Blues for Mister Charlie and Protest Literature
© Eric M. Martin 2014
Considering Baldwin’s views on conventional protest literature expressed in “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son in particular), a question arises as to how Baldwin’s own plays and fiction should be understood – as protest literature, as political statement, or as an artist’s a-political attempt to fully express the human experience?
Are his novels polemical by design or does the political and argumentative content of Blues for Mister Charlie, Another Country, and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone fulfill a purely narrative role, symptomatic of Baldwin’s artistic vision but not intended to persuade, convince or protest?
Baldwin focuses his complaint against the failure of protest novels on the idea that books like Native Son and Uncle Tom’s Cabin fail to engage with reality. These works fail in Baldwin’s estimation, in part, because they fail to recognize that “the reality of man as a social being is not his only reality.” Such a complaint is striking after reading Blues for Mister Charlie, a play that derives its characters and its action from quite broadly drawn observations of race, race politics, and institutional value systems (represented by the Church and the Court).
If Baldwin’s Blues insists on examining social reality as the principal element of his character’s lives, what are we then to make of his criticism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son?
Perhaps Baldwin’s complaint becomes one of degree and not one of type regarding protest literature, of depth and not of kind. The novels he criticizes are too interested in moralizing race and too little interested in addressing the cultural institutions that support racism and exploitation. They seek to prove that either the moral failings of African Americans are engendered broadly by impersonal racism or, instead, to deny the presumption of any racially associated moral failings in their characters. In short, they may not go far enough, for Baldwin, in their analysis of how society’s views take hold within the individual.
(Treating the characters as merely social beings as opposed to treating them as individuals who cannot help but internalize social reality – and so become complex reflections of the ways in which the individual’s struggle is not only against outward prejudice but can be seen as a struggle to overcome the more insidious systemic biases of his society, biases that he reflects, enacts, and inhabits as an individual.)
The “race problem,” seen as existing this way in Blues for Mister Charlie, suggests Baldwin’s “precise understanding of how received cultural assumptions play themselves out in individual lives, his extraordinary intelligence of the ambiguities and contradictions of human motives” (Pratt 163). Social reality does not suffice as a replacement for a fuller individual reality, but does significantly inform that fuller individual reality.
In Blues for Mister Charlie, as elsewhere in Baldwin’s work, there is an attempt to articulate a relationship between racial politics and cultural institutions. The work looks at the church as an African American institution, at the court as a locus of and condensation of white social authority, and at the generic convenience store and its place in the community.
These formal settings are certainly drawn from reality and express what Foucault identifies as the “patterns of behavior” (Foucault 200) and the “forms of transmission and diffusion” (Foucault 200) that effectively mediate knowledge, defining knowledge as a phenomenon that is contextual and contextualizing, as something that might exist only within socially inscribed institutions such as the church or the court. There is ample reason for reading Blues for Mister Charlie in light of the notion that knowledge is dependent upon (and defined by) social context.
The action that takes place in the convenience store is contentiously debated after this action leads to a murder. Notably, the action itself – the factual content of the event – is debated. A debate about the meaning of the events in the store are trumped by a more primary debate about what happened. Baldwin’s play points to this debate as a question of who, in America , is allowed to define the facts of a situation.
Ultimately the court sides with the white store owner and his white wife.
The play suggests a specific polemic not only with this starkly drawn scenario but also with the content of the courtroom scenes. The stories of the white characters and those of the African American characters are directly at odds with one another. All the stories, however, suppress some elements of the factual truth available to the reader. Some characters claim that a rape took place and others deny the existence of a gun or of certain photographs. On both sides, truth is a product of inspired selectivity, of motivated choice.
One might suggest that the truth, in Blues for Mister Charlie, is not a matter of fact but is rather a result of perspective (influenced by bias). The play also raises the question of just how entrenched individual perspectives might tend to be in the “black and white” American South. (Those associated with the church see the eventual verdict as another part of a tragic murder and part of a larger system of race-related injustice – an injustice that articulates the imbalance of power in a “racialized” America . Those associated with the court and its sense of authority see the verdict as an example of justice in action, a justice that reinforces the same imbalance of power and privilege.)
Thus the overt argument of the play is one of racial politics, depicting a situation in which justice and truth are malleable concepts, dependent on perception for their validity and supported by recognizable cultural institutions such as the church, the court, and the convenience store. The church and the court serve not only as symbols but as loci of knowledge. The church houses African American truth.
Blues for Mister Charlie rather explicitly portrays these institutions in their racial dimensions and works to illuminate the ways in which knowledge and power are interdependent and intimately bound up in the workings of partisan institutions.
The implied argument is one of the social contingency of truth and of the powerful role of cultural institutions in the “transmission and diffusion” of knowledge. A reader certainly cannot be blamed for interpreting these arguments as constituting a protest against the status quo, as an angry challenge to those cultural institutions that codify and perpetuate racial bias in America.
If we provisionally accept that Baldwin’s work attempts to articulate the ways in which social reality significantly informs the rich internal reality of an individual, does this view demand that we see Baldwin’s work as something other than “protest literature”? Again, Baldwin’s critique of the protest novels of Stowe and Wright hinge on what he sees as their failure to evoke a true and full human experience, instead relying on the superficial, entirely socially defined idea of character.
Does Blues for Mister Charlie effectively evoke a sense of reality that goes beyond social reality, race politics, etc.? Or does Baldwin’s work reinforce the notion that social reality does indeed largely define the individual experience, inside and out, with Baldwin’s play going one small step further than Native Son by suggesting that social reality penetrates and perhaps dominates the individual, existential reality of the human experience?
If we take Baldwin’s play to be essentially polemical in its content and principally political in its intentions, can we generate a working comparison between Blues for Mister Charlie and the protest literature that Baldwin derides in “Everybody’s Protest Novel”?
Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 1977. Print.
Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown, Connecticut (USA): Wesleyan University Press. 1989. Print.
© Eric M. Martin 2014