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The Magic of James Baldwin

Baldwin did not come from a literary movement or from the uptown leftist groups of his generation such as the Committee for Negroes in the Arts and the Harlem Writers’ Club. Though Baldwin found downtown Trotskyite periodicals open to him in his early days, he came of age in an era when psychoanalysis was replacing Marxism in New York intellectual life. Through his writing he acted out an exploration of consciousness, beginning with the question of who is speaking to or for whom when James Baldwin talks about race.

Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.

Baldwin does this everywhere in Notes of a Native Son. If such a passage were to read “Your dehumanization of us,” “Your dehumanization of the Negro,” or “White people’s dehumanization of the Negro people,” then its tone would be immediately accusatory. As it is, he disarms the defensiveness whites then had when talking to blacks about the racial situation. He is not speaking as a white, but he imposes a communal identity on whites which, as Murray Kempton noted, was alien to their speech at the time, but not to that of blacks. As a rhetorical refinement the plural lends his voice a jurist’s or referee’s impartiality. It is the American in him speaking, his projection of the American conscience. The ambiguity of point of view could be taken as a restatement of the historical problem of the dual consciousness of blacks. Whether or not this American had to be not-Negro was the question Baldwin asked of a dichotomy between race and citizenship that seemed fixed.

Stowe and Wright provide the only literary occasions in Notes of a Native Son. Three essays are accounts of American locations, Harlem and the South, places just the mention of which conjures up the subject of race. “The Harlem Ghetto” presents a congested, dispirited urban landscape unchanged since Baldwin’s childhood, except for the added insult of housing projects. He judges the Negro leader to be in a hopeless situation and observes that the Negro press is so narrow because it is a faithful imitation of mainstream tabloids. Baldwin’s Harlem is completely empty of the glamorous elements of its past, but the churches remain, as does the Harlem resident’s ambivalence toward Jewish people as the identifiable shop owners, landlords, foreigners, and white people among them. “Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.”

The trip Baldwin describes in “Journey to Atlanta” was made by his brother as a member of a Harlem gospel group contracted to entertain at rallies for Henry Wallace’s campaign for president in 1948. Baldwin uses his brother’s report to argue that blacks are pawns in the electoral process, regardless of political party. He is proud that blacks have low expectations of politicians, because the cynicism makes the ghetto doctrine, that of not being taken in, look like political sophistication after all.

These two essays sketch some of the reasons for his not wanting to be in the US. The title essay comes like a last look back. In “Notes of a Native Son” Baldwin remembers his embittered storefront preacher father who had been suspicious of his son’s bookish inclinations. On the summer day in 1943 when Baldwin’s father died, his father’s last child was born. Not long before there had been a bloody riot in Detroit. After his father’s funeral, held on the day that was also Baldwin’s nineteenth birthday, a race riot broke out in Harlem. From this convergence of public and private upheaval, Baldwin weaves an extraordinary tale of captivity and flight. The journey out of Egypt was his great theme.

Baldwin had been away from home for a year discovering in the defense plants, bars, and restaurants of New Jersey “the weight of white people in the world.” One scene of his trying to get served nearly ended in mob violence. He saw that his life was in danger, as much from what he carried in his own heart as from what other people might do. He returned to Harlem to wait for his father’s death. All of Harlem seemed to be “infected by waiting,” “violently still.” The racial tension of the war years had churchly women and prostitutes together on the stoops, united by their distrust of policemen “on horseback, on corners, everywhere, always two by two.” A rumor ignited the rage—“I had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father’s vision”—and after the night of rioting, Baldwin, passing looted shops on his way to the cemetery, and looking at the avenues strewn with everything from cornflakes to beer, was left with an “impression of waste” as difficult to face as the lessons of his father’s burdened life.

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. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.

