James Baldwin’s Understanding of Sex, Self-Knowledge and Power Demand Attention Now

JoAnn Wypijewski in AlterNet:

JamesBaldwinThese are ripe times to read Baldwin. Not just the essays on racist policing; those are, in a way, too easy. “A Report From Occupied Territory,” which appeared in The Nation, burns hot a half-century after it was published. That its depiction of black vulnerability and police volatility could describe the contemporary scene; that its central metaphor of occupation is not too hyperbolic to have been echoed by Eric Holder last year, nor its concern with personal disintegration too dated to anticipate Ismaaiyl Brinsley; that even its particulars (“If one is carried back and forth from the precinct to the hospital long enough, one is likely to confess anything”) feel gruesomely fresh in light of known CIA torture regimens—all of these, enraging as they are, only confirm what we already tell ourselves in weaker words.

The police are brutal, the government is brutal, the populace is aroused (taking to the streets) or accommodating (switching from CNN to Homeland to football), brutalized or brutal too. America, cauldron of damaged life.

Baldwin wrote “Report” in 1966, about Harlem, not Staten Island; during the war in Vietnam, not the “global war on terror”; amid the dim promises of the Great Society and a Top 40 soundtrack playing “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” We may study that past, track today’s news and shout the louder, but that is not why Baldwin is the most important American writer of the twentieth century, or why we should read him now.

More here.