James Baldwin: Collected Essays
Library of America, 869 pp., $35.00
The draining away of James Baldwin’s magic was a drama much discussed in the years leading up to his death in 1987 at the age of sixty-three. There had been the first act of waif in Harlem, literary vagabond in Paris, and avenging angel of the Freedom Summer, when his exalted voice captured the tension of a nation confronted by what looked like a choice between honoring and betraying its ideals of social justice. The essays, novels, and short stories had come with all the authority of purpose and brilliance of language any young writer could hope for. Then followed the last act of weary old believer riding the transcontinental winds, when the social strife to which he had committed himself as a witness seemed to frustrate his gift for describing what was going on in mad America and in his midnight self.
In the late 1960s Baldwin the panelist was roughly treated in some black militant quarters, which blotted out the occasions when he had been sharply interrogated by white commentators. Baldwin repudiated the status he worried he’d been given as the “Great Black Hope of the Great White Father,” and found a way to keep on going. Seven of his twenty-two books were published between 1971 and 1976.
Baldwin minded the drama of apostolic succession others tended to cast him in. He did not consider himself written-out or irrelevant, in much the same way that Langston Hughes and then Richard Wright had felt that no one was going to sideline them before their time. However, his later essays and his last, very pro-family novels failed to convince a large part of his audience that his work still held the revelatory subtleties so long associated with his name. Because of the Pauline obstinacy with which he stuck to his subjects, these later works were unfavorably compared to the earlier ones that had made him a star.1
Three years ago the Modern Library brought out a new hardcover edition of The Fire Next Time and this bold essay which first riveted the public mind more than thirty years ago has returned, properly enshrined with much else in two Library of America editions. One volume gathers together his essays, the other his early novels and stories.
The Lord may not be there when you want Him, but when He gets there He’s right on time, church people used to say. A sense of timely intervention surrounds the publication of Baldwin’s work in such a distinguished series, because so many hundreds of his pages coming all at once urge us to concentrate our attention on what he actually wrote. Though Baldwin’s books have long been in circulation, cultural memory has not been fair to his toughness. The image has grown of this improbable duckling with a swan’s sensibilities persecuted by fortune’s magpies. Perhaps we like our dead black heroes a little on the fabulous victim side.
Perhaps also the sheer elegance of his prose style has upstaged the fierceness of his message. Baldwin was a deeply civilized man, but he refused to become middle class, and he maintained a streetwise distrust of the poses of deracination and alienation, including his own, and of the bohemian escapes available mostly to white people and to the privileged in general. He did not subscribe to the romance of exile; he had little patience with the cries the Beats and their student admirers made about being oppressed. He was obsessed with defining freedom, but he did not present himself as a free spirit. Most of the time in his writing he tried to subdue the certainty of divine election that raged around the nation’s flinty moral core.
It hardly seems possible that the voice of Baldwin’s early essays has become historical, that fifty years have gone by since he first announced himself on the scene. Baldwin wrote about the racial situation in the US largely in terms of Anglo-Saxon and Afro-Saxon that William Dean Howells would have understood. But maybe one of the reasons he gets escorted down the catwalk of contemporary identity politics as a martyr to Difference is that much of what he had to say about race came in the form of autobiographical reflection. The sympathy-sucking, almighty “I” is everywhere these days.
Baldwin laced his writings with explicit warnings against the chill of self-exposure. However, it is not just because of his self-restraint that he remains a powerful tutelary presence in the uses of the first person. Though he found in his writing a permanence of self that the insecurity of his social condition could not threaten, his own experience interested him mostly for what it told him about the larger world. “The Negro in extremis,” F.W. Dupee called him, pointing out that if Baldwin’s skin color constituted his fate then he made of it an existentialist virtue.2
Baldwin said he was born with his subject matter and he meant it—but not at first. He published more than two dozen reviews and essays before his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). He counted his apprenticeship as a reviewer of books by and about blacks—being black supposedly made him an expert, he said—among the reasons he packed his bags and went to France at the age of twenty-four. The majority of the ten pieces that make up his first essay collection, Notes of a Native Son (1955), are also from those postwar years.
In an elliptical preface of daring assertions, Baldwin defines his relationship to his subject matter. He argues that “the Negro problem” was nearly inaccessible from any profound point of view, because it had been written about so widely and “so badly.” A Negro risks becoming articulate only “to find himself…with nothing to be articulate about.” His past led to Africa, not Europe, which meant that he, Baldwin, “a kind of bastard of the West,” brought to “Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude.” These monuments did not contain his history; they offered him no reflection of himself. “I was an interloper.” However, he had no other heritage, having been “unfitted for the jungle or the tribe.” He would therefore have to “appropriate these white centuries” and accept his “special attitude.”
He had hated and feared white people; had despised black people, “possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt” and in so doing had given the world a “murderous power” over him. This “self-destroying limbo” explains, he feels, why “prose written by Negroes has been generally speaking so pallid and so harsh.” He does not expect the Negro problem to be his only subject, but it was the gate he had to unlock before he could write about anything else. Meanwhile, he sees in Faulkner and in passages of Robert Penn Warren the beginnings of “something better,” and, for him, Ralph Ellison is the first Negro writer to use in language “some of the ambiguity and irony of Negro life.” Baldwin thus places himself on the side of serious literature, a position he elaborates on in two essays that follow.
In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he examines Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the cornerstone of American protest fiction. Baldwin condemns Stowe’s anti-slavery novel as a self-righteous “catalogue of violence.” Stowe was “an impassioned pamphleteer” interested in man’s relationship to God, not in relationships between humans. She could not embrace Uncle Tom without first purifying him of sin, robbing him of his humanity, and divesting him of sex. Her work is animated by a “terror of damnation.”
Yet because the supposed aim of protest novels is to bring freedom to the oppressed,
they are forgiven, on the strength of these good intentions, whatever violence they do to language, whatever excessive demands they make of credibility…. One is told to put first things first, the good of society coming before niceties of style or characterization. Even if this were incontestable—for what exactly is the “good” of society?—it argues an insuperable confusion, since literature and sociology are not one and the same.
The curses in Wright’s Native Son as an answer to the exhortations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Baldwin says, are a continuation of the impossible heritage of the Negro in America, that “country devoted to the death of the paradox.” Bigger Thomas’s sulfurous hate makes him submissive Uncle Tom’s descendant.
In “Many Thousands Gone” Baldwin again turns an unforgiving eye on Native Son. He describes how its mere publication in 1940 was written about as a triumph for American democracy, even though it was really just “one of the last of those angry productions” of the 1920s and 1930s. Baldwin contends that Wright assumed a false responsibility when he allowed himself to be cast as the representative of black people. But in recording his rage “as no Negro before him had ever done,” Wright captured the fearful image white people have in mind when they speak of the Negro.
