In response to:
Channel X: Two Plays on the Race Conflict from the May 28, 1964 issue
To the Editors:
In an otherwise incisive and penetrating analysis of James Baldwin’s play Blues for Mr. Charlie (Channel X: Two Plays on the Race Conflict), I was rather disappointed in Mr. Philip Roth’s failure to conclude that Mr. Baldwin’s characters do not seem real because they are not adults but “delinquent” and juvenile ones at that. The rage, the inability to conform, the strong emphasis upon the Penis and Self, the fanatical need to prove one’s manhood, and the negation of Society’s cultural values and norms are disturbingly pervasive not only in Mr. Baldwin’s new play, in particular, but in his recent works, in general.
Mr. Roth, in my estimation, should have noted the essentially mechanistic, passionless undertones of Mr. Baldwin’s characters, of the listless and empty rhetoric, of the failure of nerve and of the inability to understand motives, logics and consciousness. Mr. Baldwin’s characters, like juvenile delinquents, attack without apparent reason, passion, provocation, thought of punishment or thought of personal gain. While there are legitimate grievances, Mr. Baldwin’s characters, like the street gangs which frequent the streets of nearly every large American city, are so alienated that they must strike out at society blindly from the outside and because of their relative position, their gestures become meaningless, futile and pathetic.
However, much as Mr. Roth disapproves of Mr. Baldwin’s shallow people, he should have noted that the Negro characters have a point and meaning in that they are an affirmation of the American society and that before a Negro can really be an American, be must attack senselessly and break down the walls which existentially bind him and learn how to communicate on his own level with the general American society. While it is difficult to love Mr. Baldwin’s characterizations, as Mr. Roth does not, it is essential for White America to at least understand that Negroes must literally and cooly commit suicide in order to be born again.
And, that it is also necessary for Mr. Baldwin to create the stereotype white in order to feel this new existence, no matter how artistically false it may be (the other side of the wooden nickel).
Walter R. Dean Jr.
Philip Roth replies:
I don’t know how far we get by identifying James Baldwin’s characters with “juvenile delinquents.” Though there may be certain similarities of interest and behavior between some of the characters in Blues for Mr. Charlie and members of a street gang, to do Baldwin justice, there are certainly announced differences of purpose and concern. Also, I am unsettled by something that I may or may not be reading into Mr. Dean’s letter, a notion that learning “to communicate…with general American society,” being “an American,” rules out any radical response to American life, social, political, or emotional. If so, I couldn’t agree less. Finally, Mr. Dean’s sense of imperatives seems to me to be unjustifiably pessimistic, and even heartless. I admit that I don’t understand exactly what he means when he says “Negroes must literally and coolly commit suicide in order to be born again,” but I have the feeling that if I did, I would want to argue strenously against such an idea, and particularly against the rather cavalier way in which this horrible solution (to what?) is put.