James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature
Allen Warren (wikicommons)

James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

Samuel Kronen
Samuel Kronen
24 min read

“The hardest thing in the world to do,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1934 article for Esquire, “is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn and anybody is cheating who takes politics as a way out.” Of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he quipped, “see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are.” Hemingway was not discounting the political, merely clarifying its relationship to literature. “Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.”

Be it a piece of fiction, criticism, or journalism, great literature has always contained a social and political dimension with moral ramifications for the society in which it was conceived and written. But its unique role is to explore a version of reality that others may have overlooked—indeed, there may be nothing more subversive than honestly re-creating one’s own experience. However, when a writer or artist enlists in a specific socio-political cause—that is, how things ought to be, rather than how they are—their work might succeed in persuading people but, ultimately, it fails to achieve transcendent resonance. This tension between moralism and humanism requires clarification at a time when private life has been swallowed up by politics, and this is nowhere more apparent today than on the subject of race in America.

Few historic figures embodied that tension as vividly as James Baldwin. In 1948, as a 24-year-old aspiring writer brimming with urgency, Baldwin nearly got himself killed when he threw a coffee mug at a diner waitress in a spell of rage after she told him “Negroes aren’t served here.” He then set off for Europe to escape the stifling atmosphere of segregated America, and to discover precisely where his racial identity ended and his individual identity as an artist began. He would later write in his memoir, Nobody Knows My Name, that the journey gave him the moral and artistic freedom to “recreate the life that I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight.” “I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer. I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” Out of those reflections emerged his first two novels and the timeless essay collection, Notes of a Native Son, inaugurating the unique and lucid voice for which he’d come to be known.

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The first article he published upon arriving in Paris was entitled “Everybody’s Protest Novel”—an essay that would establish Baldwin’s possibilities and foreshadow his limitations. It takes aim at the tendency to dramatize social issues through literature in racial terms for political purposes. This, he argued, ultimately reinforces the very principles which activate the oppression such writing is meant to protest. It relies upon the same moral logic of blackness and whiteness, damnation and salvation, good and evil, and cross-generational guilt and innocence from which the whole problem of race and racism came about in the American context. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which helped spark the civil war, and the civil rights antecedent Native Son by Richard Wright, Baldwin’s former mentor and fellow expat in Paris, provide Baldwin with his argument’s points of departure.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Baldwin wrote, was activated by “a theological terror … and the spirit that breathes through this book, hot, self-righteous, fearful, is not different from that spirit of medieval times which sought to exorcise evil by burning witches; and is not different from that terror which activates a lynch mob.” In order to fire the reader’s indignation, Stowe conceived Uncle Tom as a racial caricature of victimized innocence, “robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex.” This revealed the goal of the protest novel to be “something very closely resembling the zeal of those alabaster missionaries to Africa to cover the nakedness of the natives.” The book’s brutal “catalog of violence” and “ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion” worked to conceal the only question that actually matters—“what it was, after all, that moved [Stowe’s] people to such deeds.” The book is now more famous for the stereotype it ushered in than the war it began.

The commitment to a social cause characteristic of protest fiction contradicts the “devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated; fulfillment which cannot be charted.” By evading the hidden complexity of other people, we evade our own underlying complexity, and it is “only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness” that we can “find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves.” And it is this power of revelation that is the business of the novelist, the artist, the seer, the writer, “this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.” Conversely, Stowe was “an impassioned pamphleteer” who set out to do nothing more than prove that slavery “was, in fact, perfectly horrible.” However badly written or wildly improbable such books are and “whatever violence they do to language” and “excessive demands they make of credibility,” they are forgiven in view of their good intentions. In short, “literature and sociology are not one in the same.”

Above all, protest literature doesn’t challenge any of the prevailing cultural forces in society and instead lends them vindication, which is why ostensibly subversive and revolutionary books have become “an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene.” Keeping the subject matter “safely ensconced in the social arena” makes introspection unnecessary. The questions we are asked to consider have nothing to do with us—have, in fact, “nothing to do with anyone, so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all.”

