James Baldwin

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Wilfrid Sheed (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: "The Twin Urges of James Baldwin," in The Good Word & Other Words, 1978, pp. 194-200.

[In the following essay, which was published in 1977 in Commonweal, Sheed complains that the tone of Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work sounds false and that the subject of movies does not support the book's religious undertone.]

When James Baldwin goes wrong (as he has taken to doing lately), it usually seems less a failure of talent than of policy. Of all our writers he is one of the most calculating. Living his life on several borderlines, he has learned to watch his step: driven at the same time by an urge to please and a mission to scold.

In his early days, the twin urges came together to make very good policy indeed. White liberals craved a spanking and they got a good one. But then too many amateurs joined in the fun, all the Raps and Stokelys and Seales, until even liberal guilt gave out. And now the times seem to call for something a little different. The Devil Finds Work shows Baldwin groping for it—not just because he's a hustler, at least as writers go, but because he has a genuine quasi-religious vocation. In the last pages he richly describes a church ceremony he went through as a boy, akin to attaining the last mansions of mysticism: and you have to do something after that. Your work, even your atheism, will always taste of religion.

And this is the first problem we come across in the new book. Because the subject is movies, and most movies simply do not accommodate such religious passion. So his tone sounds false. He may or may not feel that strongly about movies (it's hard to believe), but sincerity isn't the issue. A preacher doesn't have to feel what he says every Sunday: rhetoric is an art, and Baldwin practices it very professionally. But the sermon's subject must be at least in the same ball park as the style, or you get bathos, the sermon that fails to rise.

Since Baldwin is too intelligent not to notice this, we get an uneasy compromise between old habits and new possibilities. The folks pays him to preach (to use his own self-mocking language), so he turns it on mechanically, almost absentmindedly, lapsing at times into incoherence, as if he's fallen asleep at the microphone. But since getting mad at the movies is only one step removed from getting mad at the funnies, he escapes periodically in two directions, one bad and one good.

The bad one is to change the subject outrageously in order to raise the emotional ante: thus there are several references to how white people like to burn babies that totally stumped me. A prophet should disturb all levels of opinion and must therefore be something of a precisionist. But this stuff passes harmlessly overhead. Blacks have been known to kill babies too, in Biafra and elsewhere, but nobody said they like it. People apt to be reading Baldwin at all have long since graduated from this level of rant. He may write for the masses, but he is read by the intelligentsia.

But his second escape at times almost makes up for the first: which is simply to talk about movies according to their kind, with amusement, irony, and his own quirky insights. More writers should do this: we were raised as much in the movie house as the library, and it's pretentious to go on blaming it all on Joyce. In Baldwin's case a movie case history is doubly...

(This entire section contains 2604 words.)

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valuable because his angle is so solitary, shaped by no gang and deflected by no interpretation, and shared only with a white woman teacher, herself a solitary. Nobody ever saw these movies quite the way he did, or ever will.

Unfortunately the childhood section is tantalizingly short, and the adult's voice horns in too often, but some fine things come through: in particular the way the young Baldwin had to convert certain white actors into blacks, even as white basketball fans reverse the process today, in order to identify. Thus, Henry Fonda's walk made him black, and Joan Crawford's resemblance to a woman in the local grocery store made her black, while Bette Davis's popping eyes made her not only black but practically Jimmy himself.

This is vintage Baldwin: and if he lacks confidence in his softer notes he shouldn't (his sentimental notes are another matter). He does not automatically have to lecture us on every topic he writes about. In this more urbane mode, his racial intrusions often make good sense. For instance, in checking A Tale of Two Cities against what he has learned in the streets he perhaps inadvertently suggests to this reader, at least, how Dickens might have veered away from what he had learned in the streets. In fact, Baldwin's whole treatment of this story suggests a potential literary critic, if he'd calm down for a minute.

This section ends with a valuable addition to Baldwin's early autobiography: a corpus to which one had thought no further additions were possible. He discovers the theater and loses his religion almost at the same moment. The reality of stage actors playing Macbeth is enough to blow away even that encounter with the Holy Ghost. And as if to symbolize this, he literally tiptoes out of church one Sunday and heads downtown for a show: taking, as he says in another context, his church with him.

