“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.
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.
The Fire Next Time – It’s hard to write about this book without just exhorting you to read it. The idealist in me thinks if I could somehow get the entire white population of the United States to honestly read and attempt to comprehend this book, and then act upon that comprehension, our country would be a much different place. That’s probably naive, and is also an argument preempted by “Down at the Cross” (the title of the second essay that makes up the book The Fire Next Time):
Here was the South Side–a million in captivity–stretching from this doorstep as far as the eye could see. And they didn’t even read; depressed populations don’t have the time or energy to spare. The affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn’t, as far as could be discovered, read, either–they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes.
When people write about this book, they use adjectives like “searing,” “incendiary,” “penetrating,” and those are all right, but they’re not ultimately much better than when someone recommends a great album by saying “it’s just really good.” Which it probably is, and what more can you say sometimes?
So, enough with the superlatives. I’ll just go with straightforward description: this is a book written as two essays, “MY DUNGEON SHOOK: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” and then “DOWN AT THE CROSS: Letter from a Region of My Mind.” The first is one of the more viscerally honest, vulnerable and intimate pieces of writing designed for public consumption I have ever encountered. That is a really difficult trick to pull off: writing for the public, and also crating a sense of intimacy. Here, it works. Its paragraphs unfurl with both crystal-clear logical precision and generous, open-ended feeling. Its sentences and clauses breathtakingly pivot, double back, create concentric circles of elaborated meaning, and create moments of epiphany – different moments, but equally powerful – each time I read it.
That “you, don’t be afraid,” announces the coda of this piece of music, and in a sweeping historical vision, demands that its audience achieve the impossible (that it is impossible is acknowledged several times through “Down at the Cross”). The sentence just before it has announced the enormity of the problem:
Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
It’s rare you encounter such a grand cluster of metaphors that somehow succeed in not being overstated. The letter then moves to its finish with a sentence of simple declarations that never fail to move me:
For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, MY dungeon shook and my chains fell off. You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed. Your uncle, James.
Those lines have the feeling of revealed truth, of an old-testament prophetic voice speaking in the present (it’s from more than 50 years ago, but it’s still boldly and vividly the present). Like I said before, I read this aloud with almost every one of my classes; what I have yet to develop is the really critical set of interactive activities that might follow, that might allow my students to absorb it more thoroughly. But I have had multiple students tell me that just reading these essays has been life-changing (which is a good reminder to me – sometimes as a teacher, you just need to get out of the way and let your students encounter texts that you know are good, and let them do what they will at that point), and I have the faith to know that they can do something with that that I will likely not see, at least not while I know them.
“Down at the Cross” is originally a longer-form New Yorker-type piece, a profile on Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. But it begins with an extended personal note on Baldwin’s part, about his early experiences with Christianity. If you read Go Tell It On the Mountain, this will all sound familiar, but also shed quite a bit of light on it. The middle third of the essay is a description of a visit to Muhammad at his south-side mansion, and its final third is an attempt to reconcile the limitations of Christianity as Baldwin has described them, on the one hand, with the fatalism and chauvinism with which Baldwin diagnoses the Nation of Islam.
In the end, “My Dungeon Shook,” for me anyway, does a better job of articulating this vision than “Down at the Cross” does, but then I’ve read it more times. The first is, in many ways, a poem, the second definitely prose.
There are a lot more passages I could quote, but I’ll just leave it at that. Go read these essays, and figure out how you can read them not just to “learn new attitudes,” but really, “to learn.”]]>
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 issues of race, nationality, sexuality, and the kind of interpersonal interdependence that’s at the root of the first three, all come in for extended consideration in Another Country. It’s a story of a cluster of 7 bohemians in New York in the late 50’s, and moves around from Harlem to the Village to the Lower East Side, to Paris and also rural France. I’m having trouble really extracting concrete meaning from the novel. I read the whole thing, I was definitely absorbed with it in a very compelling way as I read it. Its evocation of both scene and character were particularly effective, even if the plot was pretty minimal. In this way it reminded me of an early Virginia Woolf novel, Night and Day.
I also read the first half of it while I was in France (the Loire Valley and then Paris), which created some resonances I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. There is a profound intimacy about this book that makes it difficult to write about – the language in which it traffics is not readily translated into critical observations, at least not for me. It’s a little bit like if you were trying to describe a romantic relationship you had with someone, to a third person. How much could you really tell them? The feel of the thing would be very distant, and you could only hack around the edges by sharing more objective facts about the two of you.
Here are some of the objective facts: at the novel’s center is the story of Rufus, a black musician, and his sister Ida (a singer). Each of the other white characters – Richard, the successful if less-than-artful author, Cass, Richard’s almost deliberately upper-middle-class wife, Vivaldo, an Italian-American who is a struggling though perhaps more ambitious writer, Eric, an actor and wayward soul, and Yves, Eric’s French boyfriend, all connect to each other through Rufus.
But the really original character here, is Ida. She emerges towards the end of the book, sort of like Greta Conroy emerges in Joyce’s “The Dead.” The reader is apt to see her as less significant until she begins thinking and speaking to them more and more. There are a set of dialogues between her and Vivaldo (the two are together for much of the book), that, though they engaged in the vexed question of what it means to be black, and what it means to be white, in America, somehow do so in a way that is both edifying and fictionally compelling. Vivaldo keeps groping for colorblindness-type explanations, and Ida keeps insisting that race is involved in ways he can never understand. I was going to try to track down some quotations from the inside of the book to demonstrate this, but they’re all sort of out-of-context-sounding; it’s hard to do anything other than tell you they’re there.
One of the core aspects of Ida’s personality is her repeated insistence that the white people are all encased within a dream they are loath to admit the existence of. She never explains herself fully on that point, just lets them know every so often. Most of them, being good white liberals, don’t quite want to hear that.
And all the above doesn’t also let you know just how much sex and romance is in this book. Something Baldwin insists upon in several of the essays is just how much of a sexual dynamic is embedded within American racism, and this book tries to capture that. All of the central male characters are bisexual, which also allows for dimensions of exploration on this front that are really hard to chase down.
But that’s okay. This is a swirling, complex, yet extremely intuitive work of fiction – one that owes a lot to Dostoevsky’s Demons (or, The Possessed), a book which is jokingly alluded to, when we learn that Eric is to be in a Hollywood film adaptation, and is to play Stavrogin. The power of Another Country (like in Dostoevsky’s novel before it) lies not in the extraction of certain morals and lessons, but in the phenomena is fictionalizes, and in the reader’s experience of them, as an exercise in the development of empathy on Baldwin’s part.
