James Baldwin’s Grand Tour
In America I’m not really a private person. No, I’m a public person. And a public person cannot write. Writers always have to find a way to do their work, because if you don’t do your work, then you really are useless. The best thing I ever did in my life, I think, was in effect flee America and go to Paris in 1948. It gave me time to vomit up a great deal of bitterness. At least I could operate in Paris without being menaced socially. Nobody cared what I did.
As an international organization dedicated to the advancement of literature, PEN works to spread literacy in all communities, and to defend freedom of expression. For that reason it is easy to understand why we want to celebrate James Baldwin, a writer who was not only active with PEN but, more importantly, whose life and work have liberated minds and bodies everywhere. James Baldwin is one of those rare figures in literature and history, a man who was truly engaged in all the issues of his time. He was prescient, fierce, elegant in word and deed, and he was right. We miss him, and he still keeps us going.
On the Avenue
Carl Hancock Rux
I didn’t know him, but he knew me. He knew Harlem, he knew poetry, he knew Jesus, and he knew my mother. He knew sin. I did not know him, but when I first read him, he knew me. This excerpt comes from “The Fire Next Time”:
I became during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid—afraid of the evil within me, and the evil without. What I saw around me that summer in Harlem was what I had always seen; nothing had changed. But now, without any warning, the whores and pimps and racketeers on the Avenue had become a personal menace. It had not before occurred to me that I could become one of them, but now I realized that we had been produced by the same circumstances. Many of my comrades were clearly headed for the Avenue, and my father said that I was headed that way too….
One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before, and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church.
For the wages of sin were visible everywhere, in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway, in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every helpless, newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parcelled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible, small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail. It was a summer of dreadful speculations and discoveries, of which these were not the worst. Crime became real, for example—for the first time—not as a possibility, but as the possibility. One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account. One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear. It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else—housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers—would never, by the operation of any generous feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities. Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough. There seems to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t want to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
The White Problem
In Go Tell It on the Mountain, the young protagonist, John Grimes, stands on a hill in Central Park: “He felt like a long-awaited conqueror, at whose feet flowers would be strewn, and before whom multitudes cried, Hosanna. He would be, of all, the mightiest, the most beloved, the Lord’s anointed; and he would live in this shining city which his ancestors had seen with longing from far away.” The hill in question is one on which the young James Baldwin had often stood, and the thoughts were the young Baldwin’s, too. The city was of course New York, but it was also America, the New Jerusalem, which Baldwin’s ancestors could only long for from far away. John Grimes’s thoughts are those of a prophet-to-be, of the Lord’s anointed, who one day would experience both the adulation and the condemnation of the shining city as he revealed it for what it was.
John Grimes is James Baldwin, and James Baldwin became that prophet. A black American, born into the bleakness of poverty and the lie of the American Dream, who would rise up, with a voice dedicated like those of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, to tell his people, the American people, where they had gone wrong. And what a voice it was, and is. It could explode into fiery life at a meeting with Robert Kennedy, or at a polite dinner party of liberals at an Upper East Side apartment. Most of all it cried out in the great essays like “Notes of a Native Son,” “Nobody Knows My Name,” and “The Fire Next Time” (“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,/ No more water, the fire next time!”) and in the agonizing dilemmas of novels and plays like Giovanni’s Room and Another Country and Blues for Mister Charlie. Baldwin’s voice was uncompromising and unrelenting, like Jeremiah’s, like Ezekial’s. It often hurt people, but it always contained the truth about who and what we are.
When I was working for Baldwin in New York and Istanbul in the 1960s and discussing a biography with him in the 1980s, I asked him about his early influences, about who or what had made him what he used to call “the perfectly impossible man” he was. Where did he learn that there came a time when it was appropriate to call the President a “motherfucker” from the pulpit of a great cathedral? Or that it was vitally necessary to keep a room spellbound and terrified for over eight hours through a long night while the lettuce on our plates wilted and he described how he had picked the cotton for all of us?
Baldwin listed several primary influences at various times in our conversations. The first and most important, he always said, was his mother. Mrs. Baldwin, whom many of us here knew, was a consistent source of strength and self-esteem. In letters and at Sunday dinners, and any way she could, she preached the doctrine of love to her son. It was she who taught him that racism and hatred hurt the racist and hater as much as the racist’s victim. If he was to do something important in the world, he must reach out to both. The man Baldwin always called his father was an influence, too. In “Notes of a Native Son” we learn that it was the example of his father that led him to understand just how self-destructive hatred could be. Mr. Baldwin’s anger ate away at his mind, said his son. He was defeated long before he died because at the bottom of his heart he really believed what white people said about him. He knew that he was black, but did not know that he was beautiful.
And there were school influences. Gertrude Ayer, the first black principal in New York, who at P.S. 24 recognized something special in this seemingly lost little boy with big eyes and a funny walk, and assigned him for special work with a young teacher from the Midwest who later, with her husband, took her charge to plays and political meetings that gave foundation to a developing belief in the power of art and political action. That teacher, Orilla Miller, would remain a friend for life. At Frederick Douglass Junior High, Jimmy was taken over by Bill Porter and Countee Cullen. Both Porter and Cullen encouraged him to write, and through Cullen he absorbed the twilight of the Harlem Renaissance, an interest in things French, and a sense of an as yet mysterious, shared, intimate otherness that could be powerful in its own right.
