An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2006

The quest for a black humanism

Gerald Lyn Early
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Gerald Early, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1997, is Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of five books, including “Tuxedo Junction” (1989), “One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture” (1995), and “This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s” (2003). He is also the editor of “The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature and Modern American Culture,” which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.

In the “Autobiographical Notes” that preface Notes of a Native Son (1955), one of the most impressive collections of essays ever compiled by an American writer and still one of the most important meditations on race of the twentieth century, James Baldwin (1924–1987) memorably described his conflicted sense of himself as an American writer of African descent:

I know, in my case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use –I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine–I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme–otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.1

What does a familiarity with the cultural monuments of the West, from the plays of Shakespeare to the Empire State Building, have to offer an American of African descent? What, if anything, does an American of African descent have to offer a cultural tradition that for centuries was exclusively defined by white men of European descent? Should Americans of African descent–and especially educators–situate themselves as Negro or black, and establish programs in Negro studies and black studies? Or are such programs a form of intellectual apartheid?

Leading African American intellectuals have long offered conflicting answers to such questions. In the early 1960s, on the eve of the explosion in black studies at elite white universities across America, the historian John Hope Franklin warned that such programs would merely reproduce a version of the segregation that civil rights activists in the South were then struggling to uproot. Three generations earlier, Booker T. Washington, who hoped to give poor blacks the skills to become upwardly mobile, had scorned the liberal arts as a waste of time, while W. E. B. Du Bois revered them as a precious tool for cultivating an African American elite who would interact with their white peers as equals and bring the unique perspective of the Negro to bear on renewing the high culture of the West.

The ongoing debate between these contrasting perspectives has produced a richly suggestive, and sometimes fiercely ambivalent, understanding of what a black humanism might look like and what contribution, if any, a distinctively black perspective might bring to the humanistic tradition–as witness James Baldwin.

As a self-avowed “bastard of the West,” James Baldwin described himself simultaneously as an outsider and an insider, a son but an illegitimate son –and he did this explicitly in relation to humanistic endeavors, to the understanding and appreciation of architecture, fine art, music, and literature. In part, the passage from Notes of a Native Son is an expression of Baldwin’s personal preoccupation as a writer. But in greater measure, Baldwin cogently summed up the cultural dilemma of black Americans.

For the most part, the development of an African American humanistic tradition has followed a trajectory that Baldwin would recognize: by trying to claim the “white centuries” of the West, it has sought not only to create a scheme in which African Americans fit, but a scheme through which blacks could define Western reality in their own terms, and with sufficient power to forge a useable past out of specifically Western traditions. The sense of estrangement that Baldwin felt, being Ishmael as a permanent cultural condition, was meant to be both exploited and acknowledged. For what was the African American’s great disadvantage in his history was also his great advantage: the fact that he was in the West but not precisely of it, a “special place” indeed.2

“The special attitude” that Africans brought to the traditions of the West, the perspective of the outsider who can also see things from within, was their greatest gift. But this gift was perversely difficult to accept. The politicized nature of their presence in the West–the insistence by Europeans and white Americans that Africans were “interlopers” or victims–made the African’s claim to the Western tradition precarious, even, at times, unpalatable, both to themselves and to others. But their politicized presence also made such a claim a civic and psychological necessity.

After all, in the United States, their own cultures had been suppressed: no indigenous African languages, political ideas, or institutions survived, only remnants of an African religious sensibility. Black Americans had been raised to be Christians, to speak English, and to uphold the dominant culture’s regnant liberal dogmas–free markets, the freedom of the individual, the need for a truly free society to have competing claims to truth without privileging one above another. This stunning transformation, all the more poignant because it was so brutally realized, is perhaps one of the most incredible stories of adaptation in human history.

So, what else did one need to become a Westerner? And why couldn’t black Americans be Westerners if they wanted to be? The West itself was a fictive concept made no more unreal by the presence of blacks. Moreover, any claim of a revitalized African heritage was contingent upon the recognition–at the point of the African’s permanent settlement in the New World–that the African was or could become a Westerner, or that he could reject the claims or the seduction of the West. For in making some sort of claim to the humanistic tradition of the West, as Baldwin suggests, the very humanity of the African was at stake.3

So, in the United States, African Americans had the same ‘opportunity’ as other Americans: to reinvent themselves. But historically they had the fewest tools with which, and the largest obstacles against which, to accomplish the feat.

