Was James Baldwin a Black Confederate?
The nice folks over at SHPG often have trouble mangling quotes (or misappropriating them), but this is spectacular:
Who knew that James Baldwin, who died in 1987, had written about the Civil War sesquicentennial of 2011-15?
Adams’ and Stones’ quotation is an amalgam of two paragraphs, lifted en bloc from a 2010 essay by David Blight. The first part of the quote actually is Baldwin’s, from a 1951 essay in which he describes Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, as “the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America.” Baldwin was not referring to the Civil War at all, but about Wright’s novel, and offering a critique of the American habit of using patriotic tropes and clichés to paper over the uglier realities — social, political, racial — that underlie so much of the American experience. Note also that Baldwin’s original passage includes the key adverb “unhappily,” that makes his disapproval perfectly clear, and which Adams and Stones omit:
The feeling which prevailed at the time of [the book’s] publication was that such a novel, bitter, uncompromising, shocking, gave proof, by its very existence, of what strides might be taken in a free democracy; and its indisputable success, proof that Americans were now able to look full in the face without flinching the dreadful fact. Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.
In short, Baldwin is criticizing exactly what “heritage” groups do every day of the week.
The second part, beginning “we should decorate our battlefield heroes. . . ,” are the words of David Blight, the Yale historian who’s written extensively on the legacy of the war, and how it’s been remembered by different generations since 1865. Rounding out his essay with the Baldwin quote, he continues and calls on Americans to put aside convoluted and abstract notions about what caused the war:We should decorate our battlefield heroes, and we have been doing so for a century and a half. We can only wonder whether this time, during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we can finally face the past and probe the real causes and consequences of that conflict, or whether we will content ourselves again with unexamined moral contradictions and piquant confections in our public memory.
Adams and Stone run these two passages together, attributing the whole thing to Baldwin, then omit Blight’s closing lines, where he rejects the appeal of “piquant confections” and instead calls on Americans to embrace the candor of former Confederate General John Singleton Mosby, who wrote in 1907,Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance – Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding.
To be fair, Blight also left out that critical word “unhappily” from Baldwin’s quote, but — unlike Adams and Stone — he didn’t misunderstand or misrepresent Baldwin’s meaning.
Aside from the gross sloppiness of running Baldwin’s and Blight’s quotes together as one, the lack of comprehension about what either man is saying is just breathtaking, as if either one had any truck with the sort of nonsense Confederate Heritage™ groups have been peddling all these years. Adams and Stones either have no idea who James Baldwin was, or (at least) cynically assume their readers don’t. And that’s probably not a bad bet, if you think about it.
Of course, James Baldwin’s legacy is secure, no matter how his words get chopped and mangled to others’ ends. Among his other attributes, Baldwin had a wicked sense of irony. Somewhere, John and Gary, he’s laughing. And he’s not laughing with you.