The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy

By Lawrie Balfour | Go to book overview

TWO

“A Most Disagreeable Mirror”

Reflections of a Stranger

When Swiss children shout “Neger! Neger!” at a young Baldwin on his first day in their remote village, they unintentionally evoke in him a keen recollection of how it feels to be reduced to a name, a racial epithet, in the United States. They remind him not only of his painful ambivalence about his identity as an American but also of the discomfort his American identity engenders among white Americans, “the war [his] presence has occasioned in the American soul.” 1 Marveling at the ease with which the Swiss villagers inhabit the world, he observes: “They move with an authority which I shall never have.” “And, he continues, “they regard me, quite rightly, not only as a stranger in their village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have—however unconsciously—inherited.” 2 Whether or not Baldwin's assessment of the villagers' relationship to their European heritage is accurate, his reflections on what it means to be “a suspect latecomer” to the West and what it means, for white Americans, to look at him as a heritor

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