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Jimmy Baldwin: Stirring the Waters

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Nancy Crampton
James Baldwin, New York City, 1976

Life never bribed him to look at anything but the soul, Henry James said of Emerson, and one could say the same of James Baldwin, with a similar suggestion that the price for his purity was blindness about some other things in life. Baldwin possessed to an extraordinary degree what James called Emerson’s “special capacity for moral experience.” He, too, is persuasive in his antimaterialism. Baldwin, like Emerson, renounced the pulpit—he had been a fiery boy preacher in Harlem—and readers have found in the writings of each the atmosphere of church.

It’s not that Emerson and Baldwin have much in common as writers. Harlem was not Concord. Except for his visits to England, Emerson stayed put for fifty years and Baldwin spent his adult life in search of a home. He left Harlem for Greenwich Village in the early 1940s, left Greenwich Village for Paris in 1948, and spent much time in Paris, Turkey, and the South of France between the 1950s and the 1980s. Yet Baldwin and Emerson both can speak directly to another person’s soul, as James would have it, in a way that “seems to go back to the roots of our feelings, to where conduct and manhood begin.”

Baldwin, as much as Emerson, is a legatee of certain Nonconformist beliefs—that every person is a carrier of the divine spark, for instance, an idea that became secular in the time of the American Revolution through arguments regarding the authority of the individual in a political democracy. If this is one of the founding traditions of American radicalism, then it links the abolitionism of Emerson’s day with the civil rights movement of Baldwin’s. Many intellectuals in the 1960s were aware that the freedom movement was a taking up of what had been left brutally undone since Emancipation. The antislavery cause of a century earlier offered to civil rights activists examples of individual conscience as judge of unjust government and its laws. When the protests of the late 1950s and 1960s that Baldwin wrote about brought the Paris expatriate back to the US, the connection between racial justice and democracy in America was once again at the center of the nation’s politics, asking every citizen to realize that his or her liberty was not freedom so long as other Americans were being denied their rights.

The political goals of the civil rights movement that Baldwin made himself a witness for, as an essayist, novelist, and activist, were partially realized with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even the angry black nationalists of the 1960s who attacked Baldwin as a queer and a darling of white liberals accomplished something in the long run. They transformed the public psychology of race, combating on an unprecedented scale the dogma of racial inferiority. Still, Baldwin was as fearless an exponent of racial justice as any of the black nationalists. He famously told the startled Robert Kennedy that young blacks could not be expected to serve loyally in the Vietnam War. Consequently, he was hurt when the Black Panthers’ Eldridge Cleaver, in Soul on Ice (1968), wrote that “the racial deathwish” was the driving force in James Baldwin because he, a gay black man, had been “castrated” by the white man, and was, moreover, frustrated in his desire to have a baby by a white man, to absorb a white lover’s whiteness. Baldwin, remembered as controlled, elegant, intense, and polite, refused at the time to show in public how wounding such attacks were.

For all the efforts of black activists, neither poverty nor racism was eradicated, and discrepancies between the standard of living of whites and of blacks only increased over the years. Baldwin died in 1987, when the conservative reaction presided over by Ronald Reagan, “the third-rate, failed, ex–Warner Brothers contract player,” threatened to reverse the gains of what historians sometimes call the Second Reconstruction. Americans were told by some commentators how exhausted they were with the subject of racial justice. “That the western world has forgotten that such a thing as the moral choice exists, my history, my flesh, and my soul bear witness,” Baldwin wrote in “An Open Letter to the Born Again” in 1979 and reprinted in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985. For the remainder of his life he seemed one of the casualties of the freedom movement. He would say that what was wrong with the country was still deeply wrong.

The late uncollected pieces that Baldwin included in The Price of the Ticket were written by a man who remembered himself as a youth with “murder in his heart.” Just as Baldwin in his later fiction hoped to have another blockbuster like Another Country (1962), so he could sometimes in his later essays seem to be looking to arouse again the sort of controversy that attended the publication of his inflammatory essay on race relations, The Fire Next Time (1963), much of which had appeared in The New Yorker. In the first issue of The New York Review, F.W. Dupee argued that Baldwin had substituted prophecy for analysis and in so doing risked losing his grasp of his great theme, freedom.1 In retrospect, Baldwin in parts of The Fire Next Time can sound somewhat naive about the political process. He certainly overestimated the concern white Americans had about how racial injustice was affecting the moral atmosphere of the country. But it’s understandable that he believed in 1963 that black people held the key to the nation’s political future: nothing like the mass protests of those days had ever happened before.

