James Baldwin, Conclusions (Assorted Essays)

Now it is time to close the book on my companion of the past two weeks, James Baldwin.  It was one of the more exhilarating experiences I had since starting this blog because he is so profoundly interested in informal power, the way power functions on the psychological level, building up walls from our childhood.  I suppose we would now call this bio-power, but we do not need any philosophical concepts to understand that oppression needs to work on the mental level first.  Without a lifetime of institutional, interpersonal, and systemic lessons and disciplining it is unlikely that Jim Crow could have survived as long as it did.  Baldwin documents the dismantling of this mental regimen of power.  Another theme in his work is what Dubois called “double consciousness” or “the veil.”  This refers to the fact that the United States really looked different depending on your position across the color line.  As Dubois points out and Baldwin makes clear, black people had the burden (and unique ability I suppose) to look at the United States from the perspective of their own live and experiences as well as clearly understand white America because it was white people who created the superstructure of the color line.  White people, privileged to only look at the world through the superstructure they created, are not quite so omniscient.  (While I am certain this is generally true, I am not sure it is universal.  I do think empathy is possible, but that may be an ahistorical observation.)

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Looking over some of his collected essays included in this volume (there are around 40), arranged chronologically, we can summarize Baldwin’s career into three phases.  The first period (1950 until 1961) began with the publication of book reviews and includes his extended period living abroad in France.  He is observing the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement but seemed very interested in pursuing a literary life.  He published novels that were not novels about race and his essays (which were about race) were attempts to understand the color line.

The second period, from 1961 until the early 1970s, are his revolutionary writings.  It is during this time he completes Another Country, The FirNext Time, and No Name in the StreetHis essays from this period are mostly interested in the political issues.  His “A Talk to Teachers” is about the ramifications of the revolution for the education of black children.  During this period he talked to political figures, engaged in debates, met with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and wrote some of his most provocative essays.  “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” is a good example of this, engaging in a class analysis of black anti-Semitism.

The selections form Baldwin’s final period are slim, amounting to no more than 70 pages.  This period is that of revolutionary Thermidor.  After the political agitation ended and after the cities stopped burning, Baldwin and other writers turned in part to cultural politics.  We have his review of Roots, a defense of “black English” as a language, and at least one essay on sexuality (“Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood”).  What comes out strongly in these essays is that although there were many successes to the revolution, much remanded unchanged.  “The Price of the Ticket” is the most somber essay making this point and perhaps a good ending.

When people question my anarchist leanings, the Civil Rights movement often comes up in conversation because one of the historical lessons of Civil Rights is that it took a powerful state to impose itself on the criminal behavior of Southern communities.  In this logic, it is at the community level that we are most at risk of losing our freedoms.  Only a powerful state can enforce our rights.  It is not a bad historical argument, but it does require a whole lot of bracketing of the of the long list of freedoms the state seizes from us anyway, and their defense of capital.  Baldwin suggests that atonement cannot be possible be the crimes of racism were perpetuated by a multitude, but it is a multitude that serves the interests of power not one running against it.  “A mob is not autonomous: it executes the real will of the people who rule the State.  The slaughter in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, was not, merely, the action of a mob.  That blood is on the hands of the state of Alabama: which sent those mobs into the streets to execute the will of the State.  And, though I know that it has now become inconvenient and impolite to speak of the American Jew in the same breath with which one speaks of the American black, I yet contend that the mobs in the streets of Hitler’s Germany were in those streets not only by the will of the German State, but by the will of the western world, including the architects of human freedom, the British, and the presumed guardian of Christian and human morality, the Pope.” (840)

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James Baldwin, “The Devil Finds Work” (1976)

The long essay by James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, is a personal history of film.  It is a rather clever approach because us moderns learn a great deal about the world and ourselves from films.  Particularly in our youth, films are quite real to us. Television and cell phones may be taking over the function as cultural parents but screens have this power of telling us what we want truth to be, even if they best the can manage are clever simulations.  On my Philip K. Dick project, I was just writing on the images of work in television and film.  Series like Seinfeld and The Office stress that work is something boring, odious, and to be avoided.  Much of these series involve people avoiding work while they are there, or (in the case of Seinfeld) surviving without jobs.  Films like Office Space and The Good Girl make a similar point that work is essentially mind-numbing and useless.  This has been a powerful image for me and I likely have internalized many of these messages, but the fact is for millions of workers, labor remains physically demanding, scientifically managed, and constant.  I doubt we could ever see a series like The Office documenting the lives of Foxcom workers.  We simply cannot believe they would have time for games in such a place.  But now I am wondering if the average office environment is much more accommodating of the workers’ whims.  The Office is what we want work to be, because we cannot face the reality.

