“People can cry much more easily than they can change, a rule of psychology people like me picked up as kids on the street.” –James Baldwin
On Tuesday afternoon, I told my roommate that no matter the outcome, I would be crying in a few hours. By the time Ohio turned blue, I knew I wouldn’t be, but the fact that tears are now the shared symptom of such radically different emotional experiences in America demands a return to Baldwin.
We would be remiss in dismissing the quotation as flat cynicism; Jimmy is, after all, the great poet of transformation through emotion. Like Obama, his commitment to complicated truths does not start him stammering, but rather deepens his voice. It has been one of the many wonderments of this campaign that the tried-and-true Republican accusation of “flip-flopping” never gained any traction with Obama — and not because he did not change his mind, most notoriously with regards to public campaign financing. But Barry has never been an apologist for change of any kind, and the fact that he has embraced change as an avenue to Change demonstrates a sophistication and force of vision as unassailable as ambivalence. This quality is perhaps more remarkable in Obama than in Baldwin, considering the differing demands we place, as a society, on our politicians and our artists.
Irish novelist Colm Tóibín wrote an essay in October’s New York Review of Books on what Obama and Baldwin have in common. Tóibín describes Baldwin as “more bitter and more sectarian,” but this is only because Baldwin could afford a wider range of language and tone than Obama can or should employ at the public lectern. In addition to being “more bitter and more sectarian,” Jimmy was also more ecstatic in his expressions of community. It is within this wider discourse that we must read the words that open this column. What does crying — in guilt, grief, or joy — have to do with change — of heart or world?
Baldwin wrote those words on the subject of so-called white guilt, a condition whose prevalence I doubt. His contribution to the subject is to say that even if white guilt is real, even if tears are shed in its name, it is rarely a motivating or progressive force, because it mires the self in “the world as one has always known it.” Jimmy claims to have learned the lesson that he now extends to white people among poor black people, “people like me … on the street.” The tears shed there were likely not tears of guilt but of rage. In both cases, crying seems to represent a turn inwards, away from the cause of feeling.
But tears shed in joy have a different quality, one usually accompanied by hand-holding rather than head-holding. It is in crying for joy that we sense the complication of our human machinery. Baffled by the behavior of our bodies, we suddenly understand the opportunity inherent in being deprived of our conventional modes of expression, modes which are necessarily determined by the ego, by our accustomed identities. And since, according to Jimmy, “any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety,” there might be productivity in pain if we recognize and cultivate its affinity with extreme joy.
We fail to change not because we cry easily, but because we too easily dismiss our tears and think of them as a sign of weakness rather than a source of strength. Or rather, we think of the demolition of identity as the demolition of our dignity as people, but this might not be so. I am not making an argument for the end of identity politics; paradoxically, the loss of identity as a white person might well mean the loss of the white privilege of never thinking about one’s own race, but only the races of others.
I am, however, making an argument for embracing the erasure of ego we might feel on these historic days, whether the feeling takes the form of emptiness or fullness. To “surrender,” as Baldwin encourages us to do, “a dream we have long cherished or a privilege we have long possessed” will set us free “for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”
Carina del Valle Schorske is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.