If stage acting could transplant God, it utterly demolished screen acting for him. "Canada Lee [in Native Son] was Bigger Thomas, but he was also Canada Lee: his physical presence, like the physical presence of Paul Robeson, gave me the right to live. He was not at the mercy of my imagination as he would have been, on the screen: he was on the stage, in flesh and blood, and I was, therefore, at the mercy of his imagination." If you're raised an incarnational Christian (and it's hard to image another kind), flesh and blood can easily become food and drink to you. Henceforth in even the silliest play, the actors' presence would thrust reality through at Baldwin; conversely, only the greatest of actors could insert physicality into a movie, and that fleetingly.

His own course was set. Embodied reality, thick, hot, and tangible, is Baldwin's grail, even jerking him loose from his own rhetoric. So he became a man of the stage, dealing with real people and not their images; and he wrote some of his best work for it—including my own favorite, The Amen Corner, in which he uses the stage to exorcise the Church once and for all. Only to come out more religious than ever—only at random now, passionately foraging for Good and Evil in race, in sex, even in Norman Mailer.

Perhaps, then, not the ideal man to write about movies. The magic element which is their particular genius is precisely what maddens his fundamentalist soul the most. Like Pascal at the real theater, he sees nothing but lies up there. Although he seems to know something about the craft of movies, it doesn't interest or charm him in the least. His book has no pictures, which is unusual in a film book, but quite appropriate for this one. Because even the stills would be lies.

Specifically lies about race. And here we have a right to expect the latest news from Baldwin and not a rehash. I assume he is still a black spokesman in good standing. Although his book is disarmingly datelined from France, which is nearer the pied-noir country, there must be a victims' network of information which keeps him up to date. But his personal witness, his strength, has begun to sound tentative. He talks of being terrorized in some Southern town, but he can't remember what year or, apparently, the distinction between one town and another. "It is hard to be accurate concerning the pace of my country's progress." Very hard from St. Paul de Vence. We can get fresher testimony than that every day of the week.

Anyhow for Baldwin there is still just something called the South, unchanging and indivisible, and the liberals down there might as well pack up shop. It's a bleak picture and if Baldwin sees any lift in the clouds he either isn't telling or he rejects it as a dangerous illusion, an invitation to drop one's guard. For instance, in the dopey film In the Heat of the Night, there is a scene where the white sheriff humbles himself to carry Sidney Poitier's bags, and Baldwin sees for a moment something "choked and moving" in this, only to round on it sternly as a dangerous daydream. "White Americans have been encouraged to keep on dreaming, and black Americans have been alerted to the necessity of waking up."

So paranoia, as before, is his message to blacks, and a white reviewer is in no position to question it. Since no improvement is to be trusted, the implicit solution is revolution, and Baldwin talks airily of seizing property as if this were still the slaphappy sixties when all seemed possible. For the moment, revolutionary rant seems as remote as the evangelism that used to pacify blacks: but again, Baldwin isn't quite calling for it, only toying with it. His new position is still very much in the works.

Meanwhile, offscreen, geographical distance may have obscured some of the social nuances Baldwin usually pounces on so swiftly and surely. He talks, for instance, of whites being terrified of blacks, and blacks being enraged by whites, as if this blanketed the case. But one of the odd things that happened in the sixties was that the blacks became largely de-mystified, for better or worse. By accepting such drugstore rebels as Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael at their own valuation, we let ourselves in for one of the greatest letdowns in memory. The black enigma was transformed overnight into the black chatterbox. Although, as Claude Brown once said privately, these men could not have rounded up ten followers in Harlem, they told us they were leaders, so we took them for leaders. And we were relieved to find they were not the brooding giants that Baldwin had conjured, but just average publicity hounds.

Because of this comical misunderstanding, many whites ceased being impressed by blacks altogether, except such as carried knives, and a new psychic alignment occurred that Baldwin should come home and tell us about. The problem now is not so much fear as deepening indifference. Baldwin still writes as though our souls were so hag-ridden by race that even our innocent entertainments reflect it. And he gives us the old castration folderol as if it were piping hot. But the news I hear is different. Many whites now go for years without thinking about blacks at all. The invisible man has returned. And as de facto segregation continues to settle like mold, his future seems assured.

On the black side of the fence, one simply has to take him on trust. Young blacks today seem more confident than Baldwin's prototypes but it might only take a few full-time bigots plus some ad hoc recruits—as in South Boston—to chip the paint off this. What one can question, by the current division of racist labor, is his account of the white psyche. Because here again he simply says nothing that a contemporary reader can use. His white men sound at times exactly like Susan Brownmiller's rapists, whom that author also transformed into Everyman, and in fact like all the hyperaggressive bullies you've ever met: and these surely come in all colors.

