At first, I think, most relatively reasonable people believed the 2016 Republican field for president was amusing, a harmless opening act to the very serious politics that would befall us when the time came.
But toward the end of February 2016 with Donald Trump winning primary after primary, and with many very serious pundits now conceding that Trump could be the Republican nominee, this harmless opening act has turned decidedly ugly.
A testament to his genius as well as a damning statement about the recalcitrant nature of the U.S., James Baldwin’s work offers disturbing commentaries on our present, especially in the context of Trump’s blatant fascism and bigotry along with the so-called mainstream Republican candidates’ coded fascism and bigotry.
Baldwin’s “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel” proves to be one such insightful work.
In this address, Baldwin admits early, “I’m certain that there is something which unites all the Americans in this room, though I can’t say what it is.” Then, he launches into speculating aloud about a hypothetical novel.
“[B]ecause I am an American writer,” he explains, “my subject and my material inevitably has to be a handful of incoherent people in an incoherent country,” setting up his explicating more carefully later “incoherent.”
This novel, he poses, would be grounded in his life, the people and places he knows, starting with his birth into the Negro [Harlem] Renaissance:
This Negro Renaissance is an elegant term which means that white people had then discovered that Negroes could act and write as well as sing and dance and this Renaissance was not destined to last very long. Very shortly there was to be a depression and the artistic Negro, or the noble savage, was to give way to the militant or the new Negro; and I want to point out something in passing which I think is worth our time to look at, which is this: that the country’s image of the Negro, which hasn’t very much to do with the Negro, has never failed to reflect with a kind of frightening accuracy the state of mind of the country.
Baldwin refutes writing a typical coming-of-age novel before delving deeper into race and Harlem itself: “Because, remember that we’re projecting a novel, and Harlem is in the course of changing all the time, very soon there won’t be any white people there, and this is also going to have some effect on the people in my story.”
Next, Baldwin comes to terms with the white world. “Now this white world which I was just encountering was,” he explains, “just the same, one of the forces that had been controlling me from the time I opened my eyes on the world”—building to his larger realization:
Anyway, in the beginning I thought that the white world was very different from the world I was moving out of and I turned out to be entirely wrong. It seemed different. It seemed safer, at least the white people seemed safer. It seemed cleaner, it seemed more polite, and, of course, it seemed much richer from the material point of view. But I didn’t meet anyone in that world who didn’t suffer from the very same affliction that all the people I had fled from suffered from and that was that they didn’t know who they were. They wanted to be something that they were not. And very shortly I didn’t know who I was, either. I could not be certain whether I was really rich or really poor, really black or really white, really male or really female, really talented or a fraud, really strong or merely stubborn. In short, I had become an American.
As relevant today as then, Baldwin answers “What does it mean to be an American?” with race, noting “[t]he fact of color has a relevance objectively and some relevance in some other way, some emotional relevance and not only for the South.”
To be American, it seems, Baldwin confronts the power of race and the paradox of being an American (which he argues joins black and white)—all of which comes to his concern with our genuine selves, the risk of being our genuine selves: “I mean that in order to have a conversation with someone you have to reveal yourself.”
Along with “the fact of race,” Baldwin argues “to try and find out what Americans mean is almost impossible because there are so many things they do not want to face.”
To be American is to live with delusion:
[I]t seems to me that the myth, the illusion, that this is a free country, for example, is disastrous….
There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it— and almost all of us have one way or another— this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.
And as we face in the U.S. during the 2016 presidential campaign the rise of a candidate more outlandish and nastier than a cult-classic film, Baldwin’s concluding comment could not be more apt: “A country is only as good— I don’t care now about the Constitution and the laws, at the moment let us leave these things aside— a country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become.”
And as Americans choose Trump, we must realize: “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”