Baldwin’s main objection to Native Son is that Wright attempted to redeem a monster on social grounds. Bigger’s force comes from his being “an incarnation of a myth.” The novel reflects, but does not interpret,
the isolation of the Negro within his own group and the resulting fury of impatient scorn. It is this which creates its climate of anarchy and unmotivated and unapprehended disaster; and it is this climate, common to most Negro protest novels, which has led us all to believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse, such as may, for example, sustain the Jew even after he has left his father’s house. But the fact is not that the Negro has no tradition but that there has as yet arrived no sensibility sufficiently profound and tough to make this tradition articulate.
Bigger, meanwhile, satisfies the national taste for the sensational. He may through his crimes oblige people to see the results of oppression, but white people don’t really fear someone like him so much as they do ordinary Negroes who give no cause for complaint. Bigger remains a monster and this, Baldwin argues, supports the notion that Negro life is indeed “as debased and impoverished as our theology claims” and leads back to the assumption that to become truly human the black man “must first become like us.”
Stowe’s novel about a slave whose passivity made him a better Christian than whites and Wright’s work about a black boy whose environment made him reject his family and commit murder dealt with the most familiar parts of Baldwin’s heritage that he was trying to get away from: his church upbringing and his Harlem background. But it is also clear from the popular fiction with which he equates protest novels—Little Women, the novels of James M. Cain—that his reservations about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son as famous examples of a category of American literature to which he as a black writer was expected to contribute stem from his doubt that such books could earn lasting prestige as art. Protest fiction was just another ghetto, a proletarian literature in blackface. These essays are a declaration of Baldwin’s critical independence, as well as of his physical distance.
Baldwin did not come from a literary movement or from the uptown leftist groups of his generation such as the Committee for Negroes in the Arts and the Harlem Writers’ Club. Though Baldwin found downtown Trotskyite periodicals open to him in his early days, he came of age in an era when psychoanalysis was replacing Marxism in New York intellectual life. Through his writing he acted out an exploration of consciousness, beginning with the question of who is speaking to or for whom when James Baldwin talks about race.
Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.
Baldwin does this everywhere in Notes of a Native Son. If such a passage were to read “Your dehumanization of us,” “Your dehumanization of the Negro,” or “White people’s dehumanization of the Negro people,” then its tone would be immediately accusatory. As it is, he disarms the defensiveness whites then had when talking to blacks about the racial situation. He is not speaking as a white, but he imposes a communal identity on whites which, as Murray Kempton noted, was alien to their speech at the time, but not to that of blacks. As a rhetorical refinement the plural lends his voice a jurist’s or referee’s impartiality. It is the American in him speaking, his projection of the American conscience. The ambiguity of point of view could be taken as a restatement of the historical problem of the dual consciousness of blacks. Whether or not this American had to be not-Negro was the question Baldwin asked of a dichotomy between race and citizenship that seemed fixed.
Stowe and Wright provide the only literary occasions in Notes of a Native Son. Three essays are accounts of American locations, Harlem and the South, places just the mention of which conjures up the subject of race. “The Harlem Ghetto” presents a congested, dispirited urban landscape unchanged since Baldwin’s childhood, except for the added insult of housing projects. He judges the Negro leader to be in a hopeless situation and observes that the Negro press is so narrow because it is a faithful imitation of mainstream tabloids. Baldwin’s Harlem is completely empty of the glamorous elements of its past, but the churches remain, as does the Harlem resident’s ambivalence toward Jewish people as the identifiable shop owners, landlords, foreigners, and white people among them. “Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.”
The trip Baldwin describes in “Journey to Atlanta” was made by his brother as a member of a Harlem gospel group contracted to entertain at rallies for Henry Wallace’s campaign for president in 1948. Baldwin uses his brother’s report to argue that blacks are pawns in the electoral process, regardless of political party. He is proud that blacks have low expectations of politicians, because the cynicism makes the ghetto doctrine, that of not being taken in, look like political sophistication after all.
These two essays sketch some of the reasons for his not wanting to be in the US. The title essay comes like a last look back. In “Notes of a Native Son” Baldwin remembers his embittered storefront preacher father who had been suspicious of his son’s bookish inclinations. On the summer day in 1943 when Baldwin’s father died, his father’s last child was born. Not long before there had been a bloody riot in Detroit. After his father’s funeral, held on the day that was also Baldwin’s nineteenth birthday, a race riot broke out in Harlem. From this convergence of public and private upheaval, Baldwin weaves an extraordinary tale of captivity and flight. The journey out of Egypt was his great theme.
Baldwin had been away from home for a year discovering in the defense plants, bars, and restaurants of New Jersey “the weight of white people in the world.” One scene of his trying to get served nearly ended in mob violence. He saw that his life was in danger, as much from what he carried in his own heart as from what other people might do. He returned to Harlem to wait for his father’s death. All of Harlem seemed to be “infected by waiting,” “violently still.” The racial tension of the war years had churchly women and prostitutes together on the stoops, united by their distrust of policemen “on horseback, on corners, everywhere, always two by two.” A rumor ignited the rage—“I had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father’s vision”—and after the night of rioting, Baldwin, passing looted shops on his way to the cemetery, and looking at the avenues strewn with everything from cornflakes to beer, was left with an “impression of waste” as difficult to face as the lessons of his father’s burdened life.
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.
This is very moving, transparent, and real. The riot may not have crossed beyond ghetto lines, but Baldwin makes something transcendent of the emotions behind it. The elevated language throughout the essay concentrates on the dignity at stake in the lives of the people he was writing about. “Choose you this day whom you will serve,” his father’s favorite biblical text went. Baldwin places his heightened voice in the service of people who had reason to think of themselves as unheard. The lyricism of his despair doesn’t condescend to them or exploit them, because the expressiveness of their church is his, his claustrophobia of spirit is theirs. But at the same time he tells a story of belonging and not belonging, of rejection and coming back, but not staying. Even as he honors his subject he claims something back for himself, just by having such a defiantly lucid style at his command.
In the remaining essays of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin’s reflections on race come from observing a different society and himself in it. He describes the relation of American Negroes to Africans in Paris; his wrongful arrest for theft and his brief Christmas imprisonment in a Paris jail; and what went unspoken between himself and the residents of a Swiss village because of their perception of him as a black man and the corrective feelings he both did and did not want to have in response. These essays are faultlessly rendered, as if to prove his point that individual experience is the only real concern of the artist. The entire book is also a sort of hymn to the divided consciousness, and to the consolation he found in being able to talk about the social prison he had escaped. In Baldwin’s determination not to be what whites thought he should be or what his background predicted he would be, in his will to become a writer, there was always the atmosphere that he had committed an act of civil disobedience.
Nobody Knows My Name (1961) came out five years after Giovanni’s Room—a novel that was controversial not only because it concerns a love affair between two men but also because all of its characters are white—and just before Another Country, the book that was to make him a best-selling novelist. He characterizes this second collection as “a private logbook,” because questions of color hid graver questions about the self. But the book is also intended to have the front-line quality of his return to the US to see the growing protest movement there for himself. Baldwin says the essays were written in a period when he realized that his first youth and exile were both coming to an end.
