Gratitude for the Incandescent Witness of James Baldwin

If white Christians have eyes to see, Baldwin continues to illuminate the path toward ending our racial nightmare.

Last Sunday, I had the honor of receiving a 2021 American Book Award, given by the Before Columbus Foundation for my recent book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. I was floored to be in the company of such gifted authors, this year and across the rich legacy these awards have created for more than four decades. Past winners include Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Edward Said, bell hooks, Derrick Bell, Joy Harjo, Don DeLillo, Jamaica Kincaid, and Michael Eric Dyson.

I’m especially honored because this award is given by writers to other writers and because the award supports works that portray the full, rich diversity of America. For this week’s Friday reflections, I’m sharing the remarks I gave in my acceptance speech.

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All writers have intellectual and moral debts, and I want to use this opportunity to acknowledge a large one. So today, I lift up, with gratitude, the work and life of James Baldwin, from whose writing the title of my recent book is taken.

It’s perhaps surprising that the writing of a black, gay author hailing from Harlem a generation before my time would resonate with me—a white, straight guy who grew up as a Southern Baptist on the working-class side of town in Jackson, Mississippi. But from the time my eyes first danced across the lines his hands first tapped out on a manual typewriter, I had an experience that is best described in a word from our shared Christian faith: “Communion.” I felt Baldwin speaking to me, and the power of his writing called for an answer. His living words compelled me, for the first time in my professional career as a social scientist, to learn to write in the first person.

I was moved by his unflinching perceptiveness. I was in awe that even in his more despairing moments, as White Americans and White churchgoers repeatedly spurned calls for Black equality, he refused to dip his pen into the well of hatred. I also found familiar his own deep wrestling with a Christianity that drew and disappointed him.

I found myself coming back, again and again, to a searing New York Times op-ed Baldwin wrote in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was a painful indictment.

I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself.

I was seven months old when these words first circulated. As I read Baldwin as a middle-aged adult, I have been haunted by his repeated calls to white Americans, and particularly white Christians, to emerge from our self-induced white supremacist psychosis. My book is, at heart, a belated attempt to begin a white Christian response to Baldwin, one that embraces his hope expressed in The Fire Next Time that, if enough of us can find the courage and the love, “we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

As Baldwin provocatively noted, the civil rights movement began when an oppressed and despised people began to wake up collectively to what had happened to them.1 The question today—and one Baldwin put before us half a century ago—is whether we white Christians will also awaken to see what has happened to us, and to grasp once and for all how white supremacy has robbed us of our own heritage and of our ability to be in right relationships with our fellow citizens, with ourselves, and even with God.

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So thank you, James Baldwin. During your lifetime, we white Christians were plainly unable to discern our debilitating delusions, even in the incandescent light of your witness. We were unprepared to heed your call to truth-telling and repentance and health. We may still prove incapable today. But we have a better chance of freeing ourselves from the disfiguring disease of white supremacy because of the testimony preserved in your writing.

This is the power—the magic really—of writing: That it faithfully transports ideas across time and cultures. That it can hold an image in the looking glass until we are able to see it. That it can preserve a seed until there is soil to receive it, bearing fruit that sustains us in our time of need.

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If you’d like to view the full American Book Awards ceremony, including my acceptance speech, click the graphic below.

And if you’d like to read more about Baldwin’s life and work, I highly recommend a beautifully written, morally powerful book by my friend Dr. Eddie Glaude, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.

1

James Baldwin, “Speech from the Soledad Rally,” in the Cross of Redemption, 122.