And they needed not only to define themselves using the materials of the West but also to define the West in their own terms, and with such moral and political clarity that whites would be bound not only to acknowledge how blacks understood the culture of the West, but also to find it impossible to maintain their own cultural scheme independently of this black understanding of shared cultural values.

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  • 1James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 4.
  • 2In some respects, Baldwin’s autobiographical statement here is a response to Richard Wright’s famous (for some, infamous) parenthetical in his 1945 autobiography Black Boy: “Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it. And when I brooded upon the cultural barrenness of black life, I wondered if clean, positive tenderness, love, honor, loyalty, and the capacity to remember were native with man. I asked myself if these human qualities were not fostered, won, struggled, and suffered for, preserved in ritual from one generation to another.” Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 43. Baldwin steered clear of the issue of whether black people’s enforced estrangement from Western civilization was a suitable or plausible explanation for their pathologies. Baldwin generally took a more ironical view of blacks as insiders/outsiders than Wright did in Black Boy. For Baldwin, this insider/outsider perspective seemed a condition; for Wright, a tragedy. But Wright’s view was not always so stark. In White Man, Listen! (1957), he wrote, with sufficient irony, that the “Negro is America’s metaphor.” Richard Wright, White Man, Listen! (New York: Anchor Books, 1964), 72.
  • 3Of course, opposing Baldwin’s view of the expropriation of the “white centuries” was to be the view of someone like African American poet, playwright, essayist, and political activist Amiri Baraka, who in the mid-1960s totally rejected the white centuries as a legitimate expression of any humanist tradition worthy of people of African descent. This rejection–ideologically reinforced by the notion of Third Worldism or worldwide colorism, which became popular in the 1950s and 1960s–came to dominate race-related rhetoric in the late 1960s. A large component of this epoch was based on humanist criticism and the Black Arts and the Black Aesthetic movements. But Baraka, even in his days as a Beat poet, saw himself as something of a nonconformist in a way that Baldwin never did. In effect, Baraka was an Occidentalist: someone who learned to dislike the West (first, as something bourgeois, philistine, and conventional; later, as something fascist and oppressive) and then became preoccupied with wanting to oppose it actively or to destroy it.

    But as Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit’s study, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), makes clear, all anti-Westernism is Western in origin. “The West in general, and America in particular, provokes envy and resentment more among those who consume its images, and its goods, than among those who can barely imagine what the West is like.” Ibid., 15. “Far from being the dogma favored by downtrodden peasants, Occidentalism more often reflects the fears and prejudices of urban intellectuals, who feel displaced in a world of mass commerce.” Ibid., 30. Baraka was largely a disaffected cosmopolite intellectual with strong modernist yearnings. Therefore, Baraka had to be conscious, in some respects, of being a Westerner before he could rationally reject it. To be anti-Western would have had no appeal or made no sense to him had not Westernism been somewhat seductive (like the white woman, Lula, in Dutchman, his famous play and possibly best realized work).

    I make this point to emphasize the fact that there can be no quest for a non-Western, reformulated African consciousness, pure and undefiled by the West or absolutely outside the West. In part, what Baraka and other cultural nationalists and Marxists like himself were looking for in their anti-Westernism was a mode of thought that would enable black people to act heroically, to be heroic on their own behalf. Baldwin’s struggle to expropriate the white centuries did not seem heroic. What would be heroic would be the creation of a new humanist system that would challenge the West, not the assimilation of a Western system of humanist values that had historically denied that blacks were human. It is not surprising that during the heyday of Baraka and black nationalism/black radicalism, Baldwin was fiercely rejected and his homosexuality disparaged as a sign of weakness. Later, Baraka freely admitted that his cultural nationalist search for heroism in the late 1960s had regrettably bred a form of fascism. See Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka (New York: Freundlich Books, 1984), particularly the chapters entitled “The Black Arts” and “Home.” Very vigorous forms of Occidentalism among African Americans have always been susceptible to becoming fascism. For more on Baraka, see Jerry Gafio Watts, Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual (New York: New York University Press, 2001).