The Time of Whiteness: James Baldwin on How Lives Matter / Mikko Tuhkanen

James Baldwin in front of William Shakespeare, in frieze of Albert Memorial, London. Photograph: Allan Warren.  From Wikimedia Commons. 

“One of the most American of attributes,” James Baldwin tells us in 1954, is “the inability to believe that time is real” (Collected 99). He makes this enigmatic claim in the essay “A Question of Identity,” amidst a series of observations about an American student in Paris, the city he himself had expatriated to in 1948. Like Henry James before him, he suggests that it is on the foreign soil of the Old Continent that some peculiarly American traits, unremarkable and unremarked at home, are cast in sharp relief. One such aspect is the way “time” organizes, or fails to organize, his compatriots’ lives.

Baldwin proposes that, if we want to understand, much less transform, the world we live in, we must pay attention to the various ways in which time informs the lives of differently positioned subjects. He is a thinker of chronoethics, which is always also a chronopolitics. With this focus, he takes his place amidst African American writers and activists who, as Daylanne English has recently demonstrated, have drawn our attention to the role that temporality plays in the battles for citizenship and social justice. From Phillis Wheatley to Suzan-Lori Parks, these experimenters have explored the temporalities—the beats, the speeds, the rhythms, the leaps, the returns—that organize Black experience in diasporic modernity, precipitated by the conjoined birth of the modern world and the African diaspora.

Apart from distinguishing the various temporalities of Blackness, Baldwin is an acute analyst of the temporal orientations that constitute Whiteness. In “A Question of Identity,” he does not identify the student whose Paris sojourn he describes beyond gendered pronouns. Yet in the context of his oeuvre, the young man’s temporal doltishness renders it clear that his perspective is that of American Whiteness—whatever shade his skin. In his peculiar mode of living—or, more precisely, not living—in duration, he exhibits the characteristics that Baldwin consistently associates with people who have chosen Whiteness as their lot.

The student arrives in Paris intent on discovering the authentic French culture beyond what is available to the typical tourist. He is more determined in his project than most of his cohort. He stays on after his fellow adventurers, tired of being rebuffed by snooty Parisians, have packed their bags and returned home. Disillusioned and disgusted, they have concluded that the feted French culture is but “decadent, penurious, self-seeking, and false, with no trace of American spontaneity, and lacking in the least gratitude for American favors” (95). The student persists, convinced that his peers have failed to make an adequate effort to adjust to French culture. With “his admirable passion to study the customs of the country,” he lives with a French family, becomes fluent in the language, tarries in the boulevard cafés and bistros, reads “Racine, Proust, Gide, Sartre, and authors more obscure—in the original, naturally” (96-97).

Yet his attempts to synchronize with all things French are compromised by his profound misunderstanding of time. The misunderstanding issues from two root causes. First, consciously or not, he deems that his ideas of French culture and the person—himself—he sees in the mirror of Frenchness are “beyond the reach of corruption” (98). The ideals he orients himself toward are unchanging, not subject to time. They are, as it were, an unmoving target. Because of this—this is his second error—the student thinks it plausible that he can swiftly transform himself into a Frenchman. In this, he is the stereotypical American with his belief that with hard work an individual can be what he wants to be, that no barriers save an inadequate persistence or a failure to believe in oneself can prevent self-reinventions. Yet the student’s efforts do not grant him the grace of Frenchness; however assiduously executed, his studies have not metamorphosed him into a Parisian. According to Baldwin, one does not become French by an act of will nor “by virtue of a Paris address” (99). It is this confusion—the conviction that a new identity could be swiftly learned—that illustrates the American “attribute” of missing time’s “realness.”

