What James Baldwin and J.M. Coetzee
Tell Us About History and Home

Disillusioned with American racism, James Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948. There, the 24-year-old felt relieved of the rigid enclosures of home. “Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I see where I came from very clearly,” Baldwin told the New York Times. Disillusioned with South African apartheid, J.M. Coetzee moved from Cape Town to the U.K. in 1962. Three years later, Coetzee relocated to earn his PhD at the University of Texas. Both Baldwin and Coetzee’s fraught relationships with their home countries led to their departures. With their fleeing from home, these authors sought to escape their countries and bury their pasts. Yet as they penned their first novels, the ghosts of home and history still bubbled upward.
Baldwin’s early days in Paris were spent in the city’s quaint Café de Flore and writing his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Published in 1953, Go Tell It is a semi-autobiographical, Harlem-set novel centering around the religious awakening of John; a closeted 14-year-old who struggles under an oppressive Pentecostal tradition. Baldwin reflected on his character John in a 1985 New York Times interview: “It’s the me that was me once.”
While later teaching in Buffalo, New York, Coetzee willed himself to “stop thinking and planning and actually start writing” and published his first novel Dusklands in 1974. Also semi-autobiographical, Dusklands is two novellas in one. The first half is about a war propaganda specialist; the second half is the travel diary of a Dutch colonist in 18th-century South Africa.
In France, Baldwin wanted to forget America and forge a new understanding of himself: “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France,” he told The Paris Review in 1984. “It was a matter of getting out of America.” When Baldwin fled Harlem in 1948, the neighborhood was still reeling from the intense race riots of 1935 and 1943. And when Coetzee boarded his flight from South Africa to the U.K. in 1962, Robben Island had received its first batch of political prisoners just one year prior.
Both men were troubled. Baldwin was a victim of poverty and racism. Coetzee was on the other side of the coin. On his father’s side, he descends from Dutch immigrants who settled in South Africa in the 17th-century. Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940. He very much could have stayed in South Africa and enjoyed the benefits of whiteness in the apartheid era. Still, the only reason Coetzee returned to South Africa in 1971 was because his U.S. residency application was denied. As he put it in a 1997 Salmagundi Journal interview: “I wanted not to go back to South Africa…It was not an appealing place. Particularly then.” In 1970, the South African government passed the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act, a law that stripped black South Africans of citizenship in their own country.
Baldwin and Coetzee crossed the ocean in different directions. Yet they were fleeing from societies that were very similar. The United States and South Africa share parallel histories. Both nations codified white supremacy. Both stole land from and nearly wiped out their indigenous populations. Both have histories of slavery. Both shared forms of state-sanctioned segregation. And both continue to observe the devastating effects of years of white domination. When Coetzee and Baldwin fled, they also share similarities in that they were both entering into a long tradition of authors in exile who felt free once detached from the past trauma of home. In a 2002 essay for The Guardian, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka speculated:

If the nature of departure from homeland has been marked by total rejection, by the necessity for a near-total obliteration of memory, then an encounter with an environment that is a complete antithesis of the place of setting out – from topography to emotive and sensory properties – may find the wanderer breathing a sigh of relief.

Nevertheless, after Coetzee and Baldwin escaped to new environments and breathed sighs of relief, why did they point their lenses back home? Why couldn’t they shed the burden of history?

Coetzee wrote his first novel Dusklands while he lived in the United States. Yet the novel is largely obsessed with the violent past of his homeland. Coetzee writes of South Africa particularly in the novel’s second half, “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” a fictionalized account of a real historical figure named Jacobus Coetsé. Jacobus was a 17th-century Dutch explorer of the Cape and was, in fact, a distant relative of J.M. Coetzee. So, in Dusklands not only is Coetzee grappling with the colonial history of South Africa; he is also wrestling with that of his own family. Through Jacobus, J.M. Coetzee assumes the paternalistic voice of a colonizer and satirizes the “white man’s burden” that tasked Europeans with “civilizing” Africans. Dusklands’s self-referential approach can be understood as a sort of performative reckoning with history that sees Coetzee implicating his ancestors—thus himself—in the crimes of colonialism. What is Coetzee saying about himself when he imagines himself into the novel’s grisly colonial sins? His approach to exposing settler “logic” relates to a question raised by Martin Woessner in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “Was (Coetzee) owning up to his Afrikaner heritage in Dusklands or distancing himself from it? Putting himself into his ancestors’ shoes seemed to be a kind of literary atonement for Coetzee. By publicly unpacking his his origins, Coetzee ushers in an opportunity for other white South Africans to approximate themselves to the crimes of their ancestors—hold a mirror to their pasts and to themselves.
While Coetzee critiques colonial ideals, Baldwin’s criticism centers on religion. At age 14, James Baldwin experienced what he thought was a religious awakening and became a youth preacher. However, he soon began to question religion. He struggled to reconcile black liberation with the Christian promise of salvation only in the afterlife. Baldwin eventually turned into a religious skeptic, later realizing that his brief obsession with religion had just been a way to cope with an existential crisis: “I was so frightened,” Baldwin wrote of his pain as a gay, black 14-year-old living in 1930s Harlem. “And at the mercy of so many conundrums.”
Baldwin centers his novel around his early religious awakening; the moment he became “saved.” However, this does not mean Baldwin condones the church. Baldwin crafts a semi-autobiographical protagonist named John who reenacts a history that Baldwin loathes in order to achieve a kind of theatrical reconciliation. Baldwin’s distant lens allows him to articulate his own false awakening and use it as a launching point to examine religion’s broader limitations on the black community, and the wider dysfunctions of his own, distant country.