The “complex fate” of being an American, he declares, freed him of the illusion that he hated America. In a report from the historic 1956 Paris Congress of Negro-African Writers and Artists, a conference of black intellectuals from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the US, organized by the Negritude journal Présence Africaine,3 Baldwin argues that, however limited their possibilities, blacks in the US were not as interested in overthrowing oppressors as they were in getting the existing machinery to work for them. The US State Department had refused Du Bois a passport to attend the conference; nevertheless the US was “home” to millions of blacks who could be considered “the connecting link between Africa and the West.”
Baldwin displays some unease with the ideas put forward by the elders of Negritude, Alioune Diop, Aimé Cesaire, and Leopold Senghor. He understands the post-Bandung Conference solemnity among delegates as owing to their common political subjugation to Europe and to “the European vision of the world.” However, he is not convinced that alternative cultural perspectives can really be what they claim, because the histories of colonial peoples can’t be eradicated. Since the literature of American Negroes is written in a language from Europe, Baldwin doubts Senghor’s claim that literature by American Negroes has recognizable African sources. When Senghor finds traces of an African heritage in the writings of Wright that Wright himself was unaware of, perhaps, Baldwin says, he robs Wright of the individualism he had won for himself as a writer who had survived the American South.
The desire to diminish the importance of European culture by reconstructing a lost African past is just as restrictive of black artists and intellectuals, Baldwin feels. His intellectual tradition and temperament led him to question rather than to commune with social symbols. Senghor’s society “did not seem to need the lonely activity of the singular intelligence.” Nor is a cohesive society necessarily tolerant of the dissenter. Men like Senghor and Cesaire were themselves products of the collision of cultures and thus already stood outside the cohesive society whose culture they both lament and champion.
This essay, as the first formal encounter in Baldwin’s writing with what would now be called the debate over Eurocentrism, would, like so much else of his early work, one day come back to haunt him. At the time it reflected the tensions among black intellectuals in their exile and the consequences for them of political ferment back home. In Baldwin’s view, US society was something new, still in formation, and therefore salvageable. The intimation that blacks and whites in the US weren’t isolated and that Europe and Africa are not abstract places carries over into the next two essays, in which Baldwin’s intense gaze once again takes in New York and Harlem. But the main point of Nobody Knows My Name comes from Baldwin’s first trips to that seemingly cut-off place, the South.
The idea of “the Old Country” had always frightened him, Baldwin says, but the poet Sterling Brown, identified in “A Fly in Buttermilk” as “an older Negro friend” in Washington, reminds Baldwin that he, Baldwin, is only one generation away from the South. He would discover that what had been to him books, headlines, and music could be a real part of his heritage, his identity. He shields those he spoke to, because their views could put them in danger, or because he didn’t want to embarrass them. A black educator seizes on the facts that Baldwin had never been to college and couldn’t drive a car. Baldwin suspects that the man is defensive about being a Southern Negro because of his anxiety that change might threaten his place in the segregated school system. The future down South, Baldwin says, is like heaven: everyone talks about it but no one wants to go there just yet.
However, at least one student in the vanguard of integration at a white high school could look forward. He tells Baldwin that his old school symbolized a “dead end” for black teachers as much as it represented the grim future that black students faced. Of his former classmates, several girls had left school because they were pregnant and just days before Baldwin arrived eighteen boys were taken away to the chain gang. The bewildered young white principal of the youth’s new high school assures Baldwin that he has a job to do, though he never dreamed of “a mingling of the races” and has no reason to think black schools aren’t as good as white ones. Baldwin reflects that segregation has worked so well it has allowed white people “to create, in every generation, only the Negro they wished to see.”
In the title essay, originally published in 1959, Baldwin, as a Northern Negro in the South, sees that his ancestry is both black and white, a closeness he thinks may explain why whites hate blacks. Integration had worked well after the sun went down, Baldwin is told. The South’s official segregation differed little from unofficial segregation in the North, except in its baffling etiquette. After visiting Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, Baldwin suspects that the argument over whether black children had the right or capacity to learn in white schools was “criminally frivolous,” given the country’s general lack of respect for intellectual life. The hidden dispute was about power and sex, and Baldwin predicts a stiffening of the already “implacable Negro resistance.”
Baldwin watches black men on the streets, on buses, trying to imagine what he would be like had his family never left the South. A guilty feeling that the boycotts and test cases have been for his sake and for that of every Negro in the North awakens in him a need to bestow as much moral advantage as possible on the Negroes going into what he saw as the field of battle. The old black men whom white Southerners love dislike even well-meaning paternalism because they do not want to depend on others. “Men do not like to be protected, it emasculates them.” Black men have always known this while white men have denied it, which Baldwin says gave rise to a “dreadful paradox”: “The black men were stronger than the white. I do not know how they did it, but it certainly has something to do with that as yet unwritten history of the Negro woman.”
Black people in the South were experiencing the 1950s as a period of impending turbulence. But Baldwin was just passing through. Too much was happening and the reasons for it went back too far for Baldwin’s quick intelligence to do more than survey a surface that only suggested the depths. The South would always have a more convincing presence in his work as a metaphor than as a region he could make a pilgrimage to. His real and troubling roots were elsewhere—uptown, in Harlem, in the dreams he had sitting on a windowsill reading Dickens.
Much of Baldwin’s regretful tone and his effectiveness as an emerging spokesman—a term he disliked—came from what he presented as his bewilderment that whites apparently had never seriously considered what the race problem had done to themselves. Baldwin was restating an argument that went back to the days when abolitionists cautioned slaveholders about their eternal souls. But also important to the persuasiveness of his social views, to his imagination, to his insistence that change in racial attitudes be included among signs of progress, were the years he lived in Europe when Germany had officially repented and set out to reconstruct itself as a society. The New Deal and the Marshall Plan told blacks how fast social remedies could be deployed when there was enough political will.
The second part of Nobody Knows My Name contains a portrait of Norman Mailer, who in Advertisements for Myself calls Baldwin’s prose “perfumed,” “too charming to be major,” suggesting that Baldwin hadn’t his own street credibility. Baldwin is sympathetic in reply and, because of his fine Negro manners, he turns in a performance of behaving better than the other person. But he slyly breaches good manners by repeating in print what others have said about Mailer, such as, according to Baldwin, the jazz musicians whom Mailer thought he was so down with. They didn’t think him hip. They said he was “sweet.”
Time has obscured what Mailer and Baldwin once had in common. Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” is a protest against the threat of mass destruction during the early part of the cold war. It was absurd, the feeling went, to behave as though life were normal or society rational when human beings faced daily the potential for total extinction. Some white writers, Mailer among them, allied themselves with blacks in calling for society to recreate itself, for people to cultivate values that went beyond the concerns of middle-class comfort. Mailer felt a connection with black men as US society’s genuine dissenters.4
Nobody Knows My Name, which became something of a best seller, also includes Baldwin’s memoir, “Alas, Poor Richard.” Written after Wright’s death in 1960, it is treated by Baldwin’s biographers as being eerily foreshadowing, as though he had predicted his own fate in his worry that he might become as isolated and uncertain in exile as Wright, his early mentor, had seemed to him. Wright’s hurt reaction to Baldwin’s criticisms of Native Son surprised him, Baldwin says, but he admits to something resembling symbolic patricide. In retrospect Baldwin praises Wright’s work for its dry, savage folkloric humor and for how deeply it conveys what life was like on Chicago’s South Side. The climate that had once made Wright’s work read like a racial manifesto had gone. Baldwin found when reading Wright again that he did not think of the 1930s or even of Negroes, because Wright’s characters and situations had universal meanings. Wright was not, finally, the polemical writer “he took himself to be.” Yet Baldwin still minded the “gratuitous” violence in Wright’s work, seeing it as the consequence of the internal censorship of black writers, which put violence in the place where sex ought to have been.