Linked in the essay, “corruption” and “transformation” are keywords in Baldwin’s description of the zealous student. With these, Baldwin silently alludes to the worldview that, as he repeatedly indicates, modernity has inherited from Saint Paul. The Apostle is his frequent sparring partner; throughout his work, he proposes that the grounding error of modern life is its organization according to Pauline onto-ethics. The American student sees himself moving in a world and toward ideals that persist “beyond the reach of corruption.” Whenever Baldwin uses the term “corruption,” he evokes the fleshliness from which Saint Paul tells the Corinthians they will be delivered at the moment of the Second Coming: in the “twinkling of an eye,” the faithful will “put on incorruption,” ascend to the timeless realm of eternal life (1 Cor. 15.50-54). In this schema, “corruption” names the force of time, all living beings’ disintegration in duration. Represented in the student, American Whiteness deems itself, and the world in which it operates, innocent of such processes.

According to Baldwin, White Americanness is characterized by a belief in the availability of the kinds of instantaneous, blink-of-an-eye transformations Paul prophesizes to the Corinthians. The birth of modern American identity in the nineteenth century constituted one such miraculous transformation. As one scholar—Baldwin’s contemporary—suggests, what emerged after 1812 in the work of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and others was an “American Adam”: “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race” (Lewis 5). The American appeared on the scene without history, in the glory of the innocence whose illusion later writers—Henry James and Baldwin primary among them—would seek to deconstruct. The student in Paris is Baldwin’s figure for the newborn American with a belief in his capacity for painless self-reinventions, for becoming, by the force of his will, a new person, untethered from material histories. He claims the freedom of choice: to become a Frenchman, to be innocent of collective histories.

If incorruptibility is an escape from Pauline flesh, Baldwin further implies that this flesh is always already—constitutively—racialized in modernity. In his belief that he can detach himself from the flesh that history has variously stamped, the student embraces a delusion typical to White Americans. Blackness, on the other hand, is marked by the weighty materiality of worldly life that the Apostle demanded we “mortify.” Baldwin writes in 1968: “There is a sense in which it can be said that my black flesh is the flesh that St. Paul wanted to have mortified” (Collected 754). The flesh, susceptible to corruption—susceptible to time—is always Black flesh. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949), his early essay on Harriet Beecher Stowe and Richard Wright, Baldwin suggests that the figure of Uncle Tom can enter the national scene as an object of empathy, rather than one of mortal terror and aggression, because his being has undergone the Pauline operation of disenfleshment. Stowe could make the Black man a saintly hero only by “bury[ing], as St. Paul demanded, ‘the carnal man, the man of the flesh.’ Tom, therefore, her only black man, has been robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex” (Collected 14). The Black man can become a figure of identification only through—the reference is again to Saint Paul—“the incessant mortification of the flesh” (14).

For Baldwin, Stowe sees Uncle Tom as part of “a wretched, huddled mass” (Collected 14). As the phrase from “The New Colossus,” the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, suggests, Blackness in the liberal imagination occupies the place of an immigrant waiting at the gates for an opportunity to disencumber himself from his burden of flesh. Forty years after “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin again quotes Saint Paul, in a context that clarifies the onto-political ramifications of Pauline legacies in the diasporically modern United States. Commenting on European immigrants’ practice of Anglicizing their names, he writes in “The Price of the Ticket” (1985): “with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American” (Collected 841). Baldwin again borrows the phrase “the twinkling of an eye” from Paul’s description, in the First Corinthians, of the anabasis that believers will undergo at the Second Coming: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15.52). With a swift elimination of antecedents, European immigrants assimilate into the world of American Whiteness, a world that, as the reference to Paul suggests, offers the promise of infinitude and incorruptibility. Walking out of Ellis Island, the newly-minted Americans can divest themselves of their cumbersome particularity—their enfleshment, subject to time’s corruptive forces—and assume the abstract universality of Whiteness. Becoming White in the blink of an eye, the immigrants receive the opportunities that have been denied Black diasporic beings for centuries.

