cannot be defrauded of your lands.” (774)  Of course the resolution of claims of being defrauded would be handled by U.S. courts.  He seems authentically interested in the problem of land speculation, but his approach is that of a valiant elder brother.  Much of the rest of the document details his “brotherly” advice for the Seneca, including staying away from a rowdy neighbor (the Miamee), to support the leadership of Cornplaneter, and apprehending criminals.  All in all, Washington wants to sustain the rhetoric of Indian independence but certainly acts as if the U.S. is in charge of their affairs.  Washington often complained in his letters about the lack of a “pacific disposition” among the tribes the U.S. had dealings with along their frontier as well as the machinations of the Spanish.  Long before the Monroe Doctrine, Washington was defending an imperial policy in North America reflecting a dream of hegemony.

The classic history of this period from the Seneca perspective.

The classic history of this period from the Seneca perspective.

So, Washington was overseeing the establishing of the U.S. empire.  The “Farewell Address” contains some summation of his desires for a united American people (“frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our Country from the rest.” (965))  At the same time that he calls for nation unity and a strong central state, he does deliver an small dissertation on the equality of peoples and the dangers of loyalty to one nation.  “The Nation, which indulges toward another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slaves.” (973)  Of course, his main concern here is against international entanglements,  I doubt he would have extended that same logic to the U.S. itself, but we certainly can do that.  Foreign entanglements may be dangerous, but so are internal entanglements and perverted loyalties to institutions.

George Washington, “Confederation Period” (1784-1789)

The writings of George Washington in the five years between 1784—1789 provide a useful perspective on the type of nation that the United States could have become prior to the triumph of federalism and the constitution.  Despite the message given in textbooks, which often agree on the necessity of the stronger central authority given by the Constitution, the United States worked in the Confederation period.  Before the Constitutional convention, Washington’s main activities in this period included wrapping up his domestic affairs and reorganizing the Mount Vernon plantation and establishing a transportation improvement company for the Potomac.


Washington seems to be open to the diversity of the United States.  When looking for an indentured servant to work on the plantation he said “If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, Africa, or Europe.  They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any Sect – or they may be Atheists.” (555-556) But this very diversity worried him in respect to national unity and national preservation.  In an extended letter to Benjamin Harrison he makes a case for smoother transportation to the West, largely on the grounds of unity between the regions.  “The Western settlers, (I speak now from my own observation) stand as it were upon a pivot – the touch of a feather would turn them any way.” (563)  Specifically he feared that they would run off and join the Spanish, lacking any loyalty except to liberty.  The world Washington lived in between the war and his presidency was one in which the national loyalty was limited, but the country was in a state of flux with competing identities.  Washington hoped that infrastructure could create the fusion.  For his small part, he contributed through the establishment of one company focused on the Potomac.  He made the connection between federalism and national identity explicitly in a letter to James McHenry.  “As I have ever been a friend to adequate powers in Congress, without wch it is evident to me we never shall establish a National character, or be considered on a respectable footing by the powers of Europe.” (588)  Later he talks much on diplomacy, trade law, and military issues, but shows no reflection at all on the consequences of greater central authority on the freedom of the people.  “In a word that we are one Nation today, & thirteen tomorrow.”  (589)  Why not, I ask.  Several documents here point to the danger of localization movements like that of the 1786 Shays’ Rebellion.  His advice on the rebellion was to apply state power to put down such movements because they can escalate (because, apparently, working people fundamentally irrational and therefore easily convinced to participate in rebellious activities just by seeing it nearby) or make the U.S.A. look worse in international affairs.  He used it often enough to justify the Constitutional convention and the expansion of state powers.


Shays' Rebellion

Shays’ Rebellion

We see in this period, the first of Washington’s significant writings on slavery (at least as far as this anthology is concerned).  This sums it up:
I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it – but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority. . . . But when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them; when masters are taken at unawares by these practices; when a conduct of this sort begets discontent on one side and resentment on the other . . . it introduces more evils than it can cure.” (594)  These statements are utterly naïve coming as they do from one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia.  (Does he truly believe that he is one of these owners that the slaves would not want to avoid?  Does he think none of them desire abolition more “sincerely” than he does?  Does he really think that anti-slavery agitation was merely about turning content slaves into rebellious slaves?)  As I said before, I do not want to get involved in founder bashing but in this case Washington does seem to me to be a dumb or out of touch.  Jefferson (maybe because of Sally Hemmings) was capable of more profound thought on the reality of slavery than Washington.  Washington was eager to pass the obligation to the legislature, refusing to “possess another slave by purchase” but not wanting to undermine his personal wealth.  Right before his presidency began he was able to squeeze a bit more thought on the subject out of his brain.  “The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.  To make the Adults among them as easy & as comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance & improvidence would admit; & to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born; afforded some satisfaction to my mind, & could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.” (701—702) Boy, I am trying hard to like you just a little bit, but you make it so hard.

No images of Washington's slaves, of course.  But here is a photo of his house.

No images of Washington’s slaves, of course. But here is a photo of his house.

