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James Baldwin: The Risks of Love

The realization that love matters more than race revenge has come too late for Rufus Scott, a black jazz drummer who reviews his descent into the hopelessness that has him trying to sell himself to men in Times Square for the promise of a warm bed. With Rufus, the novel enters the first of its many sprawling flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. Seven months earlier: Rufus meets Leona, a Southern white girl, at a Harlem club. He takes her to a party of Charlie Parker music and marijuana. They have sex on the balcony overlooking Riverside Drive and Rufus forgets the tenderness inspired by her story of divorce, estrangement from family, and the removal of her child from her care. “Under his breath he cursed the milk-white bitch and groaned and rode his weapon between her thighs.” The “venom” shoots out of him, “enough for a hundred black-white babies.” She goes home with him to his Village apartment, to a relationship of booze, misunderstandings, violence, and more sex that is close to rape in his mind.

Rufus’s friends watch helplessly as he scourges Leona and thus destroys himself. When Rufus’s best friend, Vivaldo, meets Leona, Rufus suspects him of flirting, of thinking that because Leona is with him, a black man, she is available to any man. Then he frets that Vivaldo might not think Leona attractive enough for white men. Rufus also resents the freedom to misbehave that Vivaldo has because he’s white, an “Irish wop” from the depths of Brooklyn. Vivaldo’s women can make drunken scenes because his presence protects them, whereas Leona is that much more vulnerable when out with Rufus. The racial sensitivities of white lovers and white friends have a period quality in the novel, as much as the hep lingo of cats, squares, you dig, dads, kicks, and pads. “I know—a lot of things hurt you that I can’t really understand,” the earnest Vivaldo admits to Rufus, who doesn’t like to be called “boy.”

One of Rufus’s fights with Leona starts when she, “a hard up white lady,” tries to tell him that there is nothing wrong in being “colored.” She knows that Rufus doesn’t think he’s good enough, even for her. She can’t compete with his unhappiness; she can only hurt along with him. She loses her waitress job and can’t get another, her appearance has so deteriorated. Rufus also stops working, has nothing left to pawn, and picks fights with white men. Apparently, this is his first affair with a white woman. Until he was with Leona he hadn’t thought about “the big world” and its power to hate. He feels that he is suddenly visible to whites because he is with a white woman. Still, it’s never entirely clear why this relationship should send a member of the sophisticated jazz scene into a frenzy of self-hate, racial fear, and sexual rage.

In the days before his death Rufus’s urban world becomes brutally eroticized; even subways seem to him to enter tunnels with “phallic abandon.” Perhaps it is enough for Baldwin to suggest that Leona is the fuse to an explosion that had been building in Rufus for some time. Battered by him, Leona is taken to Bellevue. In a paroxysm of guilt, Rufus leaps to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

Rufus’s suicide comes early on in the novel. He is the one black character depicted largely through an internal point of view. After his funeral, the emotional emphasis of the novel shifts from how blacks feel in the white world to how the experiences of the white characters with and among blacks affect their feelings about the white world. Vivaldo will fall in love with Rufus’s sister, Ida, and she, the black woman, is to be observed from the outside, her thoughts guessed at by Rufus’s white friends, who scrutinize her intensely. The white characters in Baldwin’s novel become anxious over how they really feel about blacks when it comes to holding hands with a black person on the street and how they hope the blacks they know will see and judge them nevertheless.

Vivaldo is no stranger to uptown. He’s been rolled while trying to pick up women in Harlem. Even so, he persists in thinking that he belongs in those “dark streets…precisely because the history written in the color of his skin contested his right to be there.” For Vivaldo, associating with black people expresses his sense of escape from the “unexamined” life that he imagines is the lot of the multitudes around him. It is as though he is visible to himself when he’s with Ida, his portable Harlem. He is not uncritical of her, of her haughty and free manner. Vivaldo is proud of her in that “overt, male way,” but soon it is his turn to wonder, much as Rufus did, if white men are looking at Ida as a whore, if they regard him as having made nothing more than a back-alley conquest.

As a bohemian, Vivaldo looks down on television and takes an instant dislike to the agent and producer Ellis, whom he and Ida meet at a book party. However, he is threatened by Ellis’s power, especially when Ida responds too readily to Ellis’s offer to help her should she decide to pursue a career as a singer. Vivaldo, the bookstore clerk, believes that the possibility of becoming a true artist still exists for him, if he could only buckle down to the novel that Ida keeps him from working on when she’s at his Village apartment, turning up “the carnal heat.” Vivaldo’s chief literary ideal is Dostoevsky—and feverish Dostoevsky more than circuitous Henry James seems to have been in Baldwin’s mind for the hot-tempered talkathon about forgiveness that is Another Country.