It wasn’t until the very end of his essay that Baldwin briefly turned his attention to Native Son. Wright’s novel tells the story of a young black man in Chicago named Bigger Thomas who smothers a white girl, sort of by accident. But it subsequently emerges that the murder is also a reaction to the mounting psychological and social pressures imposed on him by his race. The depths to which he descends are meant to illustrate, in graphic and horrifying detail, the human toll of societal racism, the scope of white culpability, and the attendant need for social intervention. Wright, a former Marxist, was a social determinist who believed that political and economic structures had the power to dictate the quality of human life. As he wrote in the essay “How Bigger Was Born,” he sought to paint a portrait of black life “so hard and deep that [the reader] would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”

To Baldwin, however, Wright had created a character who portrayed none of the subtleties, complexities, or ambiguities of black American life, culture, or even of Wright himself. Bigger was conceived as a feral racial stereotype to make a point about oppression. “Bigger’s tragedy,” Baldwin wrote, is not that he is poor or black, but that “he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity.” But, in actuality, “our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult—that is, accept it.” This quality of acceptance is the seed of change.

Moreover, Baldwin saw Native Son as “a continuation, a complement to that legend” of blacks “it was written to destroy,” and Bigger Thomas as “Uncle Tom’s descendent, flesh of his flesh, so opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems that the contemporary negro author and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle.” To accept the premise that we can overcome the effects of racism merely by injecting a different moral meaning into race, whether to symbolize the inherent virtues of the oppressed or to justify their self-destructive impulses, “black and white can only thrust and counterthrust, long for each other’s slow and exquisite death.” In the final and most memorable line of the essay, he writes: “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and cannot be transcended.”

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Baldwin and Wright were both living in Paris when the essay was first published in 1949. Their relationship was complicated from its inception. As a 20-year-old upstart in Harlem, a former boy preacher fighting to achieve his identity—gay, broke, despairing—Baldwin sought out Wright “because he was the greatest black writer in the world for me.” In his books—particularly Wright’s memoir, Black BoyBaldwin “found expressed, for the first time in my life, the sorrow, the rage, and the murderous bitterness which was eating up my life,” and described the undertone of Wright’s work as “almost literally the howl of a man who is being castrated.” When he finally met Wright in his Brooklyn apartment to solicit advice for a potential novel, Baldwin, drinking on an empty stomach, “was so afraid of falling off my chair and so anxious for him to be interested in me, that I told him far more about the novel than I, in fact, knew about it, madly improvising, one jump ahead of the bourbon, on all the themes that cluttered up my mind. I am sure that Richard realized this, for he seemed to be amused by me. But I think that he liked me. I know that I liked him, then, and later, and all the time. But I also know that, later on, he did not believe this.”

After their first meeting, Wright helped Baldwin earn a major writing fellowship for a novel, though the project would ultimately fall through. “The saddest thing about our relationship,” Baldwin wrote in the essay “Alas, Poor Richard” after Wright’s death in 1960, “is that my only means of discharging my debt to Richard was to become a writer; and this effort revealed … the deep and irreconcilable differences between our points of view.”

The morning the magazine was published, Baldwin encountered Wright in a cafe. Wright accused Baldwin of betrayal, not just of Wright but of all black Americans for attacking the idea of protest per se. “It simply had not occurred to me that the essay could be interpreted that way. I was still at that stage when I imagined that whatever was clear to me only had to be pointed out to become immediately clear to everyone.” But he realized, too, “that Richard was right to be hurt, I was wrong to have hurt him. He saw clearly enough, way more clearly than I dared allow myself to see, what I had done: I had used his work as a kind of springboard into my own.” Wright was never a human equal in Baldwin’s impressionable eyes, but a “spiritual father,” an idol, and “idols are created in order to be destroyed.”

