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The Magic of James Baldwin

Baldwin then turns his attention to 1956 and the International Conference of Black Writers and Artists. He doesn’t discuss the article he wrote about the conference that had so inflamed Cleaver, or retract what he’d said then, because he now writes as if he’d always been a pan-Africanist. Instead, he remembers that outside the Sorbonne every newspaper kiosk he saw featured the face of Dorothy Counts trying to make her way through a North Carolina mob to get to school. “Some one of us should have been there with her!” It made him furious and ashamed, he says. He knew then that he could “no longer sit around in Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody else was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.”

In looking back on his tour of the South in 1957, Baldwin reveals that afterward he experienced a kind of collapse, the paralysis of “retrospective terror.” He calls what he had already written about the South “more or less impersonal.” For example, he left out his shock when during one meeting he was “groped by one of the most powerful men in one of the states I visited.” Baldwin remembers the billboards, rotting automobiles, pint bottles, and the “strident and invincible melancholy” of the Deep South’s music, but there the chronological structure of No Name in the Street breaks off.

In the second section of his book Baldwin returns to 1968. When King was murdered, Baldwin tells us, he was living in Hollywood, or at the Beverly Hills Hotel, or in Palm Springs, working on a screen version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He dropped everything to fly to Atlanta to squeeze into the funeral. “I had been in London when Malcolm was murdered.” And he had been in Puerto Rico, he remembers, working on the last act of a play, when Medgar Evers was murdered. There was no “away,” but there were plenty of places where he could go to remind himself that he felt trapped.

Interspersed with his memories of shattering long-distance bulletins are two stories that Baldwin relates to his loss of faith in the possibility of the US becoming what he would call a just society. The Malcolm X film project ended because of the conflict he felt between being a writer and being a “public witness to the situation of black people” in what he wrote. Then a casual friend was arrested in Hamburg to stand trial for murder in New York, which began the nightmare of trying to help someone with limited resources fight the machinery of the US justice system.

The experience leads Baldwin to recall campaigns in aid of the Black Panther leadership. Where he was sympathetic but probing in his analysis of the Nation of Islam in The Fire Next Time, he is unreservedly on the side of the Panthers in No Name in the Street. They would have been just another street gang, he observes, had it not been for their broad community support. They stood for the liberation of the ghetto, that “rehearsal for concentration camps,” and established schools and breakfast programs. They announced themselves as a “force for the rehabilitation of the young” who were wasting away in prisons, in the army, or on drugs. The Panthers made themselves targets, Baldwin says, but armed themselves in a spirit different from that of whites who feared their neighbors. People in the ghetto loathed the police as some of the worst-trained and most poorly educated whites in US society.

Baldwin says that he responded to the Panthers as young black men who had been “singled out” for “repression” and made victims of “a reign of terror.” Huey Newton, who was twenty-five years old when Baldwin met him, struck him as “old fashioned.” He could almost imagine Newton one day “working quietly in a law firm” and living in the suburbs, except that something always went wrong when he tried to picture it. He hadn’t read Soul on Ice when he met Cleaver, he says, but he was aware of a constraint between them. When he did read it, he said with a calculated mildness that he of course didn’t like what Cleaver said about him, but he perhaps could understand that Cleaver felt “impelled to issue what was, in fact, a warning.” Cleaver must have regarded him as of “too much use to the Establishment to be trusted by blacks.” But Cleaver had used his reputation against him “naively and unjustly” and had confused him with the “unutterable debasement of the male” he must have seen in prison.17 This and the other fragmentary reflections in the book end as bleakly as they began. In an epilogue Attica has happened, George Jackson is dead, and Angela Davis is still in jail.

Not even Baldwin could resist taking advantage of the license to lash out that black people had never had before those days of rage. Historically the limitations on what could be said publicly were as definite as any other dangerous barrier in a segregated society. Reprisals of one kind or another for going too far occur in every period of the history of blacks in the US. The mass character of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, however, provided the sense of being protected by unprecedented numbers.

Those who talk of a falling off in Baldwin’s work sometimes point to No Name in the Street. The notion goes that because of what he had been through, he abdicated as a writer and resorted to preaching; that in the kingdom of the first person, few in American letters had so harnessed the language; but that he threw away his incantatory subtlety, gave it up from moral fatigue, or got conned out of it by the pressure black nationalism put on the idiom.

But those who interpret Baldwin’s work after The Fire Next Time as a coming home to the folk refer to No Name in the Street as evidence that he had, indeed, turned a corner. As his record of the 1960s, however, No Name in the Street isn’t any less “impersonal” than his earlier reports from the South or Harlem, though he struggled to make it otherwise. “Something has altered in me; something has gone away.” He wants to make plain his rejection of those who he feels have rejected him, and his warnings, and therefore all black people. Baldwin proclaims that Western nations have been caught “in the lie of their pretended humanism,” that “the white man’s sun has set.” But in concluding that black people would never be free in the US as it was, Baldwin tried to do more than once again threaten white people with the prospect that the nation might remain unsaved.

