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The Magic of James Baldwin

Baldwin’s “interpretation” of the Paris Conference of Negro-African Artists and Writers in 1956, Cleaver goes on to claim, makes his “antipathy” toward blacks “shockingly clear.” Baldwin felt “revulsion” for the advocates of Negritude, who were “rejuvenating” the “shattered psyches and cultures of black people,” whereas Baldwin was just defending “his first love—the white man.” Cleaver says this was the reason Baldwin plunged the “blade of Brutus into the corpse of Richard Wright,” a giant, rebel, and “heterosexual.”

Jeremiah downtown, Job uptown, Baldwin was no more acceptable to macho Black Power advocates than he was to mainstream black leaders. He had already questioned the acceptable images of masculinity as narrow social constructions, like racial classifications. He had talked about the “American white man’s lack of sexual security” and the Negro as a “phallic symbol.” He claimed that when a Negro was present, white people would not talk about sex, because sex was right there, in the middle of the room, “drinking a dry martini.”10 However, blacks militarized by Vietnam taunted white authority by impugning the masculinity of white men. At a time when blacks were debating the limitations of King’s nonviolence and the Negro family’s “matriarchal structure,” black militants were more interested in deciding who the real men were than they were in redefining that manhood.

Baldwin had written about the price black men in the South had been made to pay just for walking in a manner that suggested they had any pride. Because the negative reactions of whites to Black Power sometimes seemed like the old fear of black men, Baldwin would not criticize the militants’ macho postures, especially not in the context of a society where definitions of what a man was he regarded as misguided to begin with.

Baldwin was also dismissed for not knowing enough about economic and political issues to be on speakers’ platforms.11 He’d worked with Bertrand Russell’s War Crimes Tribunal, helped the NAACP in Mississippi conduct a murder inquiry, been involved with CORE, SNCC, and an organization that aided striking black longshoremen in San Francisco. But the fashion for what passed as ideological rigor and the demand that collectivism be valued over individualism made Baldwin’s approach look obsolete.

5.

When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made. Between what one wished to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed. And this gap seems to operate as one’s final margin, one’s last opportunity, for creation. And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance, even harder to gauge. Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distances shall not become any greater.12

Up until the late Sixties Baldwin had always talked of his public commitments as being worthwhile, but not the main purpose of his life. His writing and his speaking both may have been acts of witnessing, but they were not the same, he said. He recognized how useful his participation in public events was for him as someone given to avoiding his private life, by which he meant his writing desk. A great deal of Baldwin’s domestic and writing life in the 1960s took place in Istanbul, a city he stepped in and out of, like a parallel universe, but he never referred in his work to his life there. All the strangers called “Jimmy Baldwin,” he once said, meaning the many roles he felt his life obliged him to play.

By the late 1960s, Baldwin was saying that he had no choice but to be a part of the civil rights struggle. He never let anyone draw him out about whether violence was ever justified, a question put with some persistence in the 1960s, as if the answer would indicate which blacks could be reasoned with. Instead, he turned such discussions back to what blacks suffered in the US, holding to his mission of showing whites what it was like to be judged by strangers, and to his gospel that the race problem was, at bottom, a moral problem for whites. I will maintain my ways before Him.

Baldwin’s fame may have been enhanced by the resurgence of interest in books by blacks, but civil rights also gave him the chance to pay the “dues” he was so haunted by, to do penance for a reputation associated with his exile. He was wanted because black celebrities had become a regular part of civil rights rallies. Show business fascinated him anyway and he wrote about famous blacks in the arts as though they knew one another, because they had been through similar experiences to get where they were. He was excitedly offhand when describing how he once walked up to Sidney Poitier in an airport on his way to a “gig.”13

When Baldwin thought about himself in relation to blacks who had not escaped the ghetto, he, for a long time, no doubt had in mind his family still in Harlem. As the eldest of nine children, he said that he couldn’t change his habits of telling others what to do, no more than he could shed the “egotism” and “rigidity” of being an eldest sibling. He had felt protective toward the black youths of the early sit-ins who, in their “adolescent dark,” were deciding on an undreamed-of future for themselves by facing down the law and the lawless. After the deaths of Malcolm X and then Martin Luther King, he said more than once that Malcolm X had been like a little brother to him or that he had looked upon King as a younger brother, though they were both his age.

His expressions of solidarity may have been a kind of romantic appropriation, but when it came to dealing with the Black Panthers, whom Baldwin met in 1967, his habit of projecting an immediate kinship between himself and other people working in the movement meant something in addition to the convention of speaking of blacks as one big family. Coming across as a big brother said that his interest in them, streetwise young black men, was social, not sexual. Jean Genet could eroticize the Panthers all he wanted, because, though queer, he was white and a foreigner, an ex-convict and famous for it. But Baldwin, a black man, had to neutralize what branded him an outcast among outlaws. Also, it is difficult to patronize a youngish man who insists on declaring himself old in relation to everybody else.

