The African-American Self-Determinationists
Thomas Sowell, Gloria Naylor, and James Baldwin
Gloria Naylor was a novelist and professor who died in 2016 on vacation in the Virgin Islands. Thomas Sowell is in his 91st year and is a retired conservative economist with Stanford’s Hoover Institute; his biography by Jason Riley, Maverick, was just released (which I have on hold at the local library). James Baldwin, for whom Thomas Sowell had no lost love, was an essayist and novelist who lived much of his life abroad in France, dying there in 1987. I am sure Naylor was, like most African-Americans, a Democrat. Sowell is likely a Republican, though he characterizes himself as a libertarian minus his thoughts on defense issues. I am not sure Baldwin would have been associated with a political party in America, but I haven’t made it through as much of his writing.
Sowell has churned out a wealth of volumes that many on the political left would characterize as a defense of the status quo; ad campaigns in the past few years have plastered billboards across Los Angeles disparaging black conservatives as Uncle Toms and race-traitors. Gloria Naylor wrote a handful of popular novels, of which I have read only one, Mama Day. Baldwin made numerous talk show appearances and speeches (many available on YouTube), and wrote both fiction, essays, and non-fiction. Despite their running the gamut of the political spectrum, there is a surprising amount of overlap amongst their convictions. African-Americans are, perhaps surprisingly to some, very religious and socially conservative, though obviously Baldwin was not, as a gay man.
In an interview with PBS in 2000, Naylor discusses the importance of one’s skin tone relative to how one gets treated in America — and she was a very dark woman. She goes so far as to say she thinks the American Dream is a mirage, that it does not exist for everyone equally. She disavowed the idea that the only way for a woman to be happy is to have blue eyes and blonde hair; she saw nothing in the culture, at least in her own time, as an alternative for little black girls to show them another path. She elaborates that she thinks, with the passage of time, that racism has become less about skin tone and more about what’s inside — that you have to discard your “blackness” to do well in America.
What Naylor did with her novel Mama Day is to suggest many of the things that folks like Thomas Sowell might also suggest; she believed in trying to achieve greatness, however that manifests for yourself. Working hard: “[W]hat I could do about my life, I’ve done well.” Self-respect regardless of what other people think, say, or do: “I was someone, and there was always something to do with me.” Being able to have your own values in the face of other values that conflict with yours: “[Y]ou’ve bought the illusion that this is where you have to live — midtown is New York, and you try to stay as close to it as possible… the young and talented confine themselves by choice.” Taking assessment of what stares you in the face for what it is without emotion: “There were only rules and facts [in life].” Making use of your capacities: “I had what I could see: my head and my two hands, and I had each day to do something with them.”
One of the biggest parallels between Thomas Sowell and Gloria Naylor is their belief in the truth. Naylor says in Mama Day, “When getting at the truth starts to hurt, it’s easier to turn away.” In another passage, her character Mama Day says, “I can tell you the truth, which you won’t believe, or I can invent a lie, which you would. Which would you rather have?” Thomas Sowell has created an entire career around a search for truth — seeking explanations for complex social problems with multi-variate causes. This winds him in the place of having an unattractive “vision” — that panaceas to social problems do not magically manifest via fiat overnight. Sowell says, “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.”
Sowell does the unthinkable in some of his works, which is to try to understand why it is that people have the overwhelming propensity to be racist, beyond being irredeemably rotten. He concludes, for many, it is fear that something bad will befall them, a burden unfairly brought upon an entire group regardless of their individual behavior. Naylor too explains her African-American main character Cocoa’s own propensity towards seeming like a bigot in New York City, where she talks in a cornucopia of colorful names for different ethnicities,
I was scared when I came to this city… Because just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on it, there’s a new next-door neighbor or the Laundromat at the corner becomes a hole in the ground and the next year it’s a high rise with even more people for you not to know. A whole kaleidoscope of people — nothing’s just black and white here like in Willow Springs [in the South]. Nothing stays put. So I guess the way I talk is my way of coming to terms with never knowing what to expect from anything or anybody. I’m not a bigot, but if I sound like one, I guess it’s because deep down I’m as frightened of change and difference as they are.
To be sure, some people who are racist are not racist out of fear (or at least not consciously); many people are racist out of hatred, which may oftentimes be misdirected hatred of one’s self. James Baldwin rightly asserts that to someone who is full of hate, you ought to feel compassion. Someone like Baldwin, who was both outside of the majority and very aware, was uniquely positioned to see life as it was. Baldwin said, “You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope”; these are certainly not the words of Ibram X. Kendi. “Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff — and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.”
Thomas Sowell asserts that people go through life on their “default settings,” never stepping back for a critical evaluation of what is actually going on, like a James Baldwin would. This can lead to impassioned activists in the streets demanding that “up” be turned “down,” when such a thing is really not possible. “Defund the Police” and “Stop Asian Hate,” at the same time! The latter goal in conflict with the former. As Dostoevsky put it, “[A] special type, everywhere alike. They are hotheaded people, yearning for justice, and, in the most naïve and honest way, convinced of its inevitable, indisputable, and above all, immediate possibility.” And while the leftist impulse is a good thing to balance out a World that is, by necessity, center-right, the Democratic Party long ago abandoned any attempt at being on the side of the Working Class or actual justice, in exchange for me-too big-business sprinkled with Culture War issues.
