You know nothing of all the “We’s” that will attend you at your birth. They will have their way with each and every “ I” you coax into being.
The time: fall 1961.
The place: A progressive, largely white public school.
We, the students of Audrey Borth’s sophomore English class, are being ardently well educated, studying great and good British and American writers, being readied for initiation into an adult We of critics, scholars, and uncommon common readers. This year we will read essays—comely yet challenging essays—by E. M. Forster, George Orwell, and James Baldwin.
A smaller We, Baldwin and I, have privileged relations. We are both Negroes; we are both intellectual; he is a serious, famous artist; I long to be seriously artistic and famous. I am at an advantage in this class, as I was not when we read Mark Twain as freshmen.
My mother stocked our library with classics. I read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in childhood, moved listlessly on to Kidnapped and Treasure Island, then left them, unfinished, to an older sister who proclaimed herself the hero of every adventure and doubled as the smarter villains, too.
I was a jealous little she-reader; I resented pouring myself into the lives of hero-boys.
I did my duty in the classroom, for I was a good student. But Huck was not of my ilk. Cheeky, scene-stealing, Southern white-trash antebellum boy. And what was to be done with Nigger Jim, that man-by-stealth slave, discharging his duties as boy-playmate? He was an object lesson in slavery’s wrongs. How could he be an imaginative companion for me, daughter of We, the Negro elite, who never stopped asking aggrieved rhetorical questions like “Why is it always the Nigger Jims who show up in Mark Twain’s fiction? Why couldn’t he base a character on Warner Thornton McGuinn, one of the first Negro graduates of Yale Law School?” Twain actually met McGuinn and was so impressed he offered him financial aid the same year he published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
We are not what They want to see in their books and movies. Our We is too much like Theirs.
But now, here we are, white and black students both, reading The Negro James Baldwin. And here I am at home, upstairs by myself, reading him and preparing for class. What do my white friends think as they read, what will we say in class tomorrow, what measure of engaged detachment will I bring to our and their discussion? I pick up the book and turn to the assigned essay. Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin. “Many Thousands Gone.”
The story of the Negro in America is the story of America—or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans. It is not a very pretty story: the story of a people is never very pretty. The Negro in America, gloomily referred to as that shadow which lies athwart our national life, is far more than that. He is a series of shadows, self-created, intertwining, which now we helplessly battle.
Who is this “We”? It’s you, white readers. But what of We, his smaller band of Negro readers? His Negro in America is The Negro He that so many Negroes like me dread having plural relations with.
One may say that the Negro in America does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds.
One: a pronoun even more ad-roitly insidious than we. An I made ubiquitous. Our: say it slowly, voluptuously. Baldwin has coupled and merged us in syntactical miscegenation.
Negro readers will pause here and arrange ourselves in attitudes of easy triumph. We are throwing off that helplessly Baldwin initially placed on us. We are anything but helpless now, as he unfurls clauses, vaults across semicolons, submits ignorance to rigor and unreason to stringent passion.
Close the book. (Breathe deeply.) James Baldwin is proclaiming right of entry with every possessive pronoun, integrating America by means of grammar and syntax. No demonstrators hosed into the air and crashing onto pavements, no tear-gassed bodies coughing and twisting, no children your age dressed in exhaustively clean, pressed clothes to walk, shielded by armed guards, into schools built to deny them.
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.
The Negro Baldwin has inserted himself into your life, white reader: this “our” claims all you possess. You thought you were just reading Him—no, you are living with him and all of his relatives now, and if you flee you will find yourself resettled on a despoiled patch of psychic land, where you will live in severely reduced circumstances. You will be estranged from the only You worth having. You will have no privileges my We is bound to respect.
I can’t sit still anymore. I move from my desk to the couch in the next room, but curling up with pillows feels childish. I need to be upright and vigilant as I read. I go back to my desk.
We cannot ask: what do we really feel about him… What we really feel about him is involved with all that we feel about… ourselves.
And it’s a good thing I’m upright and at the ready. I know all too well what We think of this potent, deviant Negro: he threatens the achievements of My Negroes each time we make another dignified incursion into American life. I want to renounce that shame and contempt now, join Baldwin to construct a complex, compound Negro We.
When I reach the essay’s end, I feel adventuresome and daring. He is so proud yet vulnerable, so full of longing and righteous hauteur. He has what I want and I read on, follow as he summers in an obscure Swiss village (“this world is white no longer and it will never be white again”); scores his own “American in Paris,” orchestrating Africans, Algerians, and Frenchmen in counterpoint; makes his father a Lear on Harlem’s heath, himself the Edgar who lives to take the measure of a changed world.
Then I return to the shabby, unhallowed ground of the first essay. “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin calls it, and “Everybody” is anybody who has ever written a socially conscious book maimed by shrill outbursts and thin exhortations. The Mother of this unseemly brood is Harriet Beecher Stowe. I haven’t read the lady, and I don’t need to—everybody’s educated Negro has been sick and tired of her book since the final years of the preceding century.
I settle myself on Baldwin’s arm and we sally forth. Together we execute a gleeful double cabriole: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality…” I fumble, falter; I can see the words that follow. I straighten up, try to match his gait once more… Having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality… I stutter-step—for here comes the damning conclusion: “having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women.”
Oh no, not that. Must I throw off the Little Women of my girlhood, the Little Women of We Happy Two, my sister and me, with our petticoats and patent leather shoes, our music and dance lessons, our diaries, our parties, our unceasing instruction in manners and morals? Girls whose utterly benign father is often away from home doing good for his people: Captain March: Dr. Jefferson. Girls whose Marmee—our Mother—pours and settles herself into every space of their being.
Baldwin’s scorn is majestic. Sentimentalists like Louisa May Alcott do not truly feel, he scoffs; they play at feeling with fluttering outbursts that show just how much they fear the stuff of real life, real experience. In the end he doesn’t bother to give them their own pronoun. In the end, the only sentimentalist truly worth his scorn is the one who exposes his fear of life, his arid heart.
Silly lady novelists. Silly girl readers.
My future beckons. I can renounce all shallow girl tastes, striving ceaselessly to be a Negro Intellectual like Baldwin, as good as or better than any white He. Or I can become an exemplary Teacher and Mother, one who will pass her love of literature, Serious and Sentimental, on to the children in her care.
I close the book, go to the couch, and lie down.