Two years after “Everybody’s Protest Novel” was published, Baldwin wrote a follow-up essay entitled “Many Thousands Gone,” which expanded upon his critique of Native Son. Like the previous piece, it would be included in Notes of a Native Son in 1955. It begins with the question of American identity and racial history. We don’t know who we are as a nation, Baldwin argues, because we are trapped in a history we don’t understand. As a consequence, our attempts to escape it—either by downplaying the effects of that history or, conversely, establishing our own innocence by adopting a particular social stance towards blacks—ultimately keeps it alive out of a tacit feeling of guilt and “an unrealized need to suffer absolution.” It was from this historical paradox that Native Son emerged: In the effort to show the effects of racism on a person, Wright effectively vindicated the image of blacks used to justify racial segregation. He also failed to capture their continuing and complex group reality that made survival under centuries of oppression possible—“that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life” for which there has “yet arrived no sensibility sufficiently profound and tough to make this tradition articulate.”

The relationship between white and black Americans, he went on, is “literally and morally, a blood relationship,” and it is from this hidden connection that a truer national identity could be forged. If Wright were to have penetrated this inward contention of love and hatred, blackness and whiteness, self and other, the thrust and the counterthrust, Baldwin argued, the book would have been more honest, tragic, and effective. But this was impossible given the prepackaged limitations of protest writing because “the reality of a man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings solely in social terms … The unlucky shepherd soon finds that, so far from being able to feed the hungry sheep, he has lost his wherewithal for his own nourishment: having not been allowed … to recreate his own experience.” This last point, for Baldwin, would prove to be prophetic.

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It was clear at the time that Baldwin was projecting his own ambition to break out of the moral dualism of race to venture beyond the limitations of protest literature. This was something new, it seemed: a young black American writer rejecting the sociopolitical racial rubric which had come to be expected in exchange for a deeper humanism that reflected the reality and weight of the individual in modern life. Baldwin showed immense promise. To many observers, here was someone capable of using the background of his own particular experience to grapple with universal human truths regarding one of the most significant issues in the most powerful country in the world. But that’s just not what happened. Rather, Baldwin moved back to the States, became a key figure in the civil rights struggle, and ultimately fell victim to his own critique. As the writer Shelby Steele puts it, “in blatant contradiction of his own powerful arguments against protest writing, [Baldwin] became a protest writer. There is little doubt that this new accountability weakened him greatly as an artist. Nothing he wrote after the early 60s had the human complexity, depth, or literary mastery of what he wrote in those remote European locales where children gawked at him for his color.”

It was a transformative period in American history and Baldwin was called to the political moment. His unignorable orations almost certainly contributed to the success of the civil rights movement to one degree or another. Unlike much activism today, Baldwin took personal risks, made tremendous sacrifices, and paid a steep price for it all: In the span of a few short years, his friends Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers were each murdered by white and black racists.

But the decision to return to America and engage in activism took its effect. Baldwin’s earlier appeals to transracial humanism gave way to an intense, unrelenting, and deeply racialized moralism, and by the end of his life he seemed to resign himself to the idea that white people were simply insane. (“For, in the generality, as social and moral and political and sexual entities, white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today.”) For example, Baldwin’s most influential work, The Fire Next Time (1963), a relatively short polemical plea for racial equality penned in oracular cadences, develops from the idea that oppression harms the oppressor as much or more than the oppressed. But it is bound to the same black and white moral framework that Baldwin once railed against in his essays on protest fiction. Except, whereas the presupposition that “black is a terrible color with which to be born in the world” is always the same in protest literature, Baldwin merely flipped the script: The downtrodden are always a bit more humane.

