Though more than 1.3 billion people live in China, I am embarrassed to say that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of three books I’ve read that have any sustained connection to that country. The other two are The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses, both by Amy Tan. And I’m not 100% I read those all the way through.
All of which is to say that when I started to read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I had some trouble acquainting myself with simple things, like naming conventions and geography. The book does present itself as a puzzle, at least initially, so I don’t think my confusion was all attributable to my ignorance about China. The book is coiled up, its time sequence spiraling rather than progressing linearly, and so initially, characters are presented in a confusing jumble that over time comes into focus. Though I usually pride myself on not needing help, I did spend some time flipping to the family tree in the front.
If you stretched out that coil and rearranged the events (which would, of course, vitiate the effect of reading the book) what you’d see before you would be, in some ways, a conventional family-cultural saga like War and Peace, stretching from the 1948 civil war, through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Tienanmen Square massacre. It is narrated by the daughter of one of the principal characters, whose family has since immigrated to Canada. The title is an ironic invocation of a line from a Communist Party song, and hovers ambiguously over the book’s pages, playing with meaning in suggestive but unresolved layers. Continue reading
“The American situation is very peculiar and it may be without precedent in the world. No curtain under heaven is heavier than that curtain of guilt and lies behind which white Americans hide” (James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt”)
One of my earliest James Baldwin reading experiences was “Sonny’s Blues,” a short story that forms the centerpiece of Going to Meet the Man, a collection of eight short stories Baldwin wrote between 1948 and 1965. Since work starts up again for me next week, this will be the last installment for a while. It’s also a natural stopping point as it finishes off the first of the 2-volume Library of America fiction collection of Baldwin’s work.
The words of “My Dungeon Shook” ring in my ears almost every single day. Somehow the centerpiece of that ringing is a simple imperative sentence about 3/4 of the way through the final, two-page paragraph:
You, don’t be afraid.
That paragraph, itself, lays out almost every needed inch of the conceptual and emotional terrain needed to make critically informed arguments about race, but does so without a single footnote or 50-cent word. The sentences are long, but not so as to be confusing or abstract, but instead, they’re the long sentences people really speak in, when they’re not trying to do the things their high school English teachers taught them.
They are also the words, if I recall correctly, with which Michelle Alexander chooses to end The New Jim Crow. Considering just how chocked full of statistics and policy details that book is, it’s a stunning decision on her part, but if you’re read both, it makes perfect sense. Baldwin is well aware of every one of those policies (or their 1960’s equivalents) – his writing is very clearly informed by them, though it does not inform its readers about them, sticking in emotional and personal registers to accomplish something similar.
Another Country is James Baldwin’s third novel, and is is quite a bit longer than Baldwin’s first two, maybe even longer than both of them combined. It’s interesting to me that it basically covers a lot of the same ground that his essays of the time do, but does so in the language of fiction. The reason that’s interesting to me is that other authors I’ve dealt with, when they wrote fiction, and when they wrote essays, the two seemed more divergent, like they were just wearing two different hats. Somehow Baldwin has really found two ways to come at the same themes, in a way that allows one very naturally to supplement the other.
Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs:
And the summer came, the New York summer, which is like no summer anywhere. The heat and the noise began their destruction of nerves and sanity and private lives and love affairs. The air was full of baseball scores and bad news and treacly songs; and the streets and the bars were full of hostile people, made more hostile by the heat. It was not possible in this city, as it had been for Eric in Paris, to take a long and peaceful walk at any hour of the day or night, dropping in for a drink at a bistro or flopping oneself down at a sidewalk cafe–the half-dozen grim parodies of sidewalk cafes to be found in New York were not made for flopping. It was a city without oases, run entirely, insofar, at least, as human perception could tell, for money; and its citizens seemed to have lost entirely any sense of their right to renew themselves. Anyone who, in New York, attempted to cling to this right, lived in New York in exile–in exile from the life around him; and this, paradoxically, had the effect of placing him in perpetual danger of being forever banished from any real sense of himself.
