James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” (1963)

The First Next Time is one of James Baldwin’s most famous works and its exists right in the center of his career and at the center of the Civil Rights Movement.  I am not a big fan of situating his career alongside the Civil Rights movement because it likely limits our understanding of both, but it is hard to separate the two so I will stick to my banal observation.  The book consists of one short essay, written in the form of a letter to his nephew, called “My Dungeon Shock” and one long essay “Down at the Cross,” which among other things tries to answer the question about why the Nation of Islam was becoming such a popular movement in the 1960s.  So the essay moves from the personal to the political, and being published together we can guess Baldwin saw the two as intertwined.

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“My Dungeon Shock” summarizes many of Baldwin’s observations about race.  Indeed, it sustains some old questions in African-American identity that go back to Douglass’ essay on the Fourth of July and Dubois’ double consciousness.  How is it possible to be an outsider in the land of your birth?  It is an appropriately angry document.  “I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” (292)  The problem is more profound than one that anger alone can answer.  It is the means by which these lives are destroyed through the expectation of mediocrity, condescension, platitudes, and a the enforcement of an entire infrastructure of reality that his reader (his nephew) had no part in constructing.  The calls of liberals in the 1960s to wait, to be patient, to integrate (as if Harlem’s blacks were not integrated already in brutal and horrifying ways) all come tumbling down in this honest and powerful letter.  The lack of empathy by the white establishment is clearly expressed in Baldwin’s debate with William F. Buckley two years after The First Next Time.   It is clear that Buckley fails to express any real empathy.  Indeed he misses the point entirely.

In “Down at the Cross” Baldwin begins with his commitment to religion in his youth and ends with the growing popularity of Islam among blacks in the 1960s.  We can consider the general point first.  Can religion provide a path to freedom?  There is the objective and subjective part of this.  Objectively, I have my doubts that any institutional infrastructure, no matter how well-meaning, can create the conditions for personal freedom (and I do not see how you get to the freedom of a group without individual freedom first).  Subjectively, it seems the story is more complicated.  Baldwin discusses how by being saved, he found a place in the world.  For a time he played the role of a leader in the congregation as a preacher.  He probably learned many important lessons about persuasion and the use of the word that aided his career as an essayist.   Baldwin makes the point in Down at the Cross” that black Christianity failed to fully recognize the role of religion in sustaining segregation.  “The white man’s Heaven is the black man’s Hell” may be a statement of outraged Christianity but it is also a statement that internalized segregation (if not “separate but equal”).

Baldwin is particularly interested in the rise of black Islam in the United States.  He discusses his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam.  Baldwin found the theology of the Nation of Islam convincing in a historical and realistic day-to-day sense.  “We were offered, as Nation of Islam doctrine, historical and divine proof that all white people are cursed, and are devils, and are about to be brought down.” (315)  Baldwin reminds us that this was not a difficult sale to those who lived in 1950s Harlem, where white people really did act like the devil.  Whatever respect whites had in the eyes of blacks had long died off.  They did look and act like demons.  The Nation of Islam only made that truism divine truth.  To connect this to Baldwin’s close relationship to Christianity, the black God would succeed in liberating the people where the white God failed.  Baldwin wants to tell his readers that this is a powerful and convincing message for people who grew up like him.

The essay ends with a discussion of power and a vision of the future, not of shared power or a shifting of power or separatism (like that of the Nation of Islam).  Rather, Baldwin returns to the old observation that both whites and blacks are a product of United States and bound to its fate.  By this logic, there is no reason that he cannot own his political destiny. On this point, the Nation of Islam is correct.  “If this sentiment is honored when it falls from the lips of Senator Byrd, then there is no reason it should not be honored when it falls from the lips of Malcolm X.” (342)

If we bracket the potential of abolishing political power, there seems to be in Baldwin’s analysis a clear libertarian justification for nationalism.  Working within the system can get tiresome after four centuries.  Of course, separatism and nationalism and the rhetoric of racial superiority is bankrupt.  Baldwin’s analysis is a warning that white America has cultivated the Nation of Islam.  Power cultivates resistance.