At DeWitt Clinton High School he continued to be taken up by teachers and now fellow students who recognized the growing power of his voice as a speaker and writer. But meanwhile, another powerful influence was the Pentecostal Church in which Baldwin had—like John in Go Tell It on the Mountain—been saved, and in which he became, for a while, an apprentice preacher. Baldwin left the church in his late teens, but not before absorbing the rhetoric of the Bible, and the sense of the mysterious power of the Word to move people and change their views and ways. He always said he left the pulpit to preach the gospel.
The struggle during his adolescence between church, spirit, Harlem, and home on one side and school, art, the world out there, and the growing needs of the flesh on the other led Baldwin to the first of many emotional crises. But more important, it led him to the bohemian world of Greenwich Village, and into the metaphorical and philosophical arms of the great painter Beauford Delaney. Beauford had been recommended to Baldwin by a friend as someone who might help him. When Jimmy got up the nerve to knock on the door of the shabby apartment at 181 Greene Street, he was confronted by a short, round, brown man, who, “when he had completed his instant x-ray of my brain, lungs, liver, heart, bowels, and spinal column,” invited him in. I know what that meeting and that examination were like because years later I would be received at Delaney’s door in Paris and have much the same experience.
Baldwin always said he had opened that unusual door not a moment too soon. Here was a gay black man, like him the son of a preacher, who was nevertheless making it as an artist. Beauford took on the boy as his primary charge. He taught him, as Luke teaches his son David in The Amen Corner, that the church-forbidden jazz and the blues, the music of Ethel Waters and Ma Rainey, of Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, the literal and metaphorical music of the streets, was just as sacred as the spirituals and gospel songs of the sanctified. Beauford bridged Baldwin’s two worlds, his many sides. He became what Baldwin would later call “my principal witness,” and remained a close friend and mentor, really a father, if sometimes a very needy father, until he died in Paris in 1979. Perhaps most important, Beauford taught the young James Baldwin to observe the world around him with meticulous care and to translate that observation into his art.
There were, of course, other influences on the early life: the books pored over at the Schomburg library, meetings with Richard Wright, the legendary Mother Horn, and Marian Anderson. Perhaps one final influence, however, needs to be mentioned. In December 1946, Eugene Worth, a young African American whom Baldwin loved, jumped off the George Washington Bridge, and in so doing, remained in the writer’s mind until he became Rufus in Another Country. Eugene’s suicide convinced Baldwin that he had to leave the shining city, at least for a while, so as to see it from a distance. In his growing despair over the waywardness of his people, the American people, he could follow Eugene or he could make his way to Paris, long the sanctuary of so many black voices in the struggle. In 1948 he took that leap, and so began another stage of the story we’re here to tell.
Four years ago, shortly after I had begun thinking about the life and work of James Baldwin, who has been dead for fourteen years now, Dr. Betty Shabazz, widow of the martyred political leader Malcolm X, lay in critical condition at the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, eighty percent of her body covered in burns. It was June. James Baldwin’s famous eyes, the shape of poppies in bloom, stared out from the paperback editions of his novels and plays, essays and dialogues, which I had begun to read and reread earlier that spring, not long before I sat—as if in a narcotic trance—before my television set, taking in the newsreel images of Betty Shabazz’s life. One of the conditions of being a writer is that all those authors you have loved and learned from, and by necessity have taught yourself to forget, the better to get on with your own work, end up encroaching on the real events of your life. It was impossible for me to look at Betty Shabazz, or the grandson who had allegedly set his grandmother aflame, without wondering what Baldwin would have made of it all. I imagined he would have seen in the story of Malcolm X, whom he had known, and Betty Shabazz, and their orphaned children, a parable of the splintered black American family. In particular, he would have seen something of himself in that scared and angry and messed-up black boy, committing, horribly, such irrevocable violence against his family, believing he had nowhere to go.
That spring, I existed in a kind of self-protective numbness, paused between the death of Betty Shabazz and my own resurrection of James Baldwin. As I read Baldwin in my present incarnation, I realized that he did not have a great formal mind. He did not have an expansive command of American history or politics. He wrote out of a sense of presumed intimacy with the reader, an early precursor to many of the memoirists currently in vogue. And through that invention he had grown dependent on his audience’s ability to make him feel complete, seen, known. I had learned from his example: the writer of delicate, precise talent who becomes a public figure, a spokesman, ceases to be the writer he meant to be. Yet, what I identified with in Baldwin’s work—the high faggot style of his voice, the gripping narrative of his ascent from teen evangelist to cultural icon—had not changed substantially since the days when I had devoured his books like some weird food, as he had described his own early love of reading. My admiration for the way in which he alchemized the singularity of his experience into art had not diminished.
As a child I had suspected that Baldwin and I were similar, but for a long time, I was unprepared to accept that. I have never been comfortable being identified as a black anything, spokesperson in particular, particularly when that description comes from a white audience that knows nothing about its limitations. Nor have I ever been comfortable with the presumed fraternities some black writers, academics, and intellectuals feel with one another. I have spent my entire life trying to come to grips with my feelings for my own family, and I have not had room to be adopted by a family to whose provincialism, competitiveness, and numerous apprehensions I am not genetically bound.
