James Baldwin Now
Edited by Dwight McBride (427 pages)
New York University Press, 1999
"The truth about the past is not that it is too brief, or too superficial, but only that we, having turned our faces so resolutely away from it, have never demanded from it what it has to give," wrote James Baldwin in his essay "A Question of Identity," published in The Price of the Ticket.
James Baldwin (1924-1987), the internationally acclaimed writer who wrote brilliantly and sometimes bitterly about what it meant to be human in the 20th century in books that topped bestsellers lists and who won a Eugene Saxton Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the French Legion of Honor, was a supremely distinguished writer, something many of us know and something some of the essays in James Baldwin Now state and in certain cases explain why and how; other essays in the book try to claim him for narrow social categories and current, transient political viewpoints — they take from him less than he has to give.
James Baldwin's values were courage, fairness, honesty, compassion, the importance of knowing (humanity, reality), and tenderness; and he looked for ambiguity, complexity, and recognition of human pain in conversation, art, and politics, in the belief that these were not only intrinsically interesting but led to the possibility of wisdom, healing, and community. James Baldwin's verbal elegance and concern with the inner life were similar to Henry James, his ability to speak directly and honestly of the social world, especially as it involved American ethnic communities, was akin to Richard Wright, his treatment of culture clashes as psychic experiences resembled E.M. Forster, his inclination to look at the amoral impulses of humanity was not unlike Dostoevsky, his existential questioning, like that of Albert Camus, his battering against the barriers of sexual convention in a belief that pleasure and spiritual truth could be found once they were destroyed was like D.H. Lawrence's own motivation. What unified Baldwin's vision and made him unique were his great intelligence and his great passion; they informed, reflected, and expressed each other. He saw the dangers of the abdication of parental responsibility and how it leads to personal confusion and social problems, the dangers of the inability to recognize or accept reality, of choosing ideology and abstract morality over complicated humanity, of taking vengeance upon one's self as judge, of the collusion between shallow commercial values and human weakness, and of using art to distract rather than to illuminate. Importantly, Baldwin recognized that social categories and relationships were also social constructions and so could be changed.
In James Baldwin Now, a book of fourteen essays, with an introduction by editor Dwight McBride, and a bibliography by Jeffrey W. Hole, a group of mostly young critics look at Baldwin's work, and the essays I find most useful here are the ones that approach him from an aesthetic and philosophical viewpoint (what is important to know? what is an ethical life?), rather than a predominately ideological or sociological viewpoint, and by these I mean principally: "White Fantasies of Desire," by Marlon B. Ross, "Finding the Words," by Lawrie Balfour, "Baldwin's Cosmopolitan Loneliness," by James Darsey, "The Parvenu Baldwin," by Roderick Ferguson, and "Selfhood and Strategy in Notes of a Native Son," by Lauren Rusk.
In "White Fantasies of Desire," Marlon Ross acknowledges the political motivation for and psychosexual difficulty of mapping desire publicly as he considers Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, and secondarily the difficulty some of Baldwin's readers and critics have had with his focus on sexuality, and remarks on how these critics tried to emphasize his focus on race and excuse or even denigrate his focus on sexuality. The novel, peopled by whites and no blacks, takes place in Paris and tracks a frightened flight from desire. The book was a liberating move for Baldwin, who did not want any nation or social category to limit his human agency, neither as a citizen or an artist, as "defining one's identity so narrowly, one also risked defining narrowly the authority deriving from that identity" (p. 27). Baldwin self-knowingly subverted notions of authenticity and respectability. This subversion won the disapproval at varying times of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Eldridge Cleaver (three names that alone indicate the devolution of black intellectual life during the 1960s, from the relatively broad to the ridiculously anti-intellectual), though both Hughes and Baraka later came around to recognizing the legitimacy of Baldwin's talent and perspective.