Here are some of Baldwin’s comments on the Nation of Islam.

James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961)

Nobody Knows My Name is James Baldwin’s follow-up to Notes of a Native Son (he even subtitles it, “More Notes of a Nature Son.” The essays in this collection were written between 1955 and 1961 and carry on many of the themes of his first collection, including the different experiences of race in Europe and America, depictions of African-Americans in literature, and the religious life.  In his introduction he write about how he decided to return to the United States after several years in Europe.  For him, it was overcoming terror.  He confesses to residing in Europe out of fear.  Well, he returned at the right time to take part in some of the most interesting discussions about race in American history.  The essays in Nobody Knows My Name are therefore transitional.

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His opening essay considers the old question: “What does it mean to be an American?”  Perhaps it was Crevecoeur who first asked this question in his Notes from an American Farmer, where among other things we learn that being an American means first and foremost not being a European.  And Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Dubois taught us that this question is far from color blind.  For a writer, it poses the problem of perspective, which Baldwin sees are rooted in the place of our birth.  “Every society is governed by hidden laws.” (142)  He starts to hint at the trouble of being an American writer as tied to the liquidity of the society.  While Europe was more static in terms of class and status, “American writers do not have a fixed society to describe.” (142) More subtlety, Americans still have those hidden structures but cannot admit them or fully analyze them.  Europe provides some breathing space and perspective to describe the boundaries and limits of the American liquid world.

He has a long essay describing “The Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists” in Paris, which was declared by one of the presenters to be a second Bandung conference.  Baldwin does not quite fit into this conference, often opposing the Afrocentric positions of many writers.  Having spent much of his time arguing for the distinctive African-American experience, he cannot swallow this idea of a unitary black experience.  Africans at least have a country.  Baldwin is still impressed at the enthusiasm of the conference and its power.  I wondered if Baldwin felt himself as an immature writer, surrounded by those “big heads.”  I might just be projecting my own generational burdens.

Following up on this conference, Baldwin takes us back to Harlem where he exposes the devastation caused by urban renewal and the development of housing projects.  The rhetoric of free choice and free markets break down in a place like Harlem where race and economic barriers limit mobility.  If the urban reformers want a disgusting, low quality housing project they have the power to construct it, even if that construction costs the city a neighborhood, businesses, or parks.  As bad as the projects were as institutional impositions, they necessitated the further occupation of Harlem by the police.  “The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive.” (176)  I think essays like these on Harlem are useful correctives to those who think things are okay.  In fact, things are much worse than we suspect.  Sadly, few of us realize this even though the evidence of how bad things are is often just across the street, or require looking at the world with a small amount of empathy. 

Nobody Knows My Name also includes a series of essays on the U.S. South.  Baldwin sees the South and the North as part of the same national trauma.  Northern blacks live the South, even if they never have been there.  It is in their family history and their cultural memory.  Its problems are also not unique.  He even correctly predicts that the trauma of the Civil Rights struggle in the South would be relived in Northern urban areas before long.  “It must be said that the racial setup in the South is not, for a Negro, very different from the racial setup in the North.  It is the etiquette which is baffling, not the spirit.  Segregation is unofficial in the North and official in the South, a crucial difference that does nothing, nevertheless, to alleviate the lot of most Northern Negroes.” (203)  I might add that at least formal institutional oppression can be easily targeted, if not easily taken down.  With the unofficial means of control, we face opaque threats that need to be clearly defined and located before they can be broken down.  In the same section he attacks liberal white Southerners for their inability to fully imagine an alternative to the world that they helped construct and define.  He focuses on Faulkner (who I have not yet read). White Southern writers cling to the mythology of the South and cannot demand immediate change without destroying the world that created them.  “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” (209) The end of this safety is something that people of Faulkner’s ilk cannot accept, making them poor allies for the struggle for racial equality.

I will leave you with another of Baldwin’s public talks.

