“Is that the writer of ‘The Fire Next Time’ I read in prison--that QUEEN?” a young black man once angrily exclaimed on meeting James Baldwin. His friend replied, “He’s more of a man than most, you know.” This exchange, quoted in W. J. Weatherby’s affectionate, intensely readable portrait of Baldwin, dramatizes one of the central contradictions in the tumultuous life of a great American preacher-cum-blues singer who just also happened to be a fine writer.
Baldwin--novelist (“Go Tell It on the Mountain”), playwright (“Blues for Mister Charlie”) and essayist--was ugly, black and homosexual. He had almost nothing going for him, except talent. He was possibly illegitimate, one of nine desperately poor kids in Harlem where his “father” was a half-mad storefront preacher. Somehow he made it downtown to Greenwich Village, then to prolonged exile in Paris, until he came back as a “star” in the ‘60s civil rights movement.
Most of us know Baldwin as a fiery critic of white racism. Fewer today have read his more personal, tender novels like “Giovanni’s Room.” Weatherby’s tactful, gently probing account of Baldwin’s life--gleaned from his own 28-year-long friendship and scores of interviews with friends and family--is a fascinating installment on a man whom we will probably keep reinterpreting according to our common history he helped shape. It’s less interesting as the story of a ghetto boy who made good than as that of a sometimes uncontrollably angry black man constantly battling with himself to balance an inner rage with the demands of love. This self-described “very tight, tense, lean, abnormally ambitious, abnormally intelligent, and hungry black cat” screamed like a wounded animal at insults, most real, some imagined, that both branded and molded him.
Baldwin loved bashing Whitey. And for a while a large white public adored the magnificent lacerations of his essays and many TV appearances. Blacks idolized him as a “name,” even a hero, up there with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Although he admired and identified with Malcolm, he “decided in effect,” Weatherby tells us, “he would remain with the integration wing of the civil rights movement . . . and reject the growing radical younger group” represented by the Black Muslims. Weatherby, tracing in detail the evolution of Baldwin’s thought on race, reveals how surprisingly close he sometimes was to the Muslims whom he rather guiltily rejected. As he told the Muslim leader Elijah X: “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?”
Weatherby, an English reporter who distinguished himself covering the early bloody voting-rights campaigns in the South, helps us understand the personal pain and inner conflict that lay behind Baldwin’s often self-dramatizing rhetoric. From the start, as a shoeshine boy writing on the only available paper, grocery bags, his self-belief had the same religious, almost mystical roots, as his rolling, sonorous vocabulary. He enjoyed messin’ about with the rich white folks who made him a celebrity. But in a sense he never left Harlem. Characteristically, in Paris he’d disappear from his literary cafes to live among the clochards and Algerian workers where possibly he felt less of an outsider.
Baldwin’s spiky independence shines through Weatherby’s profile. Despite his “weak little body,” he was “a one-man civil rights movement 20 years before his time,” stubbornly “sitting in” in New York bars and restaurants that refused to serve him. When it was really risky, he refused to hide his gayness--even in the heart of the macho black community that cherished his effrontery. And, in his most intensely militant periods, when he had cause to despise whites (as after the Birmingham church Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four black girls), he never forgot what they and he meant to each other. His most influential schoolteacher, and first literary supporters, were all white. Just as his literary “fathers” were mainly black. Weatherby describes how a young Baldwin turned viciously on his mentor and benefactor, Richard Wright, as well as on Langston Hughes, as Uncle Toms--only to be attacked as he grew older by Eldridge Cleaver for his alleged “lack of masculinity.”
Unlike Cleaver, Baldwin saw manhood as a struggle against any sort of life-denying bigotry. But he wasn’t sentimental about it. “No black man,” he wrote, “can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare--rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of the white man.” It took tremendous struggle to transcend the reality of white dominance. At times he sounded a little ridiculous putting down white folks by pretending to be Black Everyman. “I’ve been inside your kitchens . . . I picked the cotton, I carried it to market, I built the railways. . . .” But he was only speaking the truth, I suspect, when over a drink he told the author: “I . . . have had to take over white history and make it my own, make it work for me, a part of me on MY terms.” This lean black cat certainly did that, all right.
A welcome complement to Weatherby’s book is Quincy Troupe’s collection of essays about Baldwin. Contributors include Maya Angelou, Mary McCarthy, William Styron and Wole Soyinka. Troupe’s final interview with the dying Baldwin is spirited and funny at times. “Do you have any feelings about yuppies?” Baldwin was asked. “I saw them coming,” he replies. “I knew them. They can’t, I’m afraid, be taught anything.”