Nevertheless, Wright, snubbed in the Paris cafés by American Negroes and Africans who had once been his friends, wandering “in no-man’s land between white and black,” became, Baldwin says, an object lesson for him in the hazards of expatriation. He was suspicious of Wright’s friendships with Sartre and de Beauvoir, and doubted that Wright’s new friends in his “adopted country” could appreciate him, the mischievous, cunning “Mississippi pickaninny.” Wright paid for his illusion of safety by renouncing the sources of his inspiration and giving up his knowledge of “the powers of darkness.” Baldwin says he defended Wright when other blacks said Wright had severed himself from his roots, because he knew how easy it was to charge him with the same thing.
Baldwin hints that Wright’s problem was with other blacks, whereas his own problem was being black in the US. But he could not have taken the view of Wright that he did were he not congratulating himself for going back to the US. Though he says that at the time of his death Wright had found himself again as a writer, he pities Wright his years of paralyzing distance from the struggle. Because of the gulf—created either by education or by the mysteries of talent—between their circumstances and those of the blacks they could be made to feel they had left behind, black writers in Baldwin’s day paid a guilt tax in piety, and took loyalty oaths to the cause, pledging that they would not forget. Perhaps that is what Baldwin meant when he said that Europe had prepared him for America.
In relation to Wright, Baldwin sets himself up as a sort of patriot, rather like Larkin claiming in the early 1960s that literature had replaced life as Auden’s subject, meaning that Auden’s work had suffered because of expatriatism. Baldwin was also asserting his generation’s immunity from what he regarded as the mistakes of its immediate predecessors. He had written mostly about race and the same “powers of darkness” he said Wright had risked losing touch with. But if Wright turned out not to be such a polemical writer, then Baldwin was no longer bound by his promise to break the confines of the protest tradition in his own work.
Another Country was competing with Lord of the Flies at the top of the paperback best-seller lists when The Fire Next Time, actually two essays, appeared in 1963. The main essay was originally published in The New Yorker as “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” and was so widely discussed it became a news item, taking Baldwin’s face onto the cover of Time magazine.
The Fire Next Time is a refutation of those articles hostile to the Nation of Islam that came out at around the same time, just as it seems to call out to Martin Luther King’s lament about the cup of endurance running over in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” also of that year. But Baldwin’s language overshadows or preempts his context, which is maybe why, even today, no thought comes up when reading Baldwin of social scientists like Kenneth Clark or Erik Erikson, whose work in the same period also stressed the legacy of psychological damage handed on by racism. Every scar in Harlem seems to breathe on its own in this intense recapitulation of themes from Baldwin’s earlier autobiographical writings.
Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him causes him secretly, in terror, to begin to await, without knowing that he is doing so, his mysterious and inexorable punishment. He must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into the child’s consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice as he is being exhorted, punished, or loved; in the sudden, uncontrollable note of fear in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary.
In The Fire Next Time Baldwin explores his religious conversion at the age of fourteen and the terrified refuge he found in being a performer in the pulpit until his faith crumbled three years later, because he had been reading again, starting “fatally” with Dostoevsky, which fueled his resentment of Christian hypocrisy. As a former child preacher in Harlem, Baldwin appreciated why blacks were increasingly attracted to the Nation of Islam’s creed that God was black. He understands the Black Muslims as followers drawn from a depressed population that doesn’t have “the time or energy” to read, and for whom hope elsewhere has died:
For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language. The privacy of his experience, which is only beginning to be recognized in language, and which is dented or ignored in official or popular speech—hence the Negro idiom—lends credibility to any system that pretends to clarify it.
Baldwin recounts a visit to Elijah Muhammad’s strange Chicago mansion headquarters, where he sees Muhammad’s appeal as a father figure, but remains ruefully skeptical. The Muslim movement was a dream of power, offering an invented past. African-Americans had no future anywhere without a real past.
Consequently, white Americans were themselves deluded if they supposed Negroes expected anyone to “give” them anything. When whites held out the possibility that Negroes could become their equals, Baldwin was reminded of North Africans in 1956 asking if the French were ready to be civilized. At bottom, he says, the Negro problem was really the white man’s wish not to be judged by people who aren’t white, the desire to be released from “the tyranny of the mirror.”
Baldwin’s “I” summons “them,” white Americans; “him,” the Negro; and “one,” the Negro observing whites; but the voice that once searched for “our” America is absent. His “we” doesn’t appear when talking about the US; only when speaking of humanity in general, of creatures cringing before God. In taking up truth’s cause, Baldwin had chosen sides. The Fire Next Time derives its force from precisely the same “theological terror” he had previously criticized Harriet Beecher Stowe for. It also contains a dilemma that Baldwin, the apostle of paradox, was ill prepared to meet. It sounds like a paradox for him to warn that blacks were of two minds about being integrated into a burning house. But it also seems a paradox for him to think that his influence—the power of a minority to threaten a majority with moral collapse—depended on how much that majority cared about its moral vocabulary as well as his.
Baldwin became more of a spokesman than Wright had ever been, partly because his moment coincided with the age of television. He was soon under FBI surveillance, just as Wright had been, but Wright was never invited to advise the US attorney general, as Baldwin was to be. In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” an essay Baldwin wrote after he traveled with the civil rights leader in 1961, he admires King as the first black leader who said to whites what he said to Negroes and vice versa.
In Baldwin’s view, King was different from but not entirely free of what he calls the official black leadership, whose members he assumed came from “the most unlucky bourgeoisie in the world’s entire history.” They were trapped “between black humiliation and white power” and were more loyal to their class than to the black masses they supposedly represented. Baldwin sees a gap between this official leadership and the young, “who have begun nothing less than a moral revolution.” Because of King’s middle-class background Baldwin wonders if King, whom he first met in 1958, can meet the expectations blacks have of visionary leaders while also resisting the pressures white people in power put on an official black leadership schooled in the politics of concession.
Baldwin was a luminous presence on the literary scene, but to key figures in mainstream civil rights organizations he was not altogether respectable. Adam Clayton Powell forced King to drop Bayard Rustin from the SCLC because he considered Rustin’s sexuality a liability.5 King maintained a certain distance from Baldwin for the same reason. Though part of the celebrity contingent of the March on Washington, with Marlon Brando’s arm around him, Baldwin had not been asked to speak.