James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955)

Notes of a Native Son is the first of Baldwin’s collection of essays.  Often in his novels, characters are trapped by social expectations, family, urban environments, or peer groups.  Baldwin mentions more than once that he did not want to write about the “Negro problem” simply because he was a black writer active in the Civil Rights era.  Yet, that is exactly what he does in his 1950s and 1960s non-fiction work.  He realized the limitations of this and the cruel assumptions underpinning the expectation that a black writer consider issues of race.  “I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews — mostly, as it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” (5)  But as any writer, he had to write about the life he lived and the times he lived in.  This makes the “Negro problem” central to his work form this period.  The essays in Notes of a Native Son were written when Baldwin was just starting his writing career and are grouped into three sections based on his experiences in these years: (1) his exhaustive reading, (2) growing up in Harlem, and (3) life as a black expat in Paris.

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The first part, consisting of three essays, examines the images of blacks in American culture.  First, he critiques Uncle Tom’s Cabin and by extension “protest novels,” which by their nature suspend realism for the pushing of a political wish.  Her characters are simple and her understanding of relationships between the races under slavery was shallow.  Such novels, Baldwin asserts, have their role in promoting freedom but are nevertheless bad novels because they miss out on the fundamental reality.  “The oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs.” (17)  Baldwin next levels a similar critique against Richard Wright’s Native Son.  Like Stowe, Wright is “trapped by the American image of Negro life. . . . It is the socially conscious whites who receive him [Bigger] — the Negroes being capable of no such objectivity.” (31)  By embracing the anger of the era, Wright is no less a distorter of the black experience.  His final critique is of Carmen Jones, a film with an all-black cast interpreting Carmen.  And again, we find the work of art separated from the realities of black life.  “One is not watching the complex and consuming passion which leads to life or death — one is watching a timorous and vulgar misrepresentation of these things. . . .The Negro male is still too loaded a quantity for them to know quite how to handle.  Baldwin’s essential cultural critique at this time is the inability of artists to depict the world as it really is.

The next set of essays are autobiographical and deal with the urban experience of African-Americans in places like Harlem.  He starts with a depiction of just how horrible things are in Harlem (“The Harlem Ghetto”).  Poor services, high rents, staggering food costs, and abuse by black and white politicians.  We feel like we are in the world described by David Simon in The Wire.  Indeed we are in many ways and it is tragic how little of what Baldwin describes has changed in the last fifty years.  What we end up with is trapped people.  Baldwin explores this social prison through an analysis of black anti-Semitism.   He sees it as a reflection of black bitterness toward whites produced by a racist society.   “The Negro’s outlets are desperately constricted.  In his dilemma he turns first upon himself and then upon whatever most represents to him his own emasculation.”  (53)  Yet (and here is makes the same point he makes in critiquing Native Son) bitterness and anger is not all that defines the urban experience.  “Journey to Atlanta” considers some jazz musicians who toured the South.  There they were taken advantage of by local political workers of the Progressive Party to canvas neighborhoods.  Of course, the lesson here is that these skilled musicians were essentially seen as their skin color.  “Notes of a Native Son” is the story of Baldwin’s father and his death.  These memoirs intersect with some of the brutal realities in Harlem, including the indifference of some of the whites he encounters.  Baldwin uses these small events to make explicable the race riot that engulfed Harlem at the same time that his father died.  “The avenues , side streets, bars, billiard halls, hospitals, police stations, and even the playgrounds of Harlem — not to mention the houses of correction, the jails, and the morgue — testified to the potency of the poison while remaining silent as to the efficiency of whatever antidote.” (78)