Of such movies as Death Wish or Straw Dogs or the worst of Clint Eastwood (if such there be) or black exploitation films—in short all the movies that validate bullying on one side or another and make it chic—he says nothing except, tantalizingly, of the latter that they "make black experience irrelevant and obsolete" (his own, or everyone's?). If by chance he has not seen the others, in particular Death Wish, the mugger-killing wet dream, he has wandered unarmed into the one subject Americans really know about.

Baldwin's weakness as a prophet is to suppose that the rest of us experience life as intensely as he does; and his strength is roughly the same. If his overall sociology is suspect right now, his ability to enlarge a small emotion so that we can all see it is not. And this perhaps rescues him even as a writer about movies.

Throughout, his eyes swarm greedily over the screen, scavenging for small truths. And although brotherhood epics like In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were flailed insensible by white critics, leaving precious little to pick on, in each case he finds some scene or other even richer in phoniness, or closer to truth, than we suspected. For instance, in the latter film, he has a passage on a successful black son's relation to his father that probably no one else would have thought of. While for the former, he provides such a droll plot summary that the absurdity jumps a dimension.

He is also good on The Defiant Ones and Lawrence of Arabia though here one senses that he is not saying all he knows. He talks at one point of the seismographic shudder Americans experience at the word "homosexual," but he handles it pretty much like a hot potato himself: talking around and around it without quite landing on it. Again this is policy (the word homosexual does go off like a fire alarm. reminding us to put up our dukes) but in this case, I think, too much policy. When Baldwin holds back something it distorts his whole manner. The attempt to seduce is too slick. And this, just as much as his compulsion to preach when there's nothing to preach about, diverts him from his real lover, truth. He is not seeing those movies as an average black man, but as a unique exile, and the pose is beginning to wear thin.

So, the tension remains. He has been away a long time and I'm sure he has a story to tell about that, perhaps his best one yet. It is hard to believe that in Paris and Istanbul his mind was really on American movies: but they might have been something in the attic that he wanted to get rid of. And the attempt is worthwhile if only for the sake of some sprightly lines, to wit, "J. Edgar Hoover, history's most highly paid (and most utterly useless) voyeur," and random bangs and flashes. He even talks several times of human weakness (as opposed to white weakness)—including his own: which suggests that the hanging judge may be ready to come down from his perch and mix it with us.

But for now he remains up there wagging his finger sternly at the converted and the bored. And with so many clergymen, he too often deduces Reality solely by intelligence in this book, and while he has more than enough of that quality, it tends to fly off in bootless directions unless anchored by touch. He is right to love the stage. His art needs real bodies. But anyone who sees reality as clearly as Baldwin does must be tempted at times to run like the wind; and perhaps, for just a little while, he's done that. After all, that's what movies are for—even for those preachers who denounce them the loudest.


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James Baldwin 1924–1987

(Full name: James Arthur Baldwin) American novelist, essayist, playwright, scriptwriter, short story writer, and children's book author.

The following entry presents an overview of Baldwin's career. See also James Baldwin Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 15, 17.

Baldwin is considered one of the most prestigious writers in contemporary American literature. Since the publication of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Baldwin has exposed the racial and sexual polarization of American society and challenged readers to confront and resolve these differences. Baldwin's influence and popularity reached their peak during the 1960s, when he was regarded by many as the leading literary spokesperson of the civil rights movement. His novels, essays, and other writings attest to his premise that the African-American experience, as an example of suffering and abuse, represents a universal symbol of human conflict.

Biographical Information

Baldwin was born in New York City's Harlem on August 2, 1924, the illegitimate child of Emma Berdis Jones. Due to his mother's inaccessibility and his stepfather's stern and remote manner, Baldwin felt isolated and retreated into the world of literature. Baldwin attended school in Harlem where one of his teachers was the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who encouraged Baldwin's involvement in the school's literary club. Baldwin continued developing his interest in writing until undergoing a religious conversion when he was fourteen years old. Baldwin then turned his attention to preaching, but at seventeen, left the church and his home. Baldwin continued supporting his family financially by working in a defense plant and a meat-packing plant in New Jersey. When his stepfather died in 1943, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village to pursue his literary dreams. It was during this period that Richard Wright befriended Baldwin and encouraged him to write Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin's highly acclaimed first novel. Baldwin also wrote book reviews to help support himself even though he felt limited by editors who wanted book reviews only by African Americans. Unhappy in America, Baldwin moved in 1948 to Paris, where he found a blurring of racial lines and greater acceptance of his homosexuality. Baldwin continued writing fiction and essays, eventually settling in St. Paul de Vence, the French countryside town where he lived until the end of his life.

