What does James Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” reveal about his expectations of protest literature?

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Put simply, the essay "Everybody's Protest Novel" displays a profound hostility toward protest literature and a deep skepticism toward its capacity to engender wider social change. The main thrust of Baldwin's criticism is that protest literature grossly simplifies what is often a complex dynamic at work in racial power...

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Put simply, the essay "Everybody's Protest Novel" displays a profound hostility toward protest literature and a deep skepticism toward its capacity to engender wider social change. The main thrust of Baldwin's criticism is that protest literature grossly simplifies what is often a complex dynamic at work in racial power relations. Instead, we are served up an unappetizing dish of sentimentality, an ostentatious display of emotion that makes us feel good about ourselves. Baldwin witheringly condenses the governing sentimentality of the protest novel down to the following line from Uncle Tom's Cabin: "This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!"

There is no humanity in the genre. Instead, there is merely a parade of stock characters and stereotypes that reinforce existing race relations rather than challenge them. The protest novel imbues us with a sense of moral complacency. It makes us feel safe and secure in our little world while we peer through the glass at the poor, benighted Negroes being so abominably treated by Bad Men. The act of publishing protest novels becomes an excuse for inertia, an excuse for not actually doing anything about the conditions that give rise to the social problems treated so glibly by these poorly written, sentimental books. As a liberal once said to Baldwin, "As long as such books are being published, everything will be all right."

Protest novels also reinforce the pernicious myth that the races exist in different realities. They do not. They live under the same sky, in the same society, and are bound together by the same beliefs. The failure to admit to this basic point leads in two dangerous directions. On one hand, it can lead to the kind of moral smugness and superficial concern for African Americans (or others who find themselves on the wrong side of unfair race relations). On the other hand, it can lead to delusional fantasies among African American thinkers and activists in the building of a new society. Such thinking, Baldwin argues, leads to the erroneous conclusion that inequality will be abolished or that the oppressor and the oppressed will simply change places, perpetuating injustice and interracial conflict.

We need to transcend this one-dimensional portrait of protest novels and what Baldwin describes as the "raging, paranoiac" literature of oppression all too often written by African American authors. We must look life squarely in the face with all its power, beauty, and horror. Protest novels cannot do this; in simplifying and sanitizing the truth, they give a skewed portrait of life as it is. They cannot give us the complex insight into human nature demanded of a genuine work of enduring literature. Nor can it provide the motivation to inspire any real transformative action in the political sphere. The protest novel, then, provides us with the worst of both worlds. The false clarity it gives us will always be worse than true complexity.

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