The Enduring Rage of Baldwin and the Education of a
White Southern Baptist Queer
Delivered in Paris at the 2016 International James Baldwin Conference just two weeks
before the killing of 49 individuals at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida on 26 June
2016, “Relatively Conscious” explores, through the eyes of an LGBT American and the words
of James Baldwin, how separate and unequal life remains for so many within the United
States. Written in the tradition of memoir, it recounts how, just as Paris saved Baldwin
from himself, the writer’s life was transformedupon the discovery of Baldwin.
James Baldwin has frequently been written about in terms of his relationship to geographical locations such as Harlem, Paris, St. Paul-de-Vence, Istanbul, and “the transatlantic,” but his longstanding connection to the American South, a region that served as a vexed and ambiguous spiritual battleground for him throughout his life and career, has been little discussed, even though Baldwin referred to himself as “in all but no technical legal fact, a Southerner.” This article argues that the South has been seriously underconsidered as a major factor in Baldwin’s psyche and career and that were it not for the challenge to witness the Southern Civil Rights movement made to Baldwin in the late 1950s, he might never have left Paris and become the writer and thinker into which he developed. It closely examines Baldwin’s fictional and nonfictional engagements with the American South during two distinct periods of his career, from his first visit to the region in 1957 through the watershed year of 1963, and from 1963 through the publication of Baldwin’s retrospective memoir No Name in the Street in 1972, and it charts Baldwin’s complex and often contradictory negotiations with the construction of identity in white and black Southerners and the South’s tendency to deny and censor its historical legacy of racial violence. A few years before his death, Baldwin wrote that “[t]he spirit of the South is the spirit of America,” and this essay investigates how the essential question he asked about the region—whether it’s a bellwether for America’s moral redemption or moral decline—remains a dangerous and open one.