George Washington, “Continental Army” 1775-1783

Despite his role in helping establish a democratic republic, George Washington’s time as commander of the Continental Army does reveal his continued commitment to a hierarchical society.  I do not think there is any inauthenticity here.  He does not seem to be interested in fighting for a democratic society.  In his 1775 letter to Thomas Gage, he complained that “the Officers engaged in the Cause of Liberty, and their Country, who by Fortune of war, have fallen into your Hands have been thrown indiscriminately, into a common Gaol appropriated for Felons—That no Consideration has been had for those of the most respectable Rank.” (181)  However, he is in some ways working toward a revolutionary army and was forced to come to terms with the democratic longings of the people he commanded.  Perhaps some of Washington’s importance comes from his ability to make that transition from an aristocratic leader to one at least in dialog with a democratic people.  In another letter to Thomas Gage, written just days, Washington begins to describe the difference between the American army and the British. “You affect, Sir, to despise all Rank not derived from the same Source with your own.  I cannot conceive any more honourable, than that which flows from the uncorrupted Choice of a brave a free Poeple [sic] – The purest Source & original Fountain of all Power.  Far from making it a Plea for Cruelty, an Mind of true Magnanimity, & enlarged Ideas would comprehend & respect it.” (183)



As any college freshman knows, Washington’s major achievement as commander of the Army was his sustaining of a regular, professional military at a time when the tendency for many American farmers was to join militias to defend their communities. I suspect that Washington’s difficulties were not just products of a frontier society lacking a traditional of military discipline.  An emerging democratic society, engaged in a revolution was hostile to the very idea of a standing military.  To his credit, Washington was aware of this and willing to work with it, even as he complained about discipline in many of his letters from the war period.  “To bring Men well acquainted with the Duties of a Soldier, requires time – to bring them under proper discipline & Subordination, not only requires time, but is a Work of great difficulty; and in this Army, where there is so little distinction between the Officers and Soldiers, requires an uncommon degree of attention. . . . Three things prompt Men to a regular discharge of their Duty in time of Action, Nature bravery – hope of reward – and fear of punishment – The two first are common to the untutor’d, and the Disciplin’d Soldier; but the latter, most obviously distinguished the one from the other.” (210)  Washington goes on to warn about the danger of too much freedom in the military.  The high turn-over, mutiny late in the war, and lack of discipline seem to be the problems inherent in a revolutionary army that emerges from a democratic society.  Even in his farewell address to the Army, he had issues of discipline firmly in his mind.  At that point, he could look at it more optimistically praising the soldiers for overcoming local prejudices and replacing them with patriotism.
We do see the roots of Washington’s federalism in some of these documents.  To John Parke Custis, he wrote: “It must be a settled plan, founded on System, order and economy that is to carry us triumphantly through the war.  Supiness, and indifference to the distresses and cries of a sister State when danger is far of [sic], and a general but momentary resort to arms when it comes to our doors, are equally impolitic and dangerous, and proves the necessity of a controlling power in Congress to regular and direct all matters of general concern.” (418—419) During the demobilization of the Continental Army, Washington strongly supported a replacement with a “Militia of the Union,” which would have uniform discipline.  In one of his last, wartime letters to his brother he again calls for a “Government of his Country” to avoid the evils of “Anarchy and Confusion,” which he thought would lead to tyranny.
Most of the letters and general orders and other documents collected in this section are tedious and of little interest to me personally.  I admit to skimming through many of them.  Most are concerned with provisioning the army and reports on military activities (mostly mundane).  Some of the more interesting documents look at the attempts by Washington to find Indian allies, his quite liberal policy toward loyalists, preventing the activities of spies, his begging to state governments for funding, and his political concerns about currency policy.  I shutter to think about the letters that the editor did not include.  Ultimately, I am not finding George Washington to be all that interesting of a figure, but given his enormous task, he likely did not have much to perfect his writing or explore the deeper political and philosophical ramifications of the revolution he was integral in making successful.  We leave that to Thomas Paine, who I wrote on early in the history of this blog. In the end, I think I am more interested in the common men and women who won the war.  Looking through the commander’s eyes does not seem to take us very far.   For Washington, these men seem to have been a problem to solve more often than they were heroes.


George Washington, The Colonial Period (1747-1775)

Most of the Library of America volume committed to George Washington’s writings are his letters, with some speeches and official documents thrown in.  I am not quite sure how to go at Washington this week, but I know I do not want to get into the tedious founder bashing.  Nevertheless, it is worth reminding ourselves that he was the richest U.S. President, with a net worth in current dollars of $525 million.  Most of this wealth was inherited or stolen from the labor of slaves (of which his plantation has over 300 at the time of his death).  He was doubtless a revolutionary.  And while compared to someone like Toussaint L’ouverture or a Robespierre, he strikes us as decidedly pompish and boring.  My impression of him when I studied him in college was that he was at best a dumb jock, with good connections and great interpersonal skills, allowing him to move up.  While none of us can doubt the contribution of Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, or even Franklin to the development of the character of the nation, what was Washington’s intellectual contribution?  Maybe I can learn something new reading this volume.