"Finding the Words" by Lawrie Balfour explores how Baldwin related democratic principles — freedom, equality, responsibility — to life, referring to Baldwin's biographical statements, explicating his critique of the protest novel tradition, which he said externalized problems and made self-righteousness and simplification possible. Baldwin recognized that both blacks and whites have internalized stereotypes about themselves and each other that prohibit the kind of life possible in America. "Baldwin uses his gifts as a reporter of overlooked detail to craft his narratives in a way that allows his readers to discern and absorb their significance" (p.81). Further, "Baldwin's job as a critic is to show how the meanings of those inherited terms are deliberately unknown and to call attention to the experiences that are excluded from consideration when the content of the terms is taken for granted" (p. 83). Balfour affirms Baldwin's work as a bridge between theory and practice, as a bridge between individuals and communities, as a bridge between disappointment and hope.
"Cosmopolitanism is also a kind of exile," says James Darsey in "Baldwin's Cosmopolitan Loneliness," a smart, respectful, broadly informed essay that juggles Baldwin's ideas, the facts of his life, history, social mores and facts, and philosophy, while exploring the importance of place, and how Baldwin's honesty and integrity removed him from various geographic and ideological locations. "The Parvenu Baldwin" by Roderick Ferguson is a historical view of Baldwin's personal and social concerns and how they related to his work and to then-current American history (World War II, Cold War, the emergence of gay culture in national consciousness), highlighting Baldwin's repudiation of the limits of sociology and emphasis on the importance of self-definition and the making of complex literature. Both essays get at his status as an intellectual and exile, his unsituated state, as an avenue to freedom despite its lingering social entanglements and pains; both essays get at his fundamental individuality. "Selfhood and Strategy in Notes of a Native Son" by Lauren Rusk is an orderly, comprehensive construction, similar to how Nietzsche organized his own work — blunt essaylike paragraphs — focused on different aspects of the subject, in this case Baldwin's style and content. (It is my favorite piece — more on it later.)
Other essays interest me less but are noteworthy as they throw light on aspects of Baldwin's work and life. In "Now More Than Ever," Rebecca Aanerud writes about white liberalism as a contradictory phenomenon in Baldwin's commentary and in American society. Both Michelle M. Wright and Maurice Wallace in their separate essays invoke Richard Wright. Michelle Wright discusses Baldwin's well-known criticism of Richard Wright's Native Son and also Baldwin's treatment of Europe, especially France, in "Alas, Poor Richard!: Transatlantic Baldwin, the Politics of Forgetting, and the Project of Modernity."
Richard Wright had proposed a magazine on "minority" issues, including a focus on criminality, and a planned photo-exhibit of juvenile delinquents, and this leads to Maurice Wallace's considerations of social and state surveillance in Native Son and Baldwin's life (Baldwin's FBI file). It's clear the government bureau watching Baldwin found the artist mystifying, someone it wanted to observe, know, and control, but whose most dangerous quality was never what the bureau supposed, never what it could see. Wallace quotes philosopher Martin Heidegger's contention that the modern age is marked by the representative image, such as the photograph, and says that blacks appear to westerners first as an image to be policed. Wallace compares similarities between the popular press's descriptions of Baldwin and that in the FBI file — preoccupations with his looks and physical movements — and it's clear they wanted to believe that what he was could be read by studying his body, but that this was not so.
One of the writers, Josh Kun, uses Baldwin's references to Bessie Smith to argue that she provided him with some kind of indirect black gay affirmation in "Life According to the Beat," but Baldwin is on record — read his texts! — for having admired not only Bessie Smith, but also Ma Rainey, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, Marian Anderson, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Baldwin said that listening to Smith in Europe reminded him of black American life, that the naturalness of her expressions reminded him of what he must have sounded like when he was a child. To single out Smith and impose a psychosexual interpretation is willful and deceptive. In Nicholas Boggs' bizarrely entertaining treatment of Baldwin's children's book, Little Man, Little Man, illustrated by Yoran Cazac, a story which takes as its main characters two boys and an older girl who wears glasses, Boggs calls the book "an overfathered interracial child produced by the erotic interchange between two men" (p.127). In Baldwin's return to childhood, "The text, then, is also a work of metaphoric masturbation, the erotic, even pederastic dance of Baldwin and Baldwin" (p.128). He calls the glasses the girl wears a sign of her "queersightedness" and he means this in a deconstructive and a sexual way. Though sexual attraction between the two boys is not mentioned in the text, Boggs reads their relationship as homoerotic.
