Nigger is a word that Baldwin detested. He could say it, but he could not use it as anything other than a pejorative. In Baldwin’s Nigger, the documentary film in which he and Dick Gregory meet with students from the African Diaspora in England—he considers that his ancestor was “Baldwin’s nigger,” an enslaved man listed in the property ledgers. Enslavement may have given Baldwin an unwelcome name, but in every which way he could, Baldwin fought against the idea of person as property and for bonds that were freely made.
Like me, Baldwin seemed to be more interested in and critical of the ways America was shaped post-Emancipation. That White Supremacy took root and spread its hateful ideology into the legal and social structure of this nation is one of America’s great burdens. As he says to his nephew in “My Dungeon Shook:” “You can only be destroyed by believing that you are what the white world calls a nigger. And he also presents a serious critique of that white world: “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 [my emphasis]. The faux innocence of whites is particularly galling. Later in “The Fire Next Time”, he points out that “white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened.” And the “self-image” of some whites (“the deplorables” Ms. Clinton mentioned) appears to be quite fragile. The violence that attended the protection of whites’ lives, image, and property was deeply entrenched in very segregated 1950s and it is now.
That in 2016, we see these dispiriting displays of white supremacy would not surprise Baldwin. It does not surprise me. But what is different is that the main principle of White Supremacy has been assaulted daily by the power of President Obama. That a black man has the power (and occasionally uses it) to advance whatever is his agenda sticks in many a racists’ throat—good.
Baldwin walked a tight rope away from what the white world called him. He did it the hard way as a lapsed Christian—who, no matter his renunciation of the faith, held himself to Christ’s highest demand: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” That the neighbor could be a white man who routinely denies black citizens the right to fully participate as citizens in this nation was not lost on him. His was a fight that we are still fighting. Love and anger are charged by the same electrons and Baldwin was an electric speaker, writer, lover.
Indeed, when I think of Baldwin, I see him as a lover, the courtier, the bridegroom, the patriarch of a large, noisy, and difficult family. He performed masculinity in ways that allowed others to create their own version of what black maleness could be: one that explored sexual eroticism and roles with little of the guilt associated with roles. He was built like a boxer and he moved in ways that boxers moved; that physicality demands our attention; his intellectual prowess sustains the observation.
In Baldwin’s Nigger, Baldwin’s range of masculine gestures is on full display. A bearded Dick Gregory, in combat gear that seems oddly dated now, does what true and loyal soldiers do—he listens. He does so because Baldwin, the general, uses his wit, facts, intimidations, strokes, eye contact, and cigarette smoke as verbal jabs, jousts to parry and persuade. He is the master of his fate and he is nobody’s nigger.