I believe this is the first book labelled as “Young Adult” I have ever read – when I was a kid, when I was a young adult, now. It’s not that when I was younger I read lots of “grownup” books – it’s more that I didn’t read. It’s also not that I have anything against them now, it just hadn’t happened yet. 40 seems like as a good year as any to break that streak.
I read this because two of my classes wanted to read it. Actually, two of my classes wanted to re-read it. A good number of them read it when they were freshmen. Which is interesting in itself – when given a choice among books to read in this unit (since it’s a unit about Native American literature, our Book Distribution Center owns three titles, two by Serman Alexie, so not really much of a choice), they picked this. Some teachers react with cynicism – like the kids are just trying to get out of work. I see it differently: this is a text they are comfortable with, one they are willing to learn more from. And since the kid I spend the most time with right now is 3, I know that “re-reading” is sort of the point. I have literally read Green Eggs and Ham nearly one hundred times. Sam doesn’t like it any less time #47 that #1 – in fact, he probably likes it much more now. And to be more “grownup” again, when I go to church, it’s not like I tune out during the Bible readings because they come back every few years. Again, in a different way, that’s sort of the point.
Usually when I read books because someone else wants me to, I experience it as a huge burden. That didn’t happen here. For the first few pages, I felt that tug, that “oh god why am I doing this it’s a YA book I don’t read YA books but it’s for work just go ahead,” but by the time I even realized I was feeling that way, I was laughing pretty hard, already drawn in. The voice of Junior, the book’s narrator and protagonist, struck me as every bit as original and authentic as Holden Caulfield’s in The Catcher in the Rye, if not more so. Today, when we read the first two chapters aloud in class, the kids were laughing at the same places I had been a few days ago.
The humor works for reasons it’s probably not worth it to parse, at the risk of destroying the jokes. But something else I noticed is that Junior has a way of embedding pretty deep observations about race, class, gender and sexuality into his jokes, in a way that both felt realistic as the experiences of a high school student, and also felt like trenchant social critique offered on the part of its adult author, Sherman Alexie himself.
Actually, one of the most poignant moments, for me anyway, was more about childhood friendship and heteronormativity. Near the end of the book, we get an extended flashback about Junior and Rowdy spending a day climbing trees. Under an illustration of two boys holding hands it says, quite simply, and without guile, “boys are allowed to hold hands until they are 9 or 10.” That made me sad for my son – who daily holds my hand. I know part of that is about growing up, but part of it is also about he and I both being male. And that sucks for what it represents, for that part of him (and me) it extinguishes, forces into hiding, muffles.
As we started discussing the book in class today, students were already making connections between their own experiences with race and racism, with other texts we had read, starting to draw large synthetic conclusions about their identities, systems of oppression and their interaction between the two. I don’t know if they did that the first time they read this book, but I do know anything that helps those acts of synthesis is good.
As a former colleague of mine put it, in answering the charge that this book was “too easy”: we have to ask, to easy in what way? Perhaps the syntax and the diction are simple (though even that is deceptive). The ideas, the aspects of identity this book asks us to confront, especially regarding the vital but seemingly silent/absent place Native Americans hold in the American collective unconscious–those are pretty far from “too easy.”]]>
Sometime last year I read The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s speculative historical fictional piece which asks what if that railroad were a railroad, and underground? That premise opened up into a very present-regarding look at how people and social structures work (or don’t) under oppressive conditions. It also had a sense of the uncanny about it – that though the premise was absurd its descriptions felt visceral and real.
So I thought I’d read something else by Whitehead, and found The Intuitionist. If you tore the cover off of this book, and I read it in some kind of blind taste-test situation, I am quite sure I would have insisted that the first 50 pages had been written by David Foster Wallace. The back cover mentions Pynchon, but Wallace is a much more obvious similiarity. This is a book that renders a secret subculture of elevator inspectors, set in an ambiguously midcentury, art-deco, Gotham-like metropolis. Think The Hudsucker Proxy meets The Pale King, DFW’s posthumous testament to boredom and OCD at a regional IRS processing center. The archness of the opening pages was clever; there is something gratifying about parody of academic disciplines that don’t exist. A work on “ideal elevators” is excerpted throughout this relatively slim volume, centering on Dalton, a figure who sounds like the later Wittgenstein of Elevator Studies, a field Whitehead amuses himself (and this reader) through imagining the contours of.
Where this book parts ways with Wallace (or Thomas Pynchon), though, is its willingness to situate its characters within a racial context – something neither of those authors ever bothers to work through. David Foster Wallace, so far as I know, only meaningfully engages with race in one essay, Authority and American Usage, and there, seems almost entirely to miss the point and spin his wheels in a kind of obsessive fixation with white language, a pretty strange moment of Whitesplaining, which, though honest, mars the overall success of an otherwise brilliant essay.
