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The Black Arts

Mixing the arts in this way leads not only to lopsided comparisons but to unexamined critical judgments that make a claim for affinities of style when there are none. Thus Neal can call a poet like Yusuf Rahman, who explodes in unconsidered bombast all over the page, the “poetic equivalent of Charlie Parker” without seeing that the former is haphazard and full of imagistic non sequiturs while Parker was a lyric genius who, within an expanded chordal structure and method of substitution, produced music that was never randomly loose. He certainly never honked anything like these lines which end Rahman’s poem, “Transcendental Blues”:

White maggots will not military your babies down dead


White maggots will not mercenary your fertile Nile to ache with pus

My spears shall rain
I-can’t-give-them-anything-but-drops -of-hate
erasing them
exterminating them
so humanity can have a clear slate
Just keep me constant
ebony lady

However strongly one feels about racial unity, by no artistic legerdemain can one compare the author of the above with a man of abstract precision like Parker. Such a comparison goes beyond ebullience into a sort of critical madness.

Now, madness is not used here as a metaphor, but as a reasonably accurate descriptive term for much that is happening in Negro literature and in the criticism surrounding it. Dragged out into America’s social chaos, the new literature, instead of analyzing the lunacy behind the slogans of the racial struggle, has begun to embody it. The Black Fire view of art may be extreme, but the madness filters into much better writers than those in this anthology, and it is a madness far from divine: deadening, awkward, simplistic, strident—in every way inimical to the antic, the unique, the odd and personal. It is the madness in monuments and behind lapidary epigrams, and it settles like a stylish uniform on those who let themselves be drafted into its service. This madness is not that of rebellion, but rather a sort of sensory suicide, an act which allows the vision to be dulled so that it sees in blocks and shadows. It is the madness that transmutes the clear and palpable testament found in James Baldwin’s essays into the strange alloy of his new novel, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, in which blackness is written about with all the zest of a penance performed for the sake of party discipline. One reads amazed, knowing Baldwin’s intelligence and autobiographical honesty, this stiff account of his hero, Leo Proudhammer, stomping through a world made of sociological constructions and expressing tired, novelettish notions of sex, success, and “race problems.”

As a study of a young man’s rise to fame as an actor, it is essentially no different from hundreds of potboilers that have preceded it: there are the humble origins; the young, bohemian days of struggle, integrity, and sexual dalliance; the battle against a skeptical authority; the “big chance”; the two-edged rewards of success and ambition—all of this narrated in a thin, pat, literary voice as if the author knew that these situations, like those of a TV western, are so well-used that listeners can deduce from the most meager evidence the moral significance in each event. Of course, Leo Proudhammer is a Negro, and this fact, I suppose, was meant to give some snap to the novel’s creaky structure. But all it really does is to make everything seem sadly obligatory, as if Baldwin became creatively atrophied in this book and was anxious to get through the ordeal with as little excitement as possible, lest something should somehow reveal that whereas Baldwin can speak of blackness as a fact of his own life, he is not really comfortable with it as a subject for fiction.

In Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time, Baldwin presented us with the story of a black artist putting himself together piece by piece, setting his own terms, examining them, and defending their implications with a wry but heated virtuosity. The life he set down in these essays was a complex one, for it stretched in many directions and showed a tenseness toward art and culture as well as visceral rage toward a white world that in so many ways seemed bent on dehumanizing him. Whether one agreed with Baldwin or not in his estimate of Richard Wright’s Native Son, or with his sour view of Kerouac’s and Mailer’s romantic notions of Negro life, or, finally, with his analysis of what was askew in our society, was of secondary importance when placed beside the power of his idiosyncratic courage and literary gifts. Throughout these pieces, he never allowed blackness to slip into the limbo of a fashionable attitude; it was never a problem because it was his blackness with its very own artistic logic. To put that quality to official use, as he does in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, to try to make of his hero a Black Everyman, causes him to move from a personal vision to a strange dilution of himself; for in Leo Proudhammer, Baldwin tries to remake and simplify that life which his essays gave us, investing it with a stylistic and psychological bluster that, when set beside the original, seems openly dishonest.

As a novelist Baldwin has never been particularly interested in or profound about the problems of social cohesion; rather, in such a work as Another Country, he made it plain that he sees human relations as sexual and spiritual, and indeed few writers can pack as much philosophizing into a hetero- or homosexual screw as he managed to in that work. If he is a little over-mystical about sex, he nevertheless pursues it as a subject with some passionate secrets to reveal, some high commitments to make, and rewards to give. However, something seems to prevent him from a really unfettered exploration of this subject, which started so well in Giovanni’s Room. Instead, this new book displays as much sexual ease and reality as a treatise on Eskimo tribal customs. We can only wonder what voices he has been listening to that caused him to make this dull, propitiatory offering to the madness of our times. If ever a writer has earned the right to go his own way and find his own particular demons, Baldwin has; and yet he hangs back, bleeding more and more of his talent away in rituals that make him seem not much different from dozens of his inferiors who use their blackness to define safe literary limits for themselves.

The madness takes its toll, but it should be clear, before all critical connection between the black and white sensibility breaks down, that, for the Negro writer, madness comes not in hating the white world but in hating it without style. A lucid rage can be an effective cultural weapon; literary delirium tremens can only bog down everyone’s anger. This frenzy to set up an official literary barricade, to uncover symbols and tales which will promote some sort of atavistic tribal unity, can lead very quickly to a crippled art that threatens nothing. In the rush to do away with the racial double consciousness, it cannot be forgotten that art produces its own version of this division and that it has its own standards of manhood. What Eldridge Cleaver, for example, does to the white consciousness in Soul on Ice is shattering precisely because he appreciates and meets those standards, and so can pick apart with angry humor all the ripe details of that anger’s object.

