Identity on the Periphery

About a year after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Dick Gregory met with an audience in London to talk about race in America [1]. In response to a question concerning the role of white liberals in the black power movement, Gregory explained that “white” was a a state of mind, something which people could embody regardless of the color of their skin.

Almost a decade earlier in an Esquire article, Baldwin had already clarified this mostly American definition of whiteness when he discussed Norman Mailer’s work as a writer. [2]

"Man," said a Negro musician to me once, talking about Norman [Mailer], “the only trouble with that cat is that he’s white.” This does not mean exactly what it says — or, rather, it does mean exactly what it says, and not what it might be taken to mean — and it is a very shrewd observation. What my friend meant was that to become a Negro man, let alone a Negro artist, one had to make oneself up as one went along. This had to be done in the not-at-all-metaphorical teeth of the world’s determination to destroy you. The world had prepared no place for you, and if the world had its way, no place would ever exist.

Now, this is true for everyone, but, in the case of a Negro, this truth is absolutely naked: if he deludes himself about it, he will die. This is not the way this truth presents itself to white men, who believe the world is theirs and who, albeit unconsciously, expect the world to help them in the achievement of their identity.

But the world does not do this — for anyone; the world is not interested in anyone’s identity. And, therefore the anguish which can overtake a white man comes in the middle of his life, when he must make the almost inconceivable effort to divest himself of everything he has ever expected or believed, when he must take himself apart and put himself together again, walking out of the world into limbo, or into what certainly looks like limbo. - “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” (1961) [2]

Baldwin’s words concern scripts and choices and the ability to live a life where the latter is seemingly determined by the former. The fact that we do not choose to what family and in what location or at what time we are born is something rarely ever discussed concerning the human condition. This may be because we assume and reflect our ambient identities so immediately after birth, that it becomes inconceivable to contemplate a world where we are not who our birth in a certain place and certain time ostensibly mandated us to become. Change those circumstances, and you not merely change a life, but you erase it completely and replace it with one whose uncertainty makes it so opaque as to be unimaginable.

But to what sex, sexual orientation, social class, race, and a plethora of other factors you are born is also not of your choosing, a fact which assumes tragic undertones once you recognize the quality of your life can change drastically according to which specific categories of these qualities you fall into.

A potential consequence of such categorization is that you begin to walk around the world with a general abrasiveness, a sense of being tied up together more tensely than you know you should be. It comes from meeting so many people who take it as a fundamental assumption that they are in some unarticulated and conveniently nonspecific way “better than you”, not because they really know you or even because they really know themselves but because for all their life they have been receiving messages, both explicit and implicit, that they reside higher than you in some invisible caste system.

But the tragedy of these experiences exist not only in how other people treat and see one, but in how this external perspective is often internalized during adolescence and can there after be directed, unconsciously or not, at all so called marginalized people, even when we see such people in our own mirror.

And so it is the self-loathing this external perspective creates that is so fatally toxic to the individual. And it is this self-loathing which demands, if life is to be lived in any sane way, a different perspective on oneself, namely a perspective which is not appropriated wholesale from one’s surrounding culture. Finding no tenable model for the self in one’s environment, and finding that all available models are cancerous, one is forced to create oneself without the standard recourse of emulation.

This is what Baldwin means when he states that “to become a Negro man… one had to make oneself up as one went along.” When your culture supplies you with a narrative of self which conflicts with everything one needs in a narrative of self — namely self-respect and agency — one is forced to abandon the provided narrative and to find some other standard by which to live a life. [3]

All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to dig down into yourself and re-create yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact — this may sound very strange — you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you and not with its idea of you. — James Baldwin, Studs Terkel interview (1961)

But even more interesting, Baldwin’s discussion of Mailer suggests that one must make similar decisions regardless of the stories one is told about his or her identity.

When Du Bois spoke of double consciousness [4], he presented it as though it was an exclusive experience of black people, but it is really much more general. It comes from recognizing your internal and experientially gained understanding of the world is not merely different from but wider than the understanding other people have of your life; that while you may see yourself as an individual others often see you as a caricature. And this dissonance is problematic because any sort of effective communication between two people requires that each person, for a time, engage with the world that the other person believes exists. So if you are trying to establish some relationship with a person and that person sees you in a way diametrically opposed to the way you see yourself, however you react, you are inevitably forced to engage in a sort of mental gymnastics. You can subdue the identity you recognized and cultivated for most of your life in order to create a short-lived communion by momentarily accepting the identity foisted upon you. Or you superficially contend with their version of you while trying your best to explain to them that it is incorrect or certainly is more reflective of them than of you.

Or of course you can disengage entirely, leaving neither you nor them changed, but strangely leaving both of you quite bitter for it.

The modern story is that white heterosexual males do not have to suffer such double consciousness, but this does not seem to be true. Each of those categorizations — white, heterosexual, male — is also connected to caricatures that are only unambiguous within very specific narratives and are not inevitable facets of a life and thus thereby create in the associated groups a cognitive dissonance similar to that experienced by everyone else who is not white, heterosexual, or male.

Hence the subtlety in Baldwin’s quote is that this need to recreate yourself exists as surely for the privileged as it does for the typically marginalized. Because the thing that must be escaped is not the tone of the narrative, but the narrative itself, the idea that there is a story which can be pasted onto large swaths of people regardless of their individual histories. Surely, it is more difficult for white men to recognize this need, for the narrative which is readily supplied to them — a narrative which frames them as leaders in history, business, and all respectable fields of creativity — is something so palatable and so self-aggrandizing as to not seem to necessitate escape.

This was perhaps the challenge Baldwin believed Mailer faced. Art is fundamentally an alchemical process. It consists of a person transforming the pain, disorder, and struggle of his or her life into something beautiful. Not everyone can affect such a transformation, and thus we respect it even more so when it is done well. And so artists, if they choose to speak, must try their best to speak authentically, but this is impossible to do if you have spent your life living within a script, no matter how positive, that cannot be questioned because it cannot be seen.

Thus there is a great irony all of this. We all need to find the many things which define us apart from our environment and apart from the stories and stereotypes other people use to understand us. These things that we find for ourselves are what we we say constitute a personal identity. And strangely it appears that the conditions of marginalized people, conditions which make their lives more difficult by any reasonable measure, are the very conditions that make the need to create a personal identity so evident that it is perhaps easier for them to make an authentic choice of self than it is for the privileged.

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[1] “ ‘Baldwin’s Nigger’ (James Baldwin and Dick Gregory)” YouTube, uploaded by Malcom X Network, 25 August 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryuAW_gnjYQ.

[2] Baldwin, James. “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.” Nobody knows my name. Vintage, 2013.

[3] Baldwin, James, Fred L. Standley, and Louis H. Pratt. “An Interview with James Baldwin.” Conversations with James Baldwin. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1989.

[4] Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press, 2008.

This work was first published in the Dudley Literary Review in 2017


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