James Baldwin and the Unhistoric Life of Race

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In his essays, James Baldwin emphasizes that white supremacy is a historical trap, which legally and socially debases both whites and blacks. Baldwin claims, however, that if whites recognize it, they can release themselves. In reconsidering Baldwin as a spokesperson of the 1960s civil rights era, it is important to focus on the concept of being trapped in history, which for Baldwin is not just about transforming laws but making manifest a "change of heart" for whites. Being historically "trapped" is the locus for what prevents the social transformation necessary to create just and equal social relations and citizenship in the United States. This essay evaluates Baldwin as a civil rights actor by examining his prescriptions of social change that involve civil rights law and necessary changes in whites' moral consciousness, as well as the post segregation vision that Baldwin suggests can occur once whites move beyond being "trapped in history." To this point, whites escaping from the trap of history, in the legal and moral sense, is the end of whiteness. The final question this essay considers is, what does escaping the trap of history for whites do to black collective racial politics created to combat white abuses?

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)221-239
Number of pages19
JournalSouth Atlantic Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2013
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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