Baldwin, at one point in his life, felt the same way. In 1959, when he was thirty-five, he wrote from self-imposed exile in Europe that he had left America because he wanted to prevent himself from becoming “merely a Negro writer.” He went on to become the greatest Negro writer of his generation. Perhaps none of us escapes the whipping post we’ve carved our names on. Baldwin’s career became a cautionary tale for me, a warning as well as an inspiration. After leaving home at nineteen, he worked for a while at a defense plant in New Jersey. “I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people….That year in New Jersey lives in my mind as though it were the year during which, having an unsuspected predilection for it, I first contracted some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. Once the disease is controlled, one can never be really carefree again, for the fever, without an instant’s warning, can recur at any moment. It can wreck more important things than race relations. There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood…”
In November 1948, when he was twenty-four, unwilling to end up like his stepfather, sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors, Baldwin used the money from a literary fellowship he’d won to book passage to Paris. He arrived with just over forty dollars to his name and few contacts, other than Richard Wright, who’d arrived there two years earlier. But postwar Paris proved to be a refuge for a number of black Americans, and the Parisians, as Baldwin’s friend Maya Angelou has said, were delighted with them. They were neither les miserables nor Algerians. France was not without its race prejudices, she recalled in an interview; it simply did not have any guilt vis-à-vis black Americans. And black Americans who went there, from Richard Wright to Sidney Bechet, were so colorful, and so talented, and so marvelous, and so exotic, who wouldn’t want them?
Shortly after his arrival, Baldwin met a seventeen-year-old Swiss artist named Lucien Happersberger. The fact that Happersberger was white and Baldwin was black was less of a transgression than it would have been back in the States. But Lucien, who was bisexual, and more attracted to women, was not completely available to Baldwin. Straight and bisexual men were to Baldwin’s taste—or rather, to the taste of the isolation he fed on. For Baldwin the first principle of love was what love withheld. His purpose was to get through another man’s terrors in order to recognize his own. In the gay demimonde, where looks count for a great deal, Baldwin was not a success, even after he became famous. There’s a famous eighteenth-century person, a poet told me, who used to say, “I can talk my face away in twenty-five minutes,” and Jimmy could do that, to a point perhaps. But he was not pretty enough to compete in a world he had chosen for himself.
Baldwin pitted his ugliness against western standards of beauty in his second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), a short tale of love and abandonment that takes place in the bars and hotels of postwar Paris. The protagonist and narrator is a white boy from New York named David, who is in, one assumes, his late twenties. David is adrift in Paris. He is adrift, or more accurately in flight, from his homosexuality. At a gay bar he frequents, he meets an Italian bartender named Giovanni, who is sweet and passionate, and just a trifle dimwitted, but who feels—shades of E. M. Forster. David can commit neither to Giovanni nor to his fiancée, Hella. His lack of a moral center has serious consequences. Made desperate by David’s abandonment, Giovanni steals from his former employer and murders him in a scuffle. The melodramatic plot, in which each man really does kill the thing he loves, creates in microcosm the tone of Baldwin’s later, unwieldy novels, notably the passionate Another Country (1961). Giovanni’s Room isn’t exactly self-affirming, but the fact that Baldwin wrote about the world of his sexuality at all is extraordinary given the year and his race. So intense was the stern Puritanism of most blacks I knew while I was growing up that one was not simply a faggot but a damned faggot. When Giovanni’s Room was published, Richard Howard recalls, “It was regarded as an exceptional book, and gay people were proud that such a thing existed, and that it should have been written by a black person was kind of phenomenal.”
Baldwin was not a natural novelist. His voice as an essayist intrudes on the plot lines of every novel he wrote, except Go Tell It on the Mountain, which was, in nearly every sense, his story. It was in Baldwin’s essays, unencumbered by the requirements of narrative form, character, and incident, that his voice was most fully realized. And his attacks on the straight white gatekeepers of culture and politics remain appropriately vicious. In the 1950s his most pugnacious contemporary was Norman Mailer. In 1959 Mailer published Advertisements for Myself, which contained his essays, evaluations, quick comments on the talent in the room. In it, he declares his admiration for James Jones and other major novelists of the time, but says, “James Baldwin is too charming to be a major writer. If in ‘Notes of a Native Son’ he has a sense of moral nuance, which is one of the few modern guides for the sophistications of the ethos, even the best of his paragraphs are sprayed with perfume. Baldwin seems incapable of saying ‘fuck you’ to the reader. Instead he must delineate the cracking and the breaking and the melting and the hardening of the heart, which could never have felt such sensuous growth and little deaths, without being emptied as a voice.”
Fag bashing? Baldwin did not take Mailer’s comments lying down, and it’s the faggy exhaustion of Baldwin’s voice, the hardening of his heart, that amuses. Baldwin’s subsequent essay about Mailer, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” published in 1961, deflates Mailer’s macho posturing with perfumed wit: “Norman, I can’t go through the world the way you do because I haven’t got your shoulders,” he writes. “‘I want to know how power works,’ Norman once said to me, ‘how it really works, in detail.’ Well, I know how power works. It has worked on me, and if I didn’t know how power worked, I would be dead.” This is not ebonics, but gaybonics—the stylish voice one hears in many a black gay bar. Baldwin slyly makes fun of Mailer’s infatuation with a predominantly black gay jazz world. “Negro jazz musicians really liked Norman,” he writes, “but they did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely hip. They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” Baldwin did not, however, own up to his reciprocal fascination with straight white boys and their privilege.