Here, though, Lila Mae Watson, Whitehead’s protagonist, is most definitely black, “colored” as the book has it. She’s one of just a couple of black employees who have ever worked in the Department, and in ways I didn’t fully comprehend, this fact about her is at the root of the mystery that comprises the bulk of this book. It sort of drifts along with a noir-ish whodunnit involving PI’s and muckraking journalists, and there are plenty of flashbacks to Lila Mae’s earlier life in the south. Lila Mae is an “intuitionist,” which means that unlike the rival “empiricists,” she inspects elevators through visualization, focus and, well, intuition. When an elevator she has recently inspected plummets rapidly from a high floor, injuring several dignitaries, intuitionism, and the fact that she is black, become convenient scapegoats for powerful elevator-industry moneyed interests.
The whole text reads like a jumble, jumping from setting to setting without very much guidance at all- I spent a lot of time lost in that jumble. This may be because I read it over too long of a stretch, too little at a time. So though the back cover asserts that this book is a devastating allegory about racism in America, I honestly did not get that. This may be one of those books that I recognize, if I read it again, I would get much more out of it, though I’m not sure I will.]]>
This was one of those books I ended up reading because is has recently been made into a movie (actually TV show). But I’ve done this before – decided to read something because other people were watching it (then I usually don’t see the movie/show) . I remember reading Sense and Sensibility for the first time when the Emma Thompson movie came out. I also read this because a friend of mine and I have this book group (a book group of two, but a book group nonetheless). This is also definitely one of those “should have read” kind of books, considering how often it comes up, and that it’s more than 30 years old.
The first thing I want to say was my friend’s idea, not mine, but he’s absolutely right: this is a book in which the actual events are fictional, but in which almost everything included, save for a couple of awkward physical details, has happened in some place or time, just not all together. This is a “dystopia,” which is, of course, extremely trendy right now – I’d like to know how much of a genre that was in 1985. Obviously there was 1984, and I’m guessing a bunch of other books, but right now, ironically enough, we’re in the golden age of dystopian media.
That all these things have happened before, and that we can imagine just a couple of frightening events taking place that could lead us away from the USA to Gilead–the central event in Atwood’s book begins with the entirely mundane event of her ATM card not working–is part of the book’s appeal, especially since the idea of centrally controlled money supply is much more real in 2017 than it was back then. I’m not exactly sure what keeps Chase from taking all of our money and then taking over the world, now that I think about it. It’s certainly not their good will – it must just be they don’t think they could get away with it, that it would be too risky? That they’re doing well enough already that it’s not worth the trouble?
A book this reminded me a lot of (though written 20 years after, so the influence-causality goes the other way, if it exists at all) is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. What both books share is a sense the sense of epistemic limitation that grows so naturally out of legal restrictions. Who’s a friend and who’s an enemy is a much more situational question. I think a big takeaway for me from both books is to show me what people already in oppressive situations within our own world might live with: a sense that someone else is making important decisions that the oppressed have no legal way to influence, but also know way even to know about. The novel gestures at this through the language of Cora, who I took to be black, but I’m not sure. Cora’s wariness of the authoritarian restrictions upon the women seems already to have grown up out of her experience as a woman of color who lived in the “normal” society before Gilead emerged. She already seems aware – already to have been aware – of the secretive moves that Offred is only just figuring out.
The Handmaid’s Tale is spare, but effective. It is not obsessed with world-construction the way some more conventional sci-fi is. I think I’ve heard Margaret Atwood say this isn’t sci-fi or fantasy, just her reading the paper and worrying about what’s coming next. OR maybe she said that about her recent MadAddam trilogy: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MadAddam. On a purely subjective level, I enjoyed those more than I enjoyed this: the cast of characters, and the sense of a world, was richer, more filled out, and also more dire. In those books, the technological and economic structure has almost entirely collapsed: all that’s changed here is that men have placed themselves in charge of money, fired all the women from their jobs, and used that as leverage to create a patriarchal system of reproductive (not really sexual) slavery.]]>
For some reason, Volume 6 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been delayed until next year. Having read and enjoyed the first five (I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with them – they’re good, I like reading them, I look forward to the final volume), I turned to Autumn not knowing what to expect. It’s still in the first-person, and that person is still apparently Karl Ove himself, still talking about the family and friends he’s written about in My Struggle.
The biggest difference is that rather than the extended, digressive and time-hopping Proustian personal saga of those volumes, we have here their seeming opposite: 2-3 page prose poems about various mundane subjects like “bottles” and “cans,” or more affecting ones, like “eyes” or “death.”
Now the “prose poem” is a suspect genre itself, a slippery middle stance memorably satirized by David Foster Wallace. And there is some that is worthy of that satire here – the pattern itself does wear thin sometimes as we move from totally quotidian, exacting description of, say, a stick of gum, and then moving onward to a final, overreaching generalization about life and finitude. There is actually a moment where anyone who lived through the late 90’s will wonder if American Beauty is actually being quoted directly when Knausgaard writes these words:
One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen was a plastic bag adrift in the water beyond a jetty on an island far out at sea (18).