After reading The Fire Next Time, Hannah Arendt warned him that in politics love was a stranger. In any case, love began to play less of a part in his rhetoric. He was more attuned to the confrontational mood of the country. In Nothing Personal (1964) he noted that many people in Texas were passing out handbills accusing President Kennedy of treason. Perhaps this was his way of showing that there was something behind Malcolm X’s infamous remark about Kennedy’s murder being a case of the chickens coming home to roost.
Baldwin liked Malcolm X right away, because he knew all about the sad correlation in a black urban youth’s experience between a life of petty crime and a life as one of the saved.6 He respected his mocking attitude and retaliatory incisiveness about white power. While not relinquishing King’s ideal of racial justice as a path toward national redemption, Baldwin agreed with Malcolm X that the history of racism in the US had to be acknowledged before any meaningful change could take place. Malcolm X, on the other hand, chafing under the Nation of Islam’s restrictions on his political activities, said while traveling in Africa that he wanted a “real” revolution, not the “pseudo revolt” of people like James Baldwin.
It was a time when every day seemed loaded with tragic turning points. Baldwin was often on hand, speaking, observing. He spoke at a Manhattan rally to protest the deaths of four black children in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.7 The racial struggle had spread from the South, where Baldwin was an outsider, to the North and his native ground of tenements and garbage dumps. He was still able to find that American “we” in his velvet sack of rhetorical devices. In “The American Dream and the American Negro,” Baldwin’s contribution to a debate with William F. Buckley, Jr., at Cambridge University in 1965, he warns that there is little hope that “we, the Americans,” accept that his ancestors are both black and white, and that black people are just like everybody else.
The darkening of the civil rights struggle coincided with a fall in Baldwin’s overall critical fortunes. A terribly earnest play, Blues for Mr. Charlie, opened on Broadway in 1964 to mixed reviews. Then his collection of short stories, Going to Meet the Man (1965), failed to win the acclaim that had greeted his previous works of fiction. Because some critics at the time wondered if Baldwin hadn’t gone anti-white, later on he would too easily say that he lost favor with white critics because his message had become difficult for them to accept.
When he dealt with concrete issues, he was unanswerable. In an article published in 1966, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” Baldwin is chilling about the “arrogant autonomy” of the police, the part they played in the Harlem riot of 1964 and in the murder charges brought against the Harlem Six, the black men arrested for defending themselves. He calls his report a “plea for the recognition of our common humanity,” but hints that although “we” in Harlem weren’t so much at the mercy of cops and landlords anymore, patient explanation and background-seeking calls from officials in Washington when the weather began to warm up belonged to the power relationships of the past. As the Sixties intensified, Baldwin published few essays, many of them immediate reactions to events or the texts of speeches, nothing like his considered essays.
The era of praying with your feet, as the saying went, was drawing to a close, and something in Baldwin’s tone was beginning to change as well. He stopped trying to answer the question whites frequently asked of blacks during this volatile period: What does the Negro want? Instead, his mission was to hold up the mirror that he believed whites were fearful of. Because he was sure that whites minded being judged by nonwhites, his intention had elements of temerity and revenge. He argued that when a white person looked at a black that white person saw and then wanted to deny the bloody history reflected in the black person’s skin. He often said that blacks knew more about whites than whites knew about blacks. Increasingly, whites became an abstraction in his discussions, just as the Negro habitually had been to most white observers. In any case, white, Baldwin said repeatedly, was an attitude, not a color, and black was a condition.
While Baldwin had become scornful of white liberals because, he said, they believed themselves to be already saved, he was nevertheless attacked by black militants as a beneficiary of liberalism. The rise of black consciousness led some blacks to question black writers’ relation to their audience and the makeup of Baldwin’s in particular. Ishmael Reed categorized Baldwin as a black writer who spoke to whites as a guide to black feeling. He wasn’t really addressing blacks in his work, Reed claimed, because he was only saying what blacks already knew.8
In 1966, the year Stokely Carmichael cried “Black Power” on television after the attempt on James Meredith’s life, Amiri Baraka reprinted in Home: Social Essays a vitriolic article in which he says that Baldwin’s writing presents a “Joan of Arc of the cocktail party.” Baraka denounces the emphasis on individual experience in Baldwin’s writings as a “spavined whine and plea” that was “sickening past belief.” Baraka implies that what he takes as Baldwin’s conciliatory attitude toward whites wasn’t that of a “real” black man anyway.9
Baldwin’s militant black critics seemed to link what they considered his cultural elitism to the open treatment of homosexuality in his work as well as to his reputation among whites. A straight black male writer once complained that queer black male writers enjoyed an unfair social advantage because they were not a threat to straight white men in the same way that straight black men were. The history of tokenism also had something to do with the lurking resentment toward Baldwin and with the punitive feeling that he should be left to his white-created reputation, history having moved on.
Baraka confines himself to Baldwin’s writing, to the persona of the essays. However, Eldridge Cleaver’s first published article, which appeared in Ramparts in 1966 and was later reprinted in his first- person celebration of his badness, Soul on Ice (1968), starts off by talking about Baldwin’s work, but quickly degenerates into a grisly polemic equating homosexuality in black men with what Cleaver calls “a racial death-wish.”
Norman Mailer had been among the group of white editors and writers who encouraged Cleaver to write while he was serving a fourteen-year sentence in Soledad Prison for assault with intent to commit murder. In his article Cleaver says that Another Country, together with the “literary crime” of Baldwin’s “arrogant repudiation” of “The White Negro” in Nobody Knows My Name, led him to revise his opinion of Baldwin, whose books he once eagerly awaited. Cleaver says that Baldwin attacked Mailer, a white opponent of white supremacy, because of Baldwin’s “total hatred of blacks, particularly of himself.”
Baldwin’s “interpretation” of the Paris Conference of Negro-African Artists and Writers in 1956, Cleaver goes on to claim, makes his “antipathy” toward blacks “shockingly clear.” Baldwin felt “revulsion” for the advocates of Negritude, who were “rejuvenating” the “shattered psyches and cultures of black people,” whereas Baldwin was just defending “his first love—the white man.” Cleaver says this was the reason Baldwin plunged the “blade of Brutus into the corpse of Richard Wright,” a giant, rebel, and “heterosexual.”
Jeremiah downtown, Job uptown, Baldwin was no more acceptable to macho Black Power advocates than he was to mainstream black leaders. He had already questioned the acceptable images of masculinity as narrow social constructions, like racial classifications. He had talked about the “American white man’s lack of sexual security” and the Negro as a “phallic symbol.” He claimed that when a Negro was present, white people would not talk about sex, because sex was right there, in the middle of the room, “drinking a dry martini.”10 However, blacks militarized by Vietnam taunted white authority by impugning the masculinity of white men. At a time when blacks were debating the limitations of King’s nonviolence and the Negro family’s “matriarchal structure,” black militants were more interested in deciding who the real men were than they were in redefining that manhood.
Baldwin had written about the price black men in the South had been made to pay just for walking in a manner that suggested they had any pride. Because the negative reactions of whites to Black Power sometimes seemed like the old fear of black men, Baldwin would not criticize the militants’ macho postures, especially not in the context of a society where definitions of what a man was he regarded as misguided to begin with.
