Deep Democratic Tradition

Undergraduate Studies Essay for CMN 422: Advanced Argumentation (3/3/2008)

Statue of LibertyAccording to, a democracy is defined as “a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.” However, American scholar and public intellectual Cornell West claims that democracy is more than just a system of governance. West states “Democracy is not just a system of governance as we tend to think of it, but a cultural way of being” (West 68). He also says “Democracy is always a movement of an energized public to make elites responsible–it is at its core and most basic foundation the taking back of one’s powers in the face of the misuse of elite power (West 68). According to West, democratic intellectuals, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Baldwin, are the ones who contribute most to the ongoing progress of democracy, or what he calls the “deep democratic tradition” (West 68). In his essay “Dark Days,” American writer James Baldwin supports this deep democratic tradition by illustrating the difficulties of being a black man in America.

James Baldwin begins his essay by stating “To be black (in America) was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy” (Baldwin 788). Baldwin is referencing the oppression of black people by whites throughout American history. Baldwin provides unique insight on this perspective as a black man who grew up in New York City during the middle of the Great Depression. When World War II ended the Great Depression by boosting America’s economy, Baldwin illustrates this oppression by claiming, “The doors opened for white people and for their children. The schools, the unions, industry, and the arts were not opened for blacks. Not then, and not now” (Baldwin 792). He also states “Since there is not a single institution in this country that is not a racist institution–beginning with the churches, and by no means ignoring the unions–blacks were unable to seize the tools with which they could forge a genuine autonomy,” and, “The educational system of this country is, in short, designed to destroy the black child.” (Baldwin 792-795)  It is clear the Baldwin believes that America’s political leaders are misusing their power to keep the black man down, particularly by denying him a worthy education. Later in his essay, Baldwin cites a discussion amongst his students in one of the classes he taught, to imply that we must right this wrong at the individual level. One of his students asked, “Why does the white hate the nigger? The students then began to converse about this matter. Baldwin states about the discussion, “They were talking of their desire to know one another, their need to know one another; each was trying to enter in to the experience of the other,” and, “They were trying to become whole. They were trying to put themselves and their country together” (Baldwin 797). Baldwin is expressing the need for a personal connection between black and white Americans in order to put an end to racist America. Without any kind of coalition, the ignorance and blindness of white supremacy will continue to deny Americans of a true education and deepen the divide between whites and blacks. And while this ideology oppresses the black community, Baldwin feels that it has an even larger negative impact on the white community by denying them of their individual freedom. He communicates this in the final sentence of his essay with a quote from American poet Langston Hughes, “It’s you (whites) who’ll have the blues, not me. Just wait and see” (Baldwin 798)


Works Cited

Baldwin, James. James Baldwin Collected Essays. New York City: Library of America, 1998.

West, Cornel. Democracy Matters. New York City: Penguin Group, 2005.

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