As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question James Baldwin has no equals. He probably has, in fact, no real competitors. The literary role he has taken on so deliberately and played with so agile an intelligence is one that no white writer could possibly imitate and that few Negroes, I imagine, would wish to embrace in toto. Baldwin impresses me as being the Negro in extremis, a virtuoso of ethnic suffering, defiance, and aspiration. His role is that of the man whose complexion constitutes his fate, and not only in a society poisoned by prejudice but, it sometimes seems, in general. For he appears to have received a heavy dose of existentialism; he is at least half-inclined to see the Negro question in the light of the Human Condition. So he wears his color as Hester Prynne did her scarlet letter, proudly. And like her he converts this thing, in itself so absurdly material, into a form of consciousness, a condition of spirit. Believing himself to have been branded as different from and inferior to the white majority, he will make a virtue of his situation. He will be different and in his own way be better.
His major essays—for example, those collected in Notes of a Native Son—show the extent to which he is able to be different and in his own way better. Most of them were written, as other such pieces generally are, for the magazines, some obviously on assignment. And their subjects—a book, a person, a locale, an encounter—are the inevitable subjects of magazine essays. But Baldwin’s way with them is far from inevitable. To apply criticism “in depth” to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, for him, to illuminate not only a book, an author, an age, but a whole strain in a country’s culture. Similarly with those routine themes, the Paris expatriate and Life With Father, which he treats in “Equal In Paris” and the title piece of Notes of a Native Son, and which he wholly transfigures. Of course the transfiguring process in Baldwin’s essays owes something to the fact that the point of view is a Negro’s, an outsider’s, just as the satire of American manners in Lolita and Morte d’Urban depends on their being written from the angle of, respectively, a foreign-born creep and a Catholic priest. But Baldwin’s point of view in his essays is not merely that of the generic Negro. It is, as I have said, that of a highly stylized Negro, a role which he plays with an artful and zestful consistency and which he expresses in a language distinguished by clarity, brevity, and a certain formal elegance. He is in love, for example, with syntax, with sentences that mount through clearly articulated stages to a resounding and clarifying climax and then gracefully subside. For instance this one, from The Fire Next Time:
Girls, only slightly older than I was, who sang in the choir or taught Sunday school, the children of holy parents, underwent, before my eyes, their incredible metamorphosis, of which the most bewildering aspect was not their budding breasts or their rounding behinds but something deeper and more subtle, in their eyes, their heat, their odor, and the inflection of their voices.
Nobody else in democratic America writes sentences like this anymore. It suggests the ideal prose of an ideal literary community, some aristocratic France of one’s dreams. This former Harlem boy has undergone his own incredible metamorphosis.
His latest book, The Fire Next Time, differs in important ways from his earlier work in the essay. Its subjects are less concrete, less clearly defined; to a considerable extent he has exchanged prophecy for criticism, exhortation for analysis, and the results for his mind and style are in part disturbing. The Fire Next Time gets its title from a slave song: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign,/No more water the fire next time.” But this small book with the incendiary title consists of two independent essays, both in the form of letters. One is a brief affair entitled “My Dungeon Shook” and addressed to “My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” The ominous promise of this title is fulfilled in the text. Between the hundred-year-old anniversary and the fifteen-year-old nephew the disparity is too great even for a writer of Baldwin’s rhetorical powers. The essay reads like some specimen of “public speech” as practiced by MacLeish or Norman Corwin. It is not good Baldwin.
The other, much longer, much more significant essay appeared first in a pre-Christmas number of The New Yorker, where it made, understandably, a sensation. It is called “Down At the Cross; Letter From a Region of My Mind.” The subtitle should be noted. Evidently the essay is to be taken as only a partial or provisional declaration on Baldwin’s part, a single piece of his mind. Much of it, however, requires no such appeal for caution on the reader’s part. Much of it is unexceptionably first-rate. For example, the reminiscences of the writer’s boyhood, which form the lengthy introduction. Other of Baldwin’s writings have made us familiar with certain aspects of his Harlem past. Here he concentrates on quite different things: the boy’s increasing awareness of the abysmally narrow world of choice he inhabits as a Negro, his attempt to escape a criminal existence by undergoing a religious conversion and becoming at fifteen a revivalist preacher, his discovery that he must learn to “inspire fear” if he hopes to survive the fear inspired in him by “the man”—the white man.