We start with this odious document “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”  We can see immediately that Washington was firmly rooted in the aristocratic tradition of Europe.  Whatever frontier spirit drove the settlement of the United States and its development in the colonial period, by the time we get to 15-year-old Washington (1747), it seems a distant at least as far as these rich planters were concerned.  I suppose I could take a look at these writings as benevolently as possible and guess that Washington needed to continually remind himself of these important rules of conduct or we would expose his true character as a vulgar ruffian.  In any case, it is a very class-conscious document, with many rules on how to treat the people above your rank and below your rank.  A few have some universal merit such as “When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it” or “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.” (6,10)  He takes on a profession at this time as a surveyor, essentially going into the big business of land speculation.  (Still a great way for rich people to get richer.)  Soon after this, he begins his military career just in time for the Seven Years’ War to break out, drawing the colonies into a global imperial conflict.

Washington seems to have been deeply interested in the alliances of the frontier Indians, negotiating with the Iroquois and suggesting to his superiors that they recruit the Cherokees and other Southern tribes into the war effort.  In one letter to Robert Dinwiddie, Washington discussed his salary, insisting that his place in the military was that of a volunteer and that he was “indefferent” to pay.  This again reflects his aristocratic leanings, seeing military service as more of a matter of honor and service than a career.  Despite this, he comes and goes in the military during the war.  Several of his war letters center on the problem of recruitment.  “The spirit of Desertion was so remarkable in the Militia that it has a suprizing effect upon the Regiment, and encouraged many of the Soldiers to desert.” In the same letter, Washington recommends the execution of some deserters.  It is worth examining at length just to get another window into this founder.  “He deserted, and carried several men with him: and, upon the most solemn promises of good Behavior, was pardoned — But for this only reason–we had no power to hold General Courts martial and now he was instrumental in carrying off seven others; two only of whom were taken.  For these reasons I hope your Honour will think him as worthy an Example against Desertion, as Lewis against Cowardice: whose execution I have delayed until the arrival of the Draughts.  These Examples, and proper encouragement for good Behavior, will I hope, bring the Soldiers under proper Discipline.” (78)  A later document suggests the pardon of James Thomas who along with Henry Campbell was charged with Desertion and sentenced to death.  Campbell still seems to have been executed.   Washington’s military letters continually complained about the lack of recruitment, low morale, and their inability to maintain troop strength.  Since he has some similar troubles during the Revolution, I can only wonder if the problem was the imposition of an aristocratic military on a more democratic society.  One final thing that comes through his letters from the Seven Year’s War is that Washington was very concerned with how his superiors saw him and his performance.  He tried to explain his failures, stressed his honor and his commitment to service, and his willingness to learn from his errors.  He sometimes sounded to me to be like an employee who has been written up by his boss a few too many times.

Other documents from the colonial period include advertisements from some of his slaves that ran away, letters regarding his marriage to Martha, and his business concerns in the early 1760s.  We can guess that some of his opposition to the British that emerged in the 1760s was due to what he saw as unfairly costly imported goods and low prices for tobacco exports.  As early as 1765 he was stating arguments in his letters suggesting that America would be better off manufacturing its own goods and trading them internally.  “I am apt to think no Law or usage can compel us to barter our money or Staple Commodities for their Manufactories, if we can be supplied within ourselves upon the better Terms.” (177)  Throughout the late colonial period, these documents suggest that Washington was not fully unaware of the issues at the heart of the colonial crisis but he remains mostly concerned with his private affairs and local development efforts (like the improvement of the Potomac navigation).  The result of some of these efforts were tending toward independence, seeing the way to escape British debts as greater economic independence at home.

Let me end with his response to the outbreak of fighting in 1775.   “Unhappy it is though to reflect, that a Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast, and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or Inhabited by Slaves.  Sad alternative!” (164)  Unfortunately, due to planters like Washington, an incomplete revolution, and a Constitution defending slavery, this prediction would come true in a different context.


James Baldwin, Conclusions (Assorted Essays)

Now it is time to close the book on my companion of the past two weeks, James Baldwin.  It was one of the more exhilarating experiences I had since starting this blog because he is so profoundly interested in informal power, the way power functions on the psychological level, building up walls from our childhood.  I suppose we would now call this bio-power, but we do not need any philosophical concepts to understand that oppression needs to work on the mental level first.  Without a lifetime of institutional, interpersonal, and systemic lessons and disciplining it is unlikely that Jim Crow could have survived as long as it did.  Baldwin documents the dismantling of this mental regimen of power.  Another theme in his work is what Dubois called “double consciousness” or “the veil.”  This refers to the fact that the United States really looked different depending on your position across the color line.  As Dubois points out and Baldwin makes clear, black people had the burden (and unique ability I suppose) to look at the United States from the perspective of their own live and experiences as well as clearly understand white America because it was white people who created the superstructure of the color line.  White people, privileged to only look at the world through the superstructure they created, are not quite so omniscient.  (While I am certain this is generally true, I am not sure it is universal.  I do think empathy is possible, but that may be an ahistorical observation.)