The greatest takeaway for me from Nobody Knows Your Name is “Fifth Avanue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.” In this essay Baldwin explores the phenomenology of police violence – again, if you don’t care what I have to say, at least read these words of Baldwin’s for yourself [next I’ll be reading Another Country, Baldwin’s 1962 novel]:
Similarly, the only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive. None of commissioner Kennedy’s policemen, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in two’s and three’s controlling. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children. They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up here, in his place…
I was really surprised when I figured out that David, the protagonist of Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was white. The novel never says so directly, but he is described a handful of times as “blonde.” In fact, as far as I could tell, all of the principal characters are white, with the possible exception of the briefly mentioned “Joey,” David’s first same-sex partner, who is described as being “darker” than David. But if David is blonde, who knows? And obviously race is a social construct and a novel is fiction, but it still feels like placing the other characters into the category of “white” is the correct call.
This is often labelled Baldwin’s “homosexual novel,” which is a strange, outdated-feeling label but one that gets used a lot – it’a also the label given to EM Forster’s Maurice, which I read last year in a course about Forster and Woolf, and which covers some similar ground (though it’s 50 years earlier, and it’s set almost entirely in the English countryside). It tells the story of David, an American in Paris, and his brief relationship with Giovanni who, we learn in the opening pages, has been sentenced to death for a crime we don’t really learn about until the very end (I won’t spoil it for you).
It was interesting to me that the issue of race came up so fleetingly in this book, especially since it has come up on virtually every single page of everything else I’ve ever read that Baldwin wrote. That said, just because Baldwin isn’t talking about race doesn’t mean we can’t see him doing similar things in his exploration of masculinity and sexuality as we find it in Giovanni’s Room.
[Next I’ll read the next volume of essays – Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), along with some other essays from this period] Continue reading
The last part of Notes of a Native Son is made up of several travel essays Baldwin wrote in Europe – “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” an essay about how African Americans see Africans (and vice-versa) in Paris; “A Question of Identity,” mostly about white Americans coming to understand themselves while they’re in Paris; “Equal in Paris,” the strange but true story of Baldwin’s arrest (equal parts Les Miserables and The Trial) of eight days Baldwin spent in jail for accepting a stolen gift – a bedsheet a new friend had taken in protest from a hotel he had dramatically checked out of; finally, the best in the section, “Stranger in the Village,” a piece about Baldwin’s stay in a Swiss village, but one that broadens to a much more universalized statement about being black in a white-supremacist world. These are more occasional pieces, but I can pull some things out of each to talk about.
After this I’ll be reading Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s second novel.
…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…
Part II of Notes of a Native Son contains 3 essays: “The Harlem Ghetto,” a journalistic account of the politics, press and religious life of mid-50’s Harlem; “Journey to Atlanta,” an indictment of the Progressive Party (attention Bernie Sanders supporters!) overlaying a narrative about Baldwin’s brother touring the south; and finally, the soaring, lyrical memoir “Notes of a Native Son.” Here is discussion of one passage from each:
Notes of a Native Son (1955) collects some previously published essays and includes some originally penned for the collection. I have read the eponymous essay (“Notes of a Native Son”) with my classes for the last several years, and it’s always a powerful reading experience. It’s Baldwin at his most directly autobiographical – it’s in Part II of the book, so I’ll write about that next time.
But this time, I’ll stick to Part I of the book, which is mostly literary and film criticism. It includes 4 essays – “Autobiographical Note” (not actually part of Part I), “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” a criticism of both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and also Native Son; “Many Thousands Gone,” a further consideration of Native Son; and “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough,” a critical review of a 50’s-era Carmen-remake film with a mostly black cast. I’ll stick to finding one paragraph from each, quoting and discussing.
Quite honestly if you don’t care what I have to say, you can still skim for the Baldwin quotations, which are independently inspiring, maddening and thought-provoking.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is easy to underestimate, especially if you place it into the too-easy critical category of “semiautobiographical first novel.” The first time I read it, a few years ago, I made just that mistake. I spent the whole time tracking the “John” character for what it might tell me about James Baldwin himself. Which is not to say that it doesn’t tell is us something about him, but there is a lot more going on that makes me wonder why this book isn’t more widely read and talked about as a book high school students could read. The protagonist is a probably-gay 14 year old black male living in Harlem in the 1930’s; he has a tense relationship with his parents and his siblings, he is complicated, his motivations are not transaprent to himself, and he is at the center of a complicated family group protrait, with two strong women and a dissolute but not irredemable stepfather playing key roles that the novel moves in and out of the present to consider. Continue reading