The essays by William Spurlin, James Dievler, and Sharon Patricia Holland, though offering incidents of genuine thoughts, share similar faults, though not to the same extent. Kun, Boggs, and some of the other writers seem to have so much sex on the brain they cannot think clearly, but, more importantly, they misrepresent Baldwin, who wrote, "I doubt that Americans will ever be able to face the fact that the word homosexual is not a noun. The root of this word, as Americans use it — or, as this word uses Americans — simply involves a terror of any human touch, since any human touch can change you," (The Price of the Ticket, p. 599). Baldwin had no interest in the gay community, finding it airless and small, something he told Richard Goldstein of New York City's Village Voice for a published interview in the 1980s; he did not think this was a real world and said so. Baldwin's chosen biographer and longtime friend, the literary scholar David Leeming, documents the fact that Baldwin had sexual relations with women and men (is bisexuality too inconvenient a fact for gay critics to mention, too amorphous and radical a reality for them to handle?), and Baldwin — no separatist — had close lasting friendships with women, personal friends like Orilla Miller and Mary Painter and with literary colleagues such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, despite his ongoing pursuit of an ideal "romantic" relation with a man (never found), a pursuit that seems rooted in the absence of his biological father and his stepfather's brutal rejection of him.
Very often in our personal and cultural memory we remake public figures to suit our prejudices and preoccupations, and for this reason it's important to look again at some of the things this writer actually wrote about his many subjects, which included but weren't limited to: the creative process, language, writing, Harlem, black and white students and soldiers in France, international intellectuals, history, Europe's relation to people of color, Andre Gide, film, William Faulkner, southern integration, the lack of fixed social status in the U.S., Ingmar Bergman, Martin Luther King Jr, Richard Wright, Norman Mailer, black childhood, the Black Muslims, advertising, the police, anti-Semitism, presidential politics, and gender and sexuality. He wrote famously of his own life — of his (step)father's alienation and death, and of his own early work life in America in many of his essays and in the extraordinary memoir No Name in the Street, which mixes private and public history, and in The Devil Finds Work, a book which connects his childhood and later life with the films he saw.
The Price of the Ticket gathers his major essays, always worth quoting from and thinking about.
In The Price of the Ticket, on Raintree County author Ross Lockridge and Lockridge's betters, Baldwin writes: "His ear for speech is accurate if it is not sensitive; his characterization is vivid — like Sinclair Lewis, or, more accurately, like Dickens, he depends on a series of carefully exaggerated foibles — but it is never revelatory: his people are as clear as the sunlight in which they always seem to be bathed, and ultimately as static and uninteresting" (p.14). Lockridge's work was, in a word, dishonest, and dishonest — simple, artificially optimistic — in a way Baldwin spent his life trying not to be.
On how the powerful and powerless are alike: "It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality" (p.32). This is one way of saying that if you think that class, race, gender, and sexuality are real, and the boundaries and competitions between them are real, you simply argue over what they mean and the rewards to be accrued by those who come out on top. But to be free is to step away from these arguments, to establish another standard, one rooted in human necessity and individual imagination, with respect given to personal choice.
On history: "[James] Joyce is right about history being a nightmare — but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them" (p.81).
On Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "Tolstoy was describing an old and dense society in which everything seemed — to the people in it, though not to Tolstoy — to be fixed forever. And the book is a masterpiece because Tolstoy was able to fathom, and make us see, the hidden laws which really governed this society and made Anna's doom inevitable" (p.175).
On Ingmar Bergman: "He must have been the gawkiest of adolescents, his arms and legs still seeming to be very loosely anchored, something in his good-natured, self-possessed directness suggests that he would also have been among the most belligerently opinionated: by no means an easy man to deal with, in any sense, any relationship whatever, there being about him the evangelical distance of someone possessed by a vision. This extremely dangerous quality — authority — has never failed to incite the hostility of the many. And I got the impression that Bergman was in the habit of saying what he felt because he knew that scarcely anyone was listening" (p.197).