Baldwin was also dismissed for not knowing enough about economic and political issues to be on speakers’ platforms.11 He’d worked with Bertrand Russell’s War Crimes Tribunal, helped the NAACP in Mississippi conduct a murder inquiry, been involved with CORE, SNCC, and an organization that aided striking black longshoremen in San Francisco. But the fashion for what passed as ideological rigor and the demand that collectivism be valued over individualism made Baldwin’s approach look obsolete.
When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made. Between what one wished to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed. And this gap seems to operate as one’s final margin, one’s last opportunity, for creation. And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance, even harder to gauge. Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distances shall not become any greater.12
Up until the late Sixties Baldwin had always talked of his public commitments as being worthwhile, but not the main purpose of his life. His writing and his speaking both may have been acts of witnessing, but they were not the same, he said. He recognized how useful his participation in public events was for him as someone given to avoiding his private life, by which he meant his writing desk. A great deal of Baldwin’s domestic and writing life in the 1960s took place in Istanbul, a city he stepped in and out of, like a parallel universe, but he never referred in his work to his life there. All the strangers called “Jimmy Baldwin,” he once said, meaning the many roles he felt his life obliged him to play.
By the late 1960s, Baldwin was saying that he had no choice but to be a part of the civil rights struggle. He never let anyone draw him out about whether violence was ever justified, a question put with some persistence in the 1960s, as if the answer would indicate which blacks could be reasoned with. Instead, he turned such discussions back to what blacks suffered in the US, holding to his mission of showing whites what it was like to be judged by strangers, and to his gospel that the race problem was, at bottom, a moral problem for whites. I will maintain my ways before Him.
Baldwin’s fame may have been enhanced by the resurgence of interest in books by blacks, but civil rights also gave him the chance to pay the “dues” he was so haunted by, to do penance for a reputation associated with his exile. He was wanted because black celebrities had become a regular part of civil rights rallies. Show business fascinated him anyway and he wrote about famous blacks in the arts as though they knew one another, because they had been through similar experiences to get where they were. He was excitedly offhand when describing how he once walked up to Sidney Poitier in an airport on his way to a “gig.”13
When Baldwin thought about himself in relation to blacks who had not escaped the ghetto, he, for a long time, no doubt had in mind his family still in Harlem. As the eldest of nine children, he said that he couldn’t change his habits of telling others what to do, no more than he could shed the “egotism” and “rigidity” of being an eldest sibling. He had felt protective toward the black youths of the early sit-ins who, in their “adolescent dark,” were deciding on an undreamed-of future for themselves by facing down the law and the lawless. After the deaths of Malcolm X and then Martin Luther King, he said more than once that Malcolm X had been like a little brother to him or that he had looked upon King as a younger brother, though they were both his age.
His expressions of solidarity may have been a kind of romantic appropriation, but when it came to dealing with the Black Panthers, whom Baldwin met in 1967, his habit of projecting an immediate kinship between himself and other people working in the movement meant something in addition to the convention of speaking of blacks as one big family. Coming across as a big brother said that his interest in them, streetwise young black men, was social, not sexual. Jean Genet could eroticize the Panthers all he wanted, because, though queer, he was white and a foreigner, an ex-convict and famous for it. But Baldwin, a black man, had to neutralize what branded him an outcast among outlaws. Also, it is difficult to patronize a youngish man who insists on declaring himself old in relation to everybody else.
Then yonder came the blues in the form of Nixon’s Southern election strategy. Everything seemed to go haywire in the backlash. Between 1968 and 1970, twenty-eight Panther leaders were killed. Baldwin told interviewers that it was difficult to write between assassinations. Racism had come to occupy the place original sin had had in his Pentecostal upbringing. In a conversation taped in 1970, Margaret Mead was startled by Baldwin’s remark that because he had done nothing to prevent it he was responsible for the murder of the black girls in the Alabama church in 1964.14
His persona had aged dramatically, though he was not yet fifty. The swiftness with which the promise of the Freedom Summers had deteriorated into seasons of riot and backlash had altered the nature of time, he said. In his mournful “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,”15 Baldwin seizes on the hope that although he was no different from his father, taught, like him, to despise himself as a “nigger,” Angela Davis was already different from her father’s generation. A year later he told the poet Nikki Giovanni the “absolute reaction” of Black Power had come too late for his generation, but black children at least would no longer grow up internalizing the propaganda of race inferiority.16
In No Name in the Street (1972) Baldwin seems to study every drop of his rage at the failure of white Americans to realize the harm their power had done to others and ultimately to themselves. He writes as an anguished survivor of the 1960s, but the “self-destroying limbo” he once risked has been replaced by a need to cover up how deeply white America had hurt him by being wounding in return. He’d said before that the relationship between blacks and whites in the US was like a marriage, a way of emphasizing how tied together they were, though segregated. In this, his divorce petition, he is the abandoned spouse who insists that he’d never been taken in by the wedding vows.
In the beginning of No Name in the Street, Baldwin recalls that when he was to appear with King at Carnegie Hall he got fitted for a dark suit. Two weeks later, he writes, he wore the same suit to King’s funeral. He remarked to a columnist that he would never be able to wear it again. A friend of Baldwin’s, a US postal worker whom he rarely saw, had seen the newspaper story and, because they were the same size, asked for the suit that to Baldwin was “drenched in the blood of all the crimes of my country.” Baldwin went up to Harlem in a hired “Cadillac limousine” in order to avoid the humiliation of watching taxis not stop for him, a black man. His life came into the “unspeakably respectable” apartment of his friend like “the roar of champagne and the odor of brimstone.” He characterizes himself as he assumes he must have appeared to his friend’s family: “an aging, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak.”
His friend had also “made it”—holder of a civil-service job; builder of a house next to his mother’s on Long Island. Baldwin was incredulous that his friend had no interest in the civil rights struggle. They got into an argument about Vietnam. Baldwin says he realized then that the suit belonged to his friend and to his friend’s family. “The blood in which the fabric of that suit was stiffening was theirs,” and the distance between him and them was that they did not know this.
The story is tortured and yet, regardless of Baldwin’s outrage at indifference or his identification with slain civil rights leaders, there is something wrongly insinuating about his depicting his scarcely worn suit as drenched and stiffening with blood, even metaphorical blood. People still remember what Jesse Jackson’s shirt looked like after King was shot.
Baldwin gives the impression in No Name in the Street that when first in Paris, in the late Forties, his true friends during this uncertain period had been Algerian. He says that when he returned to Paris in the summer of 1952, after having observed the “foul, ignoble time” of McCarthyism in the US, most of the Algerian cafés were closed and his Algerian friends had disappeared. After Dien Bien Phu fell the police became even more “snide and vindictive” toward nonwhites. Baldwin would have been keenly aware of the French government’s hostility toward foreign residents in France who were too vocal in their support of the Algerian revolution. He once told Philip Rahv that the effects of the Algerian war made Paris seem more like home. He’d always been critical of Camus’s position on Algeria in Combat. But either Baldwin had suppressed his closeness to Algerians, had never gotten around to writing about it before, or he was blacking up his past in order to make it more political. His early essays about his expatriate life suggest that he inhabited a Left Bank of bad hotels and hospitable cafés and that most of his friends were white. Moreover, where Baldwin once thought to “appropriate” Western cultural heritage, he now contends that “the South African coal miner” or “the Algerian mason” had “no reason to bow down before Shakespeare” and no “honorable access” to the cathedral at Chartres.