Unlike European immigrants’ assimilable otherness, Blackness cannot be sufficiently “mortified”: the process remains endless. When Baldwin speaks of “mortification,” he refers not only to the spectacular violence of lynching but also what theorists of subsequent decades would call “insidious trauma,” the seeming triviality of everyday wounding. “I am mortified,” we say as the body betrays our shame at less than lethal encounters with judgment, with what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “amused contempt and pity” reflected in the world’s eyes (11). Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas experiences such mortification when, entering the White space of the Dalton home, he cannot help but feel his “skin tingle” under the White gaze (60), as does Toni Morrison’s Pecola, who, unable to redeem herself from “relentlessly and aggressively ugly” Blackness (38), splits her mind instead.

For Baldwin, “incorruptibility” is characteristic of what the modern world calls “Whiteness.” It is here that time is not real, here where history does not drag on my ability to execute the swift self-reinventions that are the birthright of Americans from pop stars to presidents. Here, “beyond the reach of corruption,” American Whiteness, recapitulating its instantaneous birth in the nineteenth century, can transform itself into a new being, disengaged from all material histories. The student in “A Question of Identity” offers one example; another is embodied in the American tourists described by the narrator of Giovanni’s Room (1956). Watching his compatriots crowding the American Express office in—again—Paris, David observes the men who appear “incapable of age”:

they smelled of soap, which seemed indeed to be their preservative against the dangers and exigencies of any more intimate odor; the boy he had been shone, somehow, unsoiled, untouched, unchanged, through the eyes of the man of sixty, booking passage, with his smiling wife, to Rome. His wife might have been his mother, forcing more oatmeal down his throat, and Rome might have been the movie she had promised to allow him to see. (Early 293)

The well-scrubbed men, spoon-fed oatmeal by their motherly wives, are products of what Philip Wylie, in Generation of Vipers (1942), had called a culture of “momism,” of domineering mothers who emasculated their husbands and sons. Wylie’s description, in his surprise best-seller, was followed by the likes of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., David Riesman, and Norman Mailer, who lamented the dissipation of masculinity in the feminized bureaucracy of postwar United States. Baldwin inflects such descriptions of troubled manhood—the famous “crisis of masculinity” in Cold War America—through the temporal perspective: emasculation is the price the men pay for their eternal “boyishness,” their flesh untouched by experience. Theirs is what Kristin Ross would call a “redemptive hygiene”: soap saves them from duration, the dimension in which experience happens. The men are “preserved” in and by their purity, kept unchanged and unsoiled by “soap.” No “intimate odor,” no embarrassing reminder of their lowly embodiment, betrays their presence.

The women at the American Express office are similarly arrested in time: “the most ferociously accomplished seemed to be involved in some ice cold or sun-dried travesty of sex, and even the grandmothers seemed to have had no traffic with the flesh” (292). “Ice cold or sun-dried”? We freeze and dry foodstuff to prevent corruption, arresting time’s transformative work on matter. Like preserved food, the women are suspended in time, redeemed from the flesh that Saint Paul condemns. They dwell in the frigid air of Pauline incorruptibility, the realm, according to Baldwin, of American Whiteness. In The Fire Next Time (1963), he comments on the peculiar spectacle of White Americans’ attempts at performing the blues: he speaks of “the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices” (Collected 311). The chill in the White blues singer’s voice betrays the nation’s translation of the Pauline injunction to overcome enfleshed life in the high altitudes where time ceases to eat away at one’s flesh. Here time is not real: it does not bear down on the American with the materiality under whose weight all of us will inevitably disintegrate.

The tourists at the American Express office carefully avoid being touched by time for two reasons. First, theirs is the fear—and hence, the denial—of finitude that is often said to mark American culture. Americans don’t know how to die. As William Barrett wrote in a book that introduced European Existentialism to American audiences in 1958, the likes of Heidegger and Sartre are unlikely to gain a wide audience on this side of the ocean because of American culture’s resistance to acknowledging the death-orientation that is the grounding assumption of Existentialism (Barrett 10-11). Yet Baldwin, like many other African American commentators, often echoed such Existentialist insights. He writes in 1964: “If you can live in the full knowledge that you are going to die, that you are not going to live forever, that if you live with the reality of death, you can live” (Cross 65). Particularly in his early work, Baldwin similarly contrasts the United States with Europe in ways that explain why the former is barren soil for philosophies of finitude: one continues to be informed by the idealism that made Enlightenment thinkers evoke human “perfectibility,” while the other recognizes our dissipation under the corruptive weight of the flesh; one is marked by a willful naïveté about life’s complexity, while the other, particularly after the first decades of the twentieth century, melancholically acknowledges the inevitably of one’s defeat in the grip of an impossible calculus. In this schema, the two approximate the realms of which Saint Paul speaks in his first letter to the Corinthians: those of divine incorruptibility and thisworldly corruption.

