Critics Page

The Victory Not Yet Won

Watch even a little cable TV or spend time on social media, and you might be tempted to follow the trend of painting this November’s election in stark, simplistic terms: red states vs. blue states, Baby Boomers and Gen X vs. Millennials, men vs. women, black and brown people vs. a resentful white majority. Yet if we were to draw upon the many insights of the late author, critic, and sage, James Baldwin, we might begin by acknowledging how unfinished the battles remain over even the most basic terrain of understanding, and how, despite innumerable advances, we have barely resolved the major social, political, and economic challenges facing this society. Baldwin probably never heard the term “reality TV” and certainly never watched a second of The Apprentice, but he would have been able to spot a racist, narcissistic showman like Donald Trump dog whistling his supporters into a frenzy against the proliferating “others.” He also left us before having the chance to wrestle with and critique the multiple contradictions of Clintonism, but he would have quickly assessed the inability of neoliberalism, repackaged by sometimes progressive-sounding and seeming Democrat Hillary Clinton, to address the numerous challenges before not just contemporary America but the globe. He would likely have suggested we go all the way back to the founding of the Republic, if one might still call it that, and study its birth, which laid down the lasting template for today’s politics, but he also would have chastened us, even as he too was celebrating our first African American president, that remarkable and once inconceivable as this achievement was, it came with a worthy but exorbitant price we could not ignore, and we should not let the symbolism overshadow the challenges ahead. For all the old troubles, the ones woven into the intricate strands of this country, its history, its Constitution, its laws, its institutions, were not erased in Barack Obama’s two Presidential election victories. Jefferson Davis might be turning over in his grave, but white supremacist specters have never lain quietly, for they, unlike the Confederacy, were never slain. Even our new black president would be expected to produce not just his bona fides but his papers, repeatedly. In the wake of Obama’s eight-year tenure, we will need to dismantle the interlocking systems and structures of oppression even more than changing hearts and minds; but we cannot do either unless we look past the liberal dream to the cold reality of what confronts us. Wide economic inequality, a prison industrial complex, failed war on drugs, state violence against brown and black people, would be among the many ongoing forms of injustice we face. Ultimately, for those of us able to vote, Baldwin might remind us that whatever happens come November, the ethical and intellectual compasses he and other ancestors bequeathed us require that we never assume that, whomever we elect, not just to the presidency but to the Congress, the governors’ mansions, the state and municipal legislatures, ballots alone would end the struggle, though they are part to the solution, and that most difficult work still awaits us. We might hear Baldwin’s reminder that everything is at stake, as we are reminded on a daily basis, down to our basic survival and humanity; that we strive to resume those old conversations and listen, trying our best not to talk past each other; and that we build painstakingly upon what gains, however modest, we have attained. Instead of cynicism and indifference, let us recall that it is up to us to continue remaking anew, making it better, ensuring that includes and empowers all of us, that it reflects the complex and diverse America emerging before our eyes, and that we do so not only for our sake and the sake of our children and grandchildren, but for our earth as well. Whether we find ourselves with an outright foe or most-of-the-time friend in office, no one will fight for us unless we fight for ourselves and make them do so. Dream hard, Baldwin might press us, but work even harder, until the hardest work is done. Only then can we think of our victories as on their way to being won.


John Keene