In these pages we come close to understanding why he eventually assumed his rather specialized literary role. It seems to have grown naturally out of his experience of New York City. As distinct from a rural or small-town Negro boy, who is early and firmly taught his place, young Baldwin knew the treacherous fluidity and anonymity of the metropolis, where hidden taboos and unpredictable animosities lay in wait for him and a trip to the 42nd Street Library could be a grim adventure. All this part of the book is perfect; and when Baldwin finally gets to what is his ostensible subject, the Black Muslims or Nation of Islam movement, he is very good too. As good, that is, as possible considering that his relations with the movement seem to have been slight. He once shared a television program with Malcolm X, “the movement’s second-in-command,” and he paid a brief and inconclusive visit to the first-in-command, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and his entourage at the party’s headquarters in Chicago. (Muhammad ranks as a prophet; to him the Black Muslim doctrines were “revealed by Allah Himself.”) Baldwin reports the Chicago encounter in charming detail and with what looks like complete honesty. On his leaving the party’s rather grand quarters, the leader insisted on providing him with a car and driver to protect him “from the white devils until he gets wherever it is he is going.” Baldwin accepted, he tells us, adding wryly: “I was, in fact, going to have a drink with several white devils on the other side of town.”
He offers some data on the Black Muslim movement, its aims and finances. But he did a minimum of homework here. Had he done more he might at least have provided a solid base for the speculative fireworks the book abounds in. To cope thoroughly with the fireworks in short space, or perhaps any space, seems impossible. Ideas shoot from the book’s pages as the sparks fly upward, in bewildering quantity and at random. I don’t mean that it is all dazzle. On the cruel paradoxes of the Negro’s life, the failures of Christianity, the relations of Negro and Jew, Baldwin is often superb. But a lot of damage is done to his argument by his indiscriminate raids on Freud, Lawrence, Sartre, Genet, and other psychologists, metaphysicians and melodramatists. Still more damage is done by his refusal to draw on anyone so humble as Martin Luther King and his fellow-practitioners of non-violent struggle.
For example: “White Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.” But suppose one or two white Americans are not intimidated. Suppose someone coolly asks what it means to “believe in death.” Again: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” Since you have no other, yes; and the better-disposed firemen will welcome your assistance. Again: “A vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white.” You exaggerate the white man’s consciousness of the Negro. Again: “The real reason that non-violence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes…is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened.” Of course they don’t, especially their lives. Moreover, this imputing of “real reasons” for the behavior of entire populations is self-defeating, to put it mildly. One last quotation, this time a regular apocalypse:
In order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long.
Since whole cultures have never been known to “discard nearly all their assumptions” and yet remain intact, this amounts to saying that any essential improvement in Negro-white relations, and thus in the quality of American life, is unlikely.
So much for the fireworks. What damage, as I called it, do they do to the writer and his cause—which is also the concern of plenty of others? When Baldwin replaces criticism with prophecy, he manifestly weakens his grasp of his role, his style, and his great theme itself. And to what end? Who is likely to be moved by such arguments, unless it is the more literate Black Muslims, whose program Baldwin specifically rejects as both vindictive and unworkable. And with the situation as it is in Mississippi and elsewhere—dangerous, that is, to the Negro struggle and the whole social order—is not a writer of Baldwin’s standing obliged to submit his assertions to some kind of pragmatic test, some process whereby their truth or untruth will be gauged according to their social utility? He writes: “The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.” I should think that the anti-Negro extremists were even better placed than the Negroes to precipitate chaos, or at least to cause a lot of trouble; and it is unclear to me how The Fire Next Time, in its madder moments, can do nothing except inflame the former and confuse the latter. Assuming that a book can do anything to either.
February 1, 1963