In a country where morality is too often collapsed into safety—not the protection from physical harm, not the insurance of a basic standard of life, but the false safety that is stability for markets and profitability—James Baldwin summons to us from beyond the grave to boldly practice a dangerous morality. Baldwin calls for a kind of ethical work to upend and obliterate the very structures that bind us to property and the sacrosanct patriarchal family despite their violence; that bind us to “all lives matter” when we know that black, indigenous, and Latino lives are those extinguished prematurely in spectacles of horror, in the grinding slow death of poverty, and in the death producing geographies of abandonment; that bind us to oil based futures when we know these are untenable for all forms of life on the planet. I read Baldwin’s 1961 “From Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve, A Forum,” his 1964 “The Uses of the Blues,” and the overall thrust of his oeuvre as calling for a dangerous morality—for the courting of the disintegration of the existent social fabric, for its replacement with unprecedented forms of social connection that include the most marginal, for the exchange of the safety of assured markets for the unpredictability of revolutionary intimacies and community. It is precisely this outlook that the occasion of the impending elections requires for us to envision and practice. It is in his words “time to create new standards,” ones that take us beyond the routinized ritual of electing the lesser of two evils which “we still refer to as the Republican and Democratic parties.”
As he recognized in his lifetime and as we must recognize in the pressing reality of now, the invitation to engage in a dangerous morality is no straightforward task since “the habits of power […] are hard to lose;” since our collective “Yankee virtue” holds that as the wealthiest society in history we must be just; since our collective bogey women, “the nigger,” “the terrorist,” and “the illegal” serve as cover for our monstrosity. Indeed when we clear the smoke of American dominance and decadence, our collective heinousness is everywhere apparent: it hides behind kind eyes and alabaster cheeks; in institutions that ascribe to being the seat of god himself but which drain millions from the poor to fund the recreation of pastors; in the rhetoric of colorblind conformity when we know that two times as many black babies die in infancy as white children; in the murderous oaths of those who vow to serve and protect with a Smith and Wesson; in the notion that food, water, and the other basic necessities of existence should be profitable; in the sapping of young imaginations through schools that function as way stations for more prisons, yet to be built; in the proliferation of clandestine drone warfare.
To engage in a dangerous morality is to end the world as we know it; to court the death of our “outmoded Puritan God;” to cast off our arrogant vision of the people of the world “becoming free by imitating us;” to extricate ourselves from the logic that excessive consumption and profiteering should be the highest end to which collective ingenuity can aspire. We must turn “overnight into a revolutionary country”—into a country where we envision new modes of human connection up and out from the delicate realm of the intimate. Only “if [we] live in the reality of death,” only if we recognize that our communal table is fitted with poison, only if we serenade ourselves with something other than the death hymn of Manifest Destiny, only if we feed each other and love up on one another, will we reclaim our intimacies from exploitation, our communities from cages, our cities from corporate takeovers, and our government from goons.
To court the end of the world as we have known it will not necessarily ensure any particular outcome because the unfolding of the present and the future is never so straightforward. We must, however, embrace the danger of uncertainty which opposes the surety of safety as the unchanging same. It is time to part with the dreams of a messianic savior and also the practical solutions of policy wonks. The models we can use will come from the most unlikely places: from the blues of Bessie Smith; from crying children in clapboard houses with rusted tin roofs in the “Third World;” from America’s Fergusons, Flints, and Baton Rouges; from gray-haired black women whose job it is to clean and who everyone else looks past; from death row; from those who engage in sex work; from the queer black activists and organizers of the Movement for Black Lives; from the least among us who the good book says shall be first. These are the ones among us who have already created robust forms of intimacy and collectivity in places where death threatens to consume life itself. These are the ones among us who have the least to lose and the world to gain.
How will we know when we have reached the end of the world? Do not fret. We have long been “one minute to twelve.” It will be in our hands when we pick it up.