The final four essays come from Baldwin’s observations of expat life in Paris, particularly focused on what he sees as the uniqueness of the African-American experience.  In contrast to black nationalists (who he debates directly in The First Next Time), there is not a singular modern black experience in the world.  African-Americans are bound to the U.S. and have their own struggles there.  While providing some potential for freedom, Paris seems to be at best an escape from where the real reckoning must take place.  One looks at the meetings of African-American expats with Africans living in France.  “They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years–an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening’s good-will, too heavy and too double-edged to ever be trapped in speech.” (89)  Paris cannot become a center for identity for expats because too many of them are emotionally or otherwise tied to America.  Baldwin often wrote about blacks in America encountering police, so it is interesting that he took the time to write a long essay about his arrest in Paris (he was accused of fencing).  The police and judicial system is something that (I suppose) few expats experience and it may very well be one of the last parts of a foreign culture on experiences, if at all.  I suppose the essay shows how Baldwin never quite became a Parisian and still held onto American attitudes about the police and power.  The final essay describes Baldwin’s visit to a town that may have never encountered a black before.  In a way, this allows Baldwin to escape race for the first time in his life.  Since race is a dialectical experience, shaping the development of both whites and blacks, this small town lacked the “black-white” experience that would have contributed to such a fossilization of racial expectations.  Being in a town without any blacks meant he was in a town without a history of slavery, violence, economic exploitation, and hatred.  He sums up the “Negro problem” in America by saying “I am a stranger here.  But I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.” (124)

 

I will forestall any conclusion for now, until I write on more of Baldwin’s writings on race.

James Baldwin, “Going the Meet the Man” (1965)

The Library of America volume of James’ Baldwin’s fiction ends with his 1965 short story collection Going to Meet the Man.  A common theme in Baldwin’s work is the daily-lived experience of racism in 20th century America that goes beyond the legal discrimination of Jim Crow.  It is these experiences that were so central to the lives of Northern blacks like Baldwin, whose families escaped the more formal discrimination of the South. I hesitate to say it was worse as in Baldwin’s mind the urban racism he wanted to describe was no less debilitation, brutal, or (as in the case of police repression) institutionalized.

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All eight stories are fascinating and provide insights into American racism from different ages and points of view.  I was reminded of The Dubliners in the way Baldwin progressively orders these stories from young to old – starting with vibrancy, curiosity, and potential and ending with impotence.  Not all of his characters are black.  Notably, the lead figure in “Going to Meet the Man” is a white sheriff who is incapable of having sex with his wife without remembering an act of racial violence he witnessed.  In general, Baldwin is reminding us of how important society is in defining our individual potential – more of then not setting limits for us.  The trouble is that autonomy and escape from social institutions – even in urban areas (the place where such escape should be possible) – is simply not possible when your identity is imposed on you from the outside.

“The Rockpile” revisits the family of Go Tell It on the Mountain.  Here it is the father, Gabriel, who defines his son as an outsider.  When his natural son, Roy, in injured when fighting with other boys on a local rockpile, the stepson, John must carry the blame.  The central institution in “The Rockpile” is the family and to a lesser degree religion, since John’s mother so often resorts to religion to justify her husband’s actions or demand John obey his stepfather or suffer his ordeals (like a good Christian).

“The Outing” gives us the same character and setting.  This time they are engaged in a Christian outing on a boat.  It strikes us as a rather nice setting and it is nice to observe some of the more playful freedom of the boys, who are mostly interested in the outing as a chance to spend time with some of the neighborhood girls.  Religion, of course, saturates the air and we see the parents working hard to keep their children focused on the religious purpose of the outing.  This can work as a metaphor for Baldwin’s entire polemic against social institutions, that they try to confine our individual free expression.  The expectation of being saved is placed on the boys at the end.  The cost of the gathering of the community is their future commitment to its values.

“The Man Child” is about the violent brought out by class resentment.  We are presented with two friends, Jamie and Eric’s father.  Jamie is a drunk, unmarried (he “lost” his wife), and an economic failure.  Eric’s father has achieved everything his friend lacks, including having a son, Eric.  While the two men stated at the same point but diverged greatly.  In resentment, desperation, or loneliness Jamie kills Eric.  While the previous two tales suggest the oppressive power of social institutions like family and tradition, “The Man Child” reminds us how devastating it can be to not have those things.

