James Baldwin and Social Justice

Sunday, July 31, 2022
First Aired: 
Sunday, February 11, 2018

What Is It

Sometimes, we struggle to tell the truth—especially when it's the truth about ourselves. Why did James Baldwin, a prominent Civil Rights-era intellectual and novelist, believe that telling the truth about ourselves is not only difficult but can also be dangerous? How can truth deeply unsettle our assumptions about ourselves and our relations to others? And why did Baldwin think that this abstract concept of truth could play a concrete role in social justice? The Philosophers seek their own truth with Christopher Freeburg from the University of Illinois, author of Counterlife: Slavery after Resistance and Social Death.

Listening Notes

Debra and Ken open the show with a discussion of James Baldwin’s call for love as a solution to racial injustice. Debra is skeptical of this since it would require that the oppressed love their oppressor. Ken responds in terms of Baldwin’s notion of white innocence – the illusion of the oppressor being in the right – and further argues that love does not let white people off the hook but instead transforms their oppressive worldview. 

The hosts are joined by guest Christopher Freeburg, Conrad Humanities Scholar and professor of English at the University of Illinois. On the topic of Baldwin’s call for love, Christopher argues that blacks and whites love each other as a form of mutual recognition of each other’s humanity. For Baldwin, white oppressors are caught in the trap of history: a false sense of reality that black people are inferior and a feeling of disconnection from black people which can only be disentangled by love. White people ultimately have to confront the moral reality of why they maintain oppression, which puts the onus on both whites and blacks to love one another. 

In the final segment of the show, Debra, Ken, and Christopher discuss what Baldwin would think of today’s social justice movements. Christopher describes the current Black Lives Matter movement and its commitment to recognizing vulnerability as a movement that Baldwin would support. Debra wonders how institutional change may result from this movement, and Christopher reiterates that acts of love are necessary for society to reconstitute itself post-oppression by changing institutions through the people who live under them. This introspective project, in which human beings have to confront themselves in the face of history, may usher a change of the heart which is prior to changing the world. 

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:20): Holly J. McDede provides a report on the resurgence of Baldwin’s work in popular culture. Notably, the documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) brought Baldwin’s literary and philosophic work back to the spotlight. Moreover, Holly interviews a variety of contemporary writers and academics who are applying Baldwin’s work to current social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter Movement.

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 44:40): Ian Shoales discusses Baldwin’s life and life project, describing it as not only one committed to civil rights but also committed to reinvigorating the United States’ soul and heart. 




Ken Taylor
Coming up on Philosophy Talk...

James Baldwin
The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.

Ken Taylor
James Baldwin and Social Justice

Comments (2)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, August 3, 2020 -- 10:25 PM

I watched this with my wife

I watched this with my wife last night... 'I am not your Negro'.

There is something in the air. Would that something still be there without Baldwin. I think not so clearly. Would that I could be so sharp as James Baldwin.

So good to hear this show again. Or was it the first time... i didn't remember this one. Ken's understanding of Baldwin's love is deep. It helps me come to terms.

Daniel's picture


Thursday, July 21, 2022 -- 10:32 AM

Although this comment was

Although this comment was posted two years ago, it expresses the author's sincere commitment to a shared understanding which promises to be much longer lasting. Because this particular show is now scheduled for rebroadcast, the opportunity is afforded to address this participant directly about what has expressly been of help at that time: the coming to the terms. Do you remember which terms these were? Some suggestions to which I would like to come are "oppression", a static state of structural coercion, "repression", a dynamic process by which creative self-assertion of the oppressed is reactively opposed in an over-compensatory manner, and "rebellion", an acute collective action amongst the oppressed consistently met with attempts to repress. Are these three terms ones to which one can come? Their wide application to elements of U.S. history and culture make them richly rewarding for those whom they uniquely concern, providing our thoughtful proximity is sufficient.

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