Although Baldwin never lost his gift for elocution or his insight into human psychology, it’s difficult to deny that his writing on race in particular grew increasingly bitter over time. He never came to appreciate, or hardly even acknowledge, the major social changes that occurred in his lifetime and which his own work had inspired. Considering what actually happened in America between Baldwin’s birth in 1924 and his death in 1987, this omission is a tell (one of his least favorite terms was “progress”). What’s more, Baldwin adopted the role of a public spokesperson on race, articulating a new moral iconography around the stigma of white guilt that would set the terms of America’s implicit racial contract until today and eventually give rise to the religious phenomenon of modern anti-racism. It’s therefore unsurprising that Baldwin is considered a patron saint among identity-fixated progressives and most readily compared to the activist-polemicist Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Baldwin, Steele argues, laid out a formula for American writers on race issues that links “one’s intellectual reputation to the moral authority—the moral glamour—of an oppressed group’s liberation struggle.” This formula attributes universal human failings to American society in general and white people in particular. Similarly, it pairs a tragic attitude toward human nature with an anti-tragic attitude towards society, admitting of no clear moral or political message. The only remaining meaning is to be found in the Sisyphusian struggle against an omniscient, amorphous, and immovable white supremacy. It’s a recipe for inertia. Were it true, the only healthy human response would be to accept what cannot be changed and direct one’s energies elsewhere.

In that moment, Baldwin represented the consolidation of two divergent and irreconcilable strands of black American thought amid the cultural upheavals of the 1960s—the separatist ethos of black nationalism and the assimilationist spirit of integration—and made group victimology seem like an extension of racial pride. Calling for the full acceptance of blacks into the American mainstream, on the one hand, while asserting that blacks don’t need to be accepted into an irreparably racist society, on the other, might make sense from the view of cosmic justice or poetic truth, but it’s incoherent as a plan of action. It leaves no place to go and the formula for race discourse in America has remained practically unchanged ever since.

“Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” Baldwin famously quipped. But if American society is hopeless, what is the purpose of asking such a question at all? And to whom exactly is it addressed? This paradox was evident in Baldwin’s 1969 interview with Dick Cavett, in which he simply could not bring himself to denounce the Black Panthers and, instead, lamented the depravity of the white imagination. Even Cavett, highly sympathetic to the cause of racial justice, noticed that Baldwin was overstating his case for rhetorical purposes.

Baldwin’s shift was not an isolated event and should be placed in a larger context. In the 1960s, American society finally addressed its long history of racism, put an end to institutional segregation, and sought to make reparations through the War on Poverty effort. This opened a moral and cultural chasm that had to be filled with something that could shield both blacks and whites from historical stigma. It has become its own kind of historical trap. When an entire cultural ecosystem of moral meaning and identity develops in a nation in response to certain features of its past, there likewise develops an underlying and unconscious attachment to those features and that past. Thus, the overwhelming and undeniable evidence that racism has drastically declined is experienced, not as good news, but as a threat to what Baldwin would call our “system of reality.” To challenge this orthodoxy is to find yourself up against power itself. Put differently, the overemphasis on race in American life, culture, and politics is actually a continuation of and a complement to America’s legacy of racism rather than a departure from it.

Baldwin’s tone shift, notwithstanding his awesome achievements as one of America’s best authors and essayists, offers a parable of what can go wrong when artists go into activism.

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In the essay “James Baldwin, Protest Fiction, and the Blues Tradition” from the 1970 book The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy, the novelist and critic Albert Murray sheds some light on Baldwin’s early promise and subsequent dilemmas. To Murray, Baldwin’s problem was there from the beginning by virtue of his assumption that a group’s external oppression alone is what defines its identity and culture. Murray zeros in on a line from Baldwin’s essay “Many Thousands Gone” which asserts that “a tradition expresses, after all, nothing more than the long and painful experience of a people; it comes out of the battle waged to maintain their integrity or, to put it more simply, out of their struggle to survive.” [Murray’s emphasis.]