Into the story of Vivaldo’s insecurity and Ida’s hurt, of bared teeth and bellies grinding “cruelly,” of whinnying, clinging, galloping, and bucking either like “an infuriated horse” or a “beached fish,” comes Eric, who has been living in France for three years, not getting far as an actor. Eric is an Alabama white boy with a history of loving black men. He is first seen in Another Country in the south of France, where Giovanni’s Room ends. But not for him David’s unhappy fate. Eric has Yves, a rent boy who reminds him of Rufus in his “brave, tough vulnerability.” He also has a decision to make: whether to return to New York to be in a Broadway play or to allow his sojourn in Europe to turn into “exile.”

Baldwin renders the sex between Eric and Yves as a matter of whispers and heartbeats like “the far-off pounding of the sea.” The romantic modesty contrasts sharply with the mattress- thrashing between men and women in the novel. Eric’s role is to be therapeutic, a layer-on of hands for the officially straight but emotionally weary. However, his importance in Baldwin’s scheme of black man-white woman/ white man-black woman is symbolic. In a novel of such committed psychological realism, where Baldwin piles assertion upon assertion about his characters’ states of mind, that Eric appears as an artificial presence has less to do with his sexuality than with his being unmixed as a character, unlike the others, who are a mess. Then, too, the ghost of Rufus keeps upstaging him, stealing his function as a prompter of self-examination in others.

Ida has been working as a waitress, but is perhaps on her way as an artist after her debut in a Village jazz bar, arranged by Ellis. The occasion is marred by Vivaldo’s jealousy. Ida and Ellis may be having an affair. As if tracing Rufus’s footsteps, Vivaldo pitches around Manhattan:

And summer came, the New York summer, which is like no summer anywhere. The heat and the noise began their destruction of nerves and sanity and private lives and love affairs. The air was full of baseball scores and bad news and treacly songs; and the streets and the bars were full of hostile people, made more hostile by the heat…. It was a city without oases, run entirely, insofar, at least, as human perception could tell, for money; and its citizens seemed to have lost entirely any sense of their right to renew themselves. Whoever, in New York, attempted to cling to this right, lived in New York in exile—in exile from life around him; and this, paradoxically, had the effect of placing him in perpetual danger of being forever banished from any real sense of himself.

The story begins to accelerate. The drinking also picks up. Baldwin’s people put away as much as any Village denizen in a Dawn Powell novel. The Brandy Alexanders and highballs of that time and place are never far from needing hands as secrets come out. Baldwin inserts Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday lyrics throughout Another Country, hymns carrying the gospel that people tear one another limb from limb in the name of “that love jive.”

Ida turns out to be very conscious of herself as the agent of her brother’s retribution. She admits that revenge for what happened to Rufus just because he was black guides her dealings with Ellis and Vivaldo as white men. Black men uptown who could be of use to her in her vague plan to get back at the world don’t want her because she is too dark. They see women like her on Seventh Avenue every day. So, like Rufus, she has hit the A train for downtown:

I used to see the way white men watched me, like dogs. And I thought about what I could do to them. How I hated them, the way they looked, and the things they’d say, all dressed up in their damn white skin, and their clothes just so, and their little weak, white pricks jumping in their drawers.

Sometimes Vivaldo suspects that the black male musicians she works with aren’t offended by Ellis’s presence, because they can assume that Ida is using him. But Vivaldo, who can do nothing for her professionally, is therefore obviously her lover, and the black musicians show their hostility to him by ignoring him at her gigs. Black men are made uncomfortable by the couple or they accuse Ida of betraying and castrating them. However, as Ida reveals to Vivaldo, they are free to insult her, a black woman, even on stage. Reverse exploitation—a black woman using a white man—doesn’t work here. Ellis grins from the sidelines at Ida’s public humiliations and it suits him, married himself, that she, his girlfriend, always has to go home too.

Vivaldo tells Ida that suffering has no color. But she has made him suffer because of his color, even if she only has the power to do so because he is the more loving. Baldwin was too interested in the concreteness of racial experience to mean that love transcends race. Ida recognizes that she is being vengeful toward the wrong white guy, but he’s the only sort of white guy who would care why. Baldwin shows Ida in the act of “stroking” away Vivaldo’s “innocence,” but Vivaldo’s asking Ida to be more trusting of and less defensive with him is not the same thing as Ida’s teaching him what it’s like for her to be with a white guy or the cost for him of being with her. He must renounce his whiteness, even its hip version. But the racial conversion, so to speak, doesn’t work both ways. What is there for him if she gives up blackness? The sheer edginess of the situation is part of her attractiveness to him in the first place.

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