Race and the Good Liberal

Photo by Rudy Shepherd/START Gallery, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

The black man is perfect, cried James Baldwin. Surely he knew the pitch of his prose. Those like me—the middlebrow intellectual, proud reader of Black thought—tone his pitch down in our heads. We pardon him because of his desire to get across to the Black masses. But what if, instead, we took Baldwin’s lead in rethinking what is an acceptable tone for intellectual discourse? In this essay, I take on the Black canon to look for roots of an alternative intellectual genealogy of radicalism, one different than the Marxian ones in which I have been immersed after years reading European (mostly dead) men.

The Black man is perfect, says Baldwin. The snobbish intellectual in me squirms: how defensive that sounds! How abject to declare in no uncertain terms one’s own perfection! Why must he rant so? Why must he wear his heart on his sleeve? Why can’t he put it all gently like a gentleman intellectual? Why can’t he cite his influences respectfully, with some distance? Why must he gush about Elijah Muhammad so?

Baldwin writes to his nephew, James:

But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocent which constitutes the crime. . . . The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

In another essay entitled “Letter from a Region in my Mind,” Baldwin shines like a diamond, sharpening his intellectual and poetic swords. He recounts at length his encounter with religion. The power of the written word rises its beautiful, Sphinx-like head from the ashes of a youth filled with trouble. The church offered him solace, a place of joy and comfort. He admits:

There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord.

But then, turning around:

I was forced, reluctantly, to realize that the Bible itself had been written by men. . . . Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty—necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels. It is this pendulous quality that makes Baldwin’s prose arresting.

It reveals him as a most agile thinker, one who is vigorously absorbing the world at all times and letting his mind respond to varied influences. His confusion is, perhaps, the life-force. When he comes into contact with Elijah Muhammad from the Nation of Islam, he writes:

I was frightened, because I had, in effect, been summoned into a royal presence. I was frightened for another reason, too. I knew the tension in me between love and power, between pain and rage, and the curious . . .

Baldwin could not share in Muhammad’s single-mindedness about hating the people and ideas of the white world. His conservatism bothered Baldwin. Baldwin didn’t wish to win by hating. To that extent, fundamentalist thought was unpalatable for him. He was equally influenced by the company of Malcolm X. He let friendship and camaraderie wash over ideological difference. The world and its violence are deeply, deeply personal. So, Baldwin concluded, one can’t afford to be alienated from others based on their choice of method or their response to such violence.

I watch Baldwin’s prose rather than read it. I watch it unfold in a terrible fire with a brilliant luminosity, as it breaks down the borders of rational prose and irrational poetry into prickly debris. I rummage in this debris. I am a product of the pedagogy of Western thought and method. I think of the world through theoretical tools provided by dead men who watched the world burn at a distance somewhat like my own. Even the postcolonials. No one in my existing canon has approached the world with as much desperation and helplessness and anger and pathos and compassion as Baldwin.

Let me take a step back here to ponder the big daddy of Black theory and politics (and not W. E. B. Du Bois): Frantz Fanon. One’s intellectual initiation into postcolonial thought often begins as a student spouting Fanon. Fanon is daunting. His tone is not as lilting as Baldwin’s and his provocation is more broad and direct, writing as he is around the same time. A psychiatrist by training, Fanon travels to Europe (like Baldwin) in intellectual and personal desperation. He travels across North Africa in the years to follow. From the Caribbean, his call is for a pan-African identity. Note that Baldwin rarely talks about the real Africa but, rather, the African American condition. Fanon is most concerned with decolonization. Baldwin, not so much. Their tones are disparate, and yet their rhythms share something in common. Consider Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, famously prefaced by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre (1963, 21) calls out the farce of left-liberalism in Fanon’s text, writing:

The “liberals” are stupefied; they admit that we were not polite enough to the natives, that it would have been wiser and fairer to allow them certain rights in so far as this was possible; they ask nothing better than to admit them in batches and without sponsors to that very exclusive club, our species; and now this barbarous, mad outburst doesn’t spare them any more than the bad settlers. The Left at home is embarrassed; they know the true situation of the natives, the merciless oppression they are submitted to; they do not condemn their revolt, knowing full well that we have done everything to provoke it. But, all the same they think to themselves, there are limits; these guerrillas should be bent on showing that they are chivalrous; that would be the best way of showing they are men. Sometimes the left scolds them . . . “You’re going too far; we won’t support you any more.” The natives don’t give a damn about their support; for all the good it does them they might as well stuff it up their backsides.