But a tradition also expresses the adjustments made and the freedom found within those constraints that give meaning and universality to a culture and connect it to the larger society in which it exists. Murray’s own metaphorical device was that of the blues, the function of which is transcendence. The structure of the blues juxtaposes tragedy and comedy so that one can be cheerful in the face of suffering and go beyond it by naming it. It’s an embrace of life, not a rejection of society. “It should be clear that what US Negro musicians express represents far more than the fact that American black folks been buked and been scorned and nobody know de trouble dey seen,” Murray writes. “As for the blues, they affirm not only US Negro life in all of its arbitrary complexities and not only life in America in all of its infinite confusions, they affirm life and humanity itself in the very process of confronting failures and existentialistic absurdities. The spirit of the blues moves in the opposite directions from ashes and sackcloth, self-pity, self-hatred, and suicide. As a matter of fact the dirtiest, meanest, most low-down blues are not only not depressing, they function as an instantaneous aphrodisiac!”

For all of Baldwin’s searing criticism of protest literature and the corresponding need for a sensibility capable of articulating the black American tradition, Murray contends, he “has never written in terms of any of the sustaining actualities of that tradition in any of his stories. Instead, he has relied more and more on the abstract categories of social research and less and less on the poetic insights of the creative artist.” Although Murray accepts the basic premise of Baldwin’s argument against the writings of Richard Wright and Harriet Beecher Stowe, he finds that Baldwin’s role is virtually indistinguishable from theirs and “with some of the same exasperating confusion. For in spite of what he once declared about the near paranoiac novels of oppression actually reinforcing the conditions they decry, he himself has found it expedient in his work to degrade US Negro life to the level of sub-human in the very process of pleading Negro’s humanity—something he once said one only had to accept!”

All of which gets to the heart of the tension between art and politics, descriptive humanism and prescriptive moralism, and the contortions involved in trying to stitch them together. Activism, of course, has its place, and there is no shortage of rhetorical essays that make a persuasive case in ways both true and artful. But a writer who primarily engages their craft in a political issue violates a certain psychological solitude and inner silence that is the source of the artist’s power and allows them to do their work. It is immensely difficult—probably impossible—to get to the core of individual human life when one is held to represent a group as a political unit.

Why is that? Because “the truly serious novelist,” Murray observes, “has what almost amounts to an ambivalence toward the human predicament. Alarming as such ambivalence may seem, it is really fundamental to his open-minded search for the essential truth of human experience. There is first of all the serious novelist’s complex awareness of the burdensome but sobering fact that there is some goodness in bad people however bad they are, and some badness or at least some flaw or weakness in good people however dear. In fact, sometimes the artist comes pretty close to being politically suspect; because on the one hand he is always proclaiming his love for mankind and on the other always giving the devil his due!”

This ambivalence is crushed by the moral absolutism of political ideologies which paint the world and other people in broad strokes of black and white. For, in a novel, when you blame “all the bad things that happen to your characters on racial bigotry, you imply that people are primarily concerned with only certain political and social absolutes … And you imply that there are people who possess these political and social absolutes, and that these people are on better terms with the world as such and are consequently better people. In other words, no matter how noble your mission, when you oversimplify the reasons why a poor or an oppressed man lies, cheats, steals, betrays, hates, murders, or becomes an alcoholic or addict, you imply that well-to-do, rich, and powerful people don’t do these things. But they do.”

There’s a deeper problem with the idea that a group’s identity develops exclusively from its oppression and that its claim to power derives from the idea of itself as a collection of victims. This carries implications for whether one’s form of protest actually works or not. A major theme in Murray’s work, and that of his longtime friend Ralph Ellison, is that of antagonistic cooperation: The idea that tragic and difficult circumstances are the necessary preconditions for heroic action. Simply put, we need challenges in order to face and overcome them and develop ourselves as human beings. This is the stuff of which great stories and traditions are made. Adversity, suffering, and misfortune necessarily call for resilience, improvisation, and emotional dexterity, or what Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” Antagonistic cooperation is essentially a position which appreciates the darkness in light, the joy amid suffering, and the eternal within a single moment. It’s about being a little excited by the prospect of hardship because of the latent potential it provides for becoming better than we presently are.