In discussing the creative process, he assumed a freedom that could be the hope and goal of each citizen but was especially the responsibility of the artist: "The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being" (p.316).
This perspective informed how he saw the world and how he read other writers, such as his friends Richard Wright and Norman Mailer. On Richard Wright: "In my own relations with him, I was always exasperated by his notions of society, politics, and history, for they seemed to me utterly fanciful. I never believed that he had any real sense of how a society is put together" (p.271). Yet, this is ill-advised and unfair, as Wright's biography, novels, and other prose works indicate that he had a clear vision of how a society is put together, of individual actors, powers, ideas, attitudes, and cultures, and their interrelationship, at least as realistic and specific a vision as Baldwin's own. Where Baldwin surpassed Wright and most other American writers is in his imagination of the inner life and its relation to the social world. It's also possible that Baldwin's very public critique of Wright's alienation — from country, culture, politics — may have later made it difficult for Baldwin to turn away from public issues even when this might have been for his own creative and spiritual good. (A relevant aside: posthumous publication of Richard Wright's novels in the form he intended has corrected views of his limitations, and recent publication of Wright's Haiku: This Other World, over eight-hundred poems celebrating nature and daily life, has given us Wright's most magnificently transcendent moment — a revelation of an imagination and spirit undefeated by life or society, a feat for anyone but especially for often burdened African American writers. It's not apparent that Baldwin ever published so pure an experience.)
On his first meeting with Norman Mailer, a meeting that haunted their later personal and literary relationship, Baldwin wrote: "We liked each other at once, but each was frightened that the other would pull rank. He could have pulled rank on me because he was more famous and had more money and also because he was white; but I could pull rank on him precisely because I was black and knew more about that periphery he so helplessly maligns in The White Negro than he could ever hope to know" (p. 290). Here a genuine affection must do battle with masculine pride, and later Mailer would insult Baldwin and his other literary friends such as William Styron with his silly confusion of writing with championship boxing. It is interesting to note what Baldwin did not approve of in writing and in men, as that helps us to consider his own complicated sense of mission.
On admiration of the personal style of Duke Ellington: "[He] is able to move, without missing a beat or manifesting the slightest uneasiness, from Harlem corn bread to Buckingham Palace caviar and back again, ad infinitum" (p.319).
On Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun: "I personally feel that it will demand a far less guilty and constricted people than the present-day Americans to be able to assess it at all; as an historical achievement, anyway, no one can gainsay its importance" (p.444). On Hansberry herself, author of several other plays, including work on bohemia, slavery, and nuclear holocaust: "She was a very young woman, with an overpowering vision, and fame had come to her early...that small dark girl, with her wit, her wonder, and her eloquent compassion" (p.445-446).
On Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues: "Diana Ross, clearly, respected Billie too much to try to imitate her. She picks up on Billie's beat, and, for the rest, uses herself, with a moving humility and candor, to create a portrait of a woman overwhelmed by the circumstances of her life. This is not exactly Billie Holiday, but it is the role as written, and she does much more with it than the script deserves" (p.623). The glamorous Miss Ross is a now misunderstood icon whose value Baldwin did not anticipate but was still able to respect, as he typically responded not merely to presentiment or reputation but to what was actually there.
