“A House Built on Bondage Cannot Stand”

On the eve of the 1980 presidential elections, James Baldwin confessed his inability to account for why “in a nation so boastfully autonomous as the United States we are reduced to the present presidential candidates [who are] as well equipped to run the world as I am to run a post office.” Thirty-six years later, one wonders what he would have made of the current electoral spectacle, whose principal contenders are a vile racist faux-tycoon and a war mongering corporate minion. More important than indulging in such speculation, however, is emulating Baldwin’s concern with going beyond the immediate pressures of current events in order to uncover the historically- and psychically-rooted iniquities of the (White) Republic. In the above-quoted essay, “Notes on the House of Bondage,” Baldwin recognizes that “if we’re to change our children’s lives and help them to liberate themselves from the jails and hovels—the mortal danger—in which our countrymen have placed us, the vote does not appear to be the answer either.” While acknowledging the moral necessity of the (still ongoing) struggle for voting rights, in which he himself was an active participant, Baldwin questions whether the vote could ever be anything more for black people than a “coldly calculated risk, a means of buying time” and “outwit[ting] the Final Solution.”

The difference between the moment in which Baldwin wrote this essay and the current conjuncture may be found precisely in the valiant uprisings of Baldwin’s “children” against the crimes of U.S. empire at home and abroad, against institutionalized racism, against the poverty that politicians perpetuate willfully or in silence, against mass incarceration, against police repression, against environmental ravaging, against corporate plunder: endemic social ills Baldwin eloquently denounced in his day, but which have only intensified since. He foresees such a coming-to-active-consciousness when he speaks of “the black and nonwhite peoples who are shattering, redefining and recreating history—making all things new—simply by declaring their presence, by delivering their testimony.” These are les damnés de la terre, the insulted and injured, and their presence and testimony are global, haunting the sleep of princes and powers entrenched and aspirant alike.

If, as Baldwin wrote, the children themselves “are always ours, every single one of them, all over the globe, and I am beginning to suspect that whoever is incapable of recognizing this may be incapable of morality,” then we cannot remain indifferent to the fate of the fifty million children worldwide wrenched from their homes due to war, persecution, dictatorships, starvation, or trafficking. To paraphrase Baldwin during his conversation with Margaret Mead, all of us are responsible for this situation because we have done nothing, or too little, to stop it. “For whom the bell tolls,” he quotes, correctly interpreting its meaning as “everyone’s suffering is mine,” and recognizing it as a matter to be addressed in the present, bearing as it does all the weight of past history, a history whose consequences and possibilities unfold on the terrain of daily life—the evidence of things too often not seen.

But all states of emergency are simultaneously states of emergence. This is where Baldwin’s concept of love comes in—a fierce and demanding love that challenges as it embraces, and that is beautifully summed up in his affirmation that “we have sustained each other a very long time, and come a long, long way together. We have come to the end of a language and are now about the business of forging a new one.” For all revolutions—and all struggles for a beloved community sustained by mutual aid and active solidarity are essentially revolutionary—are also revolutions in language, subjecting pseudo-rationalizations of oppressive conditions to unsparing critique and devising new, essentially poetic vocabularies of struggle. “What makes you a poet,” Baldwin tells Mead, “is a commitment to the human race […] to generations unborn.” Baldwin frequently alluded to Hebrews 12:1: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” We say the names of these witnesses in mourning, we call on their words and their lives for inspiration, we remember and give new life to their struggles, and we reach out across barriers of language, culture, time, and space to acknowledge and redeem our myriad debts to them. For as one such witness, Audre Lorde, declares: “it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.”

Contributor

Chris Winks

CHRIS WINKS is the author of Symbolic Cities in Caribbean Literature.

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