Much of the considerable writing on James Baldwin holds that the probings and provocations of Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), and The Fire Next Time are more engaging than the overt expressions of his disillusionment, starting with No Name in the Street (1972). Implicit in the comparison is a judgment about integration and black separatism, as though his nuanced work belongs to a hopeful time of racial dialogue and his excoriations to the simplicity of his militancy. But there has been all along a black resistance, so to speak, to the critical view that there came a falling off in Baldwin’s work once he had given himself over to forever haranguing Western society. He had stirred the waters with The Fire Next Time, and in the run-up to the 1980 presidential election he again sounded some alarmist chords in a futile effort to reignite in black voters a sense of political urgency:

Therefore, in a couple of days, blacks may be using the vote to outwit the Final Solution. Yes. The Final Solution. No black person can afford to forget that the history of this country is genocidal from where the buffalo once roamed to where our ancestors were slaughtered (from New Orleans to New York, from Birmingham to Boston) and to the Caribbean and to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to Saigon. Oh, yes, let freedom ring.

Black critics, especially, have concentrated on what they see as the valor in such political statements, and they praise his last novels, If Beale Street Could Talk (1973) and Just Above My Head (1979), for being proudly pro-black, for depicting loving and supportive black families. They argue that Baldwin sacrificed his popularity with the white critical establishment because he insisted on telling American society discomfiting truths. The exception is Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), Baldwin’s troubled account of the gruesome Atlanta case in which Wayne Williams was arrested in connection with twenty-eight murders, mostly of children, and was eventually convicted of two of them. Few have defended the book or even tried to explain it.

Meanwhile, young scholars look for something fresh to say about Baldwin, to free him from the biography of his early triumphs leading, by way of the assassinations and violence of the 1960s, to late despair. Because of the passage of time, their distance, they examine Baldwin as someone who shows how white America was influenced by black America, and not just in music, and not the usual other way around, that of whites influencing blacks.

Some of the young scholars who want to reconsider Baldwin also have an interest in gender studies. They revere him not only for his pioneering fiction about homosexuality, but for his meditation on masculinity and constricting American ideas of sexuality, “Here Be Dragons,” published in 1985, one of only two essays to address sexuality directly that he published in his lifetime. Randall Kenan, the editor of The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, is of the generation of young black gay writers for whom Baldwin is a sort of spiritual father.

Baldwin was sure he had to kill off the straightforward realism of Richard Wright in order to heed Henry James, but Kenan didn’t have to set aside his racial identity before he could embrace a queer antecedent. Kenan’s first novel, A Visitation of Spirits (1989), is the coming-of-age story of a black gay youth, and the stories collected in Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992) are mostly about what it means to be black, poor, and gay in the South. He has written a biography of Baldwin for young readers, and The Fire This Time (2007) is Kenan’s homage to Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which created a sensation in 1963, the year Kenan was born. Where Baldwin is stirring in denouncing complacent American racism, Kenan’s commentary on what has and has not changed in the racial situation in the US in the years since is tepid, but nevertheless he shows himself a sensitive interpreter of Baldwin’s intentions.

In his introduction to The Cross of Redemption, Kenan says that he had subscribed to the view that Baldwin in his last years was bitter and unhappy:

Journalists often quoted the interviews that Baldwin gave in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam War and in the wake of so much death and an American landscape pockmarked with riot-ruined cities.

However, Kenan feels that Baldwin was still producing outstanding work, including The Devil Finds Work (1976), his retelling of his life through the motion pictures he grew up on; a discussion of the childhood torments caused by his appearance, for instance, is centered on the Bette Davis film 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. As Baldwin moved into the 1980s and then turned sixty, Kenan writes, “life was rich, despite what the media would have led us to believe.”

Kenan means for The Cross of Redemption to be a companion to the Library of America edition of Baldwin’s Collected Essays (1998). The fifty-four previously uncollected pieces range from Baldwin’s earliest book reviews, published in The New Leader in 1947, to his denunciations of the Christian right, written not long before his death. Included are speeches from rallies in the 1960s; open letters, such as his fiery letter in 1970 to Angela Davis when she was incarcerated, in which he declared that “the enormous revolution in black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America”; and a memoir of playwright Lorraine Hansberry when she, too, confronted Robert Kennedy and asked him for a “moral commitment” to combat racism.

  1. 1

    F.W. Dupee, ” James Baldwin and the ‘Man,’The New York Review, February 1, 1963. 

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