Why James Baldwin's words haven't lost their fire

A few days before the Republican National Convention in New York, I received a letter bearing the new James Baldwin stamp -- a lived-in, unsmiling face against the impressionistic depiction of a Harlem street. I wondered at first why it had turned up in August, not February, which is designated Black History Month ("the shortest month in the year," as it's said). Writers and artists, certainly black ones, are not so common on our postage. In fact, the stamp commemorates Baldwin's birthday, Aug. 2; he would have been 80 this year.

I first came upon Baldwin's work in the Partisan Review in the late 1940s when I was 19. He was five years older than I, but this writer was possessed of both a literary confidence and a knowledge of life far beyond mine. As his essays appeared over the ensuing years, I read them not just eagerly but with the sense of having been thrown -- amid all there was for a young poet to read -- a lifeline or the coherent map of a buried reality I had been tacitly urged not to investigate. The writings of W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass and other classic black authors were not yet reissued in paperback, as they would be in the late 1960s. Black History Month was not yet officially recognized, nor was the political usage of "black" (as opposed to "Negro" or "colored" or a more brutal term that I had early been taught in segregated Baltimore, used only by ignorant and insensitive whites.)

I met Baldwin only once, in the early 1980s, at a large seminar table at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he was then in residence. I remember little of the questions asked and courteously responded to. Mostly I looked at the face, listened to the voice of a man whose work had unlocked much for me -- certainly had penetrated the unsayable in terms of my, our, racialized existence -- but, moreover, shone light on the moral and mental instabilities of my, our, country as a whole, whether in its laws, its folkways, its art or its claims, as a nation, to being "free."

He had shown me the life of postwar black American veterans studying on the GI Bill in Paris or returning to their ghettoes carrying the scars of a segregated, racist military (not to mention the experience of war). He had examined the bad faith underlying Broadway shows and Hollywood movies, white liberal hypocrisy and the compromises made by black leaders (always identifying and parsing the circumstances that bred them). He had insistently and strategically used the pronoun "we," meaning the American people, of which he felt so agonizingly a part yet stood off from in his criticism and his vision of unfulfilled possibility. More than anything, perhaps, he had exemplified the great artist fully conscious of the limits imposed on his medium by institutions that ruled the thinking, education and emotional life of his fellow citizens, his potential audience: using the art of his pen to probe and defy those limits.

Worn down over the last months by the impoverished discourse of both political parties and the repetitively slung sarcasms of liberal and conservative columnists alike, I decided to travel, cover to cover, through Baldwin's "The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985." Many of these essays I had read and reread when they were published, yet some either felt, or were, new to me. Tracing the writer's development (and steadfastness) through the history he recounted of those years sharpened my sense of what's missing from the desperate, hysterical public non-conversations in which we're presently mired.

Moreover, many passages -- on ghettoes and their meaning, on the concept of whiteness and how it has undermined the American sense of reality, on violence and moral balance, on the cognitive dissonance and emotional vacuity sown by racialism and its secrets and, finally, on the interior panic behind American triumphalism -- seem uncanny in their prescience, the more so after the Sept. 11 attacks, when our leaders began informing us that our nation is hated because we are so free, so exceptional, so much to be envied:

In America ... life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe and each generation is promised more than it will get; which creates, in each generation, a furious, bewildered rage, the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet. ("The Harlem Ghetto," 1948)

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something we do not understand and do not want to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are.... This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us, particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything." ("Lockridge: 'The American Myth,' "1948)

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. ("Notes of a Native Son," 1955)

Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle. ("Many Thousands Gone," 1960)

There's a stamp for Baldwin, last year a stamp for Paul Robeson. We've come a long way from 1960; democracy, it seems, marches on.

The world has never lacked for horrifying examples; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes. This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling. The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes. ("Fifth Avenue, Uptown," 1960)

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for the public comfort.

Americans will, of course, deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like "the final solution" -- those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. ("No Name in the Street," 1972)

More than 30 years later, the proliferation of the prison-industrial complex, and the disproportionate numbers of black men therein and on death row, demonstrates Baldwin's bitter truth.

There is a carefully muffled pain and panic in the nation, which neither candidate, neither party, can coherently address, being, themselves, but vivid symptoms of it. ("A Review of Roots," 1976)

The American ideal, then, of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden -- as an unpatriotic act -- that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood. ("Here Be Dragons," 1985)

The complexity of manhood, or womanhood -- of maturity itself -- may have become an archaic concept, leaving us to the manic posturings of hunks and screaming cheerleaders dressed in the flag. Certainly this is the impression conveyed by the current political campaigns. But, as Baldwin saw, our candidates and parties are only symptoms.

In his own lifetime, Baldwin could be seen as an apocalyptic prophet, as an instigator of black rebellion, as a provoker of "white guilt" (a concept he devastatingly dissected). But the truly remarkable thing about his writings (embedded especially in the novels "Another Country" and "Just Above My Head") is how, at an astonishingly young age, he took up Henry James' remark that "it is a difficult fate to be an American," filtered it through the lens of black experience -- historical, political and personal -- and tried to tell himself and his country the largest, most complex possible truths. His own experiences -- of nurturing and fear in the family, of the Baptist church, the streets, his early passion for literature, his sexuality, the knowledge of what it means to love and what it means to hate (both your own people and the Other) -- these were his landscape, his work as an American artist.

He, more than any American writer I can think of, had to make his way through the contradictions of early literary success, later iconization, vilification and incomprehension, particularly as a black writer, that fell onto his shoulders. Determined to remain a serious writer and not become a mere celebrity or spokesman, he lived for long periods, and died, outside the United States. He became a participant in the history of the civil rights movement somewhat reluctantly, seeing himself as a writer, not an activist, yet he knew he could and must bear witness to that history as it was being made, with respect and critical astuteness.

The artist, Baldwin wrote in a 1959 review of a collection of Langston Hughes poems, needs to be "within the experience and outside it at the same time." His own awareness of this difficult position (If I am, in spite of all, an American, what does this mean, for me and for America?) was, I think, a supreme artistic strength, giving him prescience, narrative power and an early and vivid anticipation of the real internal trouble toward which this nation, in its blur of wealth and fantasies, has been heading.

Baldwin's country has put his face on a stamp. But it has yet to confront itself as reflected by his unsparing intelligence, his hard-won, lucid vision of love. *

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°