The Peripheralist

During Black History Month earlier this year, the New York City streetwear boutique Alife brought to market a limited set of six heather grey hooded sweatshirts made of heavyweight, pre-shrunk  fourteen-ounce cotton fleece, with ribbed cuffs and waist. The garments, whose sole decorative flourish were the names of black cultural icons — from Harriet Tubman to Marcus Garvey — screen-printed in sans-serif across the chest, retailed for $138 a pop and sold out promptly. Of the six men and women featured in the campaign, there was only one writer: James Baldwin. On Instagram, to promote its product, the brand deployed a short clip of Baldwin’s extraordinary debate against William F. Buckley, Jr., on the theme “Is the American Dream at the Price of the Negro?” at the Cambridge Union in 1965 — a grainy YouTube gem beloved by aficionados that was recently brought to mainstream attention in Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro. A friend messaged the post to me accompanied by the Thinking Face emoji, finger and thumb against the chin, a look of skepticism. I responded differently. I wasn’t incredulous about this cultural commoditization: Baldwin’s name had long since become a kind of shorthand, an emblem of a position — a way, increasingly fashionable in its own right, to signal which side of any number of contested issues of the day one wishes to come down on. Jean-Paul Sartre once described the young Albert Camus as “the  admirable conjunction of a man, of an action, and of a work,” by which he meant, simply, that there was no daylight between his life and his ideas, and it was impossible to think of one without conjuring the other. In an essay for the New York Review of Books in 1963, in which she contrasted morally virtuous if artistically second-tier

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