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

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

noname

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

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

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

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

Watts Riots

Watts Riots

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

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

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

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

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.

fire

“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.