The “lesson,” such as it is, is disarming simple:
“What,” asked Cass, unexpectedly, “does one replace a dream with? I wish I knew.”
Mr. Nash laughed, then stopped, as if embarrassed. Idea was watching her–watching her without seeming to watch. Then Cass sensed, for the first time in her life, the knowledge that black people had of white people–though what, really, did Ida know about her, except that she was lying, was unfaithful and was acting? and was in trouble–and, for a second, she hated Idea with all her heart. Then she felt very cold again, the second passed.
“I suppose,” said Idea, in an extraordinary voice, “that one replaces a dream with reality.”
Everybody laughed, nervously. The music began again. She looked again toward the dance floor, but those dancers were gone. She grabbed her drink as though it were a spar, and held it in her mouth as though it were ice.
“Only,” said Ida, “that’s not so easy to do.” She held her drink between her two thin hands and looked across at Cass. Cass swallowed the warm fluid she had been holding in her mouth, and it hurt her throat. Ida put down her drink and grabbed Ellis by the hand. “Come on, honey,” she said, “let’s dance.”
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…
The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt. Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality. I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once. The businessman and racketeers also have a story. And so do the prostitutes. (And this is not, perhaps, the place to discuss Harlem’s very complex attitude towards black policemen, nor the reasons, according to Harlem, that they are nearly all downtown.)
It is hard, on the other hand, to blame the policeman, blank, good-natured, thoughtless, and insuperably innocent, for being such a perfect representative of the people he serves. He, too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed. He has never, himself, done anything for which to be hated — which of us has? — and yet he is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it. There is no way for him not to know it: there are few other things under heaven more unnerving than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people. He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is, and is the reason he walks in two’s and three’s. And he is not the only one who knows why he is always in company: the people who are watching him know why, too. Any street meeting, sacred or secular, which he and his colleagues uneasily cover has as its explicit or implicit burden the cruelty and injustice of the white domination. And these days, of course, in terms increasingly vivid and jubilant, it speaks of the end of that domination. The white policeman, standing on a Harlem street corner, finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world. He is not prepared for it — naturally, nobody is — and, what is possibly much more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are, to the anguish of the black people around him. Even if he is gifted with the merest mustard grain of imagination, something must seep in. He cannot avoid observing that some of the children, in spite of their color, remind him of children he has known and loved, perhaps even of his own children. He knows that he certainly does not want his children living this way. He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.
Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the bible find this statement utterly impenetrable. The idea seems to threaten profound, barely conscious assumptions. A kind of panic paralyzes their features, as though they found themselves trapped on the edge of a steep place. I once tried to describe to a very-well-known American intellectual the conditions among Negroes in the South. My recital disturbed him and made him indignant; and he asked me in perfect innocence, “Why don’t all the Negroes in the South move North?” I tried to explain what has happened, unfailingly, whenever a significant body of Negroes move North. They do not escape jim crow: they merely encounter another, not-less-deadly variety. They do not move to Chicago, they move to the South Side; they do note move to New York, they move to Harlem. The pressure within the ghetto causes the ghetto walls to expand, and this expansion is always violent. White people hold the line as long as they can, and in as many ways as they can, from verbal intimidation to physical violence. But inevitably the border which has divided the ghetto from the rest of the world falls into the hands of the ghetto. The white people fall back bitterly before the black horde; the landlords make a tidy profit by raising the rent, chopping up the rooms, and all but dispensing with the upkeep; and what has once been a neighborhood turns into a “turf.” This is precisely what happened when the Puerto Ricans arrived in their thousands — and the bitterness thus caused is, as I write, being fought out all up and down those streets.
If Baldwin is right here about the relationship between the police, and the broader social trends they enforce (and I think he is), then it is hard not to get very, very cynical about the way mainstream politics, or the law, has handled the question of what we somewhat euphemistically call “police brutality.” It’s just NOT a question of the right number of dash cams, civilian review boards, and so on. The police are doing white society’s bidding, and why society has a lot of power, and a lot of racist conditioning, and is really not that interested in giving that up. Chasing “a few bad apples” will just not change that. That doesn’t mean there aren’t “bad apples,” or that police should be able to kill people with impunity, it just means if we do not couple those specific legislative remedies to a broader, and broadly personal anti-racist agenda, it won’t matter that much.
That’s a theme Baldwin deals with a lot in these essays – the primacy of the personal side of racism, and its relationship to what he calls “freedom.” In Isaiah Berlin’s positive/negative liberty distinction (problematic though it might be), Baldwin is insistent that something like positive freedom, which can only come with what he calls “reckoning with reality” or “history,” especially in the light of American white people (though he says a similar process must be undertaken by black people, just that its dialectic works in different ways) – that pursuit of what we now call anti-racism is the only real way for Americans to overcome the fantasies they have of themselves, and overcoming those fantasies is, in turn, the only real way to end systemic anti-black violence:
The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here (from “What it Means to be An American”).
That might sound very broad, but I think the idea is, if one could actually get a workable majority of Americans to be willing to confront, even acknnowledge the reality of slavery, Native American genocide, Jim Crow, and all its decendants (which both Michelle Alexander in The NEw Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates in “The Case for Reparations”) has so thoroughly documented – if you could actually do that, you would have a people ready to acquire a sense of history, something that, for Baldwin, Americans steadfastly refuse to acquire, and from there, the idea seems to be, you’d be ready for reconciliation, freedom and justice.
The “Fifth Avenue Uptown” essay gets more specific about this mythology too – its obsessoin with both exceptions and poor white people:
Now I am perfectly aware that there are other slums in which white men are fighting for their lives, and mainly losing. I know that blood is also flowing through those streets and that the human damage there is incalculable. People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, in effect, no better than the “niggers” is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by this fact is of the bitterest, most terrifying kind.
The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence — the public existence — of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare — at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare — and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. A few have always risen — in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children our doing. They are imitating our immortality, our disrespect for the pain of others.
A lot of Baldwin’s others essays from this period are occasional or profile in nature – think New Yorker pieces you mean to read and then don’t. I did enjoy reading them, because they act as a kind of slow-motion autobiography. Among other things, Baldwin travels to the American south for the first time and records his impressions (“Nobody Knows My NamE: A Letter from the South”), and there profiles a black mother whose son is attending an almost all-white high school because of a recent court order allowing him to do so (“A Fly in the Buttermilk” – reading that would be great for teachers thinking about how to work in classrooms that are mostly white with just a few students of color in them), also profiles Martin Luther King (“The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”), and also a student civil-rights group at Florida A & M (“They Can’t Turn Back”), and Faulkner (“Faulkner and Desegregation”).