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Benedict Anderson argued that print culture was the glue that united the people into an “imagined community” at the time that loyalty to religion and empire faded.  To survive death, we needed to new device and that became nation.  Print capitalism made nationalism possible by forcing on us a common language, a common culture discussion, common expectations, and a common mythology.  Subcultures and alternatives were not cultivated because it was not cost effective to do so.  I believe that argument is convincing for the 19th century.  It is also convincing for the 20th century, but we need to add films and television now as the conveyers of a common culture.

So, Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work can be read as cultural studies.  He explores a couple of questions.  The first is, what was the role of film in his personal development and emerging consciousness of the color line?  As we know from his other writings, there is little that films could add to daily life in Harlem to convince Baldwin that he was an outsider in his own country, but films did seem to play a role.  The second question has to do with the role of film in interpreting and sustaining the color line.  He moves on from the films of his youth to deconstruct popular films like The Exorcist and racially progressive films like In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?  The trajectory of the analysis goes from the childhood subjectivity to adult objectivity and criticism.   I wonder how many film viewers today make this chance?  I know adults who get excited about summer blockbusters as if they were still grade-school children.   But maybe this maturation is a bit sad.   There is a wonder in how children look at film.  “I was a child, of course, and therefore, unsophisticated.  I don’t seem ever to have any innate need (or, indeed, any innate ability) to distrust people: and so I took Bill Miller as she was, or as she appeared to be to me.” (481)

One of the issues Baldwin seemed to face as a child was that most of the faces he saw on the screen were white, or to be more precise, not familiar to Baldwin’s world.  “It is not entirely true that no one from the world I knew had yet made an appearance on the American screen: there were, for example, Stepin Setchit and Willie Best and Manton Moreland, all of whom, rightly or wrongly, I loathed.  It seemed to me that they lied about the world I knew, and debased it, and certainly I did not know anyone like them–as far as I could tell; for it is also possible that their comic, bug-eyed terror contained the truth concerning a terror by which I hoped never to be engulfed.” (492)  After 25 pages of these youthful memories, Baldwin moves straight into cultural analysis.  I will just point out a couple highlights.

He contrasts In the Heat of the Night and The Birth of a Nation, seeing them as similar films that simply shift some of the roles and do so in ways that strain credulity, considering the context of racial conflict and violence surrounding the film.  “In The Birth of a Nation, the Sheriff would have been an officer of the Klan.  The widow would, secretly, have been sewing Klan insignia.  The murdered man would have been a carpetbagger.  Sam would have been a Klan deputy.  The troublesome poor whites would have been mulattoes.  And Virgil Tibbs would have been the hunted, not the hunter.  It is impossible to pretend that this state of affairs has really altered: a black man, in any case, had certainly best not believe everything he sees in the movies.” (521)

He was harsh on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, the film about a successful black doctor who wants to marry a white woman.  The story climaxes with the acceptance of the parents of this union.  Spencer Tracy plays the liberal white father who is forced to take seriously his views on racial equality.  He was troubled by the film’s inclusion of a stock figure of American film, “the loyal nigger maid.” (532) This figure existed in films for decades and even finds its way into this progressive deception of interracial coupling.  He also found the portrayal of the physicians parents unrealistic, both in their condensation of his upward mobility.  In reality, their pride would have been more conspicuous and the lack of it suggested a misunderstanding of “the wonder doctor’s eminence, and the effect that this would have on his parents.” (535)  Worst, however, is the quick exile of the couple from the United States.  This was a failure to follow through on the challenge of the film.  An interracial marriage is acceptable to society and to the parents, as long as the couple leaves as soon as possible.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Lawrence of Arabia justified empire.

Baldwin discusses his work on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, although this was a failed effort, Spike Lee used this script as the basis of his film on Malcolm X.  He talks about how difficult it is to make the transition from novels to film and reveals anxiety over the loss of creative autonomy when working with a group, a necessity in film making.

The Exorcist terrified Baldwin for it told the true story about how we are surrounded by demons.  “For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror.  It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself.  The devil has no need of any dogma–though he can use them all–nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention.  He does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do.” (571)

I found this to be a wonderful and engaging book.  It makes us ponder the power of film over how we look at the world and a reminder that the real world is much worse or much better than the crude simulacra we have managed to construct.

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.

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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.

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.