 American culture’s refusal of enfleshedness has to do with the terrors of finitude but also—and inextricably—with the steep price attached to the history of diasporic modernity. Were Americans to yield to duration—were they to thaw their flesh—they would enter history. At this moment, they would be presented with a bill for the past for which they are now responsible. Americans refuse to come to terms with or—to use a word Baldwin shares with a number of other African American commentators—atone for their past. American culture is unfriendly soil for any philosophy but pragmatism because of the country’s refusal to look backward, to deal with its history. This history cannot be acknowledged because—as Leo Proudhammer, the narrator of Baldwin’s 1968 novel, puts it—the attendant price is too high: “the bill could now never be tallied, and so had become irrelevant” (Tell Me 249)

To say that White Americans do not “believe that time is real” is to say, as Baldwin does in The Fire Next Time, that “white Americans do not believe in death” (339). Trapped in their frozen or sun-dried flesh, Americans will live forever: theirs is the time of incorruptibility prophesized by the Apostle. “Who knows where the time goes?” Baldwin offers an answer to the question that Nina Simone, channeling Sandy Denny, asked. If Whiteness is an escape from corruption, duration is outsourced onto what Baldwin calls Black flesh. From his earliest texts onward, Baldwin suggests not only that modernity is constitutively bound to the Pauline imaginary of incorruptible lives, but also that Blackness names the enfleshedness that is subject to time—that is the subject of time. For Baldwin, then, all flesh is Black flesh in diasporic modernity. There is no other.

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The transformations that time brings and Whiteness refuses are often figured by Baldwin in scenes of pubertal changes. Early on in Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), we witness the protagonist’s awakening, on his fourteenth birthday, to a realization of his sinfulness as he recalls having masturbated to a memory of older boys’ pissing contest. He wonders if his body’s plunge into a desiring depravity—“a transformation of which he would never dare to speak”—has excluded him from another “transformation,” that of the Rapture, precisely the moment of which the Apostle speaks to the Corinthians, the ascent in which “the saved had been transformed in the twinkling of an eye, and had risen to meet Jesus in the clouds” (Early 16). A short story in which Baldwin experiments with some of the characters who will populate his debut novel, “The Outing” describes a church trip during which the congregation’s youth experience the first indications of puberty in the form of dysmenorrheal agony (Early 782) and variously oriented lustfulness, transformations symbolized in the decorative butterfly pin that is given as a birthday gift to one of the girls.

“Down at the Cross,” the second and longer part of The Fire Next Time, similarly opens with a recollection of pubertal turmoil. Baldwin recalls the “prolonged religious crisis” that he underwent at fourteen (the age at which John Grimes of Go Tell It on the Mountain awakens to his). This crisis was precipitated by a shift in his perception as, entering puberty, the scenes of street life (“the whores and the pimps and the racketeers on the Avenue”) begin to solicit him in visceral ways (Collected 296). His contemporaries seemed all of a sudden to be undergoing an “incredible metamorphosis”:

My friends began to drink and smoke, and embarked—at first avid, then groaning—on their sexual careers. Girls, only slightly older than I was, who sang in the choir or taught Sunday school, the children of holy parents, underwent, before my eyes, their incredible metamorphosis, of which the most bewildering aspect was not their budding breasts or their rounding behinds but something deeper and more subtle, in their eyes, their heat, their odor, and the inflection of their voices. Like the strangers on the Avenue, they became, in the twinkling of an eye [emphasis added], unutterably different and fantastically present. (297)