Baldwin then turns his attention to 1956 and the International Conference of Black Writers and Artists. He doesn’t discuss the article he wrote about the conference that had so inflamed Cleaver, or retract what he’d said then, because he now writes as if he’d always been a pan-Africanist. Instead, he remembers that outside the Sorbonne every newspaper kiosk he saw featured the face of Dorothy Counts trying to make her way through a North Carolina mob to get to school. “Some one of us should have been there with her!” It made him furious and ashamed, he says. He knew then that he could “no longer sit around in Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody else was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.”
In looking back on his tour of the South in 1957, Baldwin reveals that afterward he experienced a kind of collapse, the paralysis of “retrospective terror.” He calls what he had already written about the South “more or less impersonal.” For example, he left out his shock when during one meeting he was “groped by one of the most powerful men in one of the states I visited.” Baldwin remembers the billboards, rotting automobiles, pint bottles, and the “strident and invincible melancholy” of the Deep South’s music, but there the chronological structure of No Name in the Street breaks off.
In the second section of his book Baldwin returns to 1968. When King was murdered, Baldwin tells us, he was living in Hollywood, or at the Beverly Hills Hotel, or in Palm Springs, working on a screen version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He dropped everything to fly to Atlanta to squeeze into the funeral. “I had been in London when Malcolm was murdered.” And he had been in Puerto Rico, he remembers, working on the last act of a play, when Medgar Evers was murdered. There was no “away,” but there were plenty of places where he could go to remind himself that he felt trapped.
Interspersed with his memories of shattering long-distance bulletins are two stories that Baldwin relates to his loss of faith in the possibility of the US becoming what he would call a just society. The Malcolm X film project ended because of the conflict he felt between being a writer and being a “public witness to the situation of black people” in what he wrote. Then a casual friend was arrested in Hamburg to stand trial for murder in New York, which began the nightmare of trying to help someone with limited resources fight the machinery of the US justice system.
The experience leads Baldwin to recall campaigns in aid of the Black Panther leadership. Where he was sympathetic but probing in his analysis of the Nation of Islam in The Fire Next Time, he is unreservedly on the side of the Panthers in No Name in the Street. They would have been just another street gang, he observes, had it not been for their broad community support. They stood for the liberation of the ghetto, that “rehearsal for concentration camps,” and established schools and breakfast programs. They announced themselves as a “force for the rehabilitation of the young” who were wasting away in prisons, in the army, or on drugs. The Panthers made themselves targets, Baldwin says, but armed themselves in a spirit different from that of whites who feared their neighbors. People in the ghetto loathed the police as some of the worst-trained and most poorly educated whites in US society.
Baldwin says that he responded to the Panthers as young black men who had been “singled out” for “repression” and made victims of “a reign of terror.” Huey Newton, who was twenty-five years old when Baldwin met him, struck him as “old fashioned.” He could almost imagine Newton one day “working quietly in a law firm” and living in the suburbs, except that something always went wrong when he tried to picture it. He hadn’t read Soul on Ice when he met Cleaver, he says, but he was aware of a constraint between them. When he did read it, he said with a calculated mildness that he of course didn’t like what Cleaver said about him, but he perhaps could understand that Cleaver felt “impelled to issue what was, in fact, a warning.” Cleaver must have regarded him as of “too much use to the Establishment to be trusted by blacks.” But Cleaver had used his reputation against him “naively and unjustly” and had confused him with the “unutterable debasement of the male” he must have seen in prison.17 This and the other fragmentary reflections in the book end as bleakly as they began. In an epilogue Attica has happened, George Jackson is dead, and Angela Davis is still in jail.
Not even Baldwin could resist taking advantage of the license to lash out that black people had never had before those days of rage. Historically the limitations on what could be said publicly were as definite as any other dangerous barrier in a segregated society. Reprisals of one kind or another for going too far occur in every period of the history of blacks in the US. The mass character of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, however, provided the sense of being protected by unprecedented numbers.
Those who talk of a falling off in Baldwin’s work sometimes point to No Name in the Street. The notion goes that because of what he had been through, he abdicated as a writer and resorted to preaching; that in the kingdom of the first person, few in American letters had so harnessed the language; but that he threw away his incantatory subtlety, gave it up from moral fatigue, or got conned out of it by the pressure black nationalism put on the idiom.
But those who interpret Baldwin’s work after The Fire Next Time as a coming home to the folk refer to No Name in the Street as evidence that he had, indeed, turned a corner. As his record of the 1960s, however, No Name in the Street isn’t any less “impersonal” than his earlier reports from the South or Harlem, though he struggled to make it otherwise. “Something has altered in me; something has gone away.” He wants to make plain his rejection of those who he feels have rejected him, and his warnings, and therefore all black people. Baldwin proclaims that Western nations have been caught “in the lie of their pretended humanism,” that “the white man’s sun has set.” But in concluding that black people would never be free in the US as it was, Baldwin tried to do more than once again threaten white people with the prospect that the nation might remain unsaved.
To turn his hurt into an asset he gave his message a last-testament mood. His argument for socialism in the final paragraphs brings to mind Du Bois’s embrace of Marxism toward the end of his life, which was also his announcement that he had given up on the US. No Name in the Street differs from Baldwin’s earlier works of nonfiction in its attempts to put the racial situation in the US in a global perspective. In the early Seventies blacks who felt powerless in the US reached out for the consolations that insurgencies abroad offered them. Baldwin seems to be saying that white people in the US would one day experience for themselves the isolation he was then feeling, given the nonwhite majority worldwide.
The Sixties never faded for Baldwin, which is perhaps why his later nonfiction is like an extended coda to what he’d already written. He maybe thought of himself as starting over when he revised his autobiography yet again in The Devil Finds Work (1976), in which he retells the story of his formative years through reflections on some fifty films, from Bette Davis movies to Lady Sings the Blues. Blacks were beginning to have an impact in Hollywood in the early 1970s and some of the first major studies of blacks in US cinema had recently come out. Some of the films that Baldwin covers evoke memories of his avid reading as a youngster—Treasure Island, A Tale of Two Cities. He is interested in film as both an archive of the country’s popular attitudes and a seductive medium of more influence than books when it comes to inculcating and spreading ideas about race and national innocence.
Baldwin’s new impotent aggression toward white America erupts sporadically in The Devil Finds Work, and he returns to his problems with the Malcolm X film project. But the book is really a work of nostalgia. He remembers people like the white schoolteacher who didn’t pity him. She stubbornly faced down his father’s disapproval and took her obviously gifted pupil to the theater and the movies. He counts her among the reasons he never managed to hate white people completely. He connects his sentimental education as an audience member with the problems of his developing consciousness as a black. But the film industry’s distortions of history and evasion of reality are too easy a target.
