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.