Faculty Colloquium Series: Mikko Tuhkanen (ENGL) 10/13/2020
“The Time of Whiteness: James Baldwin on How Lives Matter”
Zoom Meeting information:
Meeting ID: 982 6767 8686
Dr. Mikko Tuhkanen
Professor, English, 2020-21 Glasscock Faculty Research Fellow
The piece is framed by James Baldwin’s repetition, in two essays (one from 1954, the other from 1960), of the claim that “most Americans have yet to discover that time is real.” When Baldwin speaks of American whiteness—for this is at stake in his reference to “most Americans”—he speaks of the fleshlessness and “incorruptibility” that Saint Paul tells us will be the lot of the faithful at the Second Coming (1 Cor. 15.50-54). Across Baldwin’s oeuvre, whiteness in modernity is marked by an atemporality (refusal of time’s “realness”) and historylessness (the claim to “innocence” that often marks American self-representations since the nineteenth century). When Baldwin evokes the American refusal to “believe that time is real” the second time, he is speaking of Black student protests in Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. These students, he writes, threaten to awaken white Floridians to the realization that “time is real.” I propose that here Baldwin becomes our contemporary: he suggests that, lived in the “irreality” (as he often puts it) of Pauline timelessness and fleshlessness, white lives don’t matter. His call is for American whiteness to descend into the finitude where one is embedded in history—where one becomes responsible for the price of the ticket—but also where, in a formula that echoes Henry James, one is able to “say Yes to life.”
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