The MLK profile is probably the most approachable of these, and really gets to the heart of Baldwin’s ambivalance towards the civil rights movement, and what Baldwin calls “the black bourgeoisie.” Also, for the teacher of rhetoric in me, he points out something at once obvious but also quite difficult to appreciate:
King is a great speaker. The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, to it has something to do with all of these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or relicity, which are not striking… The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, adn in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them. He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect-indeed, he insists on it.
There is also an extended narrative essay about an African Studies conference Baldwin attended in Paris (“Princes and Powers”). There are also author/artist-profile pieces about Andre Gide (“The Male Prison”), Ingmar Bergman (“The Northern Protestant”), the then-recently deceased Richard Wright (“Alas, Poor Richard”) and Norman Mailer (“The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”). I’m just not familiar enough with the works of any of these writers or filmmakers to really get that much out of Baldwin’s treatment of them – though he does consistently speak to general, more approachable issues the whole time, including these great paragraphs from the essay about Gide, which compellingly dispatch with the question of “is homoseuxality natural?”:
This is not the place and I am certainly not the man to assess the work of André Gide. Moreover, I confess that a great deal of what I felt concerning his work I still feel. And that argument, for example, as to whether or not homosexuality is natural seems to me completely pointless – pointless because I really do not see what difference the answer makes. It seems clear, in any case, at least in the world we know, that no matter what encyclopedias of physiological and scientific knowledge are brought to bear the answer never can be Yes. And one of the reasons for this is that it would rob the normal – who are simply the many – of their very necessary sense of security and order, of their sense, perhaps, that the race is and should be devoted to outwitting oblivion – and will surely manage to do so.
But there are a great many ways of outwitting oblivion, and to ask whether or not homosexuality is natural is really like asking whether or not it was natural for Socrates to swallow hemlock, whether or not it was natural for St. Paul to suffer for the Gospel, whether or not it was natural for the Germans to send upwards of six million people to an extremely twentieth-century death. It does not seem to me that nature helps us very much when we need illumination in human affairs. I am certainly convinced that it is one of the greatest impulses of mankind to arrive at something higher than a natural state. How to be natural does not seem to me to be a problem – quite the contrary. The great problem is how to be – in the best sense of that kaleidoscopic word – a man.
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]
I felt out of my depth reading this book, like there were all sort of social codes at work, character-types that, had I grown up gay in an homphobic society, I would understand more deeply. There is a lot about older and younger gay men – especially around the characters of Jacques and Guilllarme, through whom David and Giovanni meet. There is also a lot that I could get about Americanness abroad – sort of Henry James-ish but moving beyond that I think.
The description of post-war Paris brought me back to reading (almost 20 years ago now) Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and it would be interesting to place those books beside one another, since at both of their centers is an exploration of a white American’s confused masculinity (they’re confused in different ways). And like that book, there is a sense of tragic, transient beauty pervading the pages of this book, especially its descriptions of Parisian bohemian life. They’re not stereotyped, but they are romantic anyhow.
What I most took from this novel was its exploration of the instability of heterosexual identity: David is what we might call closeted (I’m really not sure – my sense is that his father has no idea he is gay, and that his girlfriend/fiancee, though she may intuit it, at least initially, says nothing). His relationship with Giovanni does occur almost literally in a closet – a rented-out maid’s room of a house that has no maid.
The instability of hetersexual identity and the problems that gay men cause for it form a rough analogy with the fragility of whiteness and the problems that blackness pose for it: here, as elsewhere, Baldwin is especially sensitive to the dynamic that occurs between an oppressor group and an oppressed group, and the ways the oppressed group ends up doing so much of the dirty work for the oppressors themselves.
The final image of the novel makes this clear (I think):
And at last I step out into the morning and I lock the door behind me. I cross the road and drop the keys into the old lady’s mailbox. And I look up the road, where a few people stand, men and women, waiting for the morning bus. They are very vivid beneath the awaakening sky, and the horizon beyond them is beginning to flame. The morning weighs on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope and I take the blue envelope which Jacques has sent me and tear it slowly into many pieces, watching them dance in the wind, watching the wind cary them away. Yet, as I turn and begin walking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me.
The “blue envelope” contains a document advising David of the date and time of Giovanni’s death, so his throwing them away becomes an attempt at distancing; them blowing back at him shows the failure of that act. Just like white people’s attempt to “not talk about race,” and thereby distance themselves from the facts of life for black people, is always blowing back in their facees, here the facts of Giovanni’s homosexuality and the problems it poses for David do the same thing.
It is not the case that blackness and gayness work in the same way; I don’t mean to suggest that at all. As little as I understand about the former, I’ve thought and read even less about the latter. For one thing, being gay is not something everybody knows about you all the time – “coming out” is not something that black people have to do (at least not in that way). Though I did have a student once who identified as black – at least one of their parents were black, and the other was mixed, but they had very “white” features, which they reported did cause them to have to “come out” to white people, mostly after white people had let them in on racist jokes they didn’t want to be a part of. And that’s an experience I can sort of relate to in my own Jewishness – I have (sort of, not nearly with the same risk but sort of) had to “come out” as someone with Jewish heritage while I listened to groups of white people make Jewish jokes.
Anyway it’s really interesting and something I need to think more about, what are the similiarites and differences between Baldwin’s account of being a person of color, on the one hand, and Baldwin’s account of being gay, on the other?]]>
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.
“Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” has a clear-minded exposition of the ways white privelege affects the perceptions of black people and white people:
The white american regards his darker brother through the distorting screen created by a lifetime of conditioning.
Instead of a screen, for me, I experience this as a LOUD SHOUTING VOICE that lifetime has created – one which screams anti-black intuitions at me, and I’m only just now starting to quiet (sometimes through shouting back, and sometimes through listening really quietly and making sure I hear it).
The Negro, on the other hand, via the same conditioning which constricts the outward gesture of the whites, has learned to anticipate.
As a white person reading these words, it makes me realize that I need to be very mindful of the problems lurking behind the goal of getting my students of color to “be honest” in my classroom… I’m white, I’m a male, I’m straight, I’m 39, and I’m a teacher, 5 sources of power disparity that are present, and all five, I think, that make different students “anticipate” differently with me. I’ve tried to meet this with just continual, hopefully not self-involved self-apprasial, sometimes spoken and sometimes internal, combined with a repeatedly professed desire to listen to my students. That all sounds trite but it’s hard.