Then yonder came the blues in the form of Nixon’s Southern election strategy. Everything seemed to go haywire in the backlash. Between 1968 and 1970, twenty-eight Panther leaders were killed. Baldwin told interviewers that it was difficult to write between assassinations. Racism had come to occupy the place original sin had had in his Pentecostal upbringing. In a conversation taped in 1970, Margaret Mead was startled by Baldwin’s remark that because he had done nothing to prevent it he was responsible for the murder of the black girls in the Alabama church in 1964.14

His persona had aged dramatically, though he was not yet fifty. The swiftness with which the promise of the Freedom Summers had deteriorated into seasons of riot and backlash had altered the nature of time, he said. In his mournful “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,”15 Baldwin seizes on the hope that although he was no different from his father, taught, like him, to despise himself as a “nigger,” Angela Davis was already different from her father’s generation. A year later he told the poet Nikki Giovanni the “absolute reaction” of Black Power had come too late for his generation, but black children at least would no longer grow up internalizing the propaganda of race inferiority.16

In No Name in the Street (1972) Baldwin seems to study every drop of his rage at the failure of white Americans to realize the harm their power had done to others and ultimately to themselves. He writes as an anguished survivor of the 1960s, but the “self-destroying limbo” he once risked has been replaced by a need to cover up how deeply white America had hurt him by being wounding in return. He’d said before that the relationship between blacks and whites in the US was like a marriage, a way of emphasizing how tied together they were, though segregated. In this, his divorce petition, he is the abandoned spouse who insists that he’d never been taken in by the wedding vows.

In the beginning of No Name in the Street, Baldwin recalls that when he was to appear with King at Carnegie Hall he got fitted for a dark suit. Two weeks later, he writes, he wore the same suit to King’s funeral. He remarked to a columnist that he would never be able to wear it again. A friend of Baldwin’s, a US postal worker whom he rarely saw, had seen the newspaper story and, because they were the same size, asked for the suit that to Baldwin was “drenched in the blood of all the crimes of my country.” Baldwin went up to Harlem in a hired “Cadillac limousine” in order to avoid the humiliation of watching taxis not stop for him, a black man. His life came into the “unspeakably respectable” apartment of his friend like “the roar of champagne and the odor of brimstone.” He characterizes himself as he assumes he must have appeared to his friend’s family: “an aging, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak.”

His friend had also “made it”—holder of a civil-service job; builder of a house next to his mother’s on Long Island. Baldwin was incredulous that his friend had no interest in the civil rights struggle. They got into an argument about Vietnam. Baldwin says he realized then that the suit belonged to his friend and to his friend’s family. “The blood in which the fabric of that suit was stiffening was theirs,” and the distance between him and them was that they did not know this.

The story is tortured and yet, regardless of Baldwin’s outrage at indifference or his identification with slain civil rights leaders, there is something wrongly insinuating about his depicting his scarcely worn suit as drenched and stiffening with blood, even metaphorical blood. People still remember what Jesse Jackson’s shirt looked like after King was shot.

Baldwin gives the impression in No Name in the Street that when first in Paris, in the late Forties, his true friends during this uncertain period had been Algerian. He says that when he returned to Paris in the summer of 1952, after having observed the “foul, ignoble time” of McCarthyism in the US, most of the Algerian cafés were closed and his Algerian friends had disappeared. After Dien Bien Phu fell the police became even more “snide and vindictive” toward nonwhites. Baldwin would have been keenly aware of the French government’s hostility toward foreign residents in France who were too vocal in their support of the Algerian revolution. He once told Philip Rahv that the effects of the Algerian war made Paris seem more like home. He’d always been critical of Camus’s position on Algeria in Combat. But either Baldwin had suppressed his closeness to Algerians, had never gotten around to writing about it before, or he was blacking up his past in order to make it more political. His early essays about his expatriate life suggest that he inhabited a Left Bank of bad hotels and hospitable cafés and that most of his friends were white. Moreover, where Baldwin once thought to “appropriate” Western cultural heritage, he now contends that “the South African coal miner” or “the Algerian mason” had “no reason to bow down before Shakespeare” and no “honorable access” to the cathedral at Chartres.

  1. 10

    In an interview with Eve Auchincloss and Nancy Lynch Handy, reprinted in Bradford Daniel, editor, Black, White and Gray: Twenty-one Points of View on the Race Question (Sheed and Ward, 1964).

  2. 11

    See Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (Morrow, 1967).

  3. 12

    James Baldwin, “God’s Country,” The New York Review, March 23, 1967, p. 17.

  4. 13

    Sidney Poitier,” Look, July 23, 1968. See also Caryl Phillips, “James Baldwin and Hollywood,” The Guardian, January 11, 1991.

  5. 14

    Margaret Mead/James Baldwin: A Rap on Race (Lippincott, 1971).

  6. 15

    The New York Review, January 7, 1971, pp. 15-16.

  7. 16

    James Baldwin/Nikki Giovanni: A Dialogue (Lippincott, 1973).

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