James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era by Joseph Vogel

James Baldwin and the 1980s: Withnessing the Reagan Era by Joseph VogelSummary: Baldwin continued to grow and think keeping into the 1980s. 

As someone born in the early 1970s, I am aware of the 1980s, I lived the 1980s, but I have not studied well the 1980s. James Baldwin and the 1980s was helpful, not just in better understanding James Baldwin, but helping me think about the 1980s as history.

Baldwin has become the historic voice of the Black Lives Matters moment. The new documentary I am Not Your Negro and the rise of Ta’Nehisi Coates means that book on Baldwin will get attention that they may not have previously. James Baldwin is mostly known for his earlier work. But he continued to write and teach and create into the 1980s.

James Baldwin and the 1980s has five main chapters, each mostly focused on exploring one of the works that Baldwin created in the 1980s.

The most interesting part for me was the cultural/religious history of the 1980s in the 4th chapter. As someone that identifies as Christian and has been through seminary and reads about theology for fun, I am not sure that I agree with all of the assertions about the Religious Right and James Baldwin. But the important, and interesting part, is that this was written at all. I think that part of what is interesting to me is that the religious right got a significant amount of Christianity wrong. And I think that James Baldwin misunderstood Christianity, in a similar way, as many in the religious right.

His critique of televangelists and the moral majority I think has sway, not because it is wrong, but because it is at least partially right theologically. But I also think it is wrong in significant ways. As a Christian, I agree that the implicit racism of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority was contrary to Christ’s teachings. But I also think the his misunderstands part of the church’s teaching. Confining sex to marriage and monogamous relationships is not denying the body as the book, and Baldwin asserts, but a part of what it means to hold sexuality as sacred.

Baldwin was right to point out hypocrisy and right to point out how Black bodies in particular were viewed as problematic in ways that White bodies were not. But Christianity is for the body, just not for unfiltered access to all desires. Not all desires are good desires. Some desires should be repressed.Some desires are just wrong. My desires, especially if they are harmful to another are not good, but distorted. Your desires, if they are not primarily about empowering others, are likewise distorted.

The strength of James Baldwin and the 1980s is the broad cultural history and the particular exploration of Baldwin’s work during the 1980s. I do not think that Vogel or Baldwin got everything right. But it is important that they both identified hypocrisy, desire for power and money and the lack of concern for neighbors and the marginalized as particularly weaknesses of the White Evangelical world.

I was once a sociology and social work student. While I have not ever made the 1980s a particularly focus of my historical research, part of my schooling in both undergrad and graduate school was tracing the history of social work and sociology research. Both had a common narrative in the 1990s when I was an undergrad and then graduate student, ‘many things were wrong about government policy prior to the 1980s. But once Reagan came along, what was going well was stopped and what was wrong was increased.’ That is a too simplistic story. But not entirely wrong.

The cultural history discussion of the Reagan era, the return to masculinity exemplified by Reagan and the era, while a separate current of androgyny among culture makers (Boy George, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, etc) was also strengthening as just as important as the later discussion of the religious right. Again, I am not sure that the history is exactly correct. But the push back against the common narrative is important. Baldwin as an openly gay, Black man staring in the 1950s was countercultural to start with. The rise of the era of AIDS, which is handled very well, as well as the culturally conservative movement toward tradition in the midst of a continued countercultural movement was well narrated.

Baldwin was never completely home in the Gay community. That community was as racist as the heterosexual community. Baldwin’s escape to France was about both racism and attitudes toward homosexuality. Not that everything was perfect in Europe.

Two chapters are about things that I am basically ignorant about. The moment of black music from R&B to crossover and the Atlanta Child Murders. I am aware of some of the music of the era, but the politics and business of music is outside of my realm. But I was completely ignorant of the Atlanta Child Murders of ’78-’81. There were about 30 murders of mostly 9 to 15 year old African American boys. There were a couple of girls and a couple outside of the age range. Baldwin was asked to initially write an article about the murders and eventually wrote a book about them. I won’t detail the whole discussion, but what is important to the book was how the writing informs us today about Baldwin. The way that Baldwin interacts with the police and criminal justice system in the Atlanta Child Murders is connected to how Black Lives Matters has used Baldwin as an inspiration and influence.

Overall James and the Baldwin is a helpful, and relatively brief book about as aspect of Baldwin that I have not yet explored. All of my Baldwin reading has been from his earlier week. I will keep reading and this book has helped influence how I will understand Baldwin.

James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era by Joseph Vogel Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: