James Baldwin, “No Name in the Street” (1972)

James Baldwin writes in his epilogue to No Name in the Street: “This book has been much delayed by trials, assassinations, funerals, and despair.  Nor is the American crisis, which is part of a global, historical crisis, likely to resolve itself soon.  An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born.” (475)  Baldwin must have felt that he was part of a revolutionary moment in history.  From this comes No Name in the Street.  His thoughtfulness about the dilemma of color in America is less prominent here.  No Name in the Street are journal entries from a war.  It is autobiographical, starting from his childhood, his life in the church, the imposition of an identity on him by others, and the search for a identity constructed for himself.  The second half documents the people he met, the struggles he participated in.  “The Fire Next Time” which he predicted in his 1963 work came true through urban riots, assassinations, and the rise of new movements, martyrs, and leaders.  The names of the two parts “Take me to the Water” and “To Be Baptized” use the same religious metaphors that through most of Baldwin’s writings and the point is clear to us.  The space between thought and emerging consciousness and action is not far, no farther than the line between walking to the river and the baptism.  Once one walks to the river, baptism may even be inevitable.

noname

Some of the topics that Baldwin discusses in this vibrant and even chaotic second part of this essay include:

1. His discussions and cooperation with Malcolm X and Baldwin’s feelings that Malcolm was correct about the ultimate collapse of the white civilization.  Baldwin was affected by Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination and began to work on a script for a play based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley.  “Malcolm, finally, was a genuine revolutionary, a virile impulse long since fled from the American way of life.” (412)  I attached one of their debates.

2. His aid to one of Baldwin’s friends, Tony Maynard, who was wrongfully accused of murder and awaited extradition to the United  States in a jail in Hamburg.  He would not be released until after No Name in the Street was published.  Baldwin focuses on Maynard’s feelings of terror at the American judicial system.  He accepts the position of other radical figures that all black prisoners in the United States are political prisoners because none of them were tried by their peers.  In a sidebar of sorts, Baldwin ponders on a white girl he knew from “the Village” and how when they accompanied each other in the city, they needed to pretend they were not together.  “Our connection caused us to be menaced by the police in ways indescribable and nearly inconceivable.” (419)

3. The Watts riot of 1965.  Baldwin connects the conditions of Watts to those of other urban areas, such as Harlem, which he was most familiar with.  The riots were an outcrop of the horrible conditions in the ghettos.  “The ghetto, beleaguered, betrayed by Washington, by the total lack of vision of the men in Washington, determined to outwit, withstand, survive, this present, overwhelming danger, yet lacks a focus, a rallying point, a spokesman. . . . Lord, we really need Malcolm now.” (434)

Watts Riots

Watts Riots

4. The Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination.  Baldwin’s reaction to Malcolm’s assassination was that of a revolutionary.  He was saddened because he felt the moment needed someone like Malcolm X.  With King, Baldwin seems to return to his religious state.  I guess that suggests how Baldwin saw both of these figures and their role in the movement.

5. The Black Panthers.  Like Malcolm X, the Black Panthers are needed.  “The black people need protection against the police is indicated by the black community’s reaction to the advent of the Panthers .  Without community support, the Panthers would have been merely another insignificant street gang.” (451)  (I suspect by the same logic without the need and the community support, the NOI would have been just another urban cult.)  He is very impressed by Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale even though Cleaver wrote a harsh criticism of Baldwin (which I recall was quite ad-hominid at attacked Baldwin’s ideas through his sexuality – Soul on Ice).

6. The emergence of black power is at the heart of the last pages of the essay.  This was both destructive and creative.  It pushed whites from the moment, of course.  He talks about the growing rift between the “flower children” and the blacks.  The bittersweet ending of the essay introduces the “carefully repressed terror in relation to blacks.” (471)  But it did help create a new identity.  If you watch some of the clips, you know that Baldwin struggled with the term “Negro,” which he embraced as part of his identity.  Younger activists and people like Malcolm X opposed the use of the term and preferred “black.”  It seems that Baldwin has come to terms with this change by the end of No Name in the Street.  (Is this search for an identity the meaning of the title?)    The seizing of the name “black” is seen by Baldwin as an essential component of liberation.

When Baldwin put down his pen on this work, the revolution was not done but it was beginning to see the end of its Jacobin phase – it was entering Thermidor.  His next collection of essays The Devil Finds Work is mostly about his relationship to film.  The Library of America did not even bother to publish his later novels.  The collected essays at the end of this volume cover mostly his 1950s and 1960s works, not collected in his other books.  Was Baldwin simply a Civil Rights writer?  I do not think so, but he lived during a revolutionary and found his voice in being one of its most eloquent interested interpreters.

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