Looking over some of his collected essays included in this volume (there are around 40), arranged chronologically, we can summarize Baldwin’s career into three phases.  The first period (1950 until 1961) began with the publication of book reviews and includes his extended period living abroad in France.  He is observing the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement but seemed very interested in pursuing a literary life.  He published novels that were not novels about race and his essays (which were about race) were attempts to understand the color line.

The second period, from 1961 until the early 1970s, are his revolutionary writings.  It is during this time he completes Another Country, The FirNext Time, and No Name in the StreetHis essays from this period are mostly interested in the political issues.  His “A Talk to Teachers” is about the ramifications of the revolution for the education of black children.  During this period he talked to political figures, engaged in debates, met with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and wrote some of his most provocative essays.  “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” is a good example of this, engaging in a class analysis of black anti-Semitism.

The selections form Baldwin’s final period are slim, amounting to no more than 70 pages.  This period is that of revolutionary Thermidor.  After the political agitation ended and after the cities stopped burning, Baldwin and other writers turned in part to cultural politics.  We have his review of Roots, a defense of “black English” as a language, and at least one essay on sexuality (“Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood”).  What comes out strongly in these essays is that although there were many successes to the revolution, much remanded unchanged.  “The Price of the Ticket” is the most somber essay making this point and perhaps a good ending.

When people question my anarchist leanings, the Civil Rights movement often comes up in conversation because one of the historical lessons of Civil Rights is that it took a powerful state to impose itself on the criminal behavior of Southern communities.  In this logic, it is at the community level that we are most at risk of losing our freedoms.  Only a powerful state can enforce our rights.  It is not a bad historical argument, but it does require a whole lot of bracketing of the of the long list of freedoms the state seizes from us anyway, and their defense of capital.  Baldwin suggests that atonement cannot be possible be the crimes of racism were perpetuated by a multitude, but it is a multitude that serves the interests of power not one running against it.  “A mob is not autonomous: it executes the real will of the people who rule the State.  The slaughter in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, was not, merely, the action of a mob.  That blood is on the hands of the state of Alabama: which sent those mobs into the streets to execute the will of the State.  And, though I know that it has now become inconvenient and impolite to speak of the American Jew in the same breath with which one speaks of the American black, I yet contend that the mobs in the streets of Hitler’s Germany were in those streets not only by the will of the German State, but by the will of the western world, including the architects of human freedom, the British, and the presumed guardian of Christian and human morality, the Pope.” (840)


James Baldwin, “The Devil Finds Work” (1976)

The long essay by James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, is a personal history of film.  It is a rather clever approach because us moderns learn a great deal about the world and ourselves from films.  Particularly in our youth, films are quite real to us. Television and cell phones may be taking over the function as cultural parents but screens have this power of telling us what we want truth to be, even if they best the can manage are clever simulations.  On my Philip K. Dick project, I was just writing on the images of work in television and film.  Series like Seinfeld and The Office stress that work is something boring, odious, and to be avoided.  Much of these series involve people avoiding work while they are there, or (in the case of Seinfeld) surviving without jobs.  Films like Office Space and The Good Girl make a similar point that work is essentially mind-numbing and useless.  This has been a powerful image for me and I likely have internalized many of these messages, but the fact is for millions of workers, labor remains physically demanding, scientifically managed, and constant.  I doubt we could ever see a series like The Office documenting the lives of Foxcom workers.  We simply cannot believe they would have time for games in such a place.  But now I am wondering if the average office environment is much more accommodating of the workers’ whims.  The Office is what we want work to be, because we cannot face the reality.


Benedict Anderson argued that print culture was the glue that united the people into an “imagined community” at the time that loyalty to religion and empire faded.  To survive death, we needed to new device and that became nation.  Print capitalism made nationalism possible by forcing on us a common language, a common culture discussion, common expectations, and a common mythology.  Subcultures and alternatives were not cultivated because it was not cost effective to do so.  I believe that argument is convincing for the 19th century.  It is also convincing for the 20th century, but we need to add films and television now as the conveyers of a common culture.

So, Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work can be read as cultural studies.  He explores a couple of questions.  The first is, what was the role of film in his personal development and emerging consciousness of the color line?  As we know from his other writings, there is little that films could add to daily life in Harlem to convince Baldwin that he was an outsider in his own country, but films did seem to play a role.  The second question has to do with the role of film in interpreting and sustaining the color line.  He moves on from the films of his youth to deconstruct popular films like The Exorcist and racially progressive films like In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?  The trajectory of the analysis goes from the childhood subjectivity to adult objectivity and criticism.   I wonder how many film viewers today make this chance?  I know adults who get excited about summer blockbusters as if they were still grade-school children.   But maybe this maturation is a bit sad.   There is a wonder in how children look at film.  “I was a child, of course, and therefore, unsophisticated.  I don’t seem ever to have any innate need (or, indeed, any innate ability) to distrust people: and so I took Bill Miller as she was, or as she appeared to be to me.” (481)

One of the issues Baldwin seemed to face as a child was that most of the faces he saw on the screen were white, or to be more precise, not familiar to Baldwin’s world.  “It is not entirely true that no one from the world I knew had yet made an appearance on the American screen: there were, for example, Stepin Setchit and Willie Best and Manton Moreland, all of whom, rightly or wrongly, I loathed.  It seemed to me that they lied about the world I knew, and debased it, and certainly I did not know anyone like them–as far as I could tell; for it is also possible that their comic, bug-eyed terror contained the truth concerning a terror by which I hoped never to be engulfed.” (492)  After 25 pages of these youthful memories, Baldwin moves straight into cultural analysis.  I will just point out a couple highlights.