Major Works

Baldwin's novels tackle personal issues in his life as well as larger social issues, including race relations and sexuality. Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is a semi-autobiographical account of Baldwin's adolescence. The main character, a thirteen-year-old boy named John, is saved in the Baptist church where his stepfather is a preacher. As John undergoes conversion, his stepfather and the rest of the characters recall their past sins, struggling with questions of faith as well. In Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin moves on from adolescence to confront his homosexuality. Set in Paris, this controversial novel tells the story of an ill-fated love affair between a white American student and an Italian bartender. In Baldwin's Another Country (1962), the protagonist is Rufus Scott, a jazz musician who makes friends with a group of whites. The novel traces Scott's relationships with his best friend Vivaldo and his white lover Leona. There are further subplots that trace the sexual interactions of the other homosexual and heterosexual characters. The novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), tells the story of Leo Proudhammer, a famous black artist who becomes trapped in his public persona, losing his personal identity and convictions along the way. If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) is about Fonny Hunts, another artistic and intellectual protagonist. The story is narrated by Tish, Hunts's nineteen-year-old fiancee who is pregnant with his child. Hunts is imprisoned after he is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman. In the end, Hunts finds his salvation in love and in the birth of his son. Baldwin used essays to examine race relations. In his collection of essays, The Fire Next Time (1963), he argues that the lives and futures of whites and African Americans are inextricably intertwined. Although he respected Malcolm X, Baldwin was opposed to Malcolm's ideas about separation of the races and the superiority of African Americans. Baldwin's essays underwent a change in position with No Name in the Street (1972), which asserts the independence of African Americans and the possible necessity of violence against whites. In this book, Baldwin also asserts that an African American—by virtue of his powerlessness—could never be racist.

Critical Reception

Critics often discuss the fire-and-brimstone nature of Baldwin's prose even though his relationship to Christianity remains ambiguous. For part of his career during the early 1960s, Baldwin was considered "the" voice for African-Americans. However, Baldwin never intended to be a spokesman for his race. He saw himself as an intellectual who explored ideas and did not espouse a certain message. This disappointed many readers and reviewers, who dismissed Baldwin because he appeared opposed to the ideals of African-American liberation. Baldwin's ideas were seldom straightforward, and critics often accused him of espousing conflicting ideas. However, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. asserted, "As an intellectual, Baldwin was at his best when he explored his own equivocal sympathies and clashing allegiances." Many critics—including younger African American artists—accused Baldwin of hating himself, African Americans, and capitulating to whites. Others saw more subtlety in Baldwin's work, viewing his writing as a contribution to intellectual discourse on the subject of race relations. Reviewers often criticized Baldwin's fiction for its lack of artistic merit. Hilton Als argued, "It was in Baldwin's essays, unencumbered by the requirements of narrative form, character, and incident, that his voice was most fully realized." However, others—including Andrew Shin and Barbara Judson—disagreed. Shin and Judson said, "The novels, however, despite their poor critical reception, are interesting because they rarely capitulate to the urge for a simplified rhetoric that characterizes the essays of the early 1970s, persistently retaining the unresolved tension and complexity of a writer—a gay black writer no less—divided between his role as a popular spokesman for the race and his role as an artist whose imaginative life encompasses aesthetic standards that may alienate a popular audience." Baldwin's homosexuality also was a sticking point with many who reviewed his work. Many saw his sexuality as an attack on black masculinity. Baldwin's supporters even turned on him after he changed his position, recanting his previous work and realigning his opinions to mirror mainstream African American discourse. Nevertheless, many reviewers still found ambivalence in Baldwin's fiction in his portrayal of African Americans. Following the publication of Baldwin's collected works, The Price of the Ticket (1985), critics now find his early essays an important contribution to the discourse of race relations in America.

James Baldwin with Quincy Troupe (interview date 1987)

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SOURCE: "The Last Interview," in James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe, Simon and Schuster, 1989, pp. 186-212.

