During my time as a historian (whether that is entirely over is yet to be seen) I struggled to write history “from below.” In practice, I tended to write it from the margins as much as I could. I was only of dubious success. One reason I am so attracted by American writers of literature is that it is through literature that the history of people on the margins of society can be fully articulated and realized. It is perhaps for this reason that some of the best historical scholarship on marginal people tend to be cultural histories in one way or another (often it is confessed as such in the title). James Baldwin wrote Another Country at the peak of the Civil Rights movement, when he had already achieved notoriety as an essayist studying the black experience in America. I will look at these essays next week, but it is enough to say for now that his essays are interested in the daily lived experience of being black under Jim Crow or while experiencing racial discrimination, police brutality, or condescension in cities. Whether institutional or not, these were real experiences. Baldwin wanted to remind his white readers (I suspect his black readers did not need reminding) that these experiences mattered when added up and quilted together into the tapestry of an individual’s life. However, Another Country is far too rich to be summarily defined as the literary expression of these arguments.
He starts with quoting Henry James making an argument for history from the margins. “They strike one, above all, as giving no account of themselves in any terms already consecrated by human use; to this inarticulate state they probably form, collectively, the most unprecedented of monuments; abysmal the mystery of what they think, what they feel, what they want, what they suppose themselves to be saying.” (363) Book One of Another Country documents the life and death of Rufus Scott, a bisexual jazz musician in Harlem. Baldwin — through his narrator — makes clear that Rufus lives under the constant reminder of racism and poverty. We meet him hungry and trying to sleep at a movie theater. On the first page he despairs that “you took the best, so why not take the rest” and flees from the hostile gave (imagined or not we do not know) of a passing policeman. Baldwin certainly wants to make the point that although the Northern cities lacked the formalized racial discrimination of Jim Crow laws, the city itself was a burden for many residents. “The weight of the city was murderous–one of those who had been crushed on the day, which was every day, these towers fell.” (368) These are the thoughts that precede his suicide, but thankfully we are quickly sent to a seemingly happier time. It is the night that Rufus first has sex with Leona, a white woman from the South escaping her failed marriage. Rufus later develops a relationship with Leona but at this time Rufus’ motives are more vicious. In contrast to the powerlessness of the opening passages, Rufus here is at the top of his game, musically and sexually. As his relationship develops with Leona we are again exposed to the perpetual invasion of race in Rufus’ life. He worries constantly how other will look at him on the street (this is in contrast to the confidence with which he brought her to the party where they first had sex). Leona once calls him “boy” with no racial assumptions, but this offends him greatly. Ultimately, as a result of these feelings of inadequacy, his frustration, and racial/sexual self-hatred Rufus begins abusing Leona savagely. Rufus projected all of this bile onto Leona. As she explained: “He had a fight last week with some guy in the subway, some real, ignorant, unhappy man just didn’t like the idea of our being together, you know? and, well, you know, he blamed that fight on me. He said I was encouraging the man. Why, Viv, I didn’t even see the man until he opened his mouth. But, Rufus, he’s all the time looking for it, he sees it where it ain’t, he don’t see nothing else no more.” (417) We have good reason here to mistrust much of Rufus’s interpretation of the rest of the world, but we know better than deny the daily insults he did face as a poor black man in New York that over the years formed his identity and gave him a frame of reference to interpret the world.
Well, Rufus quickly declines. He becomes a prostitute, homeless, and sleeping in restaurants and move theaters. His friends — particularly the writer Vivaldo — try to help him but with little success. He disappears and a few days later his body turns up.
This is the type of story that history cannot tell well. With the exception of the music Rufus played, nothing of his feelings and experiences would be recorded. Pretending Rufus was real (which of course, he is, after a fashion), we can imagine a diligent scholar would learn about his relationship with Leona via the asylum records from when he sent her South. His suicide would also be in the police records. What is not there is his daily humiliations, his street brawls (and imagined or real slights that began them), and the feel of the city for someone in Rufus’ position. Most important, is the difficult to document and prove the non-institutional experience of repression.