These are ripe times to read Baldwin. Not just the essays on racist policing; those are, in a way, too easy. “A Report From Occupied Territory,” which appeared in The Nation, burns hot a half-century after it was published. That its depiction of black vulnerability and police volatility could describe the contemporary scene; that its central metaphor of occupation is not too hyperbolic to have been echoed by Eric Holder last year, nor its concern with personal disintegration too dated to anticipate Ismaaiyl Brinsley; that even its particulars (“If one is carried back and forth from the precinct to the hospital long enough, one is likely to confess anything”) feel gruesomely fresh in light of known CIA torture regimens—all of these, enraging as they are, only confirm what we already tell ourselves in weaker words.
The police are brutal, the government is brutal, the populace is aroused (taking to the streets) or accommodating (switching from CNN to Homeland to football), brutalized or brutal too. America, cauldron of damaged life.
Baldwin wrote “Report” in 1966, about Harlem, not Staten Island; during the war in Vietnam, not the “global war on terror”; amid the dim promises of the Great Society and a Top 40 soundtrack playing “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” We may study that past, track today’s news and shout the louder, but that is not why Baldwin is the most important American writer of the twentieth century, or why we should read him now.
A passage from a famous essay called “Everyone’s Favorite Protest Novel,” written in 1949, suggests a better reason:
What constriction or failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality—unmotivated, senseless—and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds?
The “her” refers to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the “protest novel” is Uncle Tom’s Cabin (and secondarily Native Son), and Baldwin ventures the question that he would plumb his whole life: Who are we, as individuals and Americans, and what are our responsibilities? That “who” for Baldwin was no flimsy thing. It involved spirit and flesh, history and what we do with it, both in our intimate relations and in social, common life.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin fails, in his reading, the way so much well-meaning protest does. It is so busy crying “This is horrible!” that it does not trouble to inquire into what makes those who have executed that horror, and who maintained, benefited from and accommodated to it, do the things they do. A protest novel closer to him, Native Son, disappoints because Richard Wright, its author, has so constricted the frame of social life to fit white categories, so reduced Bigger Thomas to his fears and hatreds, that Bigger “admits the possibility of being sub-human and feels constrained to battle for his humanity” in the only available arena, violence. In either case, what the protest writer offers is a victim, maybe a saint (Tom) or a sinner (Bigger), plenty of villains but no demand on thought as to the roots of villainy or the effort required of us to live in defiance of it.