Another Country, Baldwin’s hip book about interracial sex, gay sex, pot smoking, and nihilism, turned out to be an artistic challenge. By the time Baldwin published Another Country and the essay collection Nobody Knows My Name, both in 1962, he had become America’s leading literary black star. Both books were commercially successful, but the reviews of Another Country were mixed. The novel centers on Rufus, a black male artist, who falls in love with a Southern white woman he meets at a party and has sex with her on the host’s balcony. After becoming involved with her, Rufus is tormented by a world that cannot understand their love. He beats her, she ends up in a mental ward, he commits suicide. The subplots, about adultery, bebopping, and ambition, are equally melodramatic. Elizabeth Hardwick astutely observed in her review for Harper’s, “In certain respects this novel is a representation of some of the ideas about American life, particularly about the Negro in American life, that Baldwin’s essays have touched upon. But what is lacking in the book is James Baldwin himself, who has in his nonfictional writing a very powerful relation to the reader.”
When Baldwin began writing Another Country, he had temporarily renounced his exile to return to the States. He wrote part of the book in the novelist William Styron’s guesthouse in rural Connecticut. Styron recalled: “We gave him a place to stay. It was winter. I used to watch him, this very black figure, climb through the snowdrifts toward our house. I was writing Nat Turner, and I talked to him about it. Later, he defended the book, which came under attack by black intellectuals. We’d feed him, and he’d come around at night. We’d have these very liberal political people over, and Jimmy, who’d embarked on his role as a preacher, used to stand in front of the fireplace and say, ‘Baby, we’re going to burn your mother-fucking houses down.’”
(To try and unravel the various contradictions in Baldwin’s work is to risk seeming foolish. Ideology denied in one book is confirmed as gospel in another).
In his earliest essays he insisted he did not want to be the things he eventually became, merely a Negro, merely a Negro writer, merely a homosexual, merely a spokesperson for his race. And yet these contradictions are one of the most valuable features of his work. Without a large edition of work about his culture, his history, his politics on which to base himself, he had to make himself up, which is still the curse for others not unlike him who feel they only have James Baldwin to work against. Baldwin understood this particular kind of ambivalence, having written the following at thirty-six: “One of my dearest friends, a Negro writer now living in Spain, circled around me, and I around him, for months before we spoke. One Negro meeting another at an all-white cocktail party cannot but wonder how the other got there. The question is: Is he for real, or is he kissing ass? Negroes know about each other what can be here called family secrets, and this means that one Negro, if he wishes, can mock the other’s hustle. Therefore one exceptional Negro watches another exceptional Negro in order to find out if he knows how vastly successful and bitterly funny the hoax has been.”
Reading Baldwin, I was able to laugh again. This laughter is somewhat quelled by the knowledge that there is one great Baldwin masterpiece waiting to be published, one composed in an atmosphere of focused intimacy, and that is a volume of his letters, letters his family does not want published. When I asked one of his biographers why the Baldwin family wouldn’t allow his letters to be published, he explained that the family felt he shed a negative light on them, particularly on David Baldwin, who was their father, and not his. And they were uncomfortable with his homosexuality. And yet Baldwin left his legacy in their hands. In the end, even a bastard may be reclaimed by his family.
Making James Baldwin
what does this mean…Countee Cullen taught you in junior high…in Harlem…with that great history of renaissance but only Langston remained…what does it mean when you know you really don’t want to deliver packages or be some sort of clerk in a back room somewhere way downtown…what does it mean when you know what nobody has told you YOU WERE BEFORE HIM WHOM YOU CALL FATHER who didn’t so much dislike you as simply not understand why you were a witness that he wasn’t first and you had all this to deal with while thinking maybe I’m not good looking and maybe I’m not ordinary…would this make you a James Baldwin
so when you are looking around and you realize you’re angry because it just ain’t right that people who look like you people who are small and black and lonely but bright and funny and sweet can’t find a way in this world and every time you do something you think is pretty wonderful that man WHOM YOU CALL FATHER is trying to grind you down to his size which isn’t so much small as afraid of what’s out there and somehow you keep trying to please the un-pleasable so you kiddie preach in church because at least everybody says amen and you think: have I found a place but you know you can’t find a place when people still look at what your heart desires and what your arms need as the worse sin worser than lynching black men and women worser than denying prescription drugs to old people worser than withholding vaccinations from poor children worser than anything because even bad off niggers want to find something worser than their pitiful lives and they are trying to use you and your talent and your hopes and dreams to make themselves more whole…would that make you a James Baldwin
and then it occurs to you If You Are A Deer In Headlights MOVE and avoid being steam rolled MOVE and don’t take the hit MOVE and find another place to be…move downtown and meet people who accept you not judge you move to Europe and fall in love move with your love to Switzerland and write your books and determine never to deny what your heart knows is true never turn your back on what your mind knows is right
never refuse to hear the cry of the anguished or the laughter in the blues do it all because one time you go around is the only time to do it so be a stand up guy who stands up first for yourself then all the people who need an arm to lean on or a heart to hear a voice to raise for the righteousness of it and maybe that would make you a James Baldwin
To Change the World
Though I never met James Baldwin in person, and never even saw him at a public event, he is nonetheless to me like a father, or a beloved uncle, or mentor. That is to say, he is in my mind nearly every day, for the very simple reason that he was instrumental in creating my mind. And to the degree that my life and work have been shaped by my mind, especially in the way it is positioned with regard to race in America, James Baldwin shaped that life and work. Our actual lives never touched, except through his words, which is the most intimate touch of all. And his words expressed in those early essays which later became Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time entered my life at a time when I was a very young man, impressionable, confused, ignorant, and emotionally turbulent. Still a boy, actually, a well-intended white New Englander who had romanticized his sweetly naïve but pragmatically useless youthful idealism so that he could take pride in it, so that he could think better of himself, seated somewhat uncomfortably in a guilt-drenched 1950s white boy garden of privilege.
