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.

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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.

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