Usually, people — critics, professors and teachers, general readers — do pay great respect to Baldwin's essays though too often they seem to remember and say only that he criticized America and advocated greater fellowship between whites and blacks and was sympathetic to sexual freedom, while what one really discovers when reading him is how widely his mind ranged. It is also important to know his ideas as assumptions about his ideas are sometimes used against his novels, most of which are currently available in Dell and Vintage paperbacks. When a writer's work is infused with what we recognize as reality, if it is a reality that arouses antipathy or discomfort, we sometimes dismiss the work, but this is cowardly, illogical, short-sighted, and unfair. Most writers use themselves as their first resource, their first evidence, something Baldwin did — and this is why his work is full of much less foolishness than that attributed to someone like Norman Mailer, someone who observed others and speculated madly about their realities and only referred to himself as the object of narcissistic propaganda. (Baldwin was young when he wrote many of his essays, and as all young people usually are, he was concerned with who he was and what he'd be allowed to do in the world, and he saw his own concerns as a key to understanding art and people, and he remained throughout his life interested in the world.) Baldwin the essayist and Baldwin the novelist are not the same — the essayist, though critical, is optimistic — the novelist is more pessimistic. The essayist, despite personal confessions, is concerned with the collective, the novelist with the impact of society on the individual. James Baldwin did something writers rarely do: he let the demands of the public world greatly influence the direction of his work, especially as regards civil rights for African Americans, but this was not a simple capitulation. As an essayist, he was part of an old established tradition — dealing with recognized civic virtues and the extent to which society succeeded or failed to live up to them. As a novelist, he was part of a new tradition that focused on consciousness and socially strange attitudes and behaviors — the modernist tradition.
Of his novels, for his technique (the structure of his forms, his use of language), his vision of social life, his evocation of private experience, the knowledge and feeling held by the narrative, and the genuine experience the reader gets moving from sentence to sentence, page to page, chapter to chapter, and from beginning to end, Go Tell It On the Mountain and Another Country are great novels. Go Tell It on the Mountain is not only a story about a black boy's growing up in poverty and with racism but also in a human misery he does not understand — his parents are haunted by their circumscribed, terrible choices, by lust that does battle with piety, by pride that does battle with love, by rage that battles forgiveness. In Another Country, which focuses on the torment and death of a (bisexual) jazz drummer, the novel's canvas features ambition, loneliness, blind need, the practical and spiritual difficulties that social categories (class, race, gender and sexuality) often give rise to, the lawlessness of erotic desire, the near impossibility of sustaining honest, loving relationships in New York, and the importance of conscious personal agency. The two are powerful works from beginning to end; and give a new language to American experience.
Giovanni's Room, a story about a man sexually open to both women and men, David, who remains unable to love or commit to either, is a charming and moving novel, though after David rejects Giovanni, Giovanni's collapse and fate — he murders a benefactor who betrays him, then is guillotined — are simply too melodramatic. Giovanni's Room explores how self-conception and national identity can inhibit choice and liberty, and can lead to disaster.
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, despite a tone of voice I find problematic (too suavely elegant to the point of being arch), is a too-underrated novel, and contains in the second of its three books some of his most effective writing. Tell Me is a retrospective look at a legendary actor's life in the aftermath of a heart attack, but the best part of it is the focus on his youth (the second book, itself a perfect novella). He resembles Baldwin and Sidney Poitier (and possibly Paul Robeson), and is the son of a Caribbean father and southern mother, and is a student in an acting workshop and has affairs with both women and men, principally with a southern heiress when young, and with a young black male when older. It is a book in which the characters and the situations are generally able to handle the intellectual and social weight they are invested with by the author, and it is worth reconsideration as a central text in his corpus, a text that might illuminate all the others. Tell Me is actually a distillation of all of Baldwin's major themes.
In Baldwin's preceding novels, the books are more obviously held together by theme and passion, with structure perceptible but not of concern to the ordinary reader. This book is more held together by the logic of its paragraphs and its structure, and yet it sometimes reads like a translation — the work of a man not sure if his reader understands English, an attempt to be honest in a world that may not recognize or reward truth. Its gift to its readers is a great character.
A great character is someone who embodies and embraces the greatest potential his situation and society allows and Leo Proudhammer, the central character in Tell Me, may be Baldwin's only great character. (The boy John in Go Tell It, and film actor Eric and singer Ida in Another Country, may be on their way to greatness, but aren't there yet.) The child Leo comes to understand that "None of my elders could correct me because I was appalled by their lives. I was old enough to understand how their lives had happened, but rage and pity are not love, and the determination to outwit one's situation means that one has no models, only object lessons" (Vintage edition, p. 24). On the stage as a young man for his first public triumph, there's a moment when he thinks, "For the very first time, the very first time, I realized the fabulous extent of my luck. I could, I could, if I kept the faith, transform my sorrow into life and joy. I might live in pain and sorrow forever, but if I kept the faith, I could do for others what I felt had not been done for me, and if I could do that, if I could give, I could live" (p. 433). As he enters middle age, Leo is judged sometimes by others who offer nothing but their admiration, bodies, and political attitudes, far less useful people, but he is wise enough to accept himself.