To turn his hurt into an asset he gave his message a last-testament mood. His argument for socialism in the final paragraphs brings to mind Du Bois’s embrace of Marxism toward the end of his life, which was also his announcement that he had given up on the US. No Name in the Street differs from Baldwin’s earlier works of nonfiction in its attempts to put the racial situation in the US in a global perspective. In the early Seventies blacks who felt powerless in the US reached out for the consolations that insurgencies abroad offered them. Baldwin seems to be saying that white people in the US would one day experience for themselves the isolation he was then feeling, given the nonwhite majority worldwide.

The Sixties never faded for Baldwin, which is perhaps why his later nonfiction is like an extended coda to what he’d already written. He maybe thought of himself as starting over when he revised his autobiography yet again in The Devil Finds Work (1976), in which he retells the story of his formative years through reflections on some fifty films, from Bette Davis movies to Lady Sings the Blues. Blacks were beginning to have an impact in Hollywood in the early 1970s and some of the first major studies of blacks in US cinema had recently come out. Some of the films that Baldwin covers evoke memories of his avid reading as a youngster—Treasure Island, A Tale of Two Cities. He is interested in film as both an archive of the country’s popular attitudes and a seductive medium of more influence than books when it comes to inculcating and spreading ideas about race and national innocence.

Baldwin’s new impotent aggression toward white America erupts sporadically in The Devil Finds Work, and he returns to his problems with the Malcolm X film project. But the book is really a work of nostalgia. He remembers people like the white schoolteacher who didn’t pity him. She stubbornly faced down his father’s disapproval and took her obviously gifted pupil to the theater and the movies. He counts her among the reasons he never managed to hate white people completely. He connects his sentimental education as an audience member with the problems of his developing consciousness as a black. But the film industry’s distortions of history and evasion of reality are too easy a target.

And of all this, I think to myself, will be only a page in history.” The pages turned, the miscarriages of justice went by, the Harlem Six of 1964 had become the Wilmington Ten of 1977. By this time he assumed every topic had been politicized. He didn’t seem to care how convenient it might be for those who were against radicalism for other reasons to be able to say that his writing went downhill when his rhetoric became conventionally radical. The time and distance necessary to distill experience had, he suggested, been taken away by the continued urgency of his times. In his late pieces his reliance on illuminating simplicities is unchanged whether his argument is going anywhere or not, but his prose can still be vivid and exciting.

From the start Baldwin’s voice cast a spell because he declined overt expression of that bitterness black people can feel they have a right to. Instead, he offered the menace of forgiveness and redemption. Though he was hardly the first black writer to challenge the US with its moral rhetoric, his persona, as an astonishingly mature young writer, was that he was self-created, unique, radical in his ambivalence. His arguments from that early time are difficult to summarize, because one sentence speedily pursues the implications of the sentence before it. The velocity of his clauses is a part of their beauty. His phrases almost leap beyond their content, the arresting testimony of a skeptical young black man who has come through to tell us that all versions of the self are hopelessly, humanly provisional.

In his last years he published tellingly few essays, and these aren’t so much about issues of the day as they are revisions yet again of his existing story.18 “My diaspora continues.” Somewhere Baldwin says that by the time he was seventeen everything about being black in the US had happened to him, that he hadn’t needed to go through anything else to guess what lay in store for him. But the memory of having had a series of menial jobs as a black teenager is not the same as not having had one since. He didn’t go on, he went back, recalling that he had hit the streets at the age of seven or that he was sixteen when a Harlem racketeer fell in love with and protected him.

The news in his late essays is in his mood of supposed candor. He is correcting, refusing to moderate his negativism about the US, and therefore neither betraying nor being betrayed anymore. It is as though he were settling accounts, criticizing, by being more damning, an earlier self for having mastered such a blameless voice. Perhaps he was being Malcolm X to his own Reverend King. But he is filling out scenes he’d already turned over to the public domain. The rest of his wilderness is hidden. Except for mention of classroom discussions when he was a visiting instructor, little of Baldwin’s direct experience as a middle-aged adult figures in his nonfiction writings. His voice had two stops: the young man who thought about his forlorn early years and then the knowing man who vouched for that young man’s baroque sense of grievance.

In one of his last published essays, “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin says that in the church he came from “we” were counseled “to do our first works over,” to go back and reconsider our deeds. His “we” has become “black people in this country” and his family, “living and dead.” Toward the end of his life he accepted that he was often in the pulpit in his essays, as though that were—more than anyone knew—a natural place for him to speak from. “Lord, teach me to write so well that I shall no longer want to,” Auden said.

This is the first of two articles on James Baldwin. The second, on
his fiction, will appear in a subsequent issue.

  1. 17

    Leeming says that Baldwin was more cautious about his association with the Panthers than he suggests in No Name in the Street, particularly after gunfire broke out at a rally in LA. In his biography, Campbell notes that although Baldwin declined to be critical of Cleaver in public, he was scathing about him in private. As late as 1984, Baldwin was telling interviewers that he spent much of the late 1960s trying to “undo the damage” Cleaver had done him among militant audiences.

  2. 18

    The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction, 1948-1985 (St. Martin’s, 1985) showed where Baldwin had been and where he could yet go were it not for the “if onlys” of life. The Evidence of Things Not Seen (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985) bleakly affirmed the principle that writers must be allowed to make their own mistakes.

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