In another essay, a quarter century later, Baldwin revisits the scene of his teenage years, describing adolescence as a strange shift in the frequencies in which the subject calls out and responds to his others: “With adolescence, th[e] body becomes . . . , for the first time, appallingly visible,” he writes in “To Crush a Serpent” (1987). “You begin to hear it. And it begins to sprout odors, like airy invisible mushrooms. But this is not the worst. Other people see it and hear it and smell it. You can scarcely guess what they see and hear and smell—can guess it dimly, only from the way they appear to respond to you” (Cross 159). Again, the adolescent withdraws into the church to muffle the force of his body: Baldwin recalls his determination to obtain sanctity in his chosen role as a child preacher. Yet the effort to escape corruption proved insufficient: “Salvation did not make time stand still or arrest the changes occurring in my body and my mind” (160).

To “make time stand still”: Baldwin’s description of his adolescent efforts to evade the complexities of adulthood—to silence the call that solicits him to his body—provides an allegory for modernity’s ethical failings. While with his phrase “incredible metamorphosis” he in The Fire Next Time pokes a little fun at his adolescent self’s overblown (and maybe a little campy) terror, it at the same time names the highest decree of his onto-ethics: the demand for transformation. Baldwin is a thinker of the transformations that happen in duration, in the realm of what he calls, alluding to Pauline ethics, corruption.

The “corruption” that doesn’t touch the world of the American student in “A Question of Identity”—the corruption that would render him vulnerable to “reality,” “experience,” and “change” (Collected 98)—indexes what Baldwin finds Saint Paul warning the Corinthians against. In the debut novel, the queer boy fears that, because of the “transformation” whose name he dare not speak, he has missed “the twinkling of an eye” in which the faithful will have left their vile flesh behind. The Pauline phrase occurs in the scene of sexual awakening in The Fire Next Time, too. Here, however, it indicates not an ascent into incorruptibility but, on the contrary, the adolescent body’s plunge into carnal desire. In Baldwin’s recollection of his adolescent terror, the “twinkling of an eye” marks a descent into flesh and sex, “an incredible metamorphosis,” that drives the frightened narrator into the church, with the hope that this seclusion, as the later essay puts it, will “make time stand still.” This is the frozen timelessness David witnesses in the tourists in Paris: their effort at suspending time that for Baldwin is characteristic of American culture. To embrace Whiteness is to deny the duration that weighs on us with the materiality in which we irrevocably unravel, in a slow movement of death-bound transformation.

Vivaldo Moore, the struggling writer of Another Country (1962), realizes the urgency of jumpstarting his stalled novel and his amorphous relationship with Ida Scott: “Order. Order,” he hears a commandment. “Set thine house in order” (Early 636). As he often does, Baldwin articulates the call for urgent decisions by citing Isaiah’s decree to the dying Hezekiah. The full commandment goes: “Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live” (Isa. 38.1). Isaiah’s words call attention to the urgency that we, as finite beings, have in achieving our destinies in the time allotted to us. As Todd May writes in his meditation on the role of finitude in human experience: “The fact that we die is what makes what we do and who we do it with matter. . . . Without death, little seems to matter (70, 71). More recently, Martin Hägglund has advocated the reorientation of our ethics toward what he calls “secular faith,” an ethics of worldly care organized around the fact of our death-orientation. “Our finitude is not a chain from which we need to be released by an eternal Savior,” he writes, “but the condition of possibility for our freedom and our care for one another” (350); this is because “only someone who is finite can engage the question of what is worth doing with her time and grasp her own life as being at stake in how she leads her life” (325). In this frame, we come to realize that “everything valuable—everything that matters—depends on finite life” (8).