The notion that suffering is required in order to become ourselves and express our deepest potential, however, runs up against the technological immediacy of modern culture and the treadmill effect of modern activism. In his 1973 book, The Hero and the Blues, Murray writes:

American protest fiction of the current Marx/Freud variety is essentially anti-adventure and, in effect, nonheroic. It is predicated upon the assumptions which have more to do with philanthropy than with the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation. It concerns itself not with the ironies and ambiguities of self-improvement and self-extension, not with the evaluation of the individual as protagonist, but rather with representing a world of victims whose survival and betterment depend not upon self-determination but upon a change of heart in their antagonists, who thereupon will cease being villains and become patrons of social welfare!

The effect is to place the onus of responsibility for change in the hands of the very people and society that has been assumed to be evil and oppressive. Moreover, the (false) assumption that all of human suffering is a product of social victimization necessarily turns the question of “What can we do?” into “Who can we blame?” Pointing the finger becomes a source of power in itself, and it’s no longer necessary that conditions actually improve for a certain kind of victim-identified activist to feel that power. What George Orwell once wrote of war can be applied to modern activism: It is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. And, I would add, no matter the cost.

“Why is it,” Murray asks, “that so few moral outcry protest agitators seem to realize or even to suspect that all political establishments are always likely to have built-in devices to counteract the guilt and bad conscience which the exercise of power of its very nature entails?” This by no means diminishes the need for reform nor excuses the excesses of power. But protest for protest’s sake without a definable purpose—the pursuit of conditions under which such protest would cease to be necessary—is nothing but a symbolic gesture, albeit one that can produce deleterious real world consequences. It feels good to its participants, but, in a stroke of tragic irony, does the most harm to the very people it’s intended to help by permanently plastering them to their suffering without instilling the internal and external resources necessary to overcome it.

“Nobody was probably ever more obscenely naive and self-defeating than certain ever so wrathful moral outcry militants who do not realize which of their accusations and threats are effective and which are simply indulged, and who don’t even seem to understand that indulgence is all they are going to get for their efforts.” Murray contrasts this attitude with the literary dynamics of antagonistic cooperation. “Not only does such a writer regard anti-black racism, for instance, as an American-born dragon which should be destroyed, but he also regards it as something which, no matter how devastatingly sinister, can and will be destroyed because its very existence generates both the necessity and the possibility of heroic deliverance.”

Murray measures Baldwin’s approach against that of his friend Ralph Ellison, who, like Baldwin, was also mentored for a period by Richard Wright. Ellison was a former trumpet player from Oklahoma City living in Harlem when he met Wright, and it was Wright who first commissioned Ellison to write a book review for a magazine that sparked his interest in criticism. Years later, Ellison wrote a rather complimentary review (despite their own differences) of Wright’s autobiography Black Boy entitled “Richard Wright’s Blues.” Ellison saw the book as an extension of the blues tradition: “And like the blues sung by such an artist as Bessie Smith, its lyrical prose provokes the paradoxical, almost surreal image of a black boy singing lustily as he probes his own grievous wound.” Wright could only respond with, “Man, you went much further than the book. Much further.” To which Ellison replied, “Well, what you wrote made it possible for me to say what I said about it. All I was trying to do was play a few riffs on your tune. I just hope I did it justice.”

Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man was the actualization of the blues tradition in American culture, cast in a universalizing humanist light with which anyone of any culture could easily identify. Like Ellison’s young protagonist who travels from the south to Harlem and comes to discover himself as an individual with moral agency after being run underground by various forms of racism, everyone knows what it’s like to feel invisible. Ellison took that feeling and made a blues piece out of it. “Baldwin and Wright missed out on the literary possibilities suggested by the blues tradition,” writes Murray, “Ralph Ellison has not.” And contrary to the idea that great literature without an explicit message has no political or social impact, the book made a major contribution to the civil rights movement just by articulating the inner world of one particular individual in a particular place and time who just happened to be black.