There’s also a great account of what it means (to Baldwin) to be a black American:
They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years–an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening’s good-will, too heavy and too double-edged ever to be trapped in speech. This alienation causes the Negro to recognize that he is a hybrid.
The idea of “hybridity” has gained a lot of traction in literary study in the last thirty years – it’s also echoed by Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet”:
Man you need to calm down, don’t get mad
I don’t need your sistah
(But supposin’ she said she loved me)
Would you still love her
Or would you dismiss her
What is pure? Who is pure?
Is it European I ain’t sure
If the whole world was to come
Through peace and love
Then what would we be made of?
Once you grasp the essential hybridity of language, culture, race, and identity, a lot changes – and in the minds of a lot of white people, that’s pretty scary. It’s not scary if you ask them about it – they’ll say they’re fine with it; it’s scary once they understand how much of their identity is contructed around one side of the purity/impurity dichotomy.
2. “A Question of Identity” – is more about Americanness than whiteness or blackness (though it mentions both of those). The essay generally explores how Americans generally lack a meaningful sense that they HAVE an national identity, not very often having to ecounter people who do not participate in it one way or another.
Here’s the best passage:
[Expat Americans] are charmed by the reflection that Paris is more than two thousand years old, but it escapes them that the Parisian has been in the making just about that long, and that one does not, therefore, become Parisian by virtue of Paris address. This little band of bohemians, as grimly singleminded as any evangelical sect, illustrate, by the very ferocity with which they disavaow American attitudes, one of the most American of attributes, the inability to believe that time is real.
3. “Equal in Paris” is an occasional ethnographic narrative about Paris, which I would recommend reading but I do not have any important quotations to extract from it.
4. “Stranger in the Village” – like I said, the best of this section of the book, presmably the reason it’s the book’s final piece. Baldwin describes living in a Swiss village where, he jokes in the opening line “from all available evidence no black man had ever set foot.” He introduces his experiences as though they were sui generis, the product of this odd fish-out-of-water circumstance of his presence in this village, but then prophetically changes gears:
For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incedibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Mcihaelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrant, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory–but I am in Africa, watching the conquerers arrive.
Puzzling through the implications of this statement leads Baldwin onto a run of insight about being black, and being white, in America. He eventually winds back to the conclusion that “it is important to undersatnd that this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them” (emphasis added). A black person, I take Baldwin to be saying, has unique insight into the ways that privelege is mediated, but the white person tends to accept privelege immediately, and so cannot address it without a lot of work that a black person has to do, and get good at, each and every day of their life.
When he explains why white people have so much trouble with this, he captures the profound dilemma that is at the root of white anti-black racism:
The black man insists, by whatever means he finds at his disposal, that the white man cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being. This is a very charged and difficult moment, for there is a great deal of will power involved in the white man’s naivete. Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors. He is inescapably aware, nevertheless, that he is in a better position in the world than black men are, nor can he quite put to death the supsicion that he is hated by black men therefore. He does not wish to be hated, neither does he wish to change places, and at this point in his uneasiness he can scarely avoid having recourse to those legends which white men have created about black men…
…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:
1. “The Harlem Ghetto” begins by asking why black politicians have all failed to substantially improve the lot of black people in America (later on, there’s a great discussion of the relationship between anti-black racism and anti-Semitism). Anticipating (and implicitly answering) by more than half a century criticisms levelled at Barack Obama vis-a-vis race questions, Baldwin writes:
Concerning Negro leaders, the best that one can say is that they are in in an impossible position… the terrible thing about being a Negro leader lies in the term itself. I do not mean merely the somewhat condescending differentiation the term implies, but the nicely refined torture a man can experience from having been created and defeated by the same circumstances. That is, Negro leaders have been created by the American scene, which thereafter works against them at every point…
This is an inversion Baldwin makes over and over again with reference to proposed solutions to the problems of racism: education, political reform, economic reform, expanded policing, urban planning etc. etc. etc. Since they are all “created by the American scene,” i.e., they are all founded on anti-blackness, and presuppose it in their operating principles, they cannot work to undo it. That’s a broad, impercise indictment, at least as I’ve formulated it – Baldwin is never so dogmatic, always contextalizing that criticism to the particular matter before him. The overall idea seems to be that until America is intellectually, morally emotionally and economically ready to reckon with slavery and its legacy, nothing else it does will ever bring about more than token improvements. And Baldwin seems to think, for the most part, that probably will never happen. He comes close at some places to pointing the way forward, but seems more to want those solutions to emanate more out of the catharases he creates in his essays and novels than to proscribe a ten-point platform.
2. “Journey to Atlanta” begins with this paragraph, one that white Bernie Sanders supporters (and Hilary supporters, for that matter) would do well to understand:
The Progressive Party has not, so far as I can gather, made any very great impression in Harlem, and this is not so much despite as because of its campaign promises, promises rather too extravagant to be believed. It is conisdered a rather cheerful axiom that all Americans distrust politicans. (No one takes the further and less cheerful step of consdering just what effect this mutual contempt has on either the public or the politicians, who have, indeed, very little to do with one another.) Of all Americans, Negroes distrust politians most, or, more accurately, they have been best trained to expect onthing from them; more than other Americans, they are always aware of the enormous gap between election promises and their daily lives. It is true that the promises excite them, but this is not because they are taken as proof of good intentions. They are proof of something more concrete than intentions: that the Negro situation is not static, that changes have occured, and are occurring and will occur–this, in spite of the daily, dead-end monotony. It is this daily, dead-end monotony, though, as well as the wise desire not to be betrayed by too muc hoping, which causes them to look on politicnas with such an extradordinarily disenchanted eye. This fatalisitc indifference is something that drives the opportunistic American liberal quite mad; he is prone, in his more exaasperated moments, to refer to Negroes as political children, an appellation not entirely just. Negro liberals, being consulted, assure us that this is something that will dissappear with “education,” a vast, all-purpose term, conjuring up visions of sunlit housing projects, stacks of copybooks and a race of well-sopaed, dark-skinned people who never slur their R’s. Actually, this is not so much political irreponsilbibty as the product of experience, experience which no amount of education can quite efface. It is, as much as anything else, the reason the Negro vote is so easily bought and sold, the reasons for that exclamation heard to frequently on Sugar Hill: “Our people never get anywhere.”
