Signifying the Human: A Failure to Face Reality

If you can see that the invention of the black condition creates the trap of white identity, you will see that what a black man knows about a white man stems, inexorably, from the white man’s description of who, and what, he takes to be the other—in this case the black cat: me.
— James Baldwin, "Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption"

James Baldwin often comes back to a critique of US Americans’ failure to confront the reality that they create and signify, coupled with a call to confront this reality as a process of redemption. This is, for example, clearly seen in his three-act tragedy, Blues for Mister Charlie (1964). The title of the play bears this out. The action centers on the death of a young black man at the hands of a white man who is then exonerated, a reality that is by all means a very contemporary one. Yet, at the end, the blues are sung for Mister Charlie—a term used to refer to the generic white man—because of his inability to confront reality.

Baldwin continues this critique and proposal in a 1979 essay on jazz, “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption,” which is what I want to focus on here. In this essay, Baldwin puts forth jazz, and more particularly the ability to understand jazz, as a possibility for redemption within a US American context. Jazz challenges the language we use to describe reality, and more particularly the human. In a fundamental sense, it challenges our process of orientation within reality. Baldwin points to the black experience of being signified, but also, crucially, the ability to see the process of signification and to understand how it reveals something about the signifier. This is part of what is expressed in jazz, and what constitutes the universal importance of jazz, even in cases when the signifier refuses to comprehend this process. I would put forward that the reluctance of mainstream US American and Western European theology to, in Baldwin’s terms, “understand jazz,” distorts its ability to comprehend the human.

Baldwin makes a plea to open or unveil history, and sees jazz, which in the United States begins on the auction block of the slave market, to at the very least present the possibility of doing this.

Now, whoever is unable to face this—the auction block; whoever cannot see that the auction block is the demolition, by Europe, of all human standards: a demolition accomplished, furthermore, at that hour of the world’s history, in the name of “civilization”; whoever pretends that the slave mother does not weep, until this hour, for her slaughtered son, that the son does not weep for his slaughtered father; or whoever pretends that the white father did not, literally, and knowing what he was doing, hang, and burn, and castrate, his black son—whoever cannot face this can never pay the price for the beat which is the key to music, and the key to life. Music is our witness, and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognizes, changes, and conquers time. Then, history becomes a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide; and time becomes a friend.

Concealing the beat of/within history prevents the redemption of US American society. Redemption, for Baldwin, comes from within, from an unveiling of the historical reality that isn't possible as long as the beat is covered over.

In his most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (a review can be found here), James Cone argues that the cross and lynching tree must interpret each other. When our understanding of the cross isn't inflected by the lynching tree, we (US American theologians) do dishonest theology. We do theology abstracted from the beat. Baldwin would agree with Cone regarding the state of mainstream theology: as long as it fails to engage reality—and Cone makes a compelling argument regarding the failure of US American christologies to engage reality when they don’t engage the reality of lynching and its extension into contemporary forms—, theology functions as a part of the concealment of reality. In this process, there is no hope of such a discourse indicating anything about redemption. A signification of the human absent the beat—and I’m in agreement with Cone that such naive signification pervades theological understandings of the person—distances theology from functioning as a redemptive praxis, or, for that matter, from saying anything about God.