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BALDWIN LOOKS BACK : THE PRICE OF THE TICKET <i> by James Baldwin (St. Martin’s: $29.95; 690 pp.) </i> : THE EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN <i> by James Baldwin (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: $11.95; 144 pp.) </i>

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It may well be that 40 years from now James Baldwin will be called the finest American essayist of his generation. He has certainly been, over the last 40 years, the most prolific and most durable. The patented Baldwin style--comma-filled and intricately digressive with its asides, refinements, anecdotes, sudden tirades--builds over time into an almost Pentecostal routine of internal ‘call-and-response.’ With the appearance of “The Price of the Ticket,” the American reader can now reassess a body of writing that, better than any other, looks back on the stormy relations between white and black America from 1948 to 1985.

Baldwin’s literary career has been marked by a tension “between (his) life as a writer and (his) life as--not spokesman exactly, but as a public witness to the situation of black people.” Baldwin’s enormous popular success (his worldwide sales, running into the millions, make him easily the best-selling black writer of our time) is mainly a result of his fiction (“Giovanni’s Room,” “Another Country”). But this volume of collected essays comprises a body of writing more direct in its aim, more coherent in its approach, and ultimately more convincing in its execution, than the fictional works by which Baldwin is usually known; some of these essays deserve attention as masterpieces, not just of social analysis, but of expository form. Baldwin is a bright angel, alerting us in urgent tones to a spiritual self-destruction already evident in America.

The 52 essays collected here (all published previously, except for the “Introduction”) span a period of 37 years, a time of unprecedented social ferment. The collection includes all of Baldwin’s key essays, detailing his progress from the relative optimism of the ‘50s and ‘60s, to a bleaker militancy in the ‘70s, to a somewhat mystical concern in the ‘80s with future generations, “how to save our children.” (The collection, unfortunately, omits the crucial article on “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist.”)

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Baldwin writes in the tradition of Montaigne, Emerson and Thoreau: His speculations never stray too far from autobiographical details. His “I” also (like the narrator of Ellison’s “Invisible Man”) describes the “you.” Baldwin invites us as readers to see ourselves mirrored in his inner states. With a blend of precision and extravagance unmatched in modern American essayists, Baldwin’s eye documents exciting yet exacting times.

The fact is that Baldwin has seen and suffered much more than most--and has survived to tell the tale. His sheer ubiquity is amazing: In one extended recollection, “No Name in the Street,” we find Baldwin dodging racist policemen in Montgomery and Little Rock, writing in Beverly Hills a stillborn screen treatment of Malcolm X’s autobiography, trading obscene oaths with a school chum over a Harlem fried-chicken dinner, visiting a wrongly accused black friend in a Hamburg prison, dining at the London Hilton with his British publishers. He seems to have been nearly everywhere, done nearly everything, and understood nearly everyone, from the lowliest chauffeur to highest luminaries of politics and culture.

Baldwin has kept up a love/hate affair with Europe, but he has never been far from American artistic life. He has known the likes of Richard Wright, Chester Himes, William Styron, Norman Mailer. Returning to America in 1957 for an extended period, Baldwin became the moral scribe of “that betrayed and co-opted insurrection that American folklore has trivialized into ‘the civil rights movement’ “--he remains its most faithful witness. Indeed, his cameo portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X are definitive examples of their genre.

Baldwin’s essays present three basic stances: (1) Baldwin, the artist/solitary, the picaro or outlaw whose behavior places him on the periphery of social definition and sanction; (2) Baldwin, the penitent sinner, whose confession also becomes our own, and (3) Baldwin, the prophetic visionary (a sort of latter-day Amos, critical of the present, prescient about the future). Both his confessorial and prophetic stances underpin Baldwin’s basically evangelical quest, despite his open break with the church as a youth.

Already in his first essay, “The Harlem Ghetto” (1948), we see that Baldwin cannot abide the easy platitudes and sterile subterfuges that cloak the truth of racial oppression. His exceptional candor is only possible because he has scrutinized himself. Baldwin has, more than any other writer of his generation, captivated the (normally white) American reader by speaking both as victimized and victimizer, exposing racism from within as economic and psychological self-interest.

Baldwin sees his role as unmasking the central delusions that white Americans still hold about blacks. Racial interaction in America, he says, fetters blacks with pervasive reproofs, and misleads whites into a false sense of superiority. “The price of the ticket” to such deceptive comfort is high, in psychological, economic, ethical and historical terms. Whites see the false front blacks present as “good racial relations.” White Americans, to the extent that they accept the role of “white man,” are controlled by the history they have repressed: “They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” “Incoherence” takes the place of morality: One is trapped by what one cannot face.

