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The Magic of James Baldwin

In The Fire Next Time Baldwin explores his religious conversion at the age of fourteen and the terrified refuge he found in being a performer in the pulpit until his faith crumbled three years later, because he had been reading again, starting “fatally” with Dostoevsky, which fueled his resentment of Christian hypocrisy. As a former child preacher in Harlem, Baldwin appreciated why blacks were increasingly attracted to the Nation of Islam’s creed that God was black. He understands the Black Muslims as followers drawn from a depressed population that doesn’t have “the time or energy” to read, and for whom hope elsewhere has died:

For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language. The privacy of his experience, which is only beginning to be recognized in language, and which is dented or ignored in official or popular speech—hence the Negro idiom—lends credibility to any system that pretends to clarify it.

Baldwin recounts a visit to Elijah Muhammad’s strange Chicago mansion headquarters, where he sees Muhammad’s appeal as a father figure, but remains ruefully skeptical. The Muslim movement was a dream of power, offering an invented past. African-Americans had no future anywhere without a real past.

Consequently, white Americans were themselves deluded if they supposed Negroes expected anyone to “give” them anything. When whites held out the possibility that Negroes could become their equals, Baldwin was reminded of North Africans in 1956 asking if the French were ready to be civilized. At bottom, he says, the Negro problem was really the white man’s wish not to be judged by people who aren’t white, the desire to be released from “the tyranny of the mirror.”

Baldwin’s “I” summons “them,” white Americans; “him,” the Negro; and “one,” the Negro observing whites; but the voice that once searched for “our” America is absent. His “we” doesn’t appear when talking about the US; only when speaking of humanity in general, of creatures cringing before God. In taking up truth’s cause, Baldwin had chosen sides. The Fire Next Time derives its force from precisely the same “theological terror” he had previously criticized Harriet Beecher Stowe for. It also contains a dilemma that Baldwin, the apostle of paradox, was ill prepared to meet. It sounds like a paradox for him to warn that blacks were of two minds about being integrated into a burning house. But it also seems a paradox for him to think that his influence—the power of a minority to threaten a majority with moral collapse—depended on how much that majority cared about its moral vocabulary as well as his.

4.

Baldwin became more of a spokesman than Wright had ever been, partly because his moment coincided with the age of television. He was soon under FBI surveillance, just as Wright had been, but Wright was never invited to advise the US attorney general, as Baldwin was to be. In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” an essay Baldwin wrote after he traveled with the civil rights leader in 1961, he admires King as the first black leader who said to whites what he said to Negroes and vice versa.

In Baldwin’s view, King was different from but not entirely free of what he calls the official black leadership, whose members he assumed came from “the most unlucky bourgeoisie in the world’s entire history.” They were trapped “between black humiliation and white power” and were more loyal to their class than to the black masses they supposedly represented. Baldwin sees a gap between this official leadership and the young, “who have begun nothing less than a moral revolution.” Because of King’s middle-class background Baldwin wonders if King, whom he first met in 1958, can meet the expectations blacks have of visionary leaders while also resisting the pressures white people in power put on an official black leadership schooled in the politics of concession.

Baldwin was a luminous presence on the literary scene, but to key figures in mainstream civil rights organizations he was not altogether respectable. Adam Clayton Powell forced King to drop Bayard Rustin from the SCLC because he considered Rustin’s sexuality a liability.5 King maintained a certain distance from Baldwin for the same reason. Though part of the celebrity contingent of the March on Washington, with Marlon Brando’s arm around him, Baldwin had not been asked to speak.

After reading The Fire Next Time, Hannah Arendt warned him that in politics love was a stranger. In any case, love began to play less of a part in his rhetoric. He was more attuned to the confrontational mood of the country. In Nothing Personal (1964) he noted that many people in Texas were passing out handbills accusing President Kennedy of treason. Perhaps this was his way of showing that there was something behind Malcolm X’s infamous remark about Kennedy’s murder being a case of the chickens coming home to roost.

Baldwin liked Malcolm X right away, because he knew all about the sad correlation in a black urban youth’s experience between a life of petty crime and a life as one of the saved.6 He respected his mocking attitude and retaliatory incisiveness about white power. While not relinquishing King’s ideal of racial justice as a path toward national redemption, Baldwin agreed with Malcolm X that the history of racism in the US had to be acknowledged before any meaningful change could take place. Malcolm X, on the other hand, chafing under the Nation of Islam’s restrictions on his political activities, said while traveling in Africa that he wanted a “real” revolution, not the “pseudo revolt” of people like James Baldwin.

It was a time when every day seemed loaded with tragic turning points. Baldwin was often on hand, speaking, observing. He spoke at a Manhattan rally to protest the deaths of four black children in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.7 The racial struggle had spread from the South, where Baldwin was an outsider, to the North and his native ground of tenements and garbage dumps. He was still able to find that American “we” in his velvet sack of rhetorical devices. In “The American Dream and the American Negro,” Baldwin’s contribution to a debate with William F. Buckley, Jr., at Cambridge University in 1965, he warns that there is little hope that “we, the Americans,” accept that his ancestors are both black and white, and that black people are just like everybody else.

The darkening of the civil rights struggle coincided with a fall in Baldwin’s overall critical fortunes. A terribly earnest play, Blues for Mr. Charlie, opened on Broadway in 1964 to mixed reviews. Then his collection of short stories, Going to Meet the Man (1965), failed to win the acclaim that had greeted his previous works of fiction. Because some critics at the time wondered if Baldwin hadn’t gone anti-white, later on he would too easily say that he lost favor with white critics because his message had become difficult for them to accept.