[In the following interview, Baldwin discusses his relationships, his writing, other writers, and America.]

[Baldwin]: It all comes back now.

[Troupe]: When did you first meet Miles?

Oh, a long time ago, on West Seventy-seventh Street at his house.

What were the circumstances?

I'm trying to remember, I was living on West End Avenue then, early sixties. What was I doing at his home? I hadn't met him, but I admired him very much. But I think I met him before that. Yes, I remember. I first met him in the Village, when he was playing at the Café Bohemia. Then I met him at Club Beverly, on Seventy-fifty Street. But that was a long time ago, too, But, I'm trying to remember what I was doing at Miles's house. I don't remember. Anyway, it was a Sunday afternoon and Miles had invited me, he was having a kind of brunch. So there I was, there in Miles's presence. It was, at first, overwhelming, because I'm really shy. I remember there being a whole lot of people. Miles was at the other end of the room. At first he was upstairs, invisible. Then he was downstairs talking to someone he knew as Moonbeam. Still, he was visible, but barely. Finally he was standing in the room, visible, and so I went over to him. Miles looked like a little boy at the time, he looked about ten. So there I was trying to figure out what to say. Finally I told him how much I like and admired him. I told him I like his music very much and he said something like, "Are you sure?" He kind of smiled. Then he talked with me. Then we sort of knew each other. So the ice had been broken, so that ah, you know, how it is with friends, though I don't know if he thinks of me as a friend. I don't know what other people see. But I could see that there was something in Miles and me which was very much alike. I can see much of myself in Miles. And yet, I don't know what it is, can't explain it, but I think it has something to do with extreme vulnerability.

Extreme vulnerability? In what sense?

First of all, you know, with what we look like, being black, which means that in special ways we've been maltreated. See, we evolve a kind of mask, kind of persona, you know, to protect us from, ah, all these people who are carnivorous and they think you're helpless. Miles does it one way, I do it another.

How do you do it?

I keep people away by seeming not to be afraid of them, by moving fast.

And how does he do it?

In his language, by saying "bitch." Miles said when he saw me signing an autograph, "Why don't you tell the motherfuckers to get lost? What the fuck makes you think I think you can read?" I never saw him very often, but there was always a kind of shorthand between us, that nothing would ever change between us. Like Miles has come to visit me, here in St. Paul on a number of occasions when he's over here in France, playing. And you know Miles doesn't visit people. And even when he visits, he never says much, he doesn't say anything. Not all the time, however; it depends on how the spirit moves him.

So he just shows.

He just shows up here, knocks at the door. Sometimes he calls, but he may just show.

When was the last time?

A couple of summers ago.

He called and said, "I'm coming."

No. I think what happened, he was staying in Nice, so his French manager called and asked me to come and have dinner and cocktails. It was a nice night. And afterwards, he came back here.

He came out here?

Yeah. We sat around and talked about nothing.

You think he came because he feels safe with you.

Yeah. We talked about nothing and everything and we would have a little sip and we would talk about whatever. But I do the same with some people I know.

Why do you think he feels this way with you, since he's afraid of writers?

I don't think Miles thinks of me as a writer. He knows I'm a writer, but he doesn't look at me that way. He doesn't look at me that way at all. I think he thinks of me as a brother, you know? In many ways I have the same difficulty as he has, in terms of the private and public life. In terms of the legend. It's difficult to be a legend. It's hard for me to recognize me. You spend a lot of time trying to avoid it. A lot of the time I've been through so many of the same experiences Miles has gone through. It's really something, to be a legend, unbearable. I could see it had happened to Miles. Again, it's unbearable, the way the world treats you is unbearable, and especially if you're black.

What is that?

It's unbearable because time is passing and you are not your legend, but you're trapped in it. Nobody will let you out of it. Except other people who know what it is. But very few people have experienced it, know about it, and I think that can drive you mad; I know it can. It had a terrible effect on him and it had a terrible effect on me. And you don't see it coming.

You don't see it coming? Explain why?

No way to see it.

How do you realize it?

You have to be lucky. You have to have friends. I think at bottom you have to be serious. No one can point it out to you; you have to see it yourself. That's the only way you can act on it. And when it arrives it's a great shock.

To find out?

It's a great shock to realize that you've been so divorced. So divorced from who you think you are—from who you really are. Who you think you are, you're not at all. The only thing is that Miles has got his horn and I've got my typewriter. We are both angry men.