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In 1963, a literary dust-up occurred between Ellison and the critic Irving Howe. In an essay entitled “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Howe marshals a defense of Richard Wright’s protest writing against the critiques and divergent attitudes of the younger writers like Baldwin and Ellison. In the case of black Americans, Howe contends, it’s impossible to draw a line between sociology and literature because “the sociology of his existence formed a constant pressure on his literary work … with a pain and ferocity that nothing could remove.” Howe asks, “What, then, was the experience of a man with a black skin, what could it be in this country? How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest, be it harsh or mild, political or private, released or buried?” He went on to take note, approvingly, of Baldwin’s transition into activism. Howe saw Baldwin’s attacks on Wright’s work as a way of working out his own internal conflicts. Similarly, Howe offered a critique of Ellison’s Invisible Man as a celebratory post-war novel that assumes far more black freedom than actually existed in America—particularly in its epilogue where the invisible man identifies his life in the United States as one of “infinite possibilities” while living in a hole underground. In sum, members of politically and historically marginalized groups don’t have the luxury of disconnecting art from activism.

Ellison fired back a devastating two-part essay entitled “The World and the Jug” (later published in his 1966 book of essays Shadow and Act), his best work of nonfiction and one of the finest polemics ever written on the subject. Its title derives from a metaphor which can really apply to any form of oppression, political or otherwise: “Howe seems to see segregation as an opaque steel jug with the Negroes inside waiting for some black messiah to come along and blow the cork … But if we are in a jug it is transparent, not opaque, and one is allowed not only to see outside but to read what is going on out there; to make identifications as to values and human quality.” Ellison takes Howe to task for consigning the diverse range of black American experience to a singular and beleaguered condition of victimhood and oppression beyond the possibility of transcendence and without human autonomy. “Why is it,” Ellison wonders, “that sociology-oriented critics seem to rate literature so far below ideology and politics that they would rather kill a novel than modify their presumptions concerning a given reality it seeks in its own terms to project?”

Rejecting the social determinism which portrays human beings as mere outputs of their sociopolitical inputs, Ellison identified the situation of blacks in America as the “product of the interaction between his racial predicament, his individual will, and the broader American cultural freedom in which he finds his ambiguous existence.” Foretelling the coming era in which authenticity would be equated with victimization, Ellison writes, “Howe feels that unrelieved suffering is the only ‘real’ Negro experience,” but there is another, lesser known “American Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain. It is a tradition that abhors as obscene any trading on one’s anguish for gain or sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done.” Regarding the conflict between Baldwin and Wright, Ellison submits that he had no reason to go after Wright because he was quite impressed with what he had achieved. “It was Baldwin who found Wright a lion in his path. Being older and familiar with quite different lions in quite different paths, I simply stepped around him.” In response to Howe’s take on the limitations of Invisible Man, Ellison has this to say:

I agree with Howe that protest is an element of all art, though it does not necessarily take the form of speaking for a political or social program. It might appear in a novel as a technical assault against the styles which have gone before, or as protest against the human condition. If Invisible Man is “apparently” free from “the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negros in this country,” it is because I tried to the best of my ability to transform these elements into art. My goal was not to escape, or hold back, but to work through; to transcend, as the blues transcend the painful conditions with which they deal … If there is anything “miraculous” about the book it is a result of hard work undertaken in the belief that the work of art is important in itself, that it is a social action in itself.

Ellison goes on to describe how he fears the social order imposed by the likes of Howe that erases the role of the black individual more than he fears the overt racial segregation of Mississippi. Responding to Howe’s question of how black writers can achieve personal realization apart from the common effort of his people to win their full freedom, Ellison inquires, “In what way shall a Negro writer achieve personal realization after his people shall have won their freedom? The answer appears to be the same in both instances: He will have to go it alone! … For the writer’s real way of sharing the experience of his group is to convert its mutual suffering into lasting value.” He ends the piece by citing the essay as “one small though necessary action in the Negro struggle for freedom,” and “an act of, shall we say, antagonistic cooperation.”

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Samuel Kronen

Samuel Kronen is a chronically ill writer living in Upstate New York.