He contrasts In the Heat of the Night and The Birth of a Nation, seeing them as similar films that simply shift some of the roles and do so in ways that strain credulity, considering the context of racial conflict and violence surrounding the film.  “In The Birth of a Nation, the Sheriff would have been an officer of the Klan.  The widow would, secretly, have been sewing Klan insignia.  The murdered man would have been a carpetbagger.  Sam would have been a Klan deputy.  The troublesome poor whites would have been mulattoes.  And Virgil Tibbs would have been the hunted, not the hunter.  It is impossible to pretend that this state of affairs has really altered: a black man, in any case, had certainly best not believe everything he sees in the movies.” (521)

He was harsh on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, the film about a successful black doctor who wants to marry a white woman.  The story climaxes with the acceptance of the parents of this union.  Spencer Tracy plays the liberal white father who is forced to take seriously his views on racial equality.  He was troubled by the film’s inclusion of a stock figure of American film, “the loyal nigger maid.” (532) This figure existed in films for decades and even finds its way into this progressive deception of interracial coupling.  He also found the portrayal of the physicians parents unrealistic, both in their condensation of his upward mobility.  In reality, their pride would have been more conspicuous and the lack of it suggested a misunderstanding of “the wonder doctor’s eminence, and the effect that this would have on his parents.” (535)  Worst, however, is the quick exile of the couple from the United States.  This was a failure to follow through on the challenge of the film.  An interracial marriage is acceptable to society and to the parents, as long as the couple leaves as soon as possible.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Lawrence of Arabia justified empire.

Baldwin discusses his work on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, although this was a failed effort, Spike Lee used this script as the basis of his film on Malcolm X.  He talks about how difficult it is to make the transition from novels to film and reveals anxiety over the loss of creative autonomy when working with a group, a necessity in film making.

The Exorcist terrified Baldwin for it told the true story about how we are surrounded by demons.  “For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror.  It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself.  The devil has no need of any dogma–though he can use them all–nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention.  He does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do.” (571)

I found this to be a wonderful and engaging book.  It makes us ponder the power of film over how we look at the world and a reminder that the real world is much worse or much better than the crude simulacra we have managed to construct.

James Baldwin, “No Name in the Street” (1972)

James Baldwin writes in his epilogue to No Name in the Street: “This book has been much delayed by trials, assassinations, funerals, and despair.  Nor is the American crisis, which is part of a global, historical crisis, likely to resolve itself soon.  An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born.” (475)  Baldwin must have felt that he was part of a revolutionary moment in history.  From this comes No Name in the Street.  His thoughtfulness about the dilemma of color in America is less prominent here.  No Name in the Street are journal entries from a war.  It is autobiographical, starting from his childhood, his life in the church, the imposition of an identity on him by others, and the search for a identity constructed for himself.  The second half documents the people he met, the struggles he participated in.  “The Fire Next Time” which he predicted in his 1963 work came true through urban riots, assassinations, and the rise of new movements, martyrs, and leaders.  The names of the two parts “Take me to the Water” and “To Be Baptized” use the same religious metaphors that through most of Baldwin’s writings and the point is clear to us.  The space between thought and emerging consciousness and action is not far, no farther than the line between walking to the river and the baptism.  Once one walks to the river, baptism may even be inevitable.


Some of the topics that Baldwin discusses in this vibrant and even chaotic second part of this essay include:

1. His discussions and cooperation with Malcolm X and Baldwin’s feelings that Malcolm was correct about the ultimate collapse of the white civilization.  Baldwin was affected by Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination and began to work on a script for a play based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley.  “Malcolm, finally, was a genuine revolutionary, a virile impulse long since fled from the American way of life.” (412)  I attached one of their debates.

2. His aid to one of Baldwin’s friends, Tony Maynard, who was wrongfully accused of murder and awaited extradition to the United  States in a jail in Hamburg.  He would not be released until after No Name in the Street was published.  Baldwin focuses on Maynard’s feelings of terror at the American judicial system.  He accepts the position of other radical figures that all black prisoners in the United States are political prisoners because none of them were tried by their peers.  In a sidebar of sorts, Baldwin ponders on a white girl he knew from “the Village” and how when they accompanied each other in the city, they needed to pretend they were not together.  “Our connection caused us to be menaced by the police in ways indescribable and nearly inconceivable.” (419)

3. The Watts riot of 1965.  Baldwin connects the conditions of Watts to those of other urban areas, such as Harlem, which he was most familiar with.  The riots were an outcrop of the horrible conditions in the ghettos.  “The ghetto, beleaguered, betrayed by Washington, by the total lack of vision of the men in Washington, determined to outwit, withstand, survive, this present, overwhelming danger, yet lacks a focus, a rallying point, a spokesman. . . . Lord, we really need Malcolm now.” (434)

Watts Riots

Watts Riots

4. The Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination.  Baldwin’s reaction to Malcolm’s assassination was that of a revolutionary.  He was saddened because he felt the moment needed someone like Malcolm X.  With King, Baldwin seems to return to his religious state.  I guess that suggests how Baldwin saw both of these figures and their role in the movement.

