Learning to Love Like James Baldwin

Nicholas Buccola is the author of The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America. He is the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Chair in Political Science at Linfield University.

In their broadsides against “Critical Race Theory” and the 1619 Project, many conservatives have been claiming that their opposition is rooted in a love of country. Perhaps this is true, but this claim leads me to wonder: what do they mean by “love” and why does their conception of love compel them to stake out the ground they currently occupy? When I think about love, I think about James Baldwin, who is one of American thought’s foremost theorists of the idea. Consider this paradox: Baldwin’s writings will be banned by a number of the anti-critical race theory laws sweeping the nation and yet, Baldwin claimed to love this country. In order to make sense of this paradox, I invite you to think with me about two fundamental questions: what did Baldwin mean by love and how is his conception of love different from the apostles of the critical race theory panic?

The road to making sense of Baldwin’s philosophy of love begins with his conception of human nature. At the core of everything, Baldwin thought, was “the question of identity” – the question of who we take ourselves to be as individuals and as members of various groups. As we grapple with the question of identity, Baldwin thought we tend to fall into the trap of deceiving ourselves. Rather than confronting who we really are, we have a tendency to delude ourselves in order to feel safe. Our primary mechanism of delusion is the idea of status. We define ourselves by way of what rungs we think we occupy in various hierarchies. This reliance on status means, at bottom, that we define ourselves in relation to other people. I make sense of who I am by figuring out where I stand vis-à-vis you.

In our quest for a sense of identity that might make us feel safe, Baldwin thought, we tend to rely on conceptions of status that imbue us with feelings of power. If I can define myself in a way that allows me to feel superior to others, I will do so. Baldwin believed this will to power was essential to making sense of any ideology of exclusion (e.g., racism, sexism, xenophobia). We rely on the creation of “the other” in order to feel more secure about the spaces we occupy in society and to justify the power we have over others.

Baldwin concluded that this reliance on status left us in a state of “social paranoia.” Even in moments when we find ourselves feeling superior to someone else, we are haunted by the sense that someone, somewhere has a status superior to ours and we recognize the fact, as Baldwin put it in 1962, that “the sands of status” are forever shifting and that at any moment we might lose our footing.

And so, most people, most of the time – and all people, some of the time – are in a state of identity crisis. We are desperate to construct and reconstruct our identities in ways that we imagine might make us feel safe and yet safety eludes us. This has dire consequences for what Baldwin called “the health of our souls” and for how we treat other people. Within the soul, social paranoia leaves us in a state of inner turmoil. On some level, we know that what we present to the world as the fortress of our identity is really a house of cards. Socially, our lives are no less disastrous. When caught in the grip of the “social panic,” we cannot help but view one another through the lens of power. When viewed through such a lens, other human beings become our mere instruments and we will discard them when they no longer seem useful.

The problem of identity crisis was at the core of Baldwin’s explanation of the American “racial nightmare.” All too often, people imagine themselves to be one racial identity or another in order to feel superior to others. This claim to superiority is often mobilized as a rationalization of some other end (e.g., economic exploitation), but Baldwin thought the delusion of race supremacy did some existential work beyond mere rationalization. Indeed, Baldwin thought there were a great many people who imagined themselves to be white whose economic lives were undermined by the doctrine of white supremacy. And yet these folks clung to the doctrine because it gave them their sense of meaning and value in the world.

In the face of this diagnosis of the human condition, Baldwin prescribed love. But Baldwin’s understanding of love was far from commonplace. In his conception, love is not sentimental, saccharine, or soft. It is tough, philosophical, and confrontational. To love oneself is to be willing to engage in ruthless self-examination in a quest to determine the delusions that dominate our lives. In what ways have we fooled ourselves into constructing identities that are ultimately false, assumed, and dishonest? If we are truthful about our answer to that question, are we willing to do the work necessary to free ourselves from these delusions?

In order to really love another human being, Baldwin believed we must first learn to love ourselves. From this foundation, we can try to make sense of what it means to love others. To love another human being, Baldwin insisted, is to be committed to their liberation from delusion. To be loved in this way is not usually a pleasant experience. Love, Baldwin explained in 1960, is “a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up” and so someone who loves us is willing to challenge us to rethink our entire sense of reality. This sort of love, though painful, is the only sort of love that honors the dignity and freedom of the beloved.

If we extend Baldwin’s conception of love to the idea of patriotism, or love of country, we can see how radically different his approach is from those folks who are in a tizzy about “critical race theory” and the 1619 project. From Baldwin’s point of view, these folks are exhibiting something far from love. They are unwilling to confront our history honestly because such a confrontation would force them to rethink their identities in ways that would be nothing short of terrifying. “Any real change,” Baldwin wrote in 1956, “implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one identity, the end of safety.” The panic over critical race theory and the 1619 Project is not, at bottom, really about this or that claim made by one writer or another. It is, more fundamentally, about our fear of coming to terms with our history. An honest examination of the history of racial injustice in this country certainly threatens to break up reality as many Americans have known it and it is precisely for that reason that true love of country requires it.

We need Baldwin’s philosophy of love now more than ever. So much of our moral and political lives are dominated by status anxiety. This wreaks havoc on our souls and leads us to treat one another with utter inhumanity. We should accept Baldwin’s call to engage in the “lover’s war” necessary for liberation from these phantoms. The lover “does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, make freedom real.” Baldwin conceded that this sort of freedom is “hard to bear,” but it is the most honorable sort of freedom there is.

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