Baldwin proposes that Whiteness, as it operates in the modern world, is lived in the nontemporal realm of incorruptibility. It is the experience of “unmattering.” This is the unexpected outcome of the White-supremacist history as it has been inflected through Pauline onto-ethics: White lives don’t matter. What Baldwin calls Whiteness is a refusal of flesh, the matter of life. It is a condition of incorruption, of avoiding the visceral transformations that Baldwin often allegorizes with pubertal scenes. This condition is meant to enable its bearer to avoid having to settle the bill, to pay the price of the ticket. Instead, like that of the American student in Paris, White lives are endowed with the ability for seamless self-transformations, the kinds of reinventions promised by the national ideology. By the same token, however, such incorruptible lives are infected by a sense of strange deadness, the malaise that many of Baldwin’s White characters symptomize in their inarticulate suffering. “‘Nothing ever happens to me,’” laments Sue, adrift in Paris, in Giovanni’s Room (Early 298). “‘But I want something real to happen to me,’” pronounces the frustrated Vivaldo Moore, striving to understand the exact nature of his discontent (Early 477).

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Yet it may be possible to jumpstart the frozen timekeepers. Baldwin suggests this as he repeats his gnomic formula about the irreality of American life in another essay some six years after “A Question of Identity.” As he travels to the South on commission for the magazine Mademoiselle to write about the civil rights demonstrations that have erupted across the region, different students catch his attention. Observing the youthful fervor of the students at Florida A&M University, a historically Black college in Tallahassee, he affectionately comments: “Everyone laughs at himself once he has come through this storm” (Collected 628-29). As is the case in his gentle self-mockery when, in The Fire Next Time, he recalls his own adolescent terror at the “incredible metamorphosis” his peers seem to be undergoing, the chuckle is not a dismissal. In an essay published a year before the piece in Mademoiselle, Baldwin, describing the violent convulsions that the country is undergoing, had written that the U.S. is “in the middle of an immense metamorphosis which will, it is devoutly to be hoped, rob us of our myths and give us our history, which will destroy our attitudes and give us back our personalities” (Cross 6). What The Fire Next Time calls the “incredible metamorphosis” of adolescent awakenings allegorizes the “immense metamorphosis” seemingly underway in postwar United States. The same “storm” rages in Florida: “this chaos,” as Baldwin writes in “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist” (1959), “contains life—and a great transforming energy” (Cross 6).

The student protests evoke bemusement in the White folks of Tallahassee, Florida: these “keep wondering what has ‘got into’ the students. What has ‘got into’ them,” declares Baldwin, “is their history in this country” (637). This is the “history” that the student in Paris does not think will inhibit his seamless transformation into a new being. His is the frozen slumber—“beyond the reach of corruption”—from which the Black students in Florida seek to awaken their White neighbors. “These students,” Baldwin concludes the piece, “prove unmistakably what most people in this country have yet to discover: that time is real” (637).

Then as now, such activism calls on the nation to realize history’s fleshly weight. The protesters hope to corrupt White Floridians’ imagined but historically legible innocence, enfleshing them in the world. Speaking of her brother, dead by suicide, Ida Scott tells Cass Silenski in Another Country: “‘there’s no way in the world for you to know what Rufus went through, not in this world, not as long as you’re white’” (Early 680-81). “Not in this world”: Whiteness is not lived here, in corruption, in history. Yet Ida suggests that Whiteness may not be a permanent condition. It can be unlearned. As Baldwin puts it elsewhere, echoing Malcolm X, “to be white is a moral choice.” The people who call themselves White “must get back in touch with reality. They can’t avoid it, if they want to live” (“James Baldwin Writing and Talking” 36).

If Whiteness has historically been, as Baldwin insists, a condition of incorruptibility, it is possible to make this otherwise, to execute—not without danger—a katabatic movement into duration and flesh: into history, and then be presented a bill for the journey. It is only in this finitude that decisions (which is to say, politics) are possible: we must set our houses in order, for we shall die and not live.

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———-. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Ed. Randall Kenan. New York: Pantheon, 2010. Print.

———-. Early Novels and Stories. New York: Library of America, 1998. Print.

———-. “James Baldwin Writing and Talking.” By Mel Watkins. New York Times Book Review 13 Sept. 1979: 3, 36-37. Print.

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