‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ is a polemical essay by James Baldwin (1924-87), published in 1949. In the essay, Baldwin outlines the problem with novels which highlight the oppression of black people in the United States, starting with Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 1850s. For Baldwin, these novels are fantasies which actually perpetuate the status quo rather than disrupting or challenging it.
You can read ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Baldwin’s essay.
‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’: summary
Baldwin begins by referring to a moment in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s nineteenth-century anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which a white master tells his cousin, Miss Ophelia, that black people have been put in subjection for the benefit of white people, but this imbalance of power may be redressed in the next life. Miss Ophelia (whom Baldwin assumes is voicing the opinions of Stowe, the author, herself) responds by calling the situation ‘perfectly horrible’ before telling the white master that he ought to be ashamed.
Baldwin objects to the simplistic ‘medieval morality’ in Stowe’s novel, which he argues is symptomatic of a problem found in many more recent novels about the oppression of black people, too. Even many novels on this subject written by black authors add little to this binary good/evil moral attitude, and even help to uphold the principles which have caused the oppression of black people in the first place.
For Baldwin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a bad novel, because it is sentimental, and so founded on the performance of insincere emotion, rather than authentic feeling. The major omission in Stowe’s novel is her complete lack of curiosity concerning what moved white people to enforce slavery in the first place. Baldwin attributes this failure to Stowe’s limited artistic talents: she wanted to use her novel as a vehicle for the message that slavery is ‘horrible’, and wasn’t interested in doing much else besides that. But Baldwin sees little progress having been made in the literature written on this subject – the oppression of African Americans – in the hundred years since Stowe was writing.
Another problem with Stowe’s novel is her attitude towards the few black characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and especially the title character, who patiently endures all of his suffering with humility. For Baldwin, Stowe’s Christian education meant that she saw black people as needing to undergo ‘purification’ – and to become, in several senses, ‘white’ – before they could be accepted by God.
The whole of Stowe’s novel is dominated by her fear of hell and damnation. It is this ‘medieval’ fear which makes white people like Stowe determined to ‘save’ black people, and it is the same attitude which means African Americans are denied their freedom even to this day.
These protest novels are a problem because they uphold the very ideology they are meant to challenge: they have become comforting rather than disturbing, since their very existence suggests that people are doing something to address oppression, so everything will turn out all right in the end.
Likening the authors of protest novels to white missionaries in Africa, Baldwin argues that both of these people seek to convince black people of their innate inferiority and their need to be made like white people. So both oppressor and oppressed actually have the same beliefs. Baldwin ends by considering the character of Bigger Thomas from African-American writer Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son. The issue Baldwin has with Bigger is that his entire life and identity are a product of his hatred and fear.
And although Wright was trying to overturn the kind of novel Stowe was writing almost a century before, Baldwin actually sees Native Son as a continuation of the same idea. Bigger Thomas is Uncle Tom’s opposite, but because he is so clearly the inversion of Stowe’s character, he complements rather than subverts him, and thus reinforces Stowe’s approach. The only difference is that, whereas Stowe urged her readers to have pity for Uncle Tom, Bigger Thomas bitterly curses white people for making him who he is. Bigger Thomas has accepted a ‘theology’ which ‘denies him life’.
‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’: analysis
As his closing remarks make clear, James Baldwin objects to the protest novel in its current form (he was writing in the late 1940s, we should remember) because it rejects ‘life’ and ‘the human being’, in favour of grouping people together into particular categories. ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ argues that as long as authors of protest novels content themselves with writing ‘types’ rather than complex characters, they will never be able to write something that goes beyond social polemic.
Indeed, in some ways we might compare ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ with Martin Luther King’s famous assertion, in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, that he dreamed of a day when his children would be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. Such ‘character’, regardless of race of background, is what writers need to embrace. Common humanity in all its forms, good and bad, are what Baldwin wants writers of protest novels to acknowledge and reflect. Sadly, Baldwin reflects, black characters in protest novels are always a particular type of black character, who strike the reader as inauthentic.
And because they always have a ‘Cause’ (note Baldwin’s use of the capital letter) to promote or champion, they make their characters representative ‘types’ rather than complex, fully rounded individuals: for instance, the faithful and long-suffering black servant, or the angry and hate-filled young black man intent on revenge. Neither type acknowledges the complexity of human beings, even if these authors’ hearts were in the right place when they wrote their novels.
This is especially a problem when authors of novels about black oppression write African-American characters. Stowe writes an overly subservient and patient character in Uncle Tom, whereas Richard Wright offers readers an angry man who commits terrible crimes which he justifies on account of the oppression and discrimination he has faced.