It is hard for me not to feel that though Tell Me may not be Baldwin's best book, it is his most important.
If Beale Street Could Talk, the story of a pregnant girl and her imprisoned artist lover, is dramatic in obvious ways and socially relevant in obvious ways, but not very interesting to me, and the narrative voice seems too insistent, too interruptive, and finally too vulgar, though arguably it is the language of the streets in a novel of the streets.
Just Above My Head contains Baldwin's best — warmest, most detailed, most believable, most "normal" — depiction of a black family, and these individuals have a dignity, mystery, and resilience the blacks in most of his books do not have. The vibrant, diverse women characters may have been influenced by the work of Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones, excellent contemporaneous writers he admired, and by the reissued work of earlier writers such as Zora Neale Hurston. (Though the women in most of Baldwin's books are not feminist heroines, they are convincingly deep human beings, mostly ordinary women rendered well.) Just Above My Head is a book about memory, artistic tradition (blues, gospel, an aesthetic and spiritual place), and legacy, as one brother tries to tell another's life story, which included a move from performing gospel to pop music and an open relationship with a male lover. (It's odd that this text — in which there are black men involved in homosexual relationships with each other, relationships defined by affection, strong erotic desire, joy, pride, and an understanding rooted in self-knowledge — is not discussed in James Baldwin Now, nor is Tell Me. Possibly these two texts allow no room for misreadings, and so are less appealing.) Baldwin is explicit about all he intends in this novel — character delineation, actions, meaning — and this explicit and emphatic treatment may indicate what might have become by then a great distrust of his readers' ability to understand him. I find also that the narrator Hall may know too much about his brother Arthur's private life, and cannot decide if this is an authorial mistake or the kind of leap of imagination Baldwin always argued for. Sometimes, too, the narrative seems disorganized. However, the book contains ideas, feelings, and realities that are unique, and encompasses the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the international scene, allowing the characters a thoroughly significant atmosphere.
Baldwin also published short stories, plays, poetry, and dialogs with Margaret Mead and Nikki Giovanni, of differing quality, but each contains his singular insight, remarkable intensity, elegant style, wit, warning, and terrifying reports.
James Baldwin was one of a group of sophisticated twentieth-century black male intellectuals and writers that began with W.E.B. DuBois, includes Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Ellison, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Hal Bennett, William Demby, Henry Van Dyke, David Bradley, and continues with Charles Johnson, Percival Everett, Henry Louis Gates Jr and Cornel West. Frankly, for a long time, I have thought that Baldwin requires a criticism that has yet to be developed, that these men and their works require a criticism that has either yet to be developed or yet to be practiced consistently. That criticism might be rooted in these questions: What are the ideas and themes that the author considers important? How does his philosophy of art, philosophy of society, and philosophy of the human spirit express themselves in his work? Do male characters (and personalities) express tenderness as well as anger, vulnerability as well as strength? Do female characters articulate ideas and perform actions that indicate independence and self-respect? Is the world in the work presented as a series of conflicts and oppositions or is the sensibility more nuanced, more insightful, more realistic than that? How does the work in question embody visions of community or communities? In what way does it relate to cultural and intellectual movements current or past? What use does it make of symbols and metaphors? To what extent does the writer use stylistic techniques and different genre fixtures in a single work? Does the writer revise the ideas, stories, and texts of other writers in his own works? In what way is his work experimental? Are the characters and people presented at least as complicated as the author? What are the affirmations of and opportunities for choice and self-renewal in the work? What are the possibly destructive or pessimistic facts/ideas/truths the writer is brave enough to face? Does the work indicate how friends, comrades, lovers, family, coworkers, can betray, even destroy us, just as badly as identified enemies? Is a perspective other than the author's allowed in the work? How does the writer's work relate to literary traditions? Once such questions are asked and answered it will be easier weigh the ultimate value of Baldwin and these other writers and to see how much they connect to world literature.