5. The Black Panthers.  Like Malcolm X, the Black Panthers are needed.  “The black people need protection against the police is indicated by the black community’s reaction to the advent of the Panthers .  Without community support, the Panthers would have been merely another insignificant street gang.” (451)  (I suspect by the same logic without the need and the community support, the NOI would have been just another urban cult.)  He is very impressed by Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale even though Cleaver wrote a harsh criticism of Baldwin (which I recall was quite ad-hominid at attacked Baldwin’s ideas through his sexuality – Soul on Ice).

6. The emergence of black power is at the heart of the last pages of the essay.  This was both destructive and creative.  It pushed whites from the moment, of course.  He talks about the growing rift between the “flower children” and the blacks.  The bittersweet ending of the essay introduces the “carefully repressed terror in relation to blacks.” (471)  But it did help create a new identity.  If you watch some of the clips, you know that Baldwin struggled with the term “Negro,” which he embraced as part of his identity.  Younger activists and people like Malcolm X opposed the use of the term and preferred “black.”  It seems that Baldwin has come to terms with this change by the end of No Name in the Street.  (Is this search for an identity the meaning of the title?)    The seizing of the name “black” is seen by Baldwin as an essential component of liberation.

When Baldwin put down his pen on this work, the revolution was not done but it was beginning to see the end of its Jacobin phase – it was entering Thermidor.  His next collection of essays The Devil Finds Work is mostly about his relationship to film.  The Library of America did not even bother to publish his later novels.  The collected essays at the end of this volume cover mostly his 1950s and 1960s works, not collected in his other books.  Was Baldwin simply a Civil Rights writer?  I do not think so, but he lived during a revolutionary and found his voice in being one of its most eloquent interested interpreters.

James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” (1963)

The First Next Time is one of James Baldwin’s most famous works and its exists right in the center of his career and at the center of the Civil Rights Movement.  I am not a big fan of situating his career alongside the Civil Rights movement because it likely limits our understanding of both, but it is hard to separate the two so I will stick to my banal observation.  The book consists of one short essay, written in the form of a letter to his nephew, called “My Dungeon Shock” and one long essay “Down at the Cross,” which among other things tries to answer the question about why the Nation of Islam was becoming such a popular movement in the 1960s.  So the essay moves from the personal to the political, and being published together we can guess Baldwin saw the two as intertwined.


“My Dungeon Shock” summarizes many of Baldwin’s observations about race.  Indeed, it sustains some old questions in African-American identity that go back to Douglass’ essay on the Fourth of July and Dubois’ double consciousness.  How is it possible to be an outsider in the land of your birth?  It is an appropriately angry document.  “I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” (292)  The problem is more profound than one that anger alone can answer.  It is the means by which these lives are destroyed through the expectation of mediocrity, condescension, platitudes, and a the enforcement of an entire infrastructure of reality that his reader (his nephew) had no part in constructing.  The calls of liberals in the 1960s to wait, to be patient, to integrate (as if Harlem’s blacks were not integrated already in brutal and horrifying ways) all come tumbling down in this honest and powerful letter.  The lack of empathy by the white establishment is clearly expressed in Baldwin’s debate with William F. Buckley two years after The First Next Time.   It is clear that Buckley fails to express any real empathy.  Indeed he misses the point entirely.

In “Down at the Cross” Baldwin begins with his commitment to religion in his youth and ends with the growing popularity of Islam among blacks in the 1960s.  We can consider the general point first.  Can religion provide a path to freedom?  There is the objective and subjective part of this.  Objectively, I have my doubts that any institutional infrastructure, no matter how well-meaning, can create the conditions for personal freedom (and I do not see how you get to the freedom of a group without individual freedom first).  Subjectively, it seems the story is more complicated.  Baldwin discusses how by being saved, he found a place in the world.  For a time he played the role of a leader in the congregation as a preacher.  He probably learned many important lessons about persuasion and the use of the word that aided his career as an essayist.   Baldwin makes the point in Down at the Cross” that black Christianity failed to fully recognize the role of religion in sustaining segregation.  “The white man’s Heaven is the black man’s Hell” may be a statement of outraged Christianity but it is also a statement that internalized segregation (if not “separate but equal”).

Baldwin is particularly interested in the rise of black Islam in the United States.  He discusses his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam.  Baldwin found the theology of the Nation of Islam convincing in a historical and realistic day-to-day sense.  “We were offered, as Nation of Islam doctrine, historical and divine proof that all white people are cursed, and are devils, and are about to be brought down.” (315)  Baldwin reminds us that this was not a difficult sale to those who lived in 1950s Harlem, where white people really did act like the devil.  Whatever respect whites had in the eyes of blacks had long died off.  They did look and act like demons.  The Nation of Islam only made that truism divine truth.  To connect this to Baldwin’s close relationship to Christianity, the black God would succeed in liberating the people where the white God failed.  Baldwin wants to tell his readers that this is a powerful and convincing message for people who grew up like him.

