It would inevitably be an oversimplification to attempt summarizing James Baldwin with one term. He was not merely the essayist, but a novelist as well, not only an author, but also an activist, and so forth. Yet while his contribution to the discussion of race and any other adjacent issues manifested in numerous and diverse ways, there is still no harm to focus on one part of his heritage specifically. In his Collected Essays, Baldwin reflects on racial relations between black and non-blacks, mostly in but not limited to the mid-century United States. True to his characteristic style, he combines anecdotal evidence from personal experience with broader political statements when exploring how the reality of race relations shapes individuals and their perceptions. His discussion of housing projects and the Melodeers’ Atlanta trip highlights the hypocrisy of the white do-gooders, and the story of the stolen sheet demonstrates how race shapes a black person’s perception of justice.
One of the many examples of Baldwin using anecdotal evidence in accord with a political statement is his description of the Melodeers’ trip to the South with the help of the Progressive Party. The Party promised the Melodeers, a boys quartet from New York, a tour through the Southern churches with the understanding that they will sing, and then the Party would “make speeches and circulate petitions” (Baldwin 58). Yet this initial arrangement fell into pieces as soon as the Melodeers arrived at their destination in Atlanta, beginning with living conditions being much worse than promised. Moreover, the Party officials in Atlanta perceived them as canvassers sent to distribute campaign materials, and, for most of the trip, there was very little singing but much canvassing (Baldwin 58-60). As soon as they dared to voice their protest, Mrs. Price, the Party’s highest representative in the state, inquired “who those black boys thought they were” and threatened to have them arrested (Baldwin 61). Baldwin links this short story to a larger political statement: organizations claiming to champion black rights care about black votes but not blacks’ rights, problems, or even dignity.
How Baldwin discusses Harlem’s housing projects is very similar in this respect to his coverage of the Melodeers’ experiences in Atlanta. The author offers an anecdotal example of Riverton, the first housing project in Harlem, to stress his point. According to him, locals began hating the project as soon as it had to clear their dwellings to make room for the construction (Baldwin 175). As soon as the new tenants settled in, this hate found an outlet in “smashing windows, defacing walls, urinating in the elevators, and fornicating in the playgrounds” (Baldwin 175). As in the previous example, Baldwin uses this anecdotal evidence to promote a larger political point: the specific outlook of a ghetto does not matter much as long as society confines blacks to ghettoes. The author expresses his indignation at the “liberal innocence – or cynicism” displayed when the politicians advocating housing projects interpret this behavior as ungrateful. Much as before, he combines an anecdote and a political point to display the hypocrisy of those whose supposedly progressive solutions rest on the assumption that blacks are unfit to live anywhere except for certain segregated areas.
In contrast, Baldwin’s combination of anecdotal evidence and political argument in his retelling of the sheet thievery in Paris produces a different result. While being in Paris, he uses the sheet his friend has taken from another hotel and is arrested as a result. Even though understands that the offense was a minor one, he remembers that French officers of the law frightened him as much as their American counterparts. According to him, the feeling of threat “was as present in that commissariat as it had ever been for me in any police station” (Baldwin 106). Moreover, when told that he could be guillotined due to stepping in a wrong line, he was completely aware that his cellmates were teasing him yet still unable “to disbelieve them” (Baldwin 112). Unlike the previous cases, Baldwin does not use this anecdote to demonstrate the hypocrisy of those who claim to help blacks. Rather, he explores the overall effects of a white-dominated justice system on a black person’s perception of the world. For an African American who used to witness injustice at every step, it is not entirely unlikely that even a minor offense will result in disproportionate retribution, for this is what his experiences taught him.
As one can see, Baldwin combines anecdotal evidence and broader political points in many of his essays for different effects. In his reiteration of the Melodeers’ trip to Atlanta or discussion of housing projects in Harlem, the results are quite similar. In both cases, Baldwin dissects the actions of liberal politicians claiming to have the blacks’ best interests in mind and demonstrates how they are every bit as dismissive in their attitudes as the open racists. Yet in the story of the stolen sheet in Paris, he combines these two elements for a different effect. In this case, the anecdotal evidence serves a political argument about the white-dominated justice system in general, beyond the limits of American politics and the United States.
Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. The Library of America, 1998.