“Previous Conditions” is a more straightforward account of how race functions in America.  The narrator is a poor actor.  He sums up his dilemma: “I’m not tall and I’m not good looking and I can’t sing or dance and I’m not white; so even at the best of times I wasn’t in much demand.” (816)  The story explores a series of slights he faces, including being kicked out of his apartment (he sublet from a white friend) because he was black.   He was taught as a child not to accept being called “nigger” but in his adulthood it has become part of the transcript of his life.  Despite his isolation the story ends with a simple act of kindness (innocently purchasing a round of beers for some women sitting next to him).  We also get a window into the mistrust and indifference of the urban setting.  “Anonymous, islanded people surrounded  me, behind newspapers, behind make-up, fat, fleshy masks and flat eyes.  I watched the empty faces. (No one looked at me.)” (828)

“Sonny’s Blues” is a very powerful tale of a man who observes the fall of his younger brother into drugs after his decision to become a jazz musician.  After deciding to help his brother due to the death of his 2-year-old daughter we gain access to the narrator’s memories, particularly how he was charged with caring for his younger brother after the death of their father.  Sonny, the younger brother, is through all of this a more infantile character, relying on the care of others.  The narrator was scornful of Sonny’s choice to become a musician, even trying to believe that “musician” meant classical pianist.  When seeing the cleaned up Sonny perform at a bar, he learns how little he understood about Sonny’s powerful art, his renown, his talent, and how libertatory it was for him (even if that liberation was checked by drug use).  “It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament.  I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.  Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.  Yet, there was no battle in his face now.  I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth.  He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy.” (863)  Music was a way to escape suffering and the burden of expectations (in this case also familial).

“This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” takes us back to the expat community in Paris (see Giovanni’s Room and Another Country for more examples of Baldwin’s interest in Americans in Paris as a setting for his work.  Its central theme is the relative freedom from discrimination that African-Americans felt when they moved to Europe.  This is an old theme.  Even Frederick Douglass wrote on this in reference to his travels in England.  The jazz musician Sindey Bichet moved to Paris to escape racism as well (I recall this in my mind, but do not quote me).  Let’s listen to a bit.

Anyway, Baldwin has some beautiful and lively descriptions of Paris here.  “So here are American boys, anything but beardless, scratching around for Hemingway; American girls, titillating themselves with Frenchmen and existentialism, while waiting for the American boys to shave off their beards; French painters, busily pursuing the revolution which ended thirty years ago; and the young, bored, perverted, American arrivistes who are buying their way into the art world via flattery and liquor, and the production of canvases as arid as their greedy little faces.  Here are boys, of all nations, one step above the pimp.”  (892)

“Come Out the Wilderness” explores an interracial couple.  Ruth is a black woman working in an office and Paul is a white man and painter.  Ruth feels anxious about their relationship, her memories of her ex-boyfriend and Paul’s flakiness about the relationship.  She is convinced of the worse about him.  “He wanted to go.  He was not going to another woman.  He simply wanted to go.”  (909) The core of the story is her musings about her relationships, which tended to be defined by power, ownership, obligation, and service — in other words slavery.  Above and beyond the obvious issue of the legacy of slavery among black women and reality of masters raping enslaved women, should this be a tool to critique relationships more broadly.  Indeed, Ruth’s musings on slavery came when she thinks about her black ex-boyfriend not her current one who is just aloof.  This was in some ways a critique of the most radical voices in the sexual revolution – that relationships tend to be colonial and should be rethought from the ground up.

“Going to Meet the Man” is the last tale in this collection and is set entirely in a bedroom.  The plot consists of a impotent man finally achieving sexual arousal.  What gives this impotent white sheriff an erection is his recollections of the brutal lynching of a black man, which he saw as a boy under the direction of his father who insisted he witness the torture and death of another human being.  The last scene is no less horrifying.  His arousal, awakened by these memories, is tainted with racially-motivated violence.  (I will let you read it yourself.)  Baldwin’s generation not only experienced incredible racially-motivated violence during the context of the Civil Rights Movement and struggles against police violence, but older people had lasting memories of the early 20th century, when violence became one of the key tools to enforce Jim Crow.  Although this is a horrifying window in the mind of a white racist, we take away from Going to Meet the Man the lesson that the Jim Crow-era of racism was something that was lived from  birth until old age, in every aspect of life from the bedroom to the playground to the house of worship to the pub.

James Baldwin, “Another Country” (1963): Literature from the Margins

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.

Marketed to a nation obsessed with interracial sex.

Marketed to a nation obsessed with interracial sex.