However, although I had almost no idea of how to go about becoming either, I wanted to become a writer and a good person. I was a pipe fitter in New Hampshire then with no college and little travel—an unpromising situation. But thanks to my fuzzy, self-serving idealism, and my twin desires to become a writer and a good person, I was reading in those days—the late 1950s, early 1960s—periodicals like Partisan Review, where I read for the first time the mind-altering essay “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South.” And then the brilliant dissection “Faulkner and Desegregation,” troubling to me, for Faulkner had already been at work creating my mind for several years. I was also reading The Progressive (possibly the only person in Concord, New Hampshire at that time, certainly the only pipe fitter), where I came upon “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” And then one unforgettable night, I read in The New Yorker, transfixed and transformed, the long essay that we remember now as “The Fire Next Time,” called there, “Letter from a Region in My Mind.”
(Baldwin’s words, his language, trickled into my ear, and became an inner voice that woke me suddenly from a long, mind-numbing, conscience-killing slumber).
I can imagine, many generations earlier, a young New England boy reading Emerson for the first time, and feeling, thinking, as I did on first reading James Baldwin: Here was the undeniable, inescapable truth of the matter, and Good God, it was right in front of my eyes all along, and I never saw it. You felt as if you had been blind and were suddenly given sight, or foolish and had suddenly been given sense. It’s so easy when you are a white man in America to remain blind to what lies in front of you, and a fool. How ashamed, yet wonderfully liberated I was, when I read this sentence, for example, among many others: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow, and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
I could feel my heart and head clear together. My thoughts and pulse racing from premise to conclusion at the speed of light, it seemed, as I sat in my rented room in Keene, New Hampshire now, and read not quite by candlelight, but in the dim glow of a bedside lamp, Baldwin’s elucidation of the so-called Negro Student Movement, the earliest manifestation of what soon became the Civil Rights Movement—an elucidation that gave me leave, a few years later, to cleave in my own feeble way to the work too. “The goal of the student movement,” he wrote, “is nothing less than the liberation of the entire country from its crippling attitudes and habits.
(“The reason that it is of the utmost importance for white people, here, to see the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not otherwise be able to see themselves as they are.”)
I truly wished to see myself as I was, and to the degree that I have been successful in this, Baldwin taught me how. His aphoristic style, his mixture of high diction and low, the rhetoric of the pulpit and of the street, his willingness to take the universe personally, his uneasy relationship with Christianity—these are qualities he shares with Emerson, one of my earlier fathers, and in fact I believe that Baldwin’s essays can stand easily alongside Emerson’s. Because there lies, at the center of Baldwin’s thinking, the central fact of the American imagination, which is race, his essays in the end will go further towards the shaping of the American imagination than those of any other writer so far, and will do so for generations to come.
“You write in order to change the world,” Baldwin said, “knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” His heart was a target of opportunity, and he suffered terribly for it, but James Baldwin changed the world.
Our Man Jimmy
In these days of American Weimar, with a counterfeit president for a fake democracy, it is a deeply inspiring and absolutely necessary weapon and shield of true self-consciousness against an oppressor nation, its lieutenants, deranged pets, hired killers, artists, academic courtesans, and the dangerously uninformed, to reflect on the obvious grandeur, wisdom, and strength of that tradition of the Afro-American intellectual, artist, teacher—and know that it is revolutionary and democratic. Jimmy B. is high up in that tradition. Certain Skip Gateskeepers try to make trouble by whispering, Holy Doo-Doo, if not for Baraka and those other over-the-top colored types, Jimmy might have passed blazing into the Britannica pantheon of white right. But alas, there are neither colored mens nor womens in that cave of virtual significance. They said DuBois would have made it but he always be talkin about real shit.
In the fifties I did criticize Jimmy in some review, complaining in my infantile leftist mode that while Jimmy was playing the distressed aesthete in Europe, and moaning that instead of confronting the racial animal we should all try to love each other, my rejoinder was that we should get back to our real work: cutting throats. Actually, given the recent seizure of the presidency, which super-whitened the already amazingly Caucasian crib, this is an idea whose time has apparently never split.
When Jimmy returned to the U.S. with some visible hereness, it was to rise at the very center of the civil rights movement, often at Dr. King’s side. To me, three voices heroically characterizing the fieriest period of the civil rights movement are Dr. King, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. That is one of the principal reasons this brother is respected and loved, particularly by black people. Because Dr. DuBois was attacked for the crime of being an activist and speaking out against nuclear weapons in the fifties. He was attacked, as Jimmy was later, for being a people’s democrat, which is indeed revolutionary in what he called “the last white country on earth.”
(Like DuBois, Jimmy Baldwin was attacked for being a social activist as well as an innovative grand master of thought and language.)
But the mustard-seed–sized ideology of the Gateskeepers and academic Rent-a-Cops of the imperialist superstructure, its institutions, and the philosophies it is built to forward and maintain, despite all cosmetic hocus-pocus and gibberish, still gives off the insidious perfume of a crowded commode. Imagine, in the face of Notes of a Native Son, The Amen Corner, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room (Jimmy was never in no closet), The Fire Next Time, the great Blues for Mr. Charlie, or the still unsung masterwork Evidence of Things Unseen, the stooges want to raise up some Johnny-one-note sycophant of literary, social, and political conservatism, who is really celebrated so energetically because he dismissed both black nationalism and Marxism, and for a boffo exit let the heebie-jeebies castrate him symbolically (literarily, of course—it’s called deconstruction, you dig?), and then as dénouement turn his soul into an insect (the National Book Award). Jimmy, like W.E.B., was in the great social-aesthetic tradition of the Afro-American people, an oppressed nation with the right of self-determination. Because of slavery and national oppression, black people have a common though not monolithic psychological development which is expressed in a generally common culture, though all nations and peoples have two cultures: the culture of the oppressed and the culture of the oppressors. These are defined as contradictory ideological poles of class, as form and content.
