Peter's Bondage in James Baldwin's "Previous Condition"
by Amber Winters
Some might argue that Baldwin wrote "Previous Condition" to detail the modern day racism that existed during its time. On the surface this appears to be true; however, Baldwins true meaning lies deeper in which you find Peter imprisoned within his own mind. James Baldwin brilliantly depicts the enslavement of Peter in his story, through Peter's actions and developing characteristics that eventually lead to his freedom.
Peter believes the same stereotypes that whites believe to be true of his race. He blames his race for the way his life has turned out. I hate niggers, he states (Baldwin 168). Likewise, Peter perpetuates racism through his own actions. He does not like the way they live; thus, he chooses to live in a white apartment complex and go to white segregated restaurants. He does not enjoy their company; instead, he spends his time with friends who are white. Furthermore, he is disgusted at the idea of representing one in a play.
Ultimately, Peter tries to be part of a society in which no one wants him. His refusal to accept who he is and his reluctance to discover the marvel of his ethnicity is the cause for his misery. As a slave runs away from his captivity, Peter runs away from the "nigger" part of town and is smuggled into an apartment complex segregated for whites (165). Everything that Peter runs away from, fear, humiliation, and alienation, only return to suffocate Peter. I woke up shaking, alone in my room. I was clammy cold with sweat; under me the sheet and the mattress were soaked. The sheet was gray and twisted like a rope (164). In this scene, Baldwin forebodes Peters strangle from the beginning.
Peter chokes in feelings of isolation and fear. The moment he thinks he is liberating himself, he actually chains himself from everything that a slave seeks: freedom, equality, and justice. Comparable to a slave who is humiliated, not accepted by society, and alienated, Peter feels the same. This is best illustrated when his landlady kicks him out of his apartment. Baldwin does not blame the landlady for Peters humiliation. The author, on the other hand, traces Peters own actions to claim responsibility. Peter chooses to live in an environment where he knows he will not be accepted. This is best shown through his actions of sneaking to and from his apartment. He traps himself in his own captivity. I couldnt move for the longest while timing it so I left after everyone else had gone, coming back late at night when everyone else was asleep (164-165). Eventually, he finally is caught and the landlady beats him down with her words: I dont rent to colored people, she says, Why dont you go on uptown, where you belong (169)?
Peter feels ashamed and isolated because of his color. Peter lives during a period in which everyone is aware of who they are and their surroundings based on the color of the skin, Peter does not feel accepted by the white community; in addition, he refuses to accept himself in the black community. The result of Peters ignorance towards his own culture enslaves him from peace. Baldwin progresses Peters enslavement through Peter's bitter pride. Peter has a chance to fight for equality by taking the case with the landlady to court. Instead, he complains, gives excuses, and drinks his sorrows into the night.
Comparably, Peter is also given the opportunity to improve his financial situation and possibly his career when he is offered a strong role in the play, Native Son. Baldwin does not portray Peter's conceit to be strength; on the contrary, Peter's ego is slowly lynching himself. One defining moment of the story occurs when Peter is whipped to the ground. He cries, Im sick to death. And Im scaredIm not a person anymoreIm beaten (170). For the first time Peter hangs his pride low and admits that he has fallen. Shortly following this event, Peter finally receives his moment of truth from Ida. Nothing's going to change people always try to destroy what they don't understand- and they hate almost everything because they understand so little (172).
The veracity of Ida's words strike blows into Peter because the truth hurts. Peter lacks meekness, and naturally, he screams at Ida to stop. Subsequently, after letting Idas words seep into his wounds, Peter found his Underground Railroad. I longed for some opening, some sign, something to make me part of the life around me. But there was nothing except my color. The events preceding help Peter find acceptance of his color and appreciation for his heritage being as much a part of him as anything else. Baldwin portrays Peters realization like a newborn awakening into the new world for the first time: I was shaking like a baby (175).
Finally, through acceptance of the pigment on his skin, Peters bondage is lifted off and he finally receives freedom. Peters enslavement, illustrated through his actions and characteristics, imprisoned Peters mind. His only freedom was his willingness to accept his heritage. The ideas that Baldwin portrays in his story pertain to every person who reads Previous Condition. It is a reminder that one cannot run away from who they are; instead, the only way to conquer a trait that others ridicule is to embrace it as Peter finally learned to do.