James Baldwin: An Appreciation

From The Boston Book Review:

James20baldwin730619_3 James Baldwin isn’t much commented on these days, but for a few years in the early 1960s he lit up the cultural landscape like a bolt from the heavens-a prophet of the decade’s black liberation struggle who became one of the most widely read African-American writers in this country’s history. In his essays and novels, this one-time teenage preacher, with a gospel of recognition, responsibility and redemption, evokes an unprecedented response from white America. In his writings Baldwin trenchantly demonstrates the necessity of recognizing our sins: not just racism, but our refusal to really know other humans, to accept differences, and to love.

It was a gospel he continued to preach to the end of his life, in a multifarious stream of novels, plays, essays, reviews and interviews. The early ’60s were his historical moment because that was a time, a brief window, when the possibility seemed alive, rather broadly among both white and black, that such a redemption might actually come to pass. But as American racism revealed itself to be a structure that would not move half a millimeter without being forced, and as the struggle against it assumed more militant or nationalistic forms, Baldwin was left, not exactly behind- for he closely followed and mostly supported the turn to militancy-but with a message that seemed increasingly irrelevant.

That’s the brief, capsule, story-or one of them. Despite the unavoidable necessity he faced of grappling with the realities of racism, Baldwin resisted categorization as a black writer: He was, he always insisted, an American writer. He was also a man whose unashamed sexuality and second novel Giovanni’s Room (1956) presaged the gay liberation movement. Characteristically, Baldwin would not class himself as either a gay novelist or even as gay: What he was about, he’d say, was being open to love, no matter what the form or gender. His was a fascinating personality: gregarious, mercurial, witty, alcoholic, confrontational, intimate-legendary for his parties, his unreliability with appointments, his personal grace and magnetism, his stormy rages and his gracious apologies. Through it all, though, he always came across as real; what he confronted people with-whether charming, angry, needy, benevolent or profound-was always Jimmy.

Jim_2 Growing up very poor in Harlem, convinced of his own ugliness, small and shy, Baldwin was nurtured by his mother, and by some of his school teachers, who provided an avenue of escape through reading-particularly one Orilla “Bill” Miller, of whom Baldwin said that it was “certainly because of her, who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people.”

In his first book of essays, Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin describes his own experience with this “dread, chronic disease” of the victim: “There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood-one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it.” 

It was the need to save himself from the fate of becoming furious, embittered and of no use to himself or others, that led Baldwin, some six years later and with $40 in his pocket, to flee America for Paris. Always lucky, or gifted, in the contacts he was able to make, and to lean on, Baldwin was welcomed to the city by Richard Wright, whom he’d sought out when the older novelist was still living in Brooklyn. And he did blossom there, seeking and finding, or defining, his own identity as a writer and a lover of other human beings-and also forming the chaotic style of existence, the constant drinking and search for companionship as well as the habits of financial irresponsibility and disordered working conditions that were to continue to characterize his life.

Go Tell It On the Mountain (a novel centered in a ghetto church such as that in which Baldwin had for a time found a salvation), Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni’s Room-in these novels and essays of the 1950s, Baldwin forged a place for himself on the American literary scene, refusing to be categorized as a “Negro author” (the latter novel, indeed, contains no black characters), but rather as a writer of great sensitivity and critical intelligence who wrote out of his personal, including his African-American, experience. But, in a new book of essays (Nobody Knows My Name, 1961), a new novel (Another Country, 1962), and the culminating Fire Next Time (1963), he soon surpassed merely personal expression to become prophet, moralist, preacher and an epicenter of American cultural upheaval.

Jb Baldwin’s essential message was simple, and very much of its time. America did not have a “Negro problem” (as it was often called then), but a white problem, which consisted in the inability of those who built their identities on being white to face up to the realities either of American history or of their own bodies, feelings and selves. The problem, in other words, is one of white identity, which requires the projection of unacceptable facts and desires onto an alien other, and a solution is possible only through acceptance and love.

Baldwin left an important legacy-not so much of works and accomplishment (although he left those too) as of struggle and quest. Through the ’70s and into the ’80s, (he died in 1987) Baldwin continued to write (although with diminished output), continued to be an important literary figure. The most important aspect of James Baldwin’s life and work is his unrelenting attack upon some of the more crucial and perennial problems of human social life, basic questions which revolve around dichotomies like politics and morality, love and power, the personal and the political.

Yeats thought one had to choose between “Perfection of the life, or of the work.” Baldwin wrestled with this conundrum (for he was much committed to his personal relationships with others), but also with the contradictions between art and politics and between the particular demands imposed by his identity as a black man, and more general ones imposed by simply being human. Perhaps he broke himself on these rocks and achieved no final synthesis, but his profound and honest struggle is exemplary and full of lessons in these days of debates and dilemmas concerning multiculturalism, identity politics, the possibilities of social change, and the role of artists and intellectuals.

(Note: In the early and mid-eighties, I could arguably be considered a James Baldwin groupie as I tried to attend as many of his public readings as possible.)