So Mr. One-Note expresses the artistic culture of the conservative wing of the black petty and national bourgeoisie. Baldwin, until the day he left here, was in the main a voice of the Harlem toilets. Once more, check out evidence. It was DuBois who laid out the psychological double consciousness of Afro-America, where black people are torn between being obviously black and de jure, albeit Native, Americans. But the legacy of that teaching today is that we have come to know we are both, and that those contradictions are actually two edges of the terrible swift sword of Afro-American struggle, wielded with such profound and dangerous beauty by giants like James Baldwin. As far as his going back and forth to the south of France, after his honorable service in the Afro-American people’s democratic volunteers, under the inspired and inspiring leadership of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X during the heights of the civil rights and black liberation movement: During this period Jimmy was in the United States regularly. That’s when we would go to West 100th Street, where his brother David would try to waste both of us with cavalier quantities of spirits. And In those later years, the main reason Jimmy went to the south of France was to write, since he was, independent of his will, obstructively visible and very public when sailing around in this place. David was our contact and connection, my man, the laughing raconteur of West 100th Street, but now they’re both gone, and we must conjure all our strength to face the crowd of wooden Negroes who, lacking any culture but that of the bourgeois white behind, now energetically join the class of savage right-wing bushwhackers. But if we are true to that irrepressible tradition that animated our man Jimmy Baldwin, listen to this, “The western world is located somewhere between the Statue of Liberty and the pillar of salt,” or, dig this droll film review titled, “The Devil Finds Work.”
Even when I criticized Jimmy as a young man, when I first saw him as an undergraduate at Howard University, with The Amen Corner, I still understood that his direct TV eyes had daunted and welcomed me into our writing, from the cover of Notes of a Native Son. And disguised behind the infantile “yo brother” I hurled at him, he saw the younger brother, as he called me, the younger brother chiding the older brother to get on it. Because if we’d read and understood Baldwin, And as I noted at the Black Arts Convention in ’84, “The religious hypocrisy to Jimmy was the same as the social hypocrisy.” White America was no more democratic than it was religious, black people were no more citizens than white Americans were Christians, so that in many critical points in the works, Baldwin would use the Biblical text as the Amen, the shout of recognition, the “Yes, Lord,” of the witness, that what he had seen and felt was truth.
For Jimmy, spirit was the animating reality of our living consciousness and relationship to the world. It was what made us human or not. His constant metaphor for the spirit of white America is menace, danger, murder, atrocity. His own work sought to evoke the spirit and truth of the excitement and drama of the church from its evocative Wordship, its altar from whence the Word would come, that high place. And so Baldwin is able to give us the motion of the peripatetic observer observing the Atlanta horror in its complexities, bearing witness to the individual and collective guilt of white America and its petty bourgeois Negro management class with the precision and deftness of his own Jimmy self at some non-cocktail, non-party, where the squares hang on the walls like wallpaper waiting to be pasted.
The spirit of Jimmy’s work is of a high moral prophetic vision, the witness who has been buked and scorned like John the Revelator, digging the coming attraction on Patmos, the spirit of that grimly beautiful message to the churches. What was grim was what Jimmy spoke of when he said that white America thinks that black people’s religious beliefs are childish. But that’s the trick, the grim payback, because as DuBois laid out, suppose you really believed in God? Suppose you really believed in all that—the Old Testament, the New Testament? Suppose you believed one night you might meet the Savior walking down the street and you were that blood, and here was the lamb that had promised to deliver you: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,/ He has loosed the fateful lightening of his terrible swift sword…” What that eternity of humming meant, even after the drum got took away, at the coming of the Lord: This gonna be your ass, all you heathens, this gonna be yo natural ass. This was, likewise, Jimmy’s religion, and his spirit.
On Solid Ground
When I first met the wide smile of James Baldwin face to face, I just burst into tears. In less than a heartbeat, he opened his arms as wide as his smile. And as he held me close and hard, he said, “And what have I done to deserve all this?”
The time was the late seventies, the place his sister’s apartment in the famed West 71st Street house. The living room which framed us with its walls of pictures and books and African-draped chairs and sofas and pillows was also a studio filled with Paula-made hats and long silhouette dresses in gorgeous earth tones. This day, the room was alive with the aroma of groundnut stew and paella, and the sound of the Roberta Martin Singers’ new release, Be Still My Soul.
We four, then—Gloria, Paula, Jimmy, me—hugging up, laughing through rainy eyes. Suddenly, as if I had not made enough of a fool of myself, I began to recite his observation recorded in “Notes of a Native Son,” as he stands before the great cathedral at Chartres. He had said that while some may admire “the power of the spires and the glory of the windows…I am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which the heretics were hurled to death, and the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone….I have known God in a different way.” When I had finished this second outburst, his great eyes widened, his face lit up, this time absent of a smile. He looked at each of us as though to assure himself that we were palpable, and then almost as a whisper he said, “Child, sit.”