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.

 

James Baldwin, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956): Destructive Love

Considering that Giovanni, the Italian bartender who begins a relationship with the narrator, an American expat in Paris, is executed for the murder of the owner of a gay bar at the end of the novel Giovanni’s Room, we might assume that he is the destructive one.  Indeed, it is Giovanni that has the emotional outbreaks and displays his feelings for all to see.  Reading this novel, I could not help but feel that the true destructive force was David – the expat – who was capable of keeping his emotions quite tied up.  David is the narrator of the novel, but there is no reason to trust that his confession is fully honest.  He tries – and is mostly successful – in keeping his emotions tied down.  But in doing so he destroyed a number of people’s lives, contributing to the deaths of two, and ruining his own relationships.  On this theme, there is really not special about the theme of homosexuality.  David could as easily have been a conflicted heterosexual, leading to the same destruction, even though he would not have been conflicted for the same reasons.   I do not want to downplay how traumatic David’s homosexuality may have been for him.  Much of the novel involves his struggle with it, his lies to his family, his effort to sustain a heterosexual relationship with the charming Hella, his guilt over his feelings for Giovanni, and the relative sexual freedom he enjoyed as an expat.  These would all be framed different had David not been imagined as a homosexual.  That said, no shortage of heterosexuals have experiences pressures to marry within their class, to respect long dead marital vows, or to protect their relationship with their children.  Romantic expectations affect us all.  Their tyrannical power is simply more clearly seen in works covering the most oppressed sexual minorities.

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Baldwin’s novel is broken up into two parts.  The first sets up David’s relationship with Giovanni, which grew out of the relative boredom David felt as Hella traveled in Spain.  Through his homosexual friend Jacques, David is introduced to Giovanni and the gay bar that would be so important in the plot.  Jacques invited David to recklessness with a very convincing monologues that can be applied to numerous situations.  All that is required for a full realization of life’s potential is the absence of a concern about the future.  Liberty requires a degree of recklessness.  “Love him, love him and let him love you.  Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?   And how long, at the best, can it last?  since you are both men and still have everywhere to go?  Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark.  And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty — they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his.  But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better — forever — if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.  You play it safe long enough and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and and forever and forever–like me.” (267)  If is convincing enough that David is chooses to begin a relationship with Giovanni.

The second part of the novel focuses on the destructive nature of David’s decisions.  One could almost say that the root of his problems was that he was not projectural or destructive enough.  He took Jacques’ advice seriously in the short-term but did not carry it out.  (Can any of us?)  His family expectations and his relationship with Hella convince him to move out of Giovanni’s room.  Fearing the future, David picks up a homely woman, only to leave her.  It seems he wanted to prove that he could play heterosexual prior to Hella’s return.  Almost simultaneously Giovanni is fired from his job and  ends up scraping by on the charity of his friends.  David greeted the returning Hella with a marriage proposal (which also works as a cover to get some money from his father).  Giovanni is distraught by David moving out and by his lack of work or money.  Giovanni brutally kills the bar owner, Guillaume.  The events leading up to the murder were his confession to Giovanni that he was essentially used up (“Giovanni, like a falling move star, has lost his drawing power.”)  A bar like his needed an unknown, mystery man.  Giovanni is put on trial and the newspapers reveal all the notiorious details of his life in Paris.  He is executed at the same time that the narrator tells his story.  The final loose end is the collapse of Hella and David’s relationship, which was destroyed by the exposure of his homosexuality.  She discovered him with a sailor.  In the second half, David’s most destructive act was his attempt to reinvest in his relationship with Hella, considering he had the chance to escape.  Who knows if there was any future for Giovanni and David.  It is also wrong to assume that there was nothing meaningful in his plans with Hella.  It was David’s attempt to have it all that was so destructive.  Did he have any alternatives?  He could have listened to Jacques’ advice and stopped playing it safe, stopped despising his flesh and desires.  Yes, it would have required a painful and honest moment with Hella and himself.  It might have avoided the broken bodies, broken hearts, and broken souls that we are left with at the end of Giovanni’s Room.

