James Baldwin’s Unstable “We”

It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear. As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics; it is revealed in Negro speech and in that of the white majority and in their different frames of reference. The ways in which the Negro has affected the American psychology are betrayed in our popular culture and in our morality; in our estrangement from him is the depth of our estrangement from ourselves. We cannot ask: what do we really feel about him – such a question merely opens the gates on chaos. What we really feel about him is involved with all that we feel about everything, about everyone, about ourselves.

Notes of a Native Son, 25.

This first paragraph of Many Thousands Gone, ostensibly a critique of Richard Wright’s Native Son but in reality a cogent cultural critique on race in America, encapsulates the unstable status of “we” in Baldwin’s essay. The word fails to delimit an in and out group in that it seems to have a referent of everyone and no one in particular at the same time. If the reader takes it to refer to Americans, this interpretation is troubled by Baldwin’s use of “their” to refer to Americans in the first sentence and the “we” in the third sentence which seems to include or exclusively refer to black Americans who are “oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence.” “Our” in the fourth sentence returns us to a stable referent of “Americans” only to be undercut by the fifth and sixth sentences which seem to use “we” and “our” to refer exclusively to white Americans which strains the reader’s mind when that “we” is coming from Baldwin’s pen.

The status of “we” as a word with no distinct meaning parallels the status of “the Negro” that Baldwin lays out in his essay as a sociological concept, as opposed to an individual. That is to say, there is no living breathing referent for the word “we” in his essay. Except there is – Baldwin and his audience. 

Bigger Thomas, Baldwin argues, is no more than a caricature of race – an idea of a black man who has absorbed white America’s notions of a black man, not a man in and of himself. He is no less a stereotype than Aunt Jemimah or Uncle Tom. Baldwin, by using “we” the way he does in the essay accomplishes almost the opposite – he becomes a reflection and embodiment of what white America could say about race itself were it willing to confront its own racist and racialized thinking. In so doing, Baldwin highlights the way in which black Americans, including him, know whites better than we know ourselves: “It is not Bigger who we fear…. It is the others, who smile, who go to church, who give no cause for complaint, whom we sometimes consider with amusement, with pity, even with affection – and in whose faces we sometimes surprise the merest arrogant hint of hatred, the faintest, withdrawn, speculative shadow of contempt – who make us uneasy; whom we cajole, threaten, flatter, fear; who to us remain unknown, though we are not (we feel with both relief and hostility and with bottomless confusion) unknown to them. ” Notes of a Native Son, 37.

Baldwin is both one with and apart from the group he insinuates with his use of “we.” Being a black Amerian, he cannot divorce himself from his racialized status, and yet, reading “we” with him, a white American, both in his time and still today, can see himself reflected almost more truly than were Baldwin white. It is a kind of reverse minstrelsy that Baldwin achieves; reversed both in form and content. Baldwin speaks truth to power and includes himself in the class of people who exercise that power. He lays the culpability for disappearing the individual black American at the feet of both white and black Americans. We, together, are responsible for unmucking this mess called race in America, and we, together, must take the lead in doing so.

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