He sat on a pillow and we beside him gazing straight into that face where midnight and dawn shared equal time at play. His stark white shirt opened at the neck emboldened the ficus tree of his back. For a moment he was pure portrait. Then he spoke. “That is exactly what I meant,” he said, “this sound, this smell, these faces, this love, this moment.” And we said, all three of us together, “And Sonny went all the way back.”
The man’s laughter shook the room. “That sound,” he said, is how Go Tell It on the Mountain got its name. Then he told us a story.
“One day, as Lucien and I were returning from a small village below the chalet, we discovered that we had lingered too long and that night would soon fall. For fear that we might miss our trail, Lucien suggested a shortcut which required us to leap across a gorge. Lucien was a mountain boy, I was not. I stood before the gorge, trembling, and Lucien said, ‘Now is no time to lose your head.’ I had made a mistake. I looked down into the abyss and knew that if I failed the leap, I was lost. I paced back, I ran forward, I took the leap. When I felt myself on solid ground I began to weep, and something from home grabbed me and brought me to my feet. I heard the sound, I heard the song, I didn’t find the song, it found me. It was Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
By the time the room began to fill with friends, the conversation had turned to the terms of existence in the American novel. It was a conversation that lasted throughout the day and night; it has not ended and will not end as long as you and I shall live. For the terms of existence is, after all, the Baldwin subject. It informs a hundred and twenty-four book reviews, seven works of nonfiction, two plays, a collection of stories, six novels, one scenario, and a collection of poems. His terms for existence. Of his own growth to maturity James Baldwin has said, “I was at war with, was completely unable to accept the assumptions, of the official vocabulary into which I had been born. Which assumptions, it had been supposed, would guide my life and keep me in my place.”
Baldwin’s central project throughout his writing career was to shatter that official vocabulary, and in doing so he claims an ancestral role in the formation of contemporary literary and social theory and pedagogy that drive the academy today. Though he clearly precedes what the academy in the United States promotes at the millennium as the public intellectual, Baldwin had no base in the academy until 1978, when he was invited to residency at Bowling Green University and also lectured at the University of California at Berkeley. Five years before his death in 1987, he became a Five College professor of literature at Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith colleges and the University of Massachusetts. But long before then, and ever since, he had defined the condition of knowledge, queried the situs of authentic being, and attacked the foundations of the large historical schemes that have defined being and commanded our belief, investment, and adherence. Baldwin’s steady attack on these traditional attitudes, these monsters of the mind, these fantastic and fearful images, or social texts, called “nigger,” or “queer,” or any other established index meaning “not us,” informs the current project of the academy and inflects American and global life as much as it precedes current theoretical formulations.
As early as 1955, in Notes of a Native Son, he had said, “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 think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or 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.” From this moral center he located and unmasked traditional attitudes or, in his words, “theologies that deny one life.” “For,” he said, “the basis of the vocabulary into which we were born is that white Christians, aided perhaps by a few Jews, are the authors and custodians of civilization and history. A delusion validated only by the action and reality of white power. Now that that power is being contested, the moral basis of our vocabulary is being revealed, and it is not an ennobling sight. The gates of our cities are barred, and famine, danger, and death are the ruling citizens. It is time to re-examine the principles of the vocabulary which has led us to this place.”
From Notes to his final novel, Just Above My Head, he warns us that what the world calls morality is nothing but the dream of safety. But for Baldwin, the only safety is to dare love. Love is the term for existence that he left us. It remains a challenge for the academy, and for our lives.
With Fire and Bare Hands
John Edgar Wideman
James Baldwin bequeathed to me—and to you— a language and a mission. That language was the language of the King James Bible transmuted by African-American vernacular speech into an instrument which gained the attention of all Americans, and I think the power of that language can be measured, can be gauged, because it was the last language which allowed so-called white Americans and so-called black Americans to look each other in the eye and pretend that we shared a country, and shared a destiny, and perhaps there was some way that we could get it together and inch this country forward from the horrors of its past. There has been no writer since, there has been no language since, in the literary community, that has accomplished that kind of magic. And for that alone we owe James Baldwin a great debt.
As a writer, I am tired of hearing Baldwin’s literary heritage chopped up into two pieces: the essays and the fiction. That sort of approach seems to amount to giving with one hand and taking away with the other, so we’re left with—what?—nothing, mediocrity. And that approach is only possible if one forgets that language is language, and good writing is good writing, and the borders that some of Baldwin’s detractors are attempting to trace, in terms of gender, in terms of race, in terms of class, are the very borders that are inhibiting their understanding of the fluidity of Baldwin’s language and his literary heritage. We don’t need to chop him up into kinds, we need to read, and listen to the music and the truth, because his mission was truth.
I remember James Baldwin as a colleague, as a friend. I remember him singing, and I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t remember that social being, because it was his life, it was his energy, his willingness to give—forget whether he’s right or wrong—his ability to be there, to be in the midst, to be present for all of us, that is his legacy. The eyes. Sitting across from him, looking into those eyes:
For James Baldwin
What can we say to this
this knife-edged air
this ice blocking streams
this bluesteel sky
How do we speak to you
who is our voice and
still now. Too patient to
laugh at us but smiling
and the glass in your hand
your steepled knee
that elegant rag of many colors
swirling round your throat
Surely we knew
it would come to this
it always does.