With a quality of life that has gotten so good relative to the unfolding of history (which was, for a great many people, quite, quite bad), political discourse turns towards who has what, something of a perfect crime for the people who have “captured” our economy. But this discourse routinely misses some of the most important lessons taught to us by some of our nation’s most intelligent thinkers.
In a 1969 television interview with Dick Cavett, James Baldwin, a student of Dostoevsky, gave an impassioned speech on what it is to live and have one’s own conception of life:
I don’t want to be given anything by you. I just want you to leave me alone so I can do it myself…
Perhaps I don’t think that this republic is the summit of human civilization
Perhaps I don’t want to become like Ronald Reagan or like the President of General Motors
Perhaps I have another sense of life which in fact my situation here has forced me to trust
And perhaps I know more about you and your institutions than you know about me
Perhaps I have a judgment on them
Perhaps I don’t want what you think I want
And there is nothing you can give me
Perhaps there is something I can give you
I cannot agree more with Baldwin’s words; he has conviction. I think a lot of people in our civilization have values which are upside down; the rub is, I think a lot of these values are an inherent part of human nature and conformity for many. The other rub is that these values lead to the economic prosperity that supports seven billion people in a level of comfort unparalleled in history. Maybe the hegemonic values of “The American Dream” don’t have to be what everyone wants. Maybe what “the rich” or “the baddies” have is not what you should want. Maybe there are ways to expand your conception of what life could be for. But if that is what you think, and you decide to trade in your nine-to-five for a bicycle, unkempt hair, and secondhand clothes for your children, you will suffer economic consequences. And, if everyone did these things, the music would stop.
Thomas Sowell acknowledges these kinds of life choices as trade-offs. But we don’t like to accept trade-offs. We want to have our cake and eat it too. People get married, have families, and then go to bachelor parties and business conferences wilding out with cocaine at the strip club, sometimes just weeks after their wife has given birth. Maybe some people work harder than they ought, go some narratives. But who gets to define ought? Who gets to define what you should do with your life. The result of what we have, all our beliefs, mores, history, is the United States of America; arguably a better place to live than many countries from whence many immigrants come. Sometimes the best results can come from things which you ostensibly do not like, whether it is from a boss you hate, “evil” and “greedy” capitalists, and even an unrepresentative oligarchy.
People have different values. And, people should have different values; we’d be an awfully boring bunch if we didn’t. The catch is that we feel entitled to whatever values we want along with equal economic outcomes. I’m not sure how anyone could reasonably think this a possible reality. This quote from a Chris Hedges book, trying to make a very different point than I am, captures this idea:
The white male hurries because of money. Do not allow that influence of the male inside your heart because they have already influenced your mind. The male-influenced world is based on money. Our world is not… The absolute gift is the warming of the heart not of the flesh.
This is (obviously) not a defense of the horrible things done to Native Americans on our collective (stolen?) soil. But, when the year 2021 and modernity are here, it is an illustration that what you think will be very highly correlated with economic outcomes. If you believe that you ought not to hurry and money doesn’t matter all that much, your economic outcome in the complex modern world is not going to be a good one. Many scholarly works have been published outlining the difference in outcomes between Protestant-based and Catholic-based cultures, not the least of which was Max Weber’s original. What people believe matters to what they do, regardless of whether or not their beliefs are true, right, wrong, or completely bonkers.
Why waste one’s breath defending elements of the status quo? Because, in many ways, the status quo isn’t bad; progress has been overwhelmingly made since the crushing days of Exodus in the Old Testament and Slavery in the American South. We ought to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater; I do not want to move into an authoritarian state and I do not want to clean toilets. But, we’ve proven that history is not over. If “Democracy” in America is to somehow find a less crushing version of reality to be had by all who live here, one needs to start from a place where they can accurately assess the facts on the ground.
Unequal economic results between groups have both internal and external causation; we should strive to do the things we can to eliminate external causation while ensuring equal protection of the law for all. There is discrimination, there is racism, there is bias, and there is injustice; some of these problems are problems without institutional recourse, lest ye implement a crushing and sclerotic authoritarian state. We do not redress past discrimination with more discrimination; then we are in a circle of perpetual discrimination and tribalism, the antithesis of our political ideal and the road to Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. We are the American family, and we owe it to one another to accept one another for what we all are and want to be. If people want to have values other than bourgeois values, they are entitled to do so; it is, indeed, a choice I myself have made.
When your expectation is that gravity can be solved for, you will be both continually let down as well as forever chasing your tail. If you realize “the rich” may not actually have what you want, that can be liberating, and you can set out about finding things that bring you joy and happiness. If it turns out that you really do want what the rich have, then you don’t reject the social order at all; you just want to be on top of it.
Someone ought to be able to determine their own path in life, and that is one of the primary tenets of liberalism; we do not have to live our lives in accordance with crushing authoritarian dictates. A great amount of despair in mainstream discourse ultimately results not from politics itself, but from the way that people are. In the words of George Carlin, “Maybe it’s not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here. Like, the public.”