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A final biographical note on Baldwin in Europe is in order.  Baldwin lived in France between 1950 and 1954.  This novel was published two years later.  Not as dramatic as the events of Giovanni’s Room happened to Baldwin.  The biographical sketch at the end of the “Library of America” volume suggests he spent most of his time writing.  He likely knew about expats scraping by and can speak from personal experience and observation about the comparative freedoms expats enjoy.  These are themes in the novel.  While it is true that expats (often Zygmunt Bauman’s tourists) have liberties that people closer to home lack, we should not overstate the significance of this.  At best, it can be a lifestyle approach to freedom.  Not all of us are capable of moving abroad and most that do move abroad do so as economic migrants and often find their life in a new land to be one of drudgery, labor, and exploitation.  David (like Baldwin) came to France with a bank account, connections, and a U.S. Passport.

Enjoy a James Baldwin interview, recorded in 1963, mostly on race issues.

 

James Baldwin, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953): Religion and Freedom

Go Tell It on the Mountain parallels nicely with one of the major themes I teased out of Eudora Welty’s work, namely the relationship between individual freedom and our social institutions.  While Welty was primarily concerned with the family, family traditions, and nostalgia as a barrier to freedom, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, looks at African-American Christianity in much the same way.  While providing a source of identity, community, and values it creates an environment that is individually the cause of much torment, anxiety, and confinement.  At more than one moment, the protagonist’s father Gabriel threatens to “beat sin out of him.” (190)  Religion becomes a cover for his child abuse, for long-term resentment toward his son (who is not his biologically), and control over his son’s future career plans.  Gabriel is himself shaped and conflicted by his religious values, fathering a bastard child.  (We wonder at a few points if his religious obsession with the sin of sex makes that diversion from God’s path nearly inevitable.)  It is not, however, an entirely insidious part of the character’s lives.  Except for a few characters in open revolt against religion, we cannot imagine them outside of the guidance of the church, but the psychological (and physical) abuse and the long train of bad decisions makes us wonder if they would not be better off in revolt against these traditions.  Like America, these characters stand on the edge of freedom but choose to stand safely on the side of repression.

This week, I will look at three of Baldwin's novels and some of his short stories.

This week, I will look at three of Baldwin’s novels and some of his short stories.

John, the protagonist, has many parallels with James Baldwin’s own life.  Both grew up in New York, raised by men who were not their biological fathers.  Their stepfathers are preachers and both are expected to enter the church.  John and James also both grew up with a handful of half-brothers and half-sisters.  If Go Tell It on the Mountain can be trusted as autobiography, then these siblings provided potential alternatives from the expected life in the church.  Baldwin took advantage of these and evaded the religious life through writing, which he started doing at a very young age.  His biographical chronology reveals Baldwin to be quite precocious.  He started writing eleven or twelve, began sketching Go Tell It on the Mountain before the age of twenty.  He met Richard Wright when he was 20, gaining his encouragement (and connections), which helps his continued writing.  He also realized his homosexuality around this time.  Go Tell It on the Mountain was published before he was 30 years old.  This places his writing career at a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, but as a Northern writer he would have a different relationship to the questions the Civil Rights movement thrust on the nation.  His questions are urban, international, and economic.  And while he did participate in some of the actions of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, he would have a closer relationship with the more urban “Black Power” perspective, meeting Huey Newton and working on a film adaptation of Malcolm X’s autobiography.

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Go Tell It on the Mountain is divided into three parts, but it really comes together as five chapters.  The first part, “The Seventh Day,” sets up the spiritual life of fourteen-year-old John.  We also learn immediately of the alternative, represented by Roy – his half-brother.  The novel opens with sexual curiosity.  John is curious about the sexuality in the street life of Harlem, Roy’s experiments, and his parent’s sex life.  John’s physical attraction to Elisha (who is already “saved”) perhaps parallels Baldwins own sexuality.  John lives in fear and awe of his stepfather.  His mother constantly reinforces the idea that his stepfather is a holy man.  He is also plagued with the idea that he is surrounded in sin.  In a memorial passage, we are introduced to a woman in a film John watches.  Rather than enjoying the film, John dwells on the fate of this woman’s soul and the fate of women like her.  The film is also a spiritual test for John. Would he accept or reject the sinful world or embrace God.  “He could not claim, as African savages might be able to claim, that no one had brought him the gospel.  His father and mother and all the saints had taught him from his earliest childhood what was the will of God.  Either he arose from the theater, never to return, putting behind him the world and its pleasures, its honors, and its glories, or he remained here with the wicked and partook of their certain punishment.” (38)  It is also in this first section of the novel that Roy is stabbed by some whites, again suggesting a powerful alternative for John, but it is also interpreted as a threat to his soul.  Unfortunately, most of us cannot see alternatives for what they are.

