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The Magic of James Baldwin

The idea of “the Old Country” had always frightened him, Baldwin says, but the poet Sterling Brown, identified in “A Fly in Buttermilk” as “an older Negro friend” in Washington, reminds Baldwin that he, Baldwin, is only one generation away from the South. He would discover that what had been to him books, headlines, and music could be a real part of his heritage, his identity. He shields those he spoke to, because their views could put them in danger, or because he didn’t want to embarrass them. A black educator seizes on the facts that Baldwin had never been to college and couldn’t drive a car. Baldwin suspects that the man is defensive about being a Southern Negro because of his anxiety that change might threaten his place in the segregated school system. The future down South, Baldwin says, is like heaven: everyone talks about it but no one wants to go there just yet.

However, at least one student in the vanguard of integration at a white high school could look forward. He tells Baldwin that his old school symbolized a “dead end” for black teachers as much as it represented the grim future that black students faced. Of his former classmates, several girls had left school because they were pregnant and just days before Baldwin arrived eighteen boys were taken away to the chain gang. The bewildered young white principal of the youth’s new high school assures Baldwin that he has a job to do, though he never dreamed of “a mingling of the races” and has no reason to think black schools aren’t as good as white ones. Baldwin reflects that segregation has worked so well it has allowed white people “to create, in every generation, only the Negro they wished to see.”

In the title essay, originally published in 1959, Baldwin, as a Northern Negro in the South, sees that his ancestry is both black and white, a closeness he thinks may explain why whites hate blacks. Integration had worked well after the sun went down, Baldwin is told. The South’s official segregation differed little from unofficial segregation in the North, except in its baffling etiquette. After visiting Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, Baldwin suspects that the argument over whether black children had the right or capacity to learn in white schools was “criminally frivolous,” given the country’s general lack of respect for intellectual life. The hidden dispute was about power and sex, and Baldwin predicts a stiffening of the already “implacable Negro resistance.”

Baldwin watches black men on the streets, on buses, trying to imagine what he would be like had his family never left the South. A guilty feeling that the boycotts and test cases have been for his sake and for that of every Negro in the North awakens in him a need to bestow as much moral advantage as possible on the Negroes going into what he saw as the field of battle. The old black men whom white Southerners love dislike even well-meaning paternalism because they do not want to depend on others. “Men do not like to be protected, it emasculates them.” Black men have always known this while white men have denied it, which Baldwin says gave rise to a “dreadful paradox”: “The black men were stronger than the white. I do not know how they did it, but it certainly has something to do with that as yet unwritten history of the Negro woman.”

Black people in the South were experiencing the 1950s as a period of impending turbulence. But Baldwin was just passing through. Too much was happening and the reasons for it went back too far for Baldwin’s quick intelligence to do more than survey a surface that only suggested the depths. The South would always have a more convincing presence in his work as a metaphor than as a region he could make a pilgrimage to. His real and troubling roots were elsewhere—uptown, in Harlem, in the dreams he had sitting on a windowsill reading Dickens.

Much of Baldwin’s regretful tone and his effectiveness as an emerging spokesman—a term he disliked—came from what he presented as his bewilderment that whites apparently had never seriously considered what the race problem had done to themselves. Baldwin was restating an argument that went back to the days when abolitionists cautioned slaveholders about their eternal souls. But also important to the persuasiveness of his social views, to his imagination, to his insistence that change in racial attitudes be included among signs of progress, were the years he lived in Europe when Germany had officially repented and set out to reconstruct itself as a society. The New Deal and the Marshall Plan told blacks how fast social remedies could be deployed when there was enough political will.

The second part of Nobody Knows My Name contains a portrait of Norman Mailer, who in Advertisements for Myself calls Baldwin’s prose “perfumed,” “too charming to be major,” suggesting that Baldwin hadn’t his own street credibility. Baldwin is sympathetic in reply and, because of his fine Negro manners, he turns in a performance of behaving better than the other person. But he slyly breaches good manners by repeating in print what others have said about Mailer, such as, according to Baldwin, the jazz musicians whom Mailer thought he was so down with. They didn’t think him hip. They said he was “sweet.”