I want to ask you what you were trapped in and how did you come to see it. I mean, did you come through friends?

I know what you're saying but it's hard to answer, it's hard.

I know it's hard.

I don't know how to answer that.

But you saw yourself trapped?

I saw myself trapped. I think it happened to Miles, too.

What did you think you were, before you knew?

Ah, that's even more interesting. I don't know who I thought I was. I was a witness, I thought. I was a very despairing witness, though too. What I was actually doing was trying to avoid a certain estrangement, perhaps, an estrangement between myself and my generation. It was virtually complete, the estrangement was, in terms of what I might have thought and expected—my theories. About what I might have hoped—I'm talking now in terms of one's function as an artist. And the country itself being black and trying to deal with that.

Why do you think it occurred. That estrangement between you generation and the country?

Well, because I was right. That's a strange way to put it.

That's not strange, at least not to me.

I was right. I was right about what was happening in the country. What was about to happen to all of us really, one way or the other. And the choices people would have to make. And watching people make them and denying them at the same time. I began to feel more and more homeless in terms of the whole relationship between France and me and America, and me has always been a little painful, you know. Because my family's in America I will always go back. It couldn't have been a question in my mind unless it absolutely really came to that. But in the meantime you keep the door open and the price of keeping the door open was to actually be, in a sense, victimized by my own legend. You know, I was trying to tell the truth and it takes a long time to realize that you can't—that there's no point in going to the mat, so to speak, no point in going to Texas again. There's no point in saying this again. It's been said, and it's been said, and it's been said. It's been heard and not heard. You are a broken motor.

A broken motor?

Yes. You're a running motor and you're repeating, you're repeating, you're repeating, and it causes a breakdown, lessening of will power. And sooner or later your will gives out, it has to. You're lucky if it is a physical matter. Most times it's spiritual. See, all this involves hiding from something else—not dealing with how lonely you are. And of course, at the very bottom it involves the terror of every artist confronted with what he or she has to do, you know, the next work. And everybody, in one way or another, and to some extent, tries to avoid it. And you avoid it more when you get older than you do when you're younger; still there's something terrifying about doing the work. Something like that. But it happened to Miles sooner than it happened to me. I think for me it was lucky that it was physical, because it could have been mental.

It could have been mental?

Yes. It could have been mental debilitation instead of my present physical one. I prefer the physical to the mental. Does that make sense?

It makes good sense, it makes fantastic sense. Now let me ask you something else. Now with Miles, you both were born close to each other?

Just about. I think I'm a year older. I was born in '24.

He was born in '26. So then, probably both of you, black men, geniuses, born close together, probably see the world very similar—you through your typewriter and him through his horn. Both vulnerable. So when you met you were brothers because you expected to meet each other or were you looking for each other?

Yes. We were looking for each other. Neither he nor I would have said it that way but we were; we knew that the moment we saw each other.

You were hoping?

Oh yes. That's why I was watching him before he watched me, you know.

But he knew you.

He knew about me. Yes.

He knew you when he saw you.

There's no question about that at all. We knew each other at once.

That's wonderful.

Yes it is, discovering someone very much like yourself. It was wonderful.

And that's a wonderful connection. Because he's also estranged somewhat from his musical generation.

He has to be, at least it makes sense to me that he would be, because he's always trying to be on the cutting edge of his art. That's certainly true for me.

In the windows of your eyes, you and Miles remind me of each other. It's a certain distinctive juju.

Shit. I love that.

It's a certain distinctive juju that in Miles you recognize and you see a face that you have not seen before. And when I look at you and since I've always looked at you, I've always felt that. A certain juju, witch doctor, priest, high priest look of timelessness or representative of a certain tribe, point of view, mysticism, magic.

That would cover my father certainly. He was not really my father, because I was born out of wedlock, but that's the difference, my father. He did give me something. Don't you see, he taught me how to fight. He taught me how to fight. But it would be better to say he taught me what to fight for. I was only fighting for safety, or for money at first. Then I fought to make you look to me. Because I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself, and myself only.

So when you were younger, you didn't have the pen as a weapon, as a defense, a shield. How did you fight then?

Any way I could.

What would you do?

It's hard to remember. The pulpit was part of it, but that came later.

Before the pulpit.

It was the streets.

How did you fight? Any way you could?

Well, if you wanted to beat me up, okay. And, say, you were bigger than I was, you could do it, you could beat me, but you gonna have to do it every day.