The second part is broken up into three chapters and open us up to the perspective of three of the most important people in John’s life: his aunt Florence, his stepfather Gabriel, and his mother Elizabeth.  It is presented as “the prayers of the saints,” for in John’s mind all three are saintly figures.  As we learn the details of these people’s lives we know that the narrative they presented to John was incomplete, convincing us that the religious life was not simply a free choice John made (which is how John often sees it, as when watching the sinful film) but chains, constructed through lies and half-truths.  The most dramatic of these lies is Gabriel’s illegitimate child.  Gabriel buys off the woman, Esther, using money stolen from his second wife, Elizabeth.  When the affair and the illegitimacy is exposed, Gabriel shows little remorse or concern.  Gabriel is able to harness all sorts of religious explanations for his actions, most notably the assumption that sin is the domain of the daughters of Eve.  Esther, a drinker and more attractive than his wife, brings him to sin.  Gabriel is able to twist his ending of the affair as a victory for the Lord.

Before looking at the final chapter of the novel, we cannot help but observe that like Gabriel and Elizabeth, Elisha wants John to find God and follow a religious path.  He is able to present these arguments to him without the near tyrannical authority of a step father (or a vengeful Lord seen through the eyes of a vengeful stepfather).  Rather than “beat the sin” out of John, Elisha presents a kinder, more forgiving Jesus.  “But when the Lord saves you He burns out all that old Adam, He gives you a new mind a new heart, and then you don’t find no pleasure in the world, you get all your joy in walking and talking with Jesus every day.” (52)  None of the “three saints” find much joy in the religious life.  What they find are tests, dramatic explosions of emotion, woe and pain.

The final section, “The Threshing-Floor” starts in a strange place.  John is engaged in alternatively a struggle with God and a struggle with his stepfather.  This intense experience turns out to be John’s conversion experience (afterward he is “saved”).  It is Elisha he sees when he comes out of this quasi-hallucinogenic experience.  Later in the evening, John is reassured by Elisha that he is saved, but his joy at this fact is not shared by his father, who remains resentful of his stepson.  This is a victory of sorts.  He in a sense is able to choose a variant of Christianity that is based more on love than on fear.  Does this place him as a spiritual equal as his father?  Perhaps even more than that.  It is doubtful that is transforms the power dynamic in that will likely leave John under the power of the physically (and as it turns out sexually) more daunting Gabriel.

What is key is that John feels liberated.  “He was free — whom the Son sets free is free indeed — he had only to stand fast in his liberty.  He was in battle no longer, this unfolding Lord’s day, with this avenue, these houses, the sleeping, staring, shouting people, but had entered into battle with Jacob’s angel, with the princes and the powers of the air.” (210)  In contrast to his perspective earlier in the novel where the religious path is a constant losing struggle.  At one point Gabriel condemns a parishioner for not attending church enough.  Gabriel was in perpetual conflict with his desires.

As an autobiography we can read this libertarian tension as continuing.  Baldwin would himself move from a religious career becoming a novelist, essayist, and activist.  I suspect John’s future is just as open, but it required first a liberation from the traditions and beliefs of the family.  In this we can be happily optimistic in contrast to Welty’s claustrophobic novels.  The family may be chains but they are not unbreakable.  John may benefit from the urban environment in ways Welty’s rural characters could not, but the important point is that John is able to shove off the monkey of family expectations (and physical or emotional tyranny) from his back.