Time has obscured what Mailer and Baldwin once had in common. Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” is a protest against the threat of mass destruction during the early part of the cold war. It was absurd, the feeling went, to behave as though life were normal or society rational when human beings faced daily the potential for total extinction. Some white writers, Mailer among them, allied themselves with blacks in calling for society to recreate itself, for people to cultivate values that went beyond the concerns of middle-class comfort. Mailer felt a connection with black men as US society’s genuine dissenters.4

Nobody Knows My Name, which became something of a best seller, also includes Baldwin’s memoir, “Alas, Poor Richard.” Written after Wright’s death in 1960, it is treated by Baldwin’s biographers as being eerily foreshadowing, as though he had predicted his own fate in his worry that he might become as isolated and uncertain in exile as Wright, his early mentor, had seemed to him. Wright’s hurt reaction to Baldwin’s criticisms of Native Son surprised him, Baldwin says, but he admits to something resembling symbolic patricide. In retrospect Baldwin praises Wright’s work for its dry, savage folkloric humor and for how deeply it conveys what life was like on Chicago’s South Side. The climate that had once made Wright’s work read like a racial manifesto had gone. Baldwin found when reading Wright again that he did not think of the 1930s or even of Negroes, because Wright’s characters and situations had universal meanings. Wright was not, finally, the polemical writer “he took himself to be.” Yet Baldwin still minded the “gratuitous” violence in Wright’s work, seeing it as the consequence of the internal censorship of black writers, which put violence in the place where sex ought to have been.

Nevertheless, Wright, snubbed in the Paris cafés by American Negroes and Africans who had once been his friends, wandering “in no-man’s land between white and black,” became, Baldwin says, an object lesson for him in the hazards of expatriation. He was suspicious of Wright’s friendships with Sartre and de Beauvoir, and doubted that Wright’s new friends in his “adopted country” could appreciate him, the mischievous, cunning “Mississippi pickaninny.” Wright paid for his illusion of safety by renouncing the sources of his inspiration and giving up his knowledge of “the powers of darkness.” Baldwin says he defended Wright when other blacks said Wright had severed himself from his roots, because he knew how easy it was to charge him with the same thing.

Baldwin hints that Wright’s problem was with other blacks, whereas his own problem was being black in the US. But he could not have taken the view of Wright that he did were he not congratulating himself for going back to the US. Though he says that at the time of his death Wright had found himself again as a writer, he pities Wright his years of paralyzing distance from the struggle. Because of the gulf—created either by education or by the mysteries of talent—between their circumstances and those of the blacks they could be made to feel they had left behind, black writers in Baldwin’s day paid a guilt tax in piety, and took loyalty oaths to the cause, pledging that they would not forget. Perhaps that is what Baldwin meant when he said that Europe had prepared him for America.

In relation to Wright, Baldwin sets himself up as a sort of patriot, rather like Larkin claiming in the early 1960s that literature had replaced life as Auden’s subject, meaning that Auden’s work had suffered because of expatriatism. Baldwin was also asserting his generation’s immunity from what he regarded as the mistakes of its immediate predecessors. He had written mostly about race and the same “powers of darkness” he said Wright had risked losing touch with. But if Wright turned out not to be such a polemical writer, then Baldwin was no longer bound by his promise to break the confines of the protest tradition in his own work.

3.

Another Country was competing with Lord of the Flies at the top of the paperback best-seller lists when The Fire Next Time, actually two essays, appeared in 1963. The main essay was originally published in The New Yorker as “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” and was so widely discussed it became a news item, taking Baldwin’s face onto the cover of Time magazine.

The Fire Next Time is a refutation of those articles hostile to the Nation of Islam that came out at around the same time, just as it seems to call out to Martin Luther King’s lament about the cup of endurance running over in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” also of that year. But Baldwin’s language overshadows or preempts his context, which is maybe why, even today, no thought comes up when reading Baldwin of social scientists like Kenneth Clark or Erik Erikson, whose work in the same period also stressed the legacy of psychological damage handed on by racism. Every scar in Harlem seems to breathe on its own in this intense recapitulation of themes from Baldwin’s earlier autobiographical writings.

Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him causes him secretly, in terror, to begin to await, without knowing that he is doing so, his mysterious and inexorable punishment. He must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into the child’s consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice as he is being exhorted, punished, or loved; in the sudden, uncontrollable note of fear in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary.

  1. 4

    In “My Negro Problem—and Ours” (Commentary, February 1963), Norman Podhoretz remembers the sort of blacks Mailer cast as natural dissenters as the “bad boys” who persecuted him when he was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Italians and Jews feared the Negro youths who embodied “the values of the street—free, independent, reckless, brave, masculine, erotic.” The qualities he envied and feared in the Negro, Podhoretz says, made the Negro “faceless” to him. But he was as faceless to them, he says, as Baldwin claims blacks are to whites in general.

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