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‘A gesture can blow up a town’

August 2, 2011

In memory of James Baldwin, August 2, 1924—December 1, 1987

 Recently I came across a rarely referenced passage* by Baldwin that encapsulates the social experience of inequality’s failures. Though it was written in 1960 (and Baldwin would elaborate on the idea in multifold ways after, including in this 1974 public salon at UC-Berkeley) its sting is all too caustic and fresh in the post-9/11 twenty-first century broadsheets of official paranoia and unofficial microdramas. Baldwin’s world and ours share a quagmire of broken recognition and the unmooring consequences of hands that never meet each other, recoiling at the thought of doing so.

Jacques Rancière sketched ‘politics’ as disagreement in his same-titled volume as that which always takes a stage and takes as its form a theater or theatrical formation. Politics is putting two worlds in one world. This staging overturns the usual or legitimate parceling out of social mores such as language or customary habit. There is no evidence of spoken words or speech-acts, to which some theorists reduce politics. Staging an imagined scene of black life in the world of white supremacy (actually inserting himself in such an imaginary scene), Baldwin’s simple act of outstretching a hand publicly (at an airport, no less) has the effect of revealing a contingency in the social terrain that threatens to ‘blow up’ the town. Like this staging of dis-identification, Glenn Ligon’s silkscreen Hands detaches hands from their bodies, letting them float in anonymous (and event-less) equivalence, de-classifying rather than identifying with their background.

It would be too futile to try to express exactly how Baldwin’s singular presence in American letters—to say nothing of the superb nature of his work itself—have spoken to me. As a man, a black man, this ‘native son’ constantly evoked the United States through the prism of an outsider, and it is that uprooted and self-exiled alien vision of a person looking in onto the stage of fellow persons that gives his work such a devastating quality. Like him I have felt myself preserving my anger and grieving over broken handshakes and hands that never met.

* Many thanks to Jason Frank, professor of Government at Cornell University, for pointing out this excerpt in his talk on Baldwin and Ligon at the Rancière Institute, Northwestern University.


I am the only Negro passenger at Tallahassee’s shambles of an airport. It is an oppressively sunny day. A black chauffeur, leading a small dog on a leash, is meeting his white employer. He is attentive to the dog, covertly very aware of me and respectful of her in a curiously watchful, waiting way. She is middle aged, beaming and powdery-faced, delighted to see both of the beings who make her life agreeable. I am sure that it has never occurred to her that either of them has the ability to judge her or would judge her harshly. She might almost, as she goes to her chauffeur, be greeting a friend. No friend could make her face brighter. If she were smiling at me that way I would expect to shake her hand. But if I should put out my hand, panic, bafflement, and horror would then overtake that face, the atmosphere would darken, and danger, even the threat of death, would immediately fill the air.

On such small signs and symbols does the Southern cabala depend, and that is why I find the South so eerie and exhausting. This system of signs and nuances covers the mines terrain of the unspoken—the forever unspeakable—and everyone in the region knows his way across the field. This knowledge that a gesture can blow up a town is what the south refers to when it speaks of its ‘folkways.’ The fact that the gesture is not made is what the South calls ‘excellent race relations.’

—James Baldwin, ‘They Can’t Turn Back,’ Mademoiselle, August 1960

(Art: Hands by Glenn Ligon, 1996.)

7 Comments leave one →
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  1. James Baldwin: “a gesture can blow up a town” | the becoming radical
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