The thought of there being a distinct American problem, to be worked out by authors in the United States, has never appealed to me. Often, when I considered it, it seemed to be valid mostly in so far as American exceptionalism, from the start, made American authors believe that they must be confronted by a special dilemma of and for expression. Occasionally, I could understand it as a problem of regionalism and history, either in the questions of origin explored by Faulkner, or in the questions about the frontier explored by Cather. In the past few months, however, I’ve come to see it in another way. At other times, it seemed obviously to have to do with race. But none of these seemed sufficient to explain or relate the number of authors who must have taken the problem up.
Then, since the election, I started thinking about the problem as being one of familiarity and estrangement–a spectrum of social life along which any participants in democracy move, as democracy both proclaims, as an ideal, the equal accessibility of all to power and to one another as members of power, and then, in its actual manifestations of that power, estranges individuals from the civic life of which they were convinced to feel an intimate part. I have written here about how Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, like much other American poetry, is braced by shocks from one or the other extreme.
But, all the while, the terms “familiarity” and “estrangement” felt insufficiently specific to the history of the nation, even if they spoke to the experience of American democracy; after all, democracy is one, and maybe not even the most significant, strain of American history.
The recent film, I Am Not Your Negro, which springs from and turns upon the words of James Baldwin, challenges and corrects my view in a few lines. Unsurprisingly, Baldwin’s words stand on the page too, and the “book” of and for the film is invaluable. I quote from it:
I have always been struck, in America,
by an emotional poverty so bottomless,
and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep
that virtually no American appears able to achieve
any viable, organic connection
between his public stance and his private life.
This failure of the private life
has always had the most devastating effect
on American public conduct,
and on black-white relations.
If Americans were not so terrified
of their private selves,
they were never have become so dependent
on what they call the “Negro problem.”
This problem, which they invented
in order to safeguard their purity,
has made of them criminals and monsters,
and it is destroying them.
And this, not from anything blacks
may or may not be doing
but because of the role of a guilty
and constricted white imagination
as assigned to the blacks.
The words are directly relevant to Baldwin’s work, and to the film’s work as it presents Baldwin: though he is not party to the “constricted white imagination as assigned to the blacks,” he endeavors in the writing that accompanies the film, and in the other writings I’ve read by him, to “achieve” a “viable, organic connection” between his public and private selves.” But they also speak to the best endeavors of the most powerful and admirable American writing, that, with inevitably imperfect success, does attempt to face down, and provide an account of, the terror of examining and knowing the private self.
Baldwin’s words strike against the hypocrisies of American public life; the love of the con-game and of being conned; the hollow surfaces that prompt applause and admiration without containing enough substance to merit the charge of hypocrisy in the first place. They speak to the estrangement from the public that American democracy inspires, and the fear of familiarity with the self from which the incessant and immediate bustle of public affairs distracts. Much of this is found in the poetry of Whitman and Bishop, and the prose of Emerson, Hawthorne or James; it is at the root of what the near-forgotten critic Marius Bewley called the clash of “appearance and reality” in Henry James; it is probably alive in the queer secrets of Cather’s heroes and heroines, for whom the frontier offers a transitory relief from the tensions of public and private; it is there even at the start in the conversion narratives of the early Puritans where, scholar Patricia Caldwell has written, the American narrative differed from the English in the orientation towards the open, unknown public spaces of New England, geographical and social, which precluded closure for the inner spiritual journey; further trials remained to be undergone.
But Baldwin’s assessment squares the struggles of public and private self, of appearance and reality, of familiarity and estrangement with the unique and uniquely atrocious history of race in America; to praise his words is to praise their economy and elegance (how far he goes in a single phrase) as they move to deepen and widen the circle of thought so as to allow us to read the problems confronted by Henry James in The Wings of the Dove or Whitman in “The Sleepers” as essentially related to the failures of imagination in individual American lives (in their lives too; in my life too) that, not solely but also not haphazardly, are responsible for a continuing history of injustice and suffering.
This comes from Baldwin all more the powerfully in a film that is a composite of private notes and public performances; that completes, in a voice that is not his own, from a director that is another man, a personal essay that Baldwin never wrote, or could not write, for a medium other than words alone; that finds in the problem of its form and structure a happy response to the irresolution of private and public that Baldwin, here and elsewhere, unflinching, records.