James Baldwin: Notes on the House of Bondage

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[By Goyland Williams]

In November of 1980, James Baldwin’s essay “Notes on the House of Bondage” appeared in The Nation at a moment not unlike our current political landscape. Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were inadequate at best, and bankrupt at worst. According to Baldwin, A vote for Jimmy Carter was not an endorsement but  a cold calculated risk, “a means of buying time” (1). Indeed one must always contend with time and space.

When he raised the question, “Who you going to vote for Uncle Jimmy,” it was loaded with as much anger as it was rhetorical. Baldwin didn’t have to consult Nina Simone to know that anger–born out of intelligence, has a way of moving things. 

A glance at the American political and social scene illuminates the sense of hypocrisy, mendacity, and outright criminal activity by which our politicians have operated. James Baldwin prefigured this moment. He knew–without an iota of doubt–that when one is dealing with corporate thugs and pimps, the vote has little to no power. Time, and a lot of hope is the cure. Speaking to that point, Baldwin reasoned:

My vote will probably not get me a job or a home or help me through school or prevent another Vietnam or a third World War, but it may keep me here long enough for me to see, and use, the turning of the tide–for the tide has got to turn (3).
   
At a moment when the paraphernalia of power and chaos remain intact and highly visible, Jerry W. Ward, Jr. knew that it would be hard to be a patriot in America. Still, Baldwin cautioned against holding one’s peace–knowing that silence is deadly.