This is very moving, transparent, and real. The riot may not have crossed beyond ghetto lines, but Baldwin makes something transcendent of the emotions behind it. The elevated language throughout the essay concentrates on the dignity at stake in the lives of the people he was writing about. “Choose you this day whom you will serve,” his father’s favorite biblical text went. Baldwin places his heightened voice in the service of people who had reason to think of themselves as unheard. The lyricism of his despair doesn’t condescend to them or exploit them, because the expressiveness of their church is his, his claustrophobia of spirit is theirs. But at the same time he tells a story of belonging and not belonging, of rejection and coming back, but not staying. Even as he honors his subject he claims something back for himself, just by having such a defiantly lucid style at his command.

In the remaining essays of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin’s reflections on race come from observing a different society and himself in it. He describes the relation of American Negroes to Africans in Paris; his wrongful arrest for theft and his brief Christmas imprisonment in a Paris jail; and what went unspoken between himself and the residents of a Swiss village because of their perception of him as a black man and the corrective feelings he both did and did not want to have in response. These essays are faultlessly rendered, as if to prove his point that individual experience is the only real concern of the artist. The entire book is also a sort of hymn to the divided consciousness, and to the consolation he found in being able to talk about the social prison he had escaped. In Baldwin’s determination not to be what whites thought he should be or what his background predicted he would be, in his will to become a writer, there was always the atmosphere that he had committed an act of civil disobedience.

2.

Nobody Knows My Name (1961) came out five years after Giovanni’s Room—a novel that was controversial not only because it concerns a love affair between two men but also because all of its characters are white—and just before Another Country, the book that was to make him a best-selling novelist. He characterizes this second collection as “a private logbook,” because questions of color hid graver questions about the self. But the book is also intended to have the front-line quality of his return to the US to see the growing protest movement there for himself. Baldwin says the essays were written in a period when he realized that his first youth and exile were both coming to an end.

The “complex fate” of being an American, he declares, freed him of the illusion that he hated America. In a report from the historic 1956 Paris Congress of Negro-African Writers and Artists, a conference of black intellectuals from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the US, organized by the Negritude journal Présence Africaine,3 Baldwin argues that, however limited their possibilities, blacks in the US were not as interested in overthrowing oppressors as they were in getting the existing machinery to work for them. The US State Department had refused Du Bois a passport to attend the conference; nevertheless the US was “home” to millions of blacks who could be considered “the connecting link between Africa and the West.”

Baldwin displays some unease with the ideas put forward by the elders of Negritude, Alioune Diop, Aimé Cesaire, and Leopold Senghor. He understands the post-Bandung Conference solemnity among delegates as owing to their common political subjugation to Europe and to “the European vision of the world.” However, he is not convinced that alternative cultural perspectives can really be what they claim, because the histories of colonial peoples can’t be eradicated. Since the literature of American Negroes is written in a language from Europe, Baldwin doubts Senghor’s claim that literature by American Negroes has recognizable African sources. When Senghor finds traces of an African heritage in the writings of Wright that Wright himself was unaware of, perhaps, Baldwin says, he robs Wright of the individualism he had won for himself as a writer who had survived the American South.

The desire to diminish the importance of European culture by reconstructing a lost African past is just as restrictive of black artists and intellectuals, Baldwin feels. His intellectual tradition and temperament led him to question rather than to commune with social symbols. Senghor’s society “did not seem to need the lonely activity of the singular intelligence.” Nor is a cohesive society necessarily tolerant of the dissenter. Men like Senghor and Cesaire were themselves products of the collision of cultures and thus already stood outside the cohesive society whose culture they both lament and champion.

This essay, as the first formal encounter in Baldwin’s writing with what would now be called the debate over Eurocentrism, would, like so much else of his early work, one day come back to haunt him. At the time it reflected the tensions among black intellectuals in their exile and the consequences for them of political ferment back home. In Baldwin’s view, US society was something new, still in formation, and therefore salvageable. The intimation that blacks and whites in the US weren’t isolated and that Europe and Africa are not abstract places carries over into the next two essays, in which Baldwin’s intense gaze once again takes in New York and Harlem. But the main point of Nobody Knows My Name comes from Baldwin’s first trips to that seemingly cut-off place, the South.

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    For a description of the conference see Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (Morrow, 1973). See also Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verso, 1998).

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