Rhetoric and Identity in James Baldwin’s Revolution
Davis W. Houck
Despite the proliferation of interest in James Baldwin across popular culture and the
academy, few, if any, critical studies of his public oratory have been conducted. This is
unfortunate and ironic—unfortunate because Baldwin was a marvelous orator, and ironic in
that his preferred solution to what ailed whites and blacks as the Civil Rights movement
unfolded was thoroughly rhetorical. That is, Baldwin’s racial rhetorical revolution
involved a re-valuing of the historical evidence used to keep blacks enslaved both
mentally and physically across countless generations. Moreover, for Baldwin the act of
naming functions to chain both whites and blacks to a version of American history
psychologically damaging to both. Three speeches that Baldwin delivered in 1963 amid the
crucible of civil rights protest illustrate these claims.
James Baldwin and the Broken Silences of Black Queer
McKinley E Melton
James Baldwin writes within and against the testimonial tradition emerging from the Black
Church, challenging the institution’s refusal to acknowledge the voices and experiences of
black queer men. Baldwin’s autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, creates a
space for Baldwin’s testimony to be expressed, and also lays the foundation for a
tradition of black queer artists to follow. In the contemporary moment, poet Danez Smith
inhabits Baldwin’s legacy, offering continuing critiques of the rigidity of conservative
Christian ideologies, while publishing and performing poetry that gives voice to their own
experiences, and those of the black queer community at large. These testimonies ultimately
function as a means of rhetorical resistance, which not only articulates black queer lives
and identities, but affirms them.
This essay presents the idea of James Baldwin as a freedom writer, the organizing idea of
my biography in progress. As a freedom writer, Baldwin was a revolutionary intellectual,
an essayist and novelist committed unfailingly to the realization of racial justice,
interracial political equality, and economic democracy. While the book is still in
process, this short essay narrates autobiographically how I came to meet and know
Baldwin’s work, explains in critical fashion my work in relation to existing biographies,
and reflects interpretively my thoughts-in- progress on this fascinating and captivating
figure of immense historical and social consequence.
Black music played a crucial role in the work and life of James Baldwin. What Baldwin
heard in the music guided his sense of political reality and human possibility, his
invention of character, his shifting analytical point of view, and his decisions about
what to do, when, and how to do it during his life in private and career in public. The
music, therefore, also offers his critics and his readers important insight and guidance
in their own experience and interpretation of his work. This brief essay accounts for some
of the most basic connections between Baldwin and black music; it serves here as an
introduction to a list of songs, some of which offered Baldwin important guidance and some
of which offer his readers access to deeper meanings in his work. A playlist of songs,
curated by Ed Pavlić and Justin A. Joyce, is available on YouTube at
James Baldwin, William F. Buckley,
Jr., and the 1965 Cambridge Debate
Daniel Robert McClure
The 1965 debate at Cambridge University between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley,
Jr., posed the question: “Has the American Dream been achieved at the Expense of the
American Negro?” Within the contours of the debate, Baldwin and Buckley wrestled with the
ghosts of settler colonialism and slavery in a nation founded on freedom and equality.
Framing the debate within the longue durée, this essay examines the deep cultural currents
related to the American racial paradox at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Underscoring the changing language of white resistance against black civil rights, the
essay argues that the Baldwin and Buckley debate anticipated the ways the U.S. would
address racial inequality in the aftermath of the civil rights era and the dawn of
neoliberalism in the 1970s.
As this essay notes, James Baldwin, his words and metaphors, pervade public space at
countless numbers of intersections. Lines from his plays, novels, and essays have always
been an easy and handy reference for writers and artists seeking ways to ground their
intentions with deeper meaning and magic. Even in a minority opinion on 22 June 2016
written by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, she cited several authors, including
Baldwin, to underscore her point on the Court’s abrogation of the Fourth Amendment.
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 and Melanie Klein in the Context
of Black Lives Matter
David W McIvor
Recent killings of unarmed black citizens are a fresh reminder of the troubled state of
racial integration in the United States. At the same time, the unfolding Black Lives
Matter protest movements and the responses by federal agencies each testify to a not
insignificant capacity for addressing social pathologies surrounding the color line. In
order to respond to this ambivalent situation, this article suggests a pairing between the
work of James Baldwin and that of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. I will argue that we
cannot fully appreciate the depths of what Baldwin called the “savage paradox” of race
without the insights provided by Klein and object relations psychoanalysis. Conversely,
Baldwin helps us to sound out the political significance of object relations approaches,
including the work of Klein and those influenced by her such as Hanna Segal and Wilfred
Bion. In conversation with the work of Baldwin, object relations theory can help to
identify particular social settings and institutions that might allow concrete efforts
toward racial justice to take root.
James Baldwin, the Religious Right, and the Moral
In the 1980s, James Baldwin recognized that a major transformation had occurred in the
socio-political functions of religion. His critique adapted accordingly, focusing on the
ways in which religion—particularly white evangelical Christianity—had morphed into a
movement deeply enmeshed with mass media, conservativepolitics, and late capitalism.
Religion in the Reagan era was leveraged, sold, and consumed in ways never before seen,
from charismatic televangelists, to Christian-themed amusement parks, to mega-churches.
The new movement was often characterized as the “religious right” or the “Moral Majority”
and was central to both Reagan’s political coalition as well as the broader culture wars.
For Baldwin, this development had wide-ranging ramifications for society and the
individual. This article draws on Baldwin’s final major essay, “To Crush the Serpent”
(1987), to examine the author’s evolving thoughts on religion, salvation, and
transgression in the context of the Reagan era.