Having grown up in a postcolonial city—Kolkata—that took its left politics very seriously, I see Sartre’s mockery of the French Left a bit obliquely. Many political designs in the non-West cast new shadows on the pillars of Western thought. Class was adopted as a final critique of imperialism in many native revolutions, and yet class is not quite race. The Left imaginary was taken and toyed with creatively in the non-West to generate new, albeit violent blueprints of resistance (see, for example, Banerjee 1980). These projects had diverse intuitions about left politics that ushered new inclusions and solidarities.

Fanon describes native towns as places of horror and abjection, and structural and spatial control as a modality of racialization. Yet I have witnessed huge, unregulated urban sprawl, where lives and politics were fought tooth and nail in the shanty or the jhuggi-jhopdi. Enough is said about poverty, freedom and aspiration in contemporary India (e.g., Boo 2012) and about subaltern urbanism (Roy 2011), more generally. But are these issues stand-ins for the race question? Is the repair of economic disarray the answer? After all, Charles Dickens’s England is well populated by poor, foul-mouthed drunkard Englishmen who live in crowded settlements by the industrial outlets, not so dissimilar from the envious, bleary-eyed men of the native town who Fanon describes living “on top of the other.” So the class question is and is not the race question.

Fanon shows the slippery slope of power insofar as the native elite can very quickly move into the shoes of the colonizer. In Fanon’s mind, this is what would happen to newly formed nation-states in Africa prior to the real revolution. Yet, for Sartre, the whites are like this and the natives are like that. It seems to be carved in stone. Fanon’s argument, to my mind, is far more supple. He shows the nature of modern power in bold terms. It is not enough to fight wars and dominate populations as empires have done for thousands of years; Fanon shows us how a complex apparatus for keeping the native or Black person obedient and compliant with the terms of his own oppression is put in place and sustained over time.

The question of liberalism and its role in empire is on our minds these days. Race and the colonial laboratory of oppression was liberalism’s necessary secret: those whom were not yet ready for liberalism and, therefore, must be governed like brutes. Fanon is very conscious that the native elite will participate in this process, knowing and declaring their race to be inferior to the race of the colonizer. It is instructive, here, to ponder Fanon’s disillusionment with liberal democracy. Fanon doesn’t see the wiping clean of the colonial slate in a set of institutions anchored in a fantasy installed by the colonizer himself.

Resistance, for Fanon, must and will come from below. It will be brutal, disorganized, energetic, and therapeutic. It will reject the teachings and pacifications of the native elite who walk about as the new colonizers. Fanon was keenly attuned to the fact that skin was but one version of a system of oppression that was historically contingent. Of course, many other tactics and strategies kept the skin question alive in the colonies. It would be diluted only as and when it suited the purposes of power.

This is a most astute commentary on the question of race, which is naively talked about in contemporary India in terms of an aversion of dark skin (noting, especially, incidents of African students being attacked by residents of east Delhi). Yet skin is but one idiom of race. Hypersexuality, dangerous virility, lack of reason and discipline, lack of values and aesthetics: all of these are combined in the process of Othering. The Other is selectively beautified, fetishized, hated, killed, memorialized, but never accorded full political status. Different registers of discriminatory reason are invented to fit the racialized perspective at different points in history. I repeat, skin is but one of them.

I think of today’s India, while sitting in Toronto. It is easy to earn cosmopolitan brownie points by yielding this or that concession to the Other. The good citizens love dark skin. The good citizens welcome refugees. The good citizens have intercaste marriages. The good citizens know about cuisines, cultures, languages, and paradigms of the Other. Yet Othering doesn’t stop there. I return to Fanon (though, as a writer, I am far more taken with Baldwin) in recognizing the race question as a sovereignty question. The rise of new sovereigns displaces previous ones, existing ones. The sovereign is wily enough to pacify dissenters by granting concessions now and then, posing as benevolent. He does this to quell any potential upwellings of new sovereignty.

Liberalism controls our imagination, even more than capitalism (if capitalism were the whole story, then authoritarian capitalist states would not be demonized and ridiculed the way they are in liberal discourse). It is through the figure of the humane, benevolent sovereign that I see race in North America and in India. Blackness is a complex parable of discrimination, narrated through the animality, hypersexuality, and unreasonableness of certain citizens who must be made examples of. The voices of Black Lives Matter and Idle No More echo on social media and on the streets. Yet I find myself turning into Fanon’s native elite who is perpetually saying “yes, but . . .” Perhaps it is time for me and others like me to raise our pitch and try to further the philosophical, no less than political, risks that Baldwin and Fanon resolved to take.


Banerjee, Sumanata. 1980. In the Wake of Naxalbari: A history of the Naxalite Movement in India. Calcutta: Subarnarekha Press.

Boo, Katherine. 2012. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum. New York: Random House.

Roy, Ananya. 2011. “Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35, no. 2: 223–38.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1963. Preface to The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press. Originally published in 1961.