No Name in the Street

It is not true that people become liars without knowing it.  A liar always knows he is lying, and that is why liars travel in packs: in order to be reassured that the judgment day will never come for them (James Baldwin, No Name In the Street, 1972).

This is the best book by James Baldwin I had never heard of.

If there’s one book I’ve read so far in all that James Baldwin has written that, more than any other, just sticks its finger in the eye of the White America, grapples onto its body and refuses to let go until it’s been heard, it is No Name in the Street.

Also, if you were a fan of last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, this is the place that a lot of those narrated passages came from–sequences about the deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, but also several of the extended, damning disquisitions about the moral bankruptcy of White America.

I’m definitely not the first to say this, but these are the words of a prophet.  I don’t just mean “prophet” like “seer of the future,” but there is plenty of that.  Consider this passage, which does way, way more, in my mind anyway, to make sense of the Trump election and “Make America Great Again” than any number of “we need to listen harder to poor white people’s demands”-type op-eds have done for me:

But for power truly to feel itself menaced, it must somehow sense itself in the presence of another power–or, more accurately, an energy–which it has not known how to define and therefore does not really know how to control.  For a very long time, for example, America prospered–or seemed to prosper: this prosperity cost millions of people their lives.  Now, not even the people who are the most spectacular recipients of the benefits of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits: they can never understand them nor do without them, nor can they go beyond them.  Above all, they cannot, or dare not, assess or imagine the price paid by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life, and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting.  They are forced, then, to the conclusion that the victims–the barbarians–are revolting against all established civilized values–which is both true and not true–and, in order to preserve these values, however stifling and joyless these values have caused their lives to be, the bulk of people desperately seek out representatives who are prepared to make up in cruelty what both they and the people lack in imagination. 

It is difficult to describe the overall feeling this book generates: Baldwin moves freely from directly autobiographical summary of encounters with both famous and unknown people and places, and then organically moves toward epic denunciations of the United States and the West.  And that back-and-forth works – this is a Jeremiad of the first rate.

There is a continual focus on the sexual aspect of white supremacy, something else that also anticipates Trumpism and was written at least 50 years before the Access Hollywood tape.  This passage grows out of Baldwin’s account of being groped by a southern white politician:

In the case of American slavery, the black man’s right to his women, as well as to his children, was simply taken from him and whatever bastards the white man begat on the bodies of black women took their condition from the condition of their mother: blacks were not the only stallions on the slave-breeding farms!  And one of the many results of this loveless, money-making conspiracy was that, in giving the masters every conceivable sexual and unknown license, it also emasculated them of any human responsibility–to their women, to their children, to their wives, or to themselves.  The results of this blasphemy resound in this country, on every private and public level, until this hour.  When the man grabbed [me]… I watched his eyes, thinking, with great sorrow, the unexamined life is not worth living.  The despair among the loveless is that they much narcotize themselves before they can touch any human being at all.  They, then, fatally, touch the wrong person, not merely because they have gone blind or have lost the sense of touch, but because they no longer have any way of knowing that any loveless touch is a violation…  When the loveless come to power, or when sexual despair comes to power, the sexuality of the object is either a threat or a fantasy.

The only real way I can find to write about this book, apparently, is to put long quotations onto the page and insist that you read them – not usually a successful writing strategy.  So I’ll leave it at that.

One final idea: Baldwin wrote this after Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had all been killed.  There is a deep despair between the pages of this book that would seem in some ways (though not all) to say that Baldwin had given up hope when he wrote it.  These deaths moved Baldwin deeply on a personal level, beyond just their impacts as the deaths of public activists–these were all people Baldwin had gotten to know personally.

And No Name on the Street is, in many ways, a sequel to The Fire Next Time.  That book was written in two sections – “My Dungeon Shook” and “Down at the Cross.”  No Name on the Street uses what would seem to be more optimistic imagery in titling its two sections. Part one is named “Take Me to the Water”; Part 2 “To Be Baptized.”  Just on first reading I can’t tell what sort of irony is intended, but still, my impression is, not that much, and that Baldwin thinks deep in his soul that some kind of transformation of our entire country, and therefore our world, is possible, even if extremely unlikely.

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