Every day? Because you would fight to the death.

You'd have to beat me up every single day. So then the question becomes which one of us would get tired first. And I knew it wouldn't be me.

You would always fight.

Oh, yes, indeed. So then the other persons would have to begin to think, and to be bugged by this kid he had to beat up every day. And some days perhaps he just didn't feel like doing it. But he would have to, yeah, because he said he was going to do it. So then come beat me up. But of course something happened to him, something has to happen to him—because someone beating someone else up is not so easy either. Because I would be standing in the schoolyard with a lead pipe as a deterrent. So, you know, eventually, it was just too dangerous. People began to leave me alone. Some of the big boys who were my friends got together and decided that they had to protect me, you know? So after that I was really protected. Because it was funny to them after a while. But that's what happened. That was the beginning of it and then later on it was cops, you know. It became just a nightmare. Especially cops. I knew that they knew that I was seven or eight or nine and they were just having fun with me. They wanted me to beg. And I couldn't beg, so I got my ass kicked. But I learned a lot, a lot about them. I learned there were very few who were humane; they just wanted you to say what they wanted you to say. They wanted to be confirmed in something by you. By your face, by your terror of them.

What about the pulpit, the idea of the pulpit? Would you talk about it as an idea?

That's a very complex idea really. I joined the Church, but my joining it was very complex, though I meant it, the purely religious part that is, the spiritual part. In a way that was very important to me, that whole time in the pulpit, because it gave me a kind of distance that was kind of respected; that was a reason I was in the pulpit, to put distance between people and myself. I began to see my people, so to speak, both ethnically and otherwise. And in the time that I was in the pulpit I learned a lot about my father. And later on, I thought, perhaps, I'd moved into the pulpit in order to arrest him. Because I thought that he had to be arrested, had to be stopped. He was having a terrible effect on everybody in the family. I could go as far as to say I thought he was crazy. But I knew with myself and the pulpit I cut a lot of his power. He couldn't fight me in that arena. He fought me, but he couldn't fight me in that arena. And I say during that time that it taught me a lot about him and myself and about the people who were in the congregation, whom I couldn't lie to. And that was why I left the pulpit.

Is that where you started to learn about the truth? I mean you knew about the truth when you were talking about when you knew you weren't going to give in.

I couldn't.

So then in the pulpit you learned another truth. And in the writing you take it

I knew that was where I had to go. That I was not going to become another fat preacher, you know? I was not going to, ah, lie to my congregation. I was not allowed to do that. I couldn't believe in what I had anymore. I didn't believe in the Christian Church anymore, not the way I had; I no longer believed in its spirituality, its healing powers.

Oh? Was it the Christian Church that disturbed you?

The way people treated each other. In the Church and outside, but especially in the Church.

How did they treat each other?

Well, they were so self-righteous. They didn't come with real deep love, for example. The people in the Church were very cruel about many things.

How old were you when you were involved in the Church?

Fourteen, fifteen.

Okay. I want you now to talk about two extraordinary women that your brother David told me about. Jeanne Fauré, who used to own the house you live in now, and Tintine. I want you, at first, if you can, to talk to me about how you came to this house. And how you came to receive the medal of honor.

Oh, that's a long story.

I know. But can you talk about it, if you can, how she came to accept you, why she accepted you, and what it was that you saw in each other?

I came here to St. Paul in 1970. It was Malcolm X's and Martin Luther King's death really. After Martin's death I sort of wandered and indeed didn't know where to go. I was in Turkey for a while, then I ended up here. I didn't want to leave; I had to. I ended up across the street from this house in a hotel. I came in the wintertime, nineteen years ago. Anyway, I and a friend of mine came down to St. Paul from Paris. We didn't have anything because it was terribly expensive at the hotel and so we settled here because at the time it also served as a roominghouse. Later I got sick, you know, and much of my family came over to see me. I rented almost all of the house. So I thought why not buy it. It was forty-three, forty-six thousand and I had been very ill so I didn't know how much longer I had to live. So I bought it. But Madame Fauré had offered to sell it to me.

This was earlier?

Yes. When I first came, nineteen-some odd years ago.

What was wrong with you, can you remember what was the illness?

Nobody knew. Nobody knew. But anyway, I needed some money to buy the house. That occupied me for a while that occupied me considerably. But I was just busy working. And I got to know Jeanne Fauré, who was a very strange lady, solitary, very strange.