3. “Notes of a Native Son.” As I read this yesterday I realized that I’ve come close to memorizing a lot of its passages. This is something that happens from teaching a text year after year. As much as these passages sound familiar, I never tire of reading them. This essay excels so far beyond the others because it makes its principal points by narrating, in deceptively straightforward fashion, some events in Baldwin’s life, and in devestatingly effective parantheses and asides, asserting the general point he takes his autobiography to demonstrate. It focuses on the death of his father, the birth of his baby sister, and a year he spent in almost-Jim-Crow New Jersey. The central passage, for me, is an altercation Baldwin has with a waitress at a resutarant called “The American Diner.” The waitress meekly but insistently refuses to serve him, he throws a mug at her head, and narrowly avoids a lynching.
I’ve read that passage aloud with students, and discussed what they see as Baldwin’s and the waitress’s motivations. Baldwin describes the waitress with enough sympathy that it never fails to engage white students, the very white students who tend to opt out of “conversations about race.” Instead of leading to chiches about “how much things have changed,” this passage opens up to discussion about ways things like this happen today, how it feels to be part of them (on either side)… the bell almost always rings with students pretty honestly reckoning with some tough issues. It also seems to empower black students to address such cliches when they’re made by white students – Baldwin’s voice in the conversation allows, for just a few minutes anyway, the setting aside of “white feelings” as the primary axis along which to evaluate a conversation about racism in the United States.
I’ve always had an ambivalent (or worse) relationship with Christainity, but I must say in all honesty that the final three paragraphs of “Notes of a Native Son,” especially when encountered as the climax of this heart rending essay, sometimes make me believe.
They’re words I’ve also read aloud with students and discussed. I’ve heard very thoughtful, earnest students look up and say “I really don’t know, this is tough.” And they’re right. It’s not tough to understand the words; it’s tough to know how to live them.
I’ll just let them speak for themselves:
It would have been better, but would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash. To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need. Most of the time it is the members of the ghetto who smash each other, and themselves. But as long as the ghetto walls are standing there will always come a moment when these outlets do not work. That summer, for example, it was not enough to get into a fight on Lenox
Avenue, or curse out one’s cronies in the barber shops. If ever, indeed, the violence which fills Harlem’s churches, pool halls, and bars erupts outward in a more direct fashion, Harlem and its citizens are likely to vanish in an apocalyptic flood. That this is not likely to happen is due to a great many reasons, most hidden and powerful among them the Negro’s real relation to the white American. This relation prohibits, simply, anything as uncomplicated and satisfactory as pure hatred. In order really to hate white people, one has to blot so much out of the mind—and the heart—that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose. But this does not mean, on the other
hand, that loves comes easily: the white world is too powerful, too complacent, too ready with gratuitous humiliation, and, above all, too ignorant and too innocent for that. One is
absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one’s own reactions are always canceling each other out. It is this, really, which has driven so many people mad, both white and black. One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene. Amputation is swift but time may prove that the amputation was not necessary—or one may delay the amputation too long. Gangrene is slow, but it is impossible to be sure that one is reading one’s symptoms right. The idea of going through life as a cripple is more than one can bear, and equally unbearable is the risk of swelling up slowly, in agony, with poison. And the trouble, finally, is that the risks are real even if the choices do not exist.
“But as for me and my house,” my father had said, “we will serve the Lord.” I wondered, as we drove him to his resting place, what this line had meant for him. I had heard him preach it many times. I had preached it once myself, proudly giving it an
interpretation different from my father’s. Now the whole thing came back to me, as though my father and I were on our way to Sunday school and I were memorizing the golden text [Joshua 24:15]:
And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
I suspected in these familiar lines a meaning which had never been there for me before. All of my father’s texts and songs, which I had decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me. This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped. That bleakly memorable morning I hated the unbelievable streets and the Negroes and whites who had, equally, made them that way. But I knew that it was folly, as my father would have said, this bitterness was folly. It was necessary to hold on to the things that mattered. The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and
whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, 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 and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.
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.
I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else. I don’t think that the Negro problem in America can be even discussed coherently without bearing in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions, customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart.
That last sentence – “it is the overwhelming tendency to speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart” – is a core issue I’ve tried really hard to reckon with as a white person. I was raised with the idea that racism was bad, but I was encouraged to see the bad of racism along the same lines as other bads – environmental destruction, economic inequality, sexism, homophobia and heterosexism, and so on. All from this white-cis-gendered wealthy American male privleged perspective that taught me I could care about these things if I wanted to, or I could not care about them if I didn’t want to. So we’d have these little “units” about them in our classes, but those units didn’t even try to address the more ontological aspects of the problems. Several problems on this list (maybe all of them) have that ontological dimension, that is, our attitude towards them is significantly constitutive of our identities.
So I’ve tried hard to come to see, and respond and act in response to the reality about what Baldwin here calls “the Negro problem” – viz., that it is not “a thing apart,” not something separable from any of the other problems that our society faces, but also not “a thing apart” from my own identity and existence, not something I can pick up and put down at will. I can tell myself I’m doing so, but I can’t really do it. Even the person who moves to the whitest, wealthiest, “safest” most new-construction American suburb (perhaps, especially the person) will not succeeed in treating “the Negro problem” as a thing apart from him/herself – it’s just a matter of what level of consciousness and perspective on action such a person reaches about it.
A couple of years ago in my sophomore English class, for an “informative speaking” unit, I set the requirement that each student select something which falls under the heading of Black History. It was timed to coincide with Black History Month, and we had read Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook,” on the first day of that month. I got some pushback from some more conservative white students (the class was aboug 50% black and 50% white). I repeatedly heard things like “why are we always talking about racism?” or “I get it, white people are bad! Can we stop talking about this now?” What I’m coming to see is how to address that concern: I have to tell such students that we are always dealing with racism (or in it, or through it, or next to it), whether we’re talking about it or not, and so, better to make it an explicit part of the conversation as often as possible, rahter than try to treat it as “a thing apart.” What made it all worth it, for me, was one black student giving a speech about the Black Panther Party (her uncle had been a member). She showed pictures her uncle had given her and educated the students in the room, teaching them that, contrary to what they might have heard, much of what the Panthers did was provide food, education and medical care towards neighborhoods that the dominant society refused to meaningfully include in its social structures. I’d like to think that some of those conservative white students were able, at least momentarily, to encounter this information, realize it was coming from one of their classmates, hear her speak respectfully of her uncle, and push them just a little past their default distrust in an organization with the word “Black” in its name. Another black student gave a speech about Emmett Till, and showed the class pictures of his open-casket funeral, and read words from his mother. I learned a lot as a teacher by doing what I now know to call “isolating race” in the assignment – the point being, that if we don’t “isolate race,” we end up treating it as “a thing apart” and then we set that thing aside and ignore it. And that’s bad.
