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 Ezekiel’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 to deliver that frightening but somehow loving rhetoric that could leave people in tears as it broke down comfortable attitudes and woke up tired minds? “It’s not the Negro problem,” he said to a sincere student questioner after a Harvard speech, “it’s the white problem. I’m only black because you think you’re white. You’re the nigger, baby.” 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. Through Beauford Delaney, the prophet-to-be learned that what one sees and cannot see says everything about you.
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.