How would you describe her strangeness?

In her solitude. She was a kind of legend, she was very old, you know, quite. And anyway, she and I had very little in common, it seemed to me, except I liked her very much. She was a refugee from Algeria, raised in Algeria, I believe, and then the French had to leave. And she was very bitter about that. That meant we had very little in common politically. And very little in common in what I could see in any other way. And yet there was something else beneath that made her my friend. She decided to sell the house to me; she refused to sell it to anybody else.

She decided to sell the house to you? Why do you think she picked you? Do you know to this day?


Was it spiritual?



I wasn't the best candidate; in fact, I was the worst. Something in her, I don't know. We also had a very stormy relationship.


Politically speaking we did. In many other ways we did, too. She knew something I didn't know. She knew about Europe, she knew about civilization, she knew about responsibility. A million things that I as an American would not know, that were alien to me. And I was very slow to learn these things. In fact, it was a very expensive lesson, one that I haven't learned entirely just yet. But she was a valuable kind of guide and a kind of protection. And Tintine Roux was the old lady that ran La Colombe D'Or, which is a world-famous restaurant and inn. She became my guardian. I never lived in a small town before, which is not so easy, and she protected me. I could come in and have lunch at her restaurant. And I didn't realize it at first, that she had picked herself to be my protector.

What do you think she saw in you?

I don't know.

What do you think?

I knew Tintine liked me. Still she must have thought I was crazy, you know, at least a little strange, in any event. But both these women liked me. It was as thought they recognized where I came from. That I was a peasant, and I am. But I've only found this out over time.

Why do you say that?

I'm a peasant because of where I really come from, you know. My background, my father, my mother, the line. Something of the peasant must be in all of my family. And that's where Madame Fauré and Tintine come from, too. And the color of my skin didn't add into it at all. Both these women were watching something else besides my color. And they protected me and loved me. They're both dead now and I miss them both terribly. Because with Jeanne I truly learned a lot from her, from her European optic in regard to others; but she also had an optic that came from Algeria. What I liked about it was that she was willing to be my guide; willing and unwilling: in fact, she was a hard guide. But mostly she was willing. And so it seemed like she was my guide to something else.


To a way of life, to a potential civilization she had seen only from a height.

Didn't they know about your fame?

No, not really. They'd heard of me. But beyond that, nothing.

You were comfortable with that.

Yes. Because my fame did not get in the way because by the time they knew it didn't make any difference. It was just one more aspect of this crazy kid. That's the best way to put it. They were my guides, and they were very good guides.

David told me a story about an incident that happened when her brother died, and Madame Fauré picked you to be at the head of the funeral procession.

He told you that? Well, she was the last of kin and she made me lead her brother Louis's funeral procession. Yes she did. She put her arm in mine and I had to lead. I had to. It was an incredible scene. I had to lead the funeral procession with her or she with me. It was fascinating.

I think it's a great image. Tell me about it. How did you feel?

I was in a state of shock. I didn't know what to do. And of course the people of St. Paul were shocked, too. This was in either 1974 or '75. But I was in a state of shock. I didn't quite know what to think; in fact, the town was in a state of shock.

What was the reason?

Well, they knew who I was by then, of course, but they couldn't understand why I was representing the family. When we were at the cemetery everybody had to say goodbye to me, too. Because I was standing there with her at the head of the family, under the gates of the cemetery. Because what it meant, symbolically speaking, is that I was the next in line, when she died. That's what it meant.

Do you think that could have happened in America?

I can't imagine where. I really cannot imagine where.

So in a sense that was a comforting, human experience. A remarkable spiritual connection, bond.

A very great thing, very great. At least for me. I want to write about it one day. Yes, sometime I'll have to talk about it.

When you received the Legion of Honor of France? Who did you take with you to the ceremony?

David came over. Jeanne Fauré was there and my housekeeper Valerie was there too.

Why did you pick them?

Because they had seen me through so much and I'd promised to take Jeanne and Valerie to Paris one day. Jeanne had been to Paris but she hadn't been there for a long time. I thought that would be nice for her to go. So I took them and because I owed it to them, but especially to Jeanne Fauré. Because she'd seen me through.

And how did she feel?

She was very proud. She didn't say anything to me; she never said much to me about it. But I could see it—how proud she was—in her face, in her eyes.

What year was this?