2. From “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” about how so many novels and other cultural productions “about racism” are counterproductive to the cause of anti-racism:
This is more striking as one considers the novels of Negro oppression written in our own, more enlightened day, all of which say only: “This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” (Let us ignore, for the moment, those novels of oppression written by Negroes, which add only a raging, near-paranoic postscript to this statement and actually reinforce… the principles which activate the oppression they decry).
That last phrase “the principles which activate the oppression they decry,” embedded within a paranthesis, is a perfect exactly of the deceptive density of Baldwin’s prose. Regardless of the accuracy with which he diagnoses Native Son or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he clearly diagnoses a problem hugely prevalent in the products of a culture that refuses to examine its own ontologically effective racism. It produces these hackneyed, Dickenian morality tales that do more to congratulate the audience for the alleged liberal-mindedness than anything else. We’ve argued about some of them here on this blog – most memorably Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Such films and novels thrive on decontextualized moral claims, like Lincoln’s weird discourse about Euclid and the “simple”notion of equality, and also tend not to include very many black characters, since the primary struggles end up being about and for the benefit of white people (something Baldwin points out about Stowe’s book as well).
3. “Many Thousands Gone” begins with this massive thunderbolt of a paragraph:
It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear. As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics; it is revealed in Negro speech and in that of the white majority and in their different frames of reference. The ways in which the Negro has affected the American psychology are betrayed in our popular culture and in our morality; in our estrangement from him is the depth of our estrangement from ourselves. We cannot ask: what do we really feel about him–such a question merely opens the gates on chaos. What we really feel about him is involved with all that we feel about everything, about everyone, about ourselves.
We could spend hours unpacking that first sentence, or even just the subbordinate clause. Rather than unpack this paragraph further I’m just going to let it speak for itself. It answers perfectly clearly exactly why any American Literature class needs to be “about race” the whole time. This paragraph is an essay itself, but the essays goes beyond it in ways I’ll need to process by re-reading later.
4. “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Not Light Enough” is a good essay as well, but I’ve left my book at home and can find its text online. It does a good job explaining why what I’ve come to see as the Cosby Show approach to race in America doesn’t work: you can’t just make characters black and seal them off from what that ends up meaning for their lives. I again have no idea if this is a fair criticism of Carmen Jones, but it’s recognizable enough as a phenomenon to know it’s defintitely a problem we always need to be on the lookout for.]]>
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.
One thing that might make this book a challenge for a high school audience, though, is its religious context. Somewhere I saw this listed as a “Christian novel.” And there is a lot of religious quotation, allusion, imagery, and so on, much of which I can’t quite catch. I can catch that it is Christian, but the specific nature of many of its references make it clear to me that its author studied the bible much more closely than I have. Every page or so, in fact, has some italicized words that are undoubtably biblical quotations. Its characters’ speech regularly deploys old- and new-testament language without hesitation, and since this novel is written in the light of modernist aesthetics (little exposition or omnisicence, realistically marked dialect, etc.), if both characters in a conversation understand a reference, no one stops to tell you that it is one, or what it means.
That does not mean this book is not accessible – because beyond its specific invocations of the Bible, its prose is also more lyrically biblical, and the Bible’s narrative categories are nothing if not accessible. It also echoes, for me anyway, the prose of Joyce’s Dubliners or the early sections of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man – consider the opening sentences:
Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.
The novel’s story is told within the frame of a church service that John attends. It’s a storefront church at which his stepfather Gabriel serves as a deacon. But “stepfather” is a word never included – he is his “father” in the lines quoted above, and throughout. But John, it becomes clear, knows this is not his biological father, and knows that Gabriel doesn’t love him beyond in the most grudging, bad-stepfatherly fashion.
The ambivalent stepfather-son relationship mirrors John’s ambivalence towards Christianity and belief in god, a theme powerfully explored here – ambivalence, not grandiose athiestic escape, but a true ambivalence, one that sometimes bubbles to the top of John’s consciousness and sometimes stays lower down. Here is the closest it comes to the surface:
His mother, too, was silent, but he had seen her pray before, and her silence made him feel that she was weeping. And why did she weep? And why did they come here, night after night after night, calling out to a God who cared nothing for them–if, above this flaking ceiling, there was any God at all? Then he remembered that the fool has said in his heart, There is no God–and he dropped his eyes, seeing that over his Aunt Florence’s head Praying Mother Washington was looking at him.
I know enough about the Bible (Proverbs I think?) to know that “the fool has said in heart, There is no God” is a direct quoation – I believe the “Fool” also says in his heart there is no such thing as Justice, or that may actually be Thomas Hobbes, who cites this passage in the early pages of Leviathan.
What’s interesting about this passage is how family, religion work to pull John in several directions at once, and they are directions the novel never fully resolves.
The most powerful aspect of this novel is its extended answer to the question “why did she weep?” The story gets underway as John reports to the service to help Elisha, an older male youth-group-leader type character, with whom John is unspeakably in love, as he sets up the worship space for a late-night service. As they’re cleaning the floors, they flirt (though it’s hard to tell if Elisha is intentionally flirting, or just playing around in a way that’s not meant or felt as sexual at all). John himself feels that there is a problem with his feelings; that’s probably what the opening of the book is pointing to when it says it was already “too late” for him to be a preacher.
Before the servce, we read a harrowing sequence about John’s brother Roy, who has just been stabbed in a street-fight, during which a frenetic group argument of Dostoevskian proportions unfolds, between Gabriel, Roy, Elizabeth (John’s mother), and Florence (Gabriel’s sister, and therefore John’s aunt). It centers on an extended argument between Florence and Gabriel. While we’re reading, we sympathize more with Florence, who is calling Gabriel a hypocrite for chastizing his son for having gotten himself in so much trouble, while Gabriel keeps cursing all of them.
After the service starts, three extended backstories unfold, in the form of service attendees (“saints” as the story calls them). It’s sort of like they’re praying, but also like the narrator is just telling their stories to tell them, separately from any internally consistent idea that that person is actually thinking about that story at that time. It’s an interesting and compelling effect, though disorienting as well.
Three stories (“prayers”) are told. First, there is the prayer of Florence. She grew up down south, and as a teenager, a few days after her friend Deborah was gang-raped by a group of white men, Florence decided to leave for New York, forsaking her mother and her brother Gabriel. This makes us re-evaluate the earlier back-and-forth between Gabriel and Florence, since it reveals that at one time anyway, Gabriel felt a stronger since of familial obligation than Florence. But then, she is leaving because of legitimate fear for her safety and her life at the hands of the local white popoluation. She leaves, and marries Frank, an abusive alcoholic who eventually leaves her.