In American Beauty this moment was clever because it allowed us to chuckle just a little at the naive teenage idealism of its speaker, but what can we do with it here?
Except — a floating plastic bag can be beautiful, and all the assembled moments Knausgaard has chosen to memorialize in this “letter to an unborn daughter” (he repeatedly addresses his fourth child, just months away from emerging from her mother’s womb) — all these moments actually do work, in their own way, to form into some kind of vision of the world, fate, experience, existence, Dasein, whatever concept you’d like.
But I don’t really know what kind of a vision. This book is more like a painting, that you would need to consult again and again for the meaning, or the effect, to emerge: I read it relatively quickly, and it really is almost like bathroom reading in that its sections are so short, you barely get to really reflect too deeply on any of the moments before they’re over. Which creates its own sort of effect, its own sort of impressionism.
I assume/think I read that Knausgaard has three more volumes forthcoming, about the other three seasons. I’ll probably read them but I’m pretty sure if he hadn’t written My Struggle (or the in some ways superior A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven – a series of realist retellings of old testament tales, which really did strike and remain with me in a way few books do), I don’t think I’d have read Autumn.
But I have read all those books, and that did mean I enjoyed this one, if only mildly. It probably didn’t help that while I was waiting for the fall breezes to inform my perceptions, and somehow confirm the universality of Knausgaard’s glimpses, a totally unnatural heat wave overtook Chicago, and it’s been 90+ for almost a week.]]>
Though more than 1.3 billion people live in China, I am embarrassed to say that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of three books I’ve read that have any sustained connection to that country. The other two are The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses, both by Amy Tan. And I’m not 100% I read those all the way through.
All of which is to say that when I started to read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I had some trouble acquainting myself with simple things, like naming conventions and geography. The book does present itself as a puzzle, at least initially, so I don’t think my confusion was all attributable to my ignorance about China. The book is coiled up, its time sequence spiraling rather than progressing linearly, and so initially, characters are presented in a confusing jumble that over time comes into focus. Though I usually pride myself on not needing help, I did spend some time flipping to the family tree in the front.
If you stretched out that coil and rearranged the events (which would, of course, vitiate the effect of reading the book) what you’d see before you would be, in some ways, a conventional family-cultural saga like War and Peace, stretching from the 1948 civil war, through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Tienanmen Square massacre. It is narrated by the daughter of one of the principal characters, whose family has since immigrated to Canada. The title is an ironic invocation of a line from a Communist Party song, and hovers ambiguously over the book’s pages, playing with meaning in suggestive but unresolved layers.
What engrossed me most was the main characters’ relationship with music–some of the family are Conservatory students, and their inner lives are significantly constituted by their attachments to Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev and others. Glenn Gould records are lovingly described, both as physical entities sometimes buried in the ground to present discovery by censors, but also as arranged mental states, or gateways to ideas and memories. Though this novel is clearly fiction, the passages about Gould, Bach and Beethoven, for me, held so much compressed emotional energy that it made me feel that someone else had listened to them as closely or as often as I had – the narrator intimates that the first English words she learned from her father were “Gould” and “Bach.”
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. – James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
This was a line that kept coming to me as I read – Baldwin’s talking about jazz, which has nothing to do with this novel… But what I slowly realized as I made my way through this pretty long text was that here was an author who could hear it. I’ve read a decent amount about both Glenn Gould’s performances and the underlying compositions (especially of Bach and Beethoven). Even so, the narrator very powerfully recontextualized Beethoven’s 5th “Emperor” Piano Concerto:
An aimless inspection of her schoolbag revealed a copy of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto… the copy was dirty, smudged by pencil marks and eraser dust. Beethoven, she knew, had never intended for this concerto to have so feudal a name as “Emperor.” The name had attached itself long after his death. She followed the solo piano through its ascents and tumbling falls, and into the second movement, a B major dream and sorrow extending like a paper accordion.
If there was indeed an emperor in this concerto, she concluded, he was not a king at all, but a man with ambitions of greatness, an emperor in his own mind, a child who once imagined a different life but had come to see the disconnection between what he aspired to be and what he was capable of being.
This is a stunningly trenchant and visceral reading of 45 minutes of music I’ve experienced enough times to have wondered about how it held together, and here, in the midst of a novel about places, times and ideology so remote from me, I stumble unexpectedly on a elucidation that united my inchoate thoughts and feelings in a way that will allow me to enjoy Beethoven with fresh ears. Which is not to say that this novel does not also contain lessons about family, politics, ideology, time, and death— but in some ways it’s all right there in her Thien’s quick gloss of the “Emperor” Concerto.
Sound had a freedom that no thought could equal because a sound made no absolute claim on meaning. Any word, on the other hand, could be forced to signify its opposite.
In a text that is obsessed with the propagandist and violent abuses of language, words becoming their opposites, this line sang out: the sounds, the compositions, the melodies and rhythms themselves retain radical possibility that no Cultural Revolution, no matter how thorough, could ever expunge.
“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?]]>