When he dealt with concrete issues, he was unanswerable. In an article published in 1966, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” Baldwin is chilling about the “arrogant autonomy” of the police, the part they played in the Harlem riot of 1964 and in the murder charges brought against the Harlem Six, the black men arrested for defending themselves. He calls his report a “plea for the recognition of our common humanity,” but hints that although “we” in Harlem weren’t so much at the mercy of cops and landlords anymore, patient explanation and background-seeking calls from officials in Washington when the weather began to warm up belonged to the power relationships of the past. As the Sixties intensified, Baldwin published few essays, many of them immediate reactions to events or the texts of speeches, nothing like his considered essays.

The era of praying with your feet, as the saying went, was drawing to a close, and something in Baldwin’s tone was beginning to change as well. He stopped trying to answer the question whites frequently asked of blacks during this volatile period: What does the Negro want? Instead, his mission was to hold up the mirror that he believed whites were fearful of. Because he was sure that whites minded being judged by nonwhites, his intention had elements of temerity and revenge. He argued that when a white person looked at a black that white person saw and then wanted to deny the bloody history reflected in the black person’s skin. He often said that blacks knew more about whites than whites knew about blacks. Increasingly, whites became an abstraction in his discussions, just as the Negro habitually had been to most white observers. In any case, white, Baldwin said repeatedly, was an attitude, not a color, and black was a condition.

While Baldwin had become scornful of white liberals because, he said, they believed themselves to be already saved, he was nevertheless attacked by black militants as a beneficiary of liberalism. The rise of black consciousness led some blacks to question black writers’ relation to their audience and the makeup of Baldwin’s in particular. Ishmael Reed categorized Baldwin as a black writer who spoke to whites as a guide to black feeling. He wasn’t really addressing blacks in his work, Reed claimed, because he was only saying what blacks already knew.8

In 1966, the year Stokely Carmichael cried “Black Power” on television after the attempt on James Meredith’s life, Amiri Baraka reprinted in Home: Social Essays a vitriolic article in which he says that Baldwin’s writing presents a “Joan of Arc of the cocktail party.” Baraka denounces the emphasis on individual experience in Baldwin’s writings as a “spavined whine and plea” that was “sickening past belief.” Baraka implies that what he takes as Baldwin’s conciliatory attitude toward whites wasn’t that of a “real” black man anyway.9

Baldwin’s militant black critics seemed to link what they considered his cultural elitism to the open treatment of homosexuality in his work as well as to his reputation among whites. A straight black male writer once complained that queer black male writers enjoyed an unfair social advantage because they were not a threat to straight white men in the same way that straight black men were. The history of tokenism also had something to do with the lurking resentment toward Baldwin and with the punitive feeling that he should be left to his white-created reputation, history having moved on.

Baraka confines himself to Baldwin’s writing, to the persona of the essays. However, Eldridge Cleaver’s first published article, which appeared in Ramparts in 1966 and was later reprinted in his first- person celebration of his badness, Soul on Ice (1968), starts off by talking about Baldwin’s work, but quickly degenerates into a grisly polemic equating homosexuality in black men with what Cleaver calls “a racial death-wish.”

Norman Mailer had been among the group of white editors and writers who encouraged Cleaver to write while he was serving a fourteen-year sentence in Soledad Prison for assault with intent to commit murder. In his article Cleaver says that Another Country, together with the “literary crime” of Baldwin’s “arrogant repudiation” of “The White Negro” in Nobody Knows My Name, led him to revise his opinion of Baldwin, whose books he once eagerly awaited. Cleaver says that Baldwin attacked Mailer, a white opponent of white supremacy, because of Baldwin’s “total hatred of blacks, particularly of himself.”

  1. 5

    Rustin had been arrested on a morals charge in California in 1953 and the Los Angeles Times got hold of the story. Powell threatened that unless King broke with Rustin he would announce that King and Rustin were having a sexual relationship. Rustin was then organizing the protests at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles in 1960, and Powell didn’t want Kennedy embarrassed by them. See Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen (HarperCollins, 1997).

  2. 6

    See Kenneth B. Clark’s interviews with Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King in The Negro Protest (Beacon Press, 1963).

  3. 7

    Baldwin’s remarks were reprinted in Seeds of Liberation, edited by Paul Goodman (Braziller, 1964). He starts off by reminding his audience that “we can change the country,” meaning blacks and whites together. As he goes on he lectures the whites in audience, or whites in general, as in “Because I am not what you said I was.” Baldwin’s “I,” in this case, is standing in for all other blacks.

  4. 8

    See William M. Banks, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life (Norton, 1996). Kenneth B. Clark tried to defend Baldwin, saying in Dark Ghetto (Harper and Row, 1965) that Baldwin was a black artist whom blacks in the ghetto identified with, because although he’d left the ghetto physically, he was still there psychologically.

  5. 9

    As a student at Howard University in 1955, Baraka defended Baldwin’s play, The Amen Corner, when not everyone at Howard wanted the university’s theater department to stage it. Baraka was among the speakers at Baldwin’s funeral, which suggests that his dismissal of Baldwin in the 1960s had been act of defining himself against a famous, older black writer, just as Baldwin in his youth had taken on Wright. For Baraka’s eulogy see Quincy Troupe, editor, James Baldwin: The Legacy (Simon and Schuster, 1989).

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