To take James Baldwin's full measure, it is not enough to bring partisan interest — one has to bring one's full mind and heart, all one knows.
The best essays in James Baldwin Now — those by Marlon Ross, Lawrie Balfour, James Darsey, Roderick A. Ferguson, Joshua L. Miller, and Lauren Rusk — do that.
In Joshua L. Miller's "The Discovery of What It Means to Be A Witness," he reminds us of Baldwin's preference for the word "witness" over "exile." (Baldwin had been quoted as saying, "You take home with you. You better. Otherwise you're homeless.") A witness assumes the relationship and responsibility the exile may seem to abdicate. Baldwin's collaboration with Richard Avedon, Nothing Personal, which Miller excavates and excerpts photos from, is a book in which Baldwin's text and Avedon's photos of a range of Americans — rich, middle class, poor, the famous and obscure, artists and workers, brides and grooms, and psychiatric patients — formed another example of Baldwin's vision of America: a people of great multiplicity.
Lauren Rusk, in "Selfhood and Strategy" breaks Baldwin's approach down into component parts, treating them to a careful reading: Baldwin addressed a divided American audience of whites and blacks, using tones ranging from "meditative to ironic to sermonic, offering a glimpse of one African American man's multifarious humanity," a humanity characterized by a private self, a collective self, an inclusive (transcendent) self, and he used his own experience to reach beyond "the wall that separates black and white Americans" to reveal their "underlying connectedness" (360-363). Baldwin yet withheld portions of his experience. "Baldwin sometimes alludes to painful feelings or humiliating circumstances, but he always goes on to generalize from the incident," she points out (p. 364). He maintained important areas of privacy, out of self-respect. In Notes of a Native Son, a book divided into three parts — one, a review of Harriet B. Stowe and Richard Wright, and a comment on how blackness is seen; two, a description of Harlem, his brother's visit south, and his father's death; and three, on blacks and whites in France, and himself in Switzerland — Baldwin is both journalistic and personal. He diagnoses American society's hatred, and teaches ways to see and think that can move its citizens beyond this in texts that offer education and pleasure (his "strategies include irony, understatement, and shifts in the reference of pronouns," as Baldwin moves from one perspective to another).
The leading African American literary scholar of the last twenty years, Henry Louis Gates Jr, author of The Signifying Monkey and Figures in Black and editor of the new encyclopedia Africana, has said that when he was a young man, "Jimmy Baldwin was literature to me...I learned to love written literature, of any sort, through the language of James Baldwin" (Conversations with James Baldwin, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1989).
Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison (Sula, Beloved), one of the most significant writers this country has ever produced, has said of Baldwin, "You gave me a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect it seems my own invention," echoing what millions have felt (James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe, Simon & Schuster, 1989).
Various books have been produced on James Baldwin and his work over the years. Although James Baldwin Now is an uneven book, marred by unsubstantiated assertions, academic jargon, and repetitions, it also contains essays that begin to seriously evaluate and understand Baldwin's gifts, knowledge, and importance to American literature and social history. It is important in that it picks up and extends a conversation that had seemed to end when James Baldwin died. The public issues and troubles are ours — the art is his.
If you want to know who James Baldwin was and what he thought, read his work. He knew — and still knows — more than his critics and more than his most enthusiastic readers, and he waits for us in our shared future.
1 thought on “The Inner Life and the Social World in the Work of James Baldwin”
I lost you when you said Giovanni’s Room includes all whites.. First, black is an American construct. Second, the “brown body” he refers to is Giovanni. There, ultimately are, colored people, but identity is way more than the color of your skin. That’s why he chose David to be, similar to him, but white; therefore a broader audience in the 1950’s could relate to his philosophy.
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