This collection of letters, essays, and dramatic monologues does what good books have always done: it presents a new stirring of experience that causes hidden sediment to rise where we can all clearly see it. Cleaver does not simply cry monster; he carefully strips away the lunatic raiment of both blacks and whites, sometimes affecting an ingenuous amazement at what he finds beneath, sometimes becoming a lyric moralist fired to rage over what he sees as dangerous threats to life. The subjects in Soul on Ice range from love to revolution, from rape to literary criticism, and one has an idea of just how Cleaver manages to bring all this together into its own unity at the opening of the title piece, a letter addressed from Folsom Prison:

I’m perfectly aware that I’m in prison, that I’m a Negro, that I’ve been a rapist, and that I have a Higher Uneducation. I never know what significance I’m supposed to attach to these factors. But I have a suspicion that, because of these aspects of my character, “freenormal-educated” people rather’ expect me to be more reserved, penitent, remorseful, and not too quick to shoot off my mouth on certain subjects. But I let them down, disappoint them, make them gape at me in a sort of stupor….

And a few sentences further he goes on:

In beginning this letter I could just as easily have mentioned other aspects of my situation; I could have said: I’m perfectly aware that I’m tall, that I’m skinny, that I need a shave, that I’m hard-up enough to suck my grandmother’s old withered tits, and that I would dig (deeper than deeply) getting clean once more—not only in the steam-bath sense, but in getting sharp as an Esquire square with a Harlem touch—or that I would like to put on a pair of bib overalls and become a Snicker, or that I’d like to leap the whole last mile and grow a beard and don whatever threads the local nationalism might require and comrade with Che Guevara, and share his fate…or how I’d just love to be in Berkeley right now, to roll in that mud, frolic in the sty of funky revolution, to breathe in its heady fumes, and look with roving eyes for a new John Brown, Eugene Debs, a blacker-meaner-keener Malcolm X, a Robert Franklin Williams with less rabbit in his hot blood, an American Lenin, Fidel, a Mao-Mao, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO…. All of which is true.

But what matters is that I have fallen in love with my lawyer.

From personal outrage, to revolutionary enthusiasm, and then into self-irony with a profession of love that scales things back to human size—Cleaver’s style can cover a great deal of ground without stinting on its subject, for beyond having a rare honesty, it has a dramatic temper that makes it a point gently to remind us of who is speaking and from where.

If there is a major theme in Soul on Ice, it is Cleaver’s use of the old Mind-Body difficulty, which he changes from an epistemological problem into a social and psychological one. When he looks at American society he sees it primarily as a function of this dualism, split into such categories as “The Omnipotent Administrator” and “The Supermasculine Menial.” The Administrator has permitted The Menial certain rights: in physical areas—with, of course, the exception of sex—he may excel, but any aspiration to administrative prerogatives—e.g. the attributes of mind—is taboo. Thus Cassius Clay went too far when he became Muhammad Ali, for this was evidence that some intellectual process had taken place, and, what was worse, The Menial, The Body, did not hesitate to articulate just what that process was.

With a rueful anger, Cleaver uses this image in an intuitive rather than a sociological way to discuss some of the more interesting events of recent years. The transition from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy era, for example, he considers the beginning in the long-needed merger of the mind and body polarities, and he is devastating when he describes the white psyche thawing out as it tried to put on a little flesh by taking up the new—for the blacks, old—rock sound and the dances that went with it. Anyone who remembers Society’s invasion of The Peppermint Lounge in the early Sixties knows the appositeness of Cleaver’s description:

They were swinging and gyrating and shaking their dead little asses like petrified zombies trying to regain the warmth of life, rekindle the dead limbs, the cold ass, the stone heart, the stiff, mechanical disused joints with the spark of life.

That Cleaver sees this as a small, comical hope for the country does not mean his judgment of the white world is any the less exacting than that of LeRoi Jones; it is simply delivered in a human voice that convinces because of the heavy dues it must have paid in experience in order to write so well. That folk tradition which Larry Neal and others are scurrying about to define is right here in Cleaver’s book. He does not have to set down “Blackness” as a subject, because every twist of intelligence, every turn of phrase make this identity a self-sufficient fact that needs no invective nor analogy to jazz to come into sharp relief; and as old categories of thought break apart, minds like Cleaver’s are sorely needed, minds that can fashion a literature which does not flaunt its culture but creates it.

At this writing, it seems that the Administrators, led by Governor Reagan, are bent on having Cleaver’s parole rescinded. The historical ignorance in such an act, and the petty fear to which it gives evidence, are qualities it is not surprising to find in the possession of the state leader of California. It is really so inept an attempt at censorship that one might, in the spirit of revolutionary pragmatics, applaud the idiocy for the reaction it will inevitably provoke. However, for my part, I am weary of seeing imagination paid for with personal freedom, especially when it is an imagination that could conceive, as Cleaver’s did in the pages of Ramparts, of challenging Ronald Reagan to a duel—a clean, traditionally American solution. If the Administrators have their way and Cleaver is returned to prison, there is nothing left for us to do but to throw down gages of our own and thereby honor his.

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