Queering Europe with James Baldwin Conference 2018, At University of Bern, Switzerland: ‘Beneath The Open Sky’—James Baldwin’s Negro and the Other Stranger(s) in the Room: Imagining a Future History of Black Queer Becoming in a Global World

Title: “‘Beneath The Open Sky’—James Baldwin’s Negro and the Other Stranger(s) in the Room: Imagining a Future History of Black Queer Becoming in a Global World”

Presenter: Keelyn Bradley, PhD Candidate in the Philosophy, Art and Critical Thought Division at The European Graduate School

Conference: “The evidence of things not seen” – Queering Europe with James Baldwin Conference, 22-23 February 2018, Interdisciplinary Center for Gender Studies ICFG, University of Bern; Panel: Baldwin and the Radical Politics of Love

Queering Europe With James Baldwin Program, 2018

*A different, revised version of this paper was presented as “a work in progress” at the Society for the Study of Africana Philosophy (SSAP) Meeting, March 18, 2018.


Recent reports released by European organizations collecting separately related data pertaining to HIV/AIDS transmission and racial discrimination among migrant populations in Europe support claims that migrant persons living at the intersections of racism, xenophobia, heterosexism, disability, and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation are at greater risk of infection after moving to and within the European Union.[1] The conditions of these populations’ increased precarity and disenfranchisement is realized in the anti-black and Islamophobic discourses proliferated by far-right political extremist groups that have taken hold of the mainstream with policies and legislation that reflect the fears and racist fantasies of a white populism ever growing since the global financial crisis of 2008.[2] In many countries throughout Europe as well as the United States, at the base of this populism is a sense of kinship, a symbolic notion of belonging shaped by the idea of a shared culture and national identity.

Throughout his critical thought and fiction, Baldwin challenges the political embodiment of kinship symbolized by white father/mother nation. The assertion of a radical politics of love as decolonial praxis, at the end of The Fire Next Time, for instance, attempts to engage the opacity of relations (between self and Other) of feeling (“racial tensions that menace”) becoming-in-conflict with rationalist metaphysics. Embracing abjection and fugitivity as part of the everyday experience of black life, Baldwin’s work anticipates current dialogues in black study between Afro-pessimism and black optimism, which splits along the narrow fissure of black fungibility in a distinction between ‘social death’ and ‘stolen life’ as it pertains to the humanity of ‘the black’ existence at the border of modern [‘Man’].

Thinking about Baldwin’s politics of love as the realization of freedom in becoming, for reasons that I will make clear throughout my presentation, this essay will examine two aspects of its revolutionary potential. First, I will consider how love as a source of estrangement and resilience engages cultural memory as collective loss (history-herstory) that allows for the impossible, alternative logics of kinship (Stranger In The Village; The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American). How does memory as remembrance disturb/unrest/dislodge the forgotten history [herstory] of symbolic order? How is history utilized as a technology of un-freedom?

The second aspect I will go over concerns how love displaces racialized shame with a critical aesthetic praxis of rage that overcomes violence and is a radical site for interracial intimacy based on a mutuality which might allow for ontoepistemological disclosures that exceed colonial exploitation and oppression (The Devil Finds Work).  Here, I am interested in the ways Baldwin’s irrational critique moves between what he describes as a kind of madness embodied by a ghostly virility of niggerized existence and a re-imagined historicity that seizes upon the impossible possibility of ontoepistemological destruction. It is here that Baldwin is at his most powerful and vulnerable, as social pariah (on par with Socrates, W.E.B. DuBois, Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon) engaged in a critical philosophical reconstruction of the humanist project.

Baldwin’s critical thought—as a radical alterity of blackness, at the point at which it intersects with multiple forms of incommensurability, difference, along a perforated axis of gender, race, class, and sexuality—demonstrates a possible impossible nonconforming black queer subjectivity within the fabulation of western civilization. However, I will argue that in undoing silences and iterative conformity at the crux of his irrational critique of black genocide, paradoxically, it is Baldwin’s disavowal of the colonial experience of black Americans (a trace of his American exceptionalism) as well as his bracketed [queer/bisexual/gay] identity and a cosmopolitanism which undergirds his internationalism that contributes to an astigmatic vision of black life and ultimately reinforces certain structural inequalities at the boundary of a nascent neoliberal capitalism (Equals In Paris). Additionally, to elucidate my overall position at places throughout the paper, I will draw comparisons to the thought of Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Audre Lorde, and Vincent Carter.

[1] European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Migrant Health: Epidemiology of HIV & Aids in Migrant Communities and Ethnic Minorities in EU/EEA Countries. Coordinated by Teymur Noori. Stockholm, Sweden: March, 10 (Revised Edition) First Published July 2009; European Network Against Racism (EANR). Racism and Discrimination In The Context of Migration In Europe: ENAR Shadow Report 2015-2016. Drafted by Ojeaku Nwabuzo, Lisa Schraeder, and Staff. Brussels Belgium: ENAR, 2016; World Health Organization (WHO-Europe). HIV/AIDS In Europe: Moving from Death Sentences to Chronic Disease Management. Edited Srdan Matic, Jeffrey V. Lazarus, and Martin C. Donoghoe. Copenhagen, Denmark: World Health Organization-Europe, 2006. “The majority of migrants living with HIV in Europe may have acquired HIV in their new country,”https://www.aidsmap.com/The-majority-of-migrants-living-with-HIV-in-Europe-may-have-acquired-HIV-in-their-new-country/page/3008928/

[2] With the global financial crisis of 2008 and a heightened concern about terrorism and homeland security, a new form of authoritarian neoliberalism, one which calls for a deregulation that eradicates traditional limits between corporate and government institutions as it expands state power (military-surveillance/carceral-state), appears to be moving toward the normalization of a degraded social contract and a forced austerity of those public goods and services which ultimately protect democracy. Many of the groups that have been swept up in this rising tide of white populism understand themselves as victims of globalization and perceive a relation to an increase in the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers dispossessed by changing world economies.

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