On the other side of the world and far detached from their rotting roots, these authors acquired a deep need for reconciliation. How could Baldwin weave the riots and violence of Harlem together with the days in which he “walked through Les Halles singing”? How, in those blissful moments, could one truly forget where they came from? Baldwin plainly said he could not. Go Tell It on the Mountain was his attempt to sew together haunting memories—to reconcile with himself: “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else,” he reminisced in a 1985 New York Times interview. “I had to deal with what hurt me most.” Coetzee, too, in his first novel was trying to piece together historical traumas, but with a different lens: “Dusklands grew out of my interest in eighteenth-century South Africa,” he revealed. “Out of my interest in the colonization of southern Africa and the role of my ancestors in that colonization.” As much as they sought to swallow the ghosts of history, their eyes remained curiously trained toward home.
John and Jacobus are not simply characters. Baldwin’s and Coetzee’s protagonists represent far more than playful imagination; they are vessels to communicate and rectify painful national histories. In each novel — as did citizens in both apartheid-era South Africa and the segregated United States — both protagonists are unquestionably tainted by violent national frameworks. John is scarred, wounded. Jacobus is perverted, barbaric. Still, both are contrived symbols, launching points for interrogation.
In his 2012 New Yorker essay, “Natives on the Boat,” Teju Cole offered this: “At certain heights, you get vertigo, but you also see what you otherwise might not.” This begs the question: How did geographic distance sharpen Coetzee’s and Baldwin’s lenses? What role does distance play in reconciliation? Totally unanchored from history and home, each writers’ lens remained peculiarly tuned toward systemic despair. From afar, Coetzee’s vision of South Africa was bleak. Baldwin’s depictions of home were filled with violence. These frank portrayals of home seem to have been possible expressly because they were not at home. Could Baldwin have written Go Tell It on the Mountain while sitting on a stoop in Harlem? Could Coetzee have written Dusklands while at living in apartheid-era Cape Town? Yes, these novels could have technically been written in their countries. However, maybe Jacobus the colonizer might not have been as aggressively racist, so as to not implicate white South Africans. Maybe Coetzee, the author, would not have been so fascinated by the history of colonialism while he still lived on the soil. Perhaps Baldwin would not have had the courage to write such a sarcastic critique of religion? The alternate versions of these novels — the ones unchiseled by distance and untainted by yearnings for reconciliation — could have been sanitized. They would probably contain fewer traces of bitterness and be less concerned with the investigation of the self in the world.
Fleeing the rigid constraints of home is what ultimately gave Coetzee and Baldwin the courage and perspective to address their pasts. No longer forced to bow to the white man while in France, Baldwin held a mirror up to his American self. Divorced from the crimes of his ancestors, Coetzee could see their sins more clearly. Coetzee and Baldwin show us that in order to confront past national sins, we must first detach ourselves from their ugly baggage.
While they share many similarities, the U.S. and South Africa addressed their pasts very differently. Starting in 1996, South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body that held public hearings to allow the victims and perpetrators of apartheid to swap truths and apologies. No such monumental national display of reconciliation has ever occurred in the United States. Of course, racism in South Africa did not end after the TRC. Yet then-president Nelson Mandela’s acknowledgement of the necessity of public reckoning aligns closely with Coetzee’s and Baldwin’s dual understanding that past traumas cannot be avoided.
Baldwin and Coetzee, with their lives and their novels, help to illustrate the unburiedness of national trauma, the ways that collective wounds trickle into the individual psyche, and ultimately just how essential it is to come face to face with history in order to enable true, sustaining reconciliation. It is impossible to divorce ourselves from history; but perhaps our intertwining with its painful legacies keep us committed to altering its course for posterity’s sake: As James Baldwin speculated in his 1966 essay, “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes”:

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

Baldwin and Coetzee’s literary reconciliations with history tell us that the lingering memories of home make forgetting impossible, ultimately alluding to a greater, collective obligation to address painful histories in order to heal as individuals—and as nations.

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