Against fiery last ditch light
trees are x-rays of themselves
prisoners stripped, flayed to the bone
One black boy so scared
pee-pee bout to run down his pantleg
but he ain’t turning round
not today. No woman no
cry. Not today, momma. Gon tear that
old building down. With love
with fire and bare hands
and words like ten thousand
trumpets shaking hills
to their foundations
Poor boy long way from home
Poor boy long way from home
Poor boy long way from home
Been here—and now he’s gone
Been here—and now he’s gone
Think of little David
and his slingshot,
monkey shine signifier
blowing the Emperor away
We wait for the earth
to turn and tilt again
the shadow to lift
Rainbow wisdom of the elders
grandfathers, priests, kings
mother shuffle and warrior
woman strut and tons and tons of
babies still to come
our people our breath
tell us the circle is strong
will not be broken
though the clay, the clay
my brother, is weak, weak
as a slave ship ought to be
in this frozen land
beside a river of mourning.
Saints chant: Be not dismayed
what ere betides
and you march in your billowing
black robes down the aisle
mount the pulpit and
shout us sing us bound
to glory man wherever that
might be wherever you are
now catching your breath and
testing it and amen how sweet
it must be free free
at last the cup to your lips
and emptied and full and
go on with your fine self,
The Day I Finally Met Baldwin
The 1960s opened propitiously for me, and for my country, Nigeria. In 1960 Nigeria freed itself, at last, from British colonial rule. I published my second novel, and proved to myself that the first one was not a flash in the pan. The fact that a senior executive from the Rockefeller Foundation in New York knocked at my door in Lagos, with the offer of a travel grant, I think, proves the point. Where would I like to go? I said, “East and Central Africa,” and it was done. Two years later UNESCO came along with its grant. This time, I elected to go to the U.S. and Brazil. In UNESCO files, the purpose of their grant was to meet writers and study literary trends. Privately, I wanted to see how the African Diaspora was faring in their two largest concentrations in the New World. I was curious about America, because the British colonial education I had received took pains to put America down. One of my teachers in high school was fond of reading out editorials written by Nigeria’s leading nationalist, who, apparently, wrote very bad English. And my teacher linked this deficiency of the Nigerian to his American education, which was, of course, totally inferior to the British brand, and featured such subjects as dishwashing.
Needless to say, American books and writers did not feature in my education, with one exception: it was called Up from Slavery, by Booker T. Washington. And so, when I encountered Baldwin’s books, they blew my mind. I wanted very much to meet this man with the fearlessness of Old Testament prophets and the clarity, eloquence, and intelligence of ancient African griots. Unfortunately, Baldwin was not in the U.S. when I arrived, but in France. The organizers of my program apologized, casually, and went ahead to arrange for me to meet those who were around. I went to Rutgers University and met Ralph Ellison in his poky little office. He was okay. But I had a sense that it was not a happy meeting. He seemed so anxious to establish that Europe contributed a good deal to his identity, that Beethoven was as much part of it as jazz. Why was he telling me? Everybody knows that. Or did I look somehow like a kidnapper on the prowl?
No one else I met quite gave me the same feeling: Langston Hughes, Paule Marshall, Amiri Baraka, then called LeRoi Jones, and others. By the way, I also met Arthur Miller, who graciously took me to lunch and spoke enthusiastically about the new Lincoln Center.
My chance to meet Baldwin finally came almost two decades later, in 1980. My joy no doubt triggered the rather untypical flamboyance with which I greeted him: “Mister Baldwin, I presume.” You should have seen his severe countenance crumble instantly into boyish happiness. The occasion was an annual conference of the five-year-old African Literature Association, meeting that year in Gainesville, Florida. The association had invited Baldwin and me to open their conference with a conversation. Everything was going swimmingly. The tone was joyful and also serious. With typical hyperbole, Baldwin called me his buddy, a brother he had not seen in four hundred years. The packed auditorium exploded in gleeful applause and nearly missed the terrible aside: “It was never intended that we should meet.” What he said about my novel Things Fall Apart was quite extraordinary. He read it in France, he said. It was about people and customs of which he knew nothing. But reading it, he recognized everybody: “That man, Okonkwo, is my father. How he got over, I don’t know, but he did.”
Halfway into our conversation, a mystery voice broke into the public address system, and began to insult Mister Baldwin. The geniality vanished. Some of the stalwarts in the audience rushed out to guard the exits. For a fraction of a second, Baldwin seemed nervous. But he quickly recovered his composure, stood erect and defiant, and began to reply to the intruder. “But Mister Baldwin will have his say; white supremacy has had its day.”
Looking recently at an amateur video recording of that strange evening in Florida, I took note, for the first time, of one unfulfilled prophecy from Baldwin. He said there were only twenty years to a new century. And he said he would be there, because he was stubborn. But, as we all know, he did not make it. He did not even make it to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which had invited him and me for the fall semester in 1987. Our conversation had been stopped for good.
Or has it?
Literal-minded people have always had trouble with the language of prophets. As when Baldwin says to his nephew, “You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost,/ My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”
A bitter critic accused Baldwin of encouraging Black Nationalist automatons in the belief that they were descendants of kings and queens, and should therefore uncritically identify with Africa. Baldwin did not advocate uncritical identification with anything. All his life he bristled with critical intelligence. He had a problem with Africa, which he called the African Conundrum. At one point in his life, he compared his African heritage most adversely with the heritage of humble Swiss peasants. “Out of their hymns and dances came Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory—but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.” Those are not the words of uncritical advocacy. The difference between Baldwin and some of his critics is that he was not scared of anybody or anything. He was not even scared of Africa.