The essay ends with a discussion of power and a vision of the future, not of shared power or a shifting of power or separatism (like that of the Nation of Islam).  Rather, Baldwin returns to the old observation that both whites and blacks are a product of United States and bound to its fate.  By this logic, there is no reason that he cannot own his political destiny. On this point, the Nation of Islam is correct.  “If this sentiment is honored when it falls from the lips of Senator Byrd, then there is no reason it should not be honored when it falls from the lips of Malcolm X.” (342)

If we bracket the potential of abolishing political power, there seems to be in Baldwin’s analysis a clear libertarian justification for nationalism.  Working within the system can get tiresome after four centuries.  Of course, separatism and nationalism and the rhetoric of racial superiority is bankrupt.  Baldwin’s analysis is a warning that white America has cultivated the Nation of Islam.  Power cultivates resistance.

Here are some of Baldwin’s comments on the Nation of Islam.

James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961)

Nobody Knows My Name is James Baldwin’s follow-up to Notes of a Native Son (he even subtitles it, “More Notes of a Nature Son.” The essays in this collection were written between 1955 and 1961 and carry on many of the themes of his first collection, including the different experiences of race in Europe and America, depictions of African-Americans in literature, and the religious life.  In his introduction he write about how he decided to return to the United States after several years in Europe.  For him, it was overcoming terror.  He confesses to residing in Europe out of fear.  Well, he returned at the right time to take part in some of the most interesting discussions about race in American history.  The essays in Nobody Knows My Name are therefore transitional.


His opening essay considers the old question: “What does it mean to be an American?”  Perhaps it was Crevecoeur who first asked this question in his Notes from an American Farmer, where among other things we learn that being an American means first and foremost not being a European.  And Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Dubois taught us that this question is far from color blind.  For a writer, it poses the problem of perspective, which Baldwin sees are rooted in the place of our birth.  “Every society is governed by hidden laws.” (142)  He starts to hint at the trouble of being an American writer as tied to the liquidity of the society.  While Europe was more static in terms of class and status, “American writers do not have a fixed society to describe.” (142) More subtlety, Americans still have those hidden structures but cannot admit them or fully analyze them.  Europe provides some breathing space and perspective to describe the boundaries and limits of the American liquid world.

He has a long essay describing “The Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists” in Paris, which was declared by one of the presenters to be a second Bandung conference.  Baldwin does not quite fit into this conference, often opposing the Afrocentric positions of many writers.  Having spent much of his time arguing for the distinctive African-American experience, he cannot swallow this idea of a unitary black experience.  Africans at least have a country.  Baldwin is still impressed at the enthusiasm of the conference and its power.  I wondered if Baldwin felt himself as an immature writer, surrounded by those “big heads.”  I might just be projecting my own generational burdens.

Following up on this conference, Baldwin takes us back to Harlem where he exposes the devastation caused by urban renewal and the development of housing projects.  The rhetoric of free choice and free markets break down in a place like Harlem where race and economic barriers limit mobility.  If the urban reformers want a disgusting, low quality housing project they have the power to construct it, even if that construction costs the city a neighborhood, businesses, or parks.  As bad as the projects were as institutional impositions, they necessitated the further occupation of Harlem by the police.  “The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive.” (176)  I think essays like these on Harlem are useful correctives to those who think things are okay.  In fact, things are much worse than we suspect.  Sadly, few of us realize this even though the evidence of how bad things are is often just across the street, or require looking at the world with a small amount of empathy. 

Nobody Knows My Name also includes a series of essays on the U.S. South.  Baldwin sees the South and the North as part of the same national trauma.  Northern blacks live the South, even if they never have been there.  It is in their family history and their cultural memory.  Its problems are also not unique.  He even correctly predicts that the trauma of the Civil Rights struggle in the South would be relived in Northern urban areas before long.  “It must be said that the racial setup in the South is not, for a Negro, very different from the racial setup in the North.  It is the etiquette which is baffling, not the spirit.  Segregation is unofficial in the North and official in the South, a crucial difference that does nothing, nevertheless, to alleviate the lot of most Northern Negroes.” (203)  I might add that at least formal institutional oppression can be easily targeted, if not easily taken down.  With the unofficial means of control, we face opaque threats that need to be clearly defined and located before they can be broken down.  In the same section he attacks liberal white Southerners for their inability to fully imagine an alternative to the world that they helped construct and define.  He focuses on Faulkner (who I have not yet read). White Southern writers cling to the mythology of the South and cannot demand immediate change without destroying the world that created them.  “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” (209) The end of this safety is something that people of Faulkner’s ilk cannot accept, making them poor allies for the struggle for racial equality.

I will leave you with another of Baldwin’s public talks.

