“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.
After reading these eight stories, I can safely report still that “Sonny’s Blues” is the best of them. There is a lyricism to it, a cluster of motifs and images that raises it above the rest of the collection, though the whole things is pretty good.
Going to Meet the Man starts off with two stories – “The Rockpile” and “The Outing,” that feel like preparatory work for Go Tell It on the Mountain. Its characters shares that novel’s characters names, and they are more like sketches of moments than stories with a self-contained plot arc.
“The Manchild” is one of three Baldwin fictional texts I’ve read so far (Giovanni’s Room and the short story “Going to Meet the Man” – see below) that center on white protagonists. Without spoiling “The Manchild,” I’ll just say that this story explores a point Baldwin makes in several essays, that white anti-black racism is an externalized form of white self-hatred – and, as its title suggests, that much of white culture is inherently childish, stuck in a state of arrested development.
“Previous Condition” and “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” and “Come Out of the Wilderness” feels more of a piece with Another Country. “Previous Condition” narrates a black protagonist illegally subleasing a New York apartment (because the landlord won’t rent to black people, his white friend arranges it). “This Morning…” is the story of an racially and nationally mixed family moving from France to America in the midst of their black father’s new-found success as an actor and singer. “Come Out of the Wilderness” is about a black woman in New York in an insecure and abusive relationship with a white artist.
“Sonny’s Blues,” as I said before, is the real highlight here. The story centers around Sonny, an older teenager who has, at the story’s outset, been arrested for heroin possession. It explores Sonny’s relationship with the narrator, a more straight-laced math teacher and Sonny’s older brother. The story expands outward through an embedded narrative their mother tells them about their recently dead father and his long-lost brother. The story comes to an unforgettably uplifting finale as the narrator (who is never named) tags along with Sonny as he performs at a downtown jazz club. Its final paragraphs are among the more inspiring (and inspired) I have encountered in fiction; indeed they’re a big reason I wanted to do this reading project in the first place.
Here’s the second-to-last paragraph:
Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.
This paragraph somehow encapsulates the flow of the story of Sonny – from sadness to joy, from darkness to light – but also American history, and radiates outward from the mother’s story of her brother-in-law, which itself moves in the same psalm-like cadence, and this makes the story not bound to Sonny, or America, but somehow takes on a cosmological dimension. One student (a very soft-spoken black male, who was a music student, and one who wasn’t given to overstatement) told me very seriously once “this story… life-changing!” As a teacher it doesn’t get much better than that.
The story collection ends on an absolutely bone-chilling note – “Going to Meet the Man” is the insomniac rambling narration of a racist southern white sheriff to his wife. It moves from his complaints about a black man he has just beaten almost to death at work, and ranges backward to his remembered attendance at a grotesque public lynching and castration with his father as a young child. It’s devastating in its bleakness and haunting in its sexualized denouement.
I also read several essays from this period – the highlights being “White Man’s Guilt” (the quotation with which I began this post), “A Talk to Teachers,” and “A Report from Occupied Territory.”
This last essay is another one of those texts that I took for metaphor when I saw the title, and then understood as being literally asserted by the end. Here are the central paragraphs – I’ll let them speak for themselves:
Now, what I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.
This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.