“And of all this, I think to myself, will be only a page in history.” The pages turned, the miscarriages of justice went by, the Harlem Six of 1964 had become the Wilmington Ten of 1977. By this time he assumed every topic had been politicized. He didn’t seem to care how convenient it might be for those who were against radicalism for other reasons to be able to say that his writing went downhill when his rhetoric became conventionally radical. The time and distance necessary to distill experience had, he suggested, been taken away by the continued urgency of his times. In his late pieces his reliance on illuminating simplicities is unchanged whether his argument is going anywhere or not, but his prose can still be vivid and exciting.
From the start Baldwin’s voice cast a spell because he declined overt expression of that bitterness black people can feel they have a right to. Instead, he offered the menace of forgiveness and redemption. Though he was hardly the first black writer to challenge the US with its moral rhetoric, his persona, as an astonishingly mature young writer, was that he was self-created, unique, radical in his ambivalence. His arguments from that early time are difficult to summarize, because one sentence speedily pursues the implications of the sentence before it. The velocity of his clauses is a part of their beauty. His phrases almost leap beyond their content, the arresting testimony of a skeptical young black man who has come through to tell us that all versions of the self are hopelessly, humanly provisional.
In his last years he published tellingly few essays, and these aren’t so much about issues of the day as they are revisions yet again of his existing story.18 “My diaspora continues.” Somewhere Baldwin says that by the time he was seventeen everything about being black in the US had happened to him, that he hadn’t needed to go through anything else to guess what lay in store for him. But the memory of having had a series of menial jobs as a black teenager is not the same as not having had one since. He didn’t go on, he went back, recalling that he had hit the streets at the age of seven or that he was sixteen when a Harlem racketeer fell in love with and protected him.
The news in his late essays is in his mood of supposed candor. He is correcting, refusing to moderate his negativism about the US, and therefore neither betraying nor being betrayed anymore. It is as though he were settling accounts, criticizing, by being more damning, an earlier self for having mastered such a blameless voice. Perhaps he was being Malcolm X to his own Reverend King. But he is filling out scenes he’d already turned over to the public domain. The rest of his wilderness is hidden. Except for mention of classroom discussions when he was a visiting instructor, little of Baldwin’s direct experience as a middle-aged adult figures in his nonfiction writings. His voice had two stops: the young man who thought about his forlorn early years and then the knowing man who vouched for that young man’s baroque sense of grievance.
In one of his last published essays, “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin says that in the church he came from “we” were counseled “to do our first works over,” to go back and reconsider our deeds. His “we” has become “black people in this country” and his family, “living and dead.” Toward the end of his life he accepted that he was often in the pulpit in his essays, as though that were—more than anyone knew—a natural place for him to speak from. “Lord, teach me to write so well that I shall no longer want to,” Auden said.
—This is the first of two articles on James Baldwin. The second, on
his fiction, will appear in a subsequent issue.
The Library of America
Read the Review
I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read. The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again. In those days my mother was given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. As they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a book with the other. The children probably suffered, though they have since been kind enough to deny it, and in this way I read Uncle Tom's Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities over and over and over again; in this way, in fact, I read just about everything I could get my hands on--except the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read. I must also confess that I wrote--a great deal--and my first professional triumph, in any case, the first effort of mine to be seen in print, occurred at the age of twelve or thereabouts, when a short story I had written about the Spanish revolution won some sort of prize in an extremely short-lived church newspaper. I remember the story was censored by the lady editor, though I don't remember why, and I was outraged.
Also wrote plays, and songs, for one of which I received a letter of congratulations from Mayor La Guardia, and poetry, about which the less said, the better. My mother was delighted by all these goings-on, but my father wasn't; he wanted me to be a preacher. When I was fourteen I became a preacher, and when I was seventeen I stopped. Very shortly thereafter I left home. For God knows how long I struggled with the world of commerce and industry--I guess they would say they struggled with me--and when I was about twenty-one I had enough done of a novel to get a Saxton Fellowship. When I was twenty-two the fellowship was over, the novel turned out to be unsalable, and I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews--mostly, as it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert. Did another book, in company with photographer Theodore Pelatowski, about the store-front churches in Harlem. This book met exactly the same fate as my first--fellowship, but no sale. (It was a Rosenwald Fellowship.) By the time I was twenty-four I had decided to stop reviewing books about the Negro problem--which, by this time, was only slightly less horrible in print than it was in life--and I packed my bags and went to France, where I finished, God knows how, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent--which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next--one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next. When one begins looking for influences one finds them by the score. I haven't thought much about my own, not enough anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech--and something of Dickens' love for bravura--have something to do with me today; but I wouldn't stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for.)
One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer (and this is not special pleading, since I don't mean to suggest that he has it worse than anybody else) is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce traditional attitudes. Of traditional attitudes there are only two--For or Against--and I, personally, find it difficult to say which attitude has caused me the most pain. I am speaking as a writer; from a social point of view I am perfectly aware that the change from ill-will to good-will, however motivated, however imperfect, however expressed, is better than no change at all.
But it is part of the business of the writer--as I see it--to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source. From this point of view the Negro problem is nearly inaccessible. It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly. It is quite possible to say that the price a Negro pays for becoming articulate is to find himself, at length, with nothing to be articulate about. ("You taught me language," says Caliban to Prospero, "and my profit on't is I know how to curse.") Consider: the tremendous social activity that this problem generates imposes on whites and Negroes alike the necessity of looking forward, of working to bring about a better day. This is fine, it keeps the waters troubled; it is all, indeed, that has made possible the Negro's progress. Nevertheless, social affairs are not generally speaking the writer's prime concern, whether they ought to be or not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.
I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use--I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine--I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme--otherwise I would have no place in any scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world. And this meant, not only that I thus gave the world an altogether murderous power over me, but also that in such a self-destroying limbo I could never hope to write.
One writes out of one thing only--one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.
I don't think the dilemma outlined above is uncommon. I do think, since writers work in the disastrously explicit medium of language, that it goes a little way towards explaining why, out of the enormous resources of Negro speech and life, and despite the example of Negro music, prose written by Negroes has been generally speaking so pallid and so harsh. I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else. I don't think that the Negro problem in America can be even discussed coherently without bearing in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions, customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart. But in the work of Faulkner, in the general attitude and certain specific passages in Robert Penn Warren, and, most significantly, in the advent of Ralph Ellison, one sees the beginnings--at least--of a more genuinely penetrating search. Mr. Ellison, by the way, is the first Negro novelist I have ever read to utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and irony of Negro life.
About my interests: I don't know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental movies can be so classified. Otherwise, I love to eat and drink---it's my melancholy conviction that I've scarcely ever had enough to eat (this is because it's impossible to eat enough if you're worried about the next meal)--and I love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too profoundly, and I love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything. I don't like people who like me because I'm a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one's own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
I want to be an honest man and a good writer.
(C) 1998 Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. All rights reserved. ISBN: 1-883011-52-3
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