James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955)

Notes of a Native Son is the first of Baldwin’s collection of essays.  Often in his novels, characters are trapped by social expectations, family, urban environments, or peer groups.  Baldwin mentions more than once that he did not want to write about the “Negro problem” simply because he was a black writer active in the Civil Rights era.  Yet, that is exactly what he does in his 1950s and 1960s non-fiction work.  He realized the limitations of this and the cruel assumptions underpinning the expectation that a black writer consider issues of race.  “I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews — mostly, as it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” (5)  But as any writer, he had to write about the life he lived and the times he lived in.  This makes the “Negro problem” central to his work form this period.  The essays in Notes of a Native Son were written when Baldwin was just starting his writing career and are grouped into three sections based on his experiences in these years: (1) his exhaustive reading, (2) growing up in Harlem, and (3) life as a black expat in Paris.


The first part, consisting of three essays, examines the images of blacks in American culture.  First, he critiques Uncle Tom’s Cabin and by extension “protest novels,” which by their nature suspend realism for the pushing of a political wish.  Her characters are simple and her understanding of relationships between the races under slavery was shallow.  Such novels, Baldwin asserts, have their role in promoting freedom but are nevertheless bad novels because they miss out on the fundamental reality.  “The oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs.” (17)  Baldwin next levels a similar critique against Richard Wright’s Native Son.  Like Stowe, Wright is “trapped by the American image of Negro life. . . . It is the socially conscious whites who receive him [Bigger] — the Negroes being capable of no such objectivity.” (31)  By embracing the anger of the era, Wright is no less a distorter of the black experience.  His final critique is of Carmen Jones, a film with an all-black cast interpreting Carmen.  And again, we find the work of art separated from the realities of black life.  “One is not watching the complex and consuming passion which leads to life or death — one is watching a timorous and vulgar misrepresentation of these things. . . .The Negro male is still too loaded a quantity for them to know quite how to handle.  Baldwin’s essential cultural critique at this time is the inability of artists to depict the world as it really is.

The next set of essays are autobiographical and deal with the urban experience of African-Americans in places like Harlem.  He starts with a depiction of just how horrible things are in Harlem (“The Harlem Ghetto”).  Poor services, high rents, staggering food costs, and abuse by black and white politicians.  We feel like we are in the world described by David Simon in The Wire.  Indeed we are in many ways and it is tragic how little of what Baldwin describes has changed in the last fifty years.  What we end up with is trapped people.  Baldwin explores this social prison through an analysis of black anti-Semitism.   He sees it as a reflection of black bitterness toward whites produced by a racist society.   “The Negro’s outlets are desperately constricted.  In his dilemma he turns first upon himself and then upon whatever most represents to him his own emasculation.”  (53)  Yet (and here is makes the same point he makes in critiquing Native Son) bitterness and anger is not all that defines the urban experience.  “Journey to Atlanta” considers some jazz musicians who toured the South.  There they were taken advantage of by local political workers of the Progressive Party to canvas neighborhoods.  Of course, the lesson here is that these skilled musicians were essentially seen as their skin color.  “Notes of a Native Son” is the story of Baldwin’s father and his death.  These memoirs intersect with some of the brutal realities in Harlem, including the indifference of some of the whites he encounters.  Baldwin uses these small events to make explicable the race riot that engulfed Harlem at the same time that his father died.  “The avenues , side streets, bars, billiard halls, hospitals, police stations, and even the playgrounds of Harlem — not to mention the houses of correction, the jails, and the morgue — testified to the potency of the poison while remaining silent as to the efficiency of whatever antidote.” (78)

The final four essays come from Baldwin’s observations of expat life in Paris, particularly focused on what he sees as the uniqueness of the African-American experience.  In contrast to black nationalists (who he debates directly in The First Next Time), there is not a singular modern black experience in the world.  African-Americans are bound to the U.S. and have their own struggles there.  While providing some potential for freedom, Paris seems to be at best an escape from where the real reckoning must take place.  One looks at the meetings of African-American expats with Africans living in France.  “They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years–an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening’s good-will, too heavy and too double-edged to ever be trapped in speech.” (89)  Paris cannot become a center for identity for expats because too many of them are emotionally or otherwise tied to America.  Baldwin often wrote about blacks in America encountering police, so it is interesting that he took the time to write a long essay about his arrest in Paris (he was accused of fencing).  The police and judicial system is something that (I suppose) few expats experience and it may very well be one of the last parts of a foreign culture on experiences, if at all.  I suppose the essay shows how Baldwin never quite became a Parisian and still held onto American attitudes about the police and power.  The final essay describes Baldwin’s visit to a town that may have never encountered a black before.  In a way, this allows Baldwin to escape race for the first time in his life.  Since race is a dialectical experience, shaping the development of both whites and blacks, this small town lacked the “black-white” experience that would have contributed to such a fossilization of racial expectations.  Being in a town without any blacks meant he was in a town without a history of slavery, violence, economic exploitation, and hatred.  He sums up the “Negro problem” in America by saying “I am a stranger here.  But I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.” (124)


I will forestall any conclusion for now, until I write on more of Baldwin’s writings on race.