Catching Up to James Baldwin

Emily Raboteau
‘Know Your Rights!’; mural by Nelson Rivas, aka Cekis, Washington Heights, Upper Manhattan. Commissioned in 2009 by the People’s Justice for Community Control and Police Accountability, it has since been painted over. ‘The mural struck me as an act of love for the people who would pass it by,’ Emily Raboteau writes in her essay in The Fire This Time, and ‘as a kind of answer to the question that had been troubling us—how to inform our children about the harassment they might face.’

Writing about The Fire Next Time in the first issue of this paper in 1963, F. W. Dupee said that James Baldwin, at his best, illuminated not just a book or an author or an age, but a strain in the culture. However, in The Fire Next Time, with its incendiary title, he thought that Baldwin had given up analysis for exhortation, criticism for prophecy. Dupee regretted Baldwin’s sweeping generalities—that white people do not believe in death, for instance, or that white people are intimidated by black skin. Yet Baldwin impressed him as “the Negro in extremis, a virtuoso of ethnic suffering, defiance, and aspiration,” which at this distance, even as praise, begins to sound a little weird.

The Fire Next Time is composed of two essays, the brief “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” which Dupee judged to be overly polemical, and the much longer “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which he admired for its evocation of Harlem, Baldwin’s description of his flight as an adolescent into the pulpit, and his report on a visit with Elijah Muhammad at the Chicago headquarters of the Nation of Islam. Dupee trusted Baldwin when he had a concrete occasion for his reflections. But Baldwin’s “speculative fireworks” made him uneasy. Black Americans may have been ambivalent about being integrated into a burning house; nevertheless America was the only house they had, Dupee said.

We can’t get back to Dupee’s language, but maybe we can catch up to Baldwin’s. Remembering his surrender to God on a church floor, he wrote:

All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion. Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion. Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away. And the universe is simply a sounding drum; there is no way, no way whatever, so…

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