Yet, as Baldwin says admiringly about Bessie Smith, the artist can escape all “definitions by becoming herself. This is still the only way to become a man or a woman--or an artist.” If the artist must tell the truth at all costs, then no one tells the truth more chillingly than Baldwin. It is an item of faith with him that white Americans are “certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today.” In light of this threat to their mental and physical survival--which seems only superficially mitigated since slavery--black Americans have been forced to understand whites even better than whites understand themselves. The condition of the--normally silenced--outcasts of society often reflects badly on the psyches of the oppressors: “One can measure very neatly the white man’s distance from his conscience--from himself--by observing the distance between white America and black America.” Baldwin feels a double entitlement, as writer and as black, to utter the unpalatable truth about the latest phase of what he calls the “black diaspora”: “The color of my skin . . . seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see.”

Baldwin’s confessions accuse us in the hope that we will eventually reform ourselves: “ . . . in the heart of the absolutely necessary accusation there is contained a plea.” The positive side of Baldwin’s prophecy is his vision of what America could be if it lived up to its full promise: “The liberation of Americans from the racial anguish which has crippled us for so long can only mean, truly, the creation of a new people in this still-new world.” Even in accusation, blacks speak “out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life.” He still believes in the possibility of interracial community--"our endless connection with, and responsibility for each other"--but finds at present the idea of community only “among the submerged, the ‘lowly’: the Native American, the Mexican, the Puerto Rican, the Black.”

Baldwin is one of the last remaining American writers with a vision of what it might mean, individually and societally, to be whole: In an era of fragmentation and compartmentalization, that’s saying quite a lot. Yet time is running out: one prophecy of these essays that grows more sinister as the years pass: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy . . . is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time !”

“The Price of the Ticket” remains, thankfully, incomplete: There are more essays to come. Baldwin’s latest work, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” continues to challenge our most treasured sureties--here in a lengthy meditation on the Atlanta child murder case. The book begins with a prophecy of doom borrowed from William Blake (which Baldwin first used in 1964 in “Words of a Native Son”): “A dog starv’d at his master’s grave/Predicts the ruin of the state.” Returning to Atlanta 26 years after his first major essay about Atlanta, “Nobody Knows My Name” (1959), Baldwin once more assesses the health of the American State. The mayor and most of the investigators may be black, but Atlanta, and the racist assumptions of Southern justice, have changed little, despite the contrary “evidence.”

For Baldwin, the investigation culminates in “an unlikely and untidy murder case--or, more precisely, an unlikely case and an untidy trial.” Williams was trapped by the kind of threadbare evidence (this case, literally ‘fibers’) which white Southern justice once used to hang blacks from very thick ropes. Williams, convicted of committing two out of 28 murders, shows a “pattern” that connects him to the other cases, but finally “it is impossible to claim that his guilt has been proven, any more than it can be proven that the murders have ceased.” The entire notion of “pattern” upon which the district attorney’s case against Williams hinged employs the same brand of self-legitimating semantics as, say, the notion of “Negro behavior.”

Deplorably, the Williams conviction has the effect--if not the provable intent--of derailing further conversation about racial hatred and injustice in America. Atlanta becomes “the city too busy (making money) to hate” but also to witness the crimes that have taken place. In the end, whatever the true identity of their victimizers, the victims remain the same in 1985 as in 1959: “The only pattern I notice is that the victims were young Black males living in the purgatory of poverty.”

Baldwin suffers from a few stylistic lapses during the essay: One senses that several all too painful issues--the intimation of black self-hatred; the unspoken subtleties of the New Racism of the ‘80s; the ‘homosexuality’ issue; the amorphous nature of the case itself--blunted Baldwin’s attack here, and kept him from getting to the deeper psychological truth of the events involved. But Baldwin’s moral challenge to us has never been keener. In the closing paragraphs, Baldwin sees, with St. Paul, “the evidence of things unseen” which is ‘faith’ in the ability of white society to change: “This is the only nation in the world that can hope to liberate--to begin to liberate--mankind.” The prophet glimpses in the “evidence” of the present the unseen future: “I will not live to see anything resembling this hope come to pass. Yet I know that I have seen it--in fire and blood and anguish, true, but I have seen it.” Reading Baldwin, one can almost see it too. The consistency of Baldwin’s witness is impressive, but the intransigence of his listeners, and of racial oppression in general, remains troubling.


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