Next, forming the centerpiece of the novel, is Gabriel’s prayer. He married Deborah after Florence left. Deborah is older than Gabriel, and the two never have children (it’s not clear if that’s because they don’t have sex, or because Deborah is unable to have children – each, or both, being distinct possibilities after her traumatic rape). Gabriel becomes a preacher (though also works as a servant for a white family) and eventually seduces Esther, a younger woman who also works at the same white family’s house. She gets pregnant, and pleads with Gabriel to help her. He takes some money Deborah has stashed away and gives it to Esther, who travels to Chicago, where she dies giving birth to Royal, who is then brought back down south to be raised by Esther’s family. Gabriel never reveals his paternity, though over the years, Deborah figures this out. Eventually, Royal dies, having been stabbed to death in a gambling dispute in Chicago, upon learning which news, Gabriel tells Deborah the whole story. Deborah passes away soon after that, and Gabriel moves to New York, where he marries Elizabeth, thereby becoming John’s stepfather.
The last prayer is Elizabeth’s, during which we learn the heartbreaking story of Richard, John’s true father. He is a bookish young man working as a convenience store clerk, who meets Elizabeth down south. They decide to run away to the north; since they are not married, Elizabeth goes to live with her aunt in New York. She and John stay seriously involved, and Elizabeth becomes pregnant (though she does not initially tell Richard). One day they stay out late, and while Richard is waiting on the subway platform, three other young men (they are also black) run past, and as Richard stands up to see what the trouble is, two police officers run by, and arrest Richard along with the other three. Richard insists he is innocent, and refuses to “cooperate” or accept a plea-bargain. He is beaten by the police in jail, but is eventually acquitted. He is so traumatized by the experience that he slits his wrists the night he is freed. This leaves Elizabeth to bear John all on her own. She later meets Florence as they both work nights on the janitorial staff at a downtown building, and in one of the book’s most moving sequences, tells Florence her story, shamefaced and humiliated. Florence, who emerges as the book’s most steadfast and perhaps only true Christian, comforts her, eventually introducing her to Gabriel. They get married, and have three children toegher: Roy, the brother who is stabbed at the beginning, and two much younger sisters named Sarah and Ruth.
One of the most powerful characters, one who is only barely present at the surface of the text, is John’s father Richard, the father he never met. He stands as a powerful alternative to what Baldwin criticizes in the earlier essay as the larger-than-life Racial Hero, the cartoonish Man who Transcends Race, but also an alternative to the disasterous, abusive Gabriel and his son Roy (who, the book suggests, is destined for the same fate). When Elizabeth asks Richard how he got so smart, if he never went to school, what follows is a model for radical anti-racist education and revolution:
I just decided me one day that I was going to get to know everything them white bastards knew, and I was going to get to know it better than them, so could no white son-of-a-bitch nowhere talk me down, and never make me feel like I was dirt, when I could read him the alphabet, back, front, and sideways. Shit–he weren’t going to beat my ass, then. And if he tried to kill me, I’d take him with me, I swear to my mother I would… That’s how I got to know so much, baby.
But even though the novel exalts Richard’s perspective, it does not allow him to benefit from it: his death reminds me of something Baldwin says in the Kenneth Clark interview – and something built into the archetecture of “Sonny’s Blues” – something to the effect of “it’s just a matter of how they’re going to castrate you.” We can look upon the horror of Deborah’s rape as the clearly devestating consequences of unreconstructed Jim Crow, but how can we understand Richard’s suicide in the face of police brutality and northern benign neglect? We, in 2016, flatter ourselves that situations like Deborah’s are “a thing of the past” (though they’re not really), but Richard’s is just a clearer, more extreme version of what I have heard many people of color say was their experience of humiliation in the face of the police. It’s not enough to say that they didn’t do it, that they know their rights, that they educated themselves, that they “cooperate”… there is still the very live fear, pretty close to the forefront of their experiences, that in spite of ALL of that, that they might, at the drop of a hat, die a terrible death at their hands.
In the words of Elizabeth’s thoughts:
There was not, after all, a great difference betwee the world of the North and that of the South which she had fled; there was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similiarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other. Now she understood in this nervous, hollow, ringing city, that nervousness of Richard’s which had so attracted her–a tension to total, and so without the hope, or possibility of relief, or resolution, that she felt it in his muscles, and heard it in his breathing, even as on her breast he fell asleep.
Two books I’ve read since the last time I read this one – Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, and Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land – helped me read this time with a sense of geography, one I’m still coming to understand the implications of.
Though he’s intellectual, Richard is not a respectability-politics “post-racial” straw-man either. In aligning Richard with John, Go Tell It on the Mountain gets to the heart of what we can learn about James Baldwin’s vision for himself as an artist, intellectual, and activist.
With one big difference – John’s feelings about his own sexuality mean that even as the novel finishes with his epic come-to-Jesus catharsis, as Elisha walks him home, everyone else thinks John has finally “come through” – Elisha, Gabriel and Elizabeth all stand around, smiling and approving, while John stood there he “struggled to tell him something more–struggled to say–all that could never be said.”
It’s hard to tie up all the loose ends at the end of this book and draw a “lesson” from it, except that it works as a powerful expression of what might might have meant for John to be a black, Christian, gay son of the great migration, and past that, what all the other characters’ participation in the system at which John resides in the center, tells all of us, all these years later, about all that we can work to change.
I’ll be reading Notes of a Native Son (1955) – next.]]>
In six early book reviews, Baldwin pans what he sees as second-rate novels. I read these pieces mostly with an eye to seeing trends in Baldwin’s views on the questions those novels dealt with more than as reviews per se (especially since I haven’t read the novels). I’ll pull out a quotation or two from each essay and say a little bit about it. The books reviewed are mostly about race and racism, but “Preservation of Ignorance” is an early essay which addresses issues of homosexuality and heteronormativity.
These essays were all published before Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955) – I’ll blog about those books in future entries. For now here’s a paragaph or so about each of these six.
She is so obviously determined to Uplift the Race that she makes Douglass a quite unbelievable hero and has robbed him of dignity and humanity alike.
This is a frustration Baldwin expressed later with Richard Wright – that art in the service of obviously political conclusions, even if they’re good ones, doesn’t always work. But to contextualize that to African-American literature, he seems to be expressing here a skepticism about books that make superheros out of black protagonists in an effort to somehow overcome all the problems of racism on one single bound. Noteworthy is Baldwin’s capitalization of “Uplift the Race” – a rhetorical device I’ve never found a name for but works really well to critique some particular phenomenon as being more important than it ought to be by capitalizing its terms. Across the race divide, this is a frustration I remember feeling when being asked to read books like To Kill a Mockingbird – I would grow suspicious of how important it was to the White teacher to get White me to understand that White Atticus Finch was a Great Man Before His Time (okay, I’m not as creative as Baldwin). And I had the persistent sense (though lacked the vocabulary to explain it to myself) that characters like Finch and his story were not going to get us anywhere in understanding the causes and effects of racism, much less overcoming them.
2. From “History as Nightmare”  (review of Lonely Crusade by Chester Himes):
If He Hollers Let Him Go [an earlier novel by Himes].. seemed to me then one of the few books written by either whites or Negroes about Negroes which considered the enormous role which white guilt and tension play in what has been most accurately called the American dilemma… Mr. Himes seems capable of some of the worst writing on this side of the Atlantic, but his integity has actually the cumulative effect of making him seem far wiser and more skillful than he is. The value of his book lies in its earnest effort to understand the psychology of oppressed and oppressor and their relationship to each other.
The idea in that last phrase there – “its earnest effort to understand the psychology of oppressed and oppressor and their relationship to each other” seems to me like a core Baldwin theme, one that he explores from many angles with ever-present acuity. Baldwin here announces the need to understand racism as a systemic set of processes, rather than as a set of relatively static attitudes or beliefs held by individuals. Many people emphasize racism’s systematic, institutional nature; what seems uniquely impotant for Baldwin is its dynamic, dialectical nature. Both the Hegelian master-slave dichotomy and Dostoevsky’s elaborate social-system novels speak to this idea – and Baldwin apparently studied both of them in some depth. He also ends this essay with an approving nod to Joyce: “‘History,’ says Joyce, ‘is a nightmare from which I am struggling to awaken.’ We have all heard what happened to those who slept too long.'”
3. From “The Image of the Negro”  (review of five books):
… we have here, in effect, merely the exploitation of an ugly reality [the “ancient bogeyman of sex between the races”]. Finally, we are shown nothing, we feel nothing, nothing is illuminated. The worthlessness of these novels consist precisely in that they supposedly expose a reality that in actuality they conspire to mask. For that is not the reality: the reality is more sinister, more treacherous, and more profound than this; and it is, above all more personal.
Again, from where I sit, I’ve seen more than enough examples. One that comes to mind is O, the 2001 Othello retelling. That is allegedly a movie about “racism,” but it has nothing more to say about racism than it does about basketball or private schools (i.e., not much). It uses the central relationship as alleged evidence of its protagonists’ non-racist nature, but it does not ask why they (or we) are so fascinated by the interracial relationship in the first place. It’s like the presence of the trope is supposed to alert the audience to some sort of liberal bona fides that it does nothing with except let us know it’s “not racist,” thereby allowing its audience to continue vicariously enjoying it. Which is different entirely from being anti-racist.
4. From “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'”  (review of Raintree County):
There is observable now, moreover, to an extent unprecedented hitherto, an anxiety on the part of Americans concerning themselves and their heritage. This anxiety cannot yet be called probing; Americans are not noted for introospection and rather disapprove of it. Rather, we are approaching a state of mind which closely resembles shock… There were always contradictions, but we assumed that they would be taken care of… Americans passionately believe in their avowed ideals, amorphous as they are, and are terrified of waking from a radiant dream… The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit… I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberies, social equality, etc., where, indeed, a strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking, instead, of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness, a terror of individual reapsonsiblity and a corrsponding terror of change. This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particulary now, since if we cannot undersatnd ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.
Baldwin is working to disentangle what we might call a liberal-progressive pursuit of “social equality” from the center-left, Democratic-Leadership-Council project of “making the American dream a reality for all its citizens.” The latter relies, for Baldwin, on shallowness, a refusal to introspect, and a denial about, among other things, the property gained from Native American genocide and the wealth accumulated from African-American slavery – and so is doomed to failure. But Baldwin also suggests an alterative – “individual responsibility” – rather than continued engagement with the traditional political institutions and discourses.
5. From “Preservation of Innocence” :
We arrive at the oldest, the most insistent and the most vehement charge faced by the homosexual: he is unnatural because he has turned from his life-giving function to a union which is sterile… his ambiguous and terrible position in our society reflects the ambiguities and terrors which time has deposited on that relationship as the sea piles seaweed and wreckage along the shore.
Baldwin, I think, wrote more about being black than about being gay – or at least, I think he is better known for the former than the latter. But the language in this passage draws connections between the essentially interpersonal-systemic dimensions of racism and what we now call heteronormativity. Here he suggests something like Foucauldian archeological excavation as a method for coming to understand the accrued structures of privelege. But in invoking the notion of innocence in the title, he also draws a connection to America as a whole –
The recognitinon of this complexity is the signal of maturity; it marks the death of the child and the birth of the man. One may say, with an exaggeration vastly more apparently than real, that it is one of the major American amibitions to shun this metamporphosis. In the truly awesome attempt of the American to at once preserve his innocence and arrive at a man’s estate, that mindless monster, the tough guy, has been created ad perfected; whose masculinity is found in the most infantile and elementary externals and whose attitudes towards women is the wedding of the most abysmal romanticism and the most implacable distrust.
This draws together racism, sexism, heteronormavity and know-nothing American patriotism into one intuitive archetype – the “tough guy” – the [white, straight, wealthy, American] “tough guy,” also known as Tony Soprano’s “strong silent type.”
6. From “The Negro at Home and Abroad”  (review of No Green Pastures by Roi Ottley:
The European image of the black man rests finally, one must say, on ignorance, and, however expedient this ignorance may be, it is sustained by the objective conditions; whereas the American image of the Negro has been created out of our terrible experience, and is sustained by an anguished inability to come to terms with that experience, or to conquer the guilty fear and shame which have been its quite inevitable and self-perpetuating legacy… He is not one of them. But he is one of us-and from this reality there is no escape.
This, and the rest of the essay, is a perfect answer to that person with whom you’ve had an inane conversation where they tried to convince you that race is a “totally American thing” and that Europeans “don’t see things the way we do.” Of course they don’t, Baldwin replies, but it’s not because non-Americans are color-blind, or because “talking about race” is what causes the problem; instead, it’s because Europeans’ racial experiences are rooted in colonialism, which kept black people at a distance; American’s racial experiences are rooted in slavery, which did not. Each of those specific histories would give rise to very specific forms of racism, forms that would look different or perhaps even unrecognizable across national boundaries, but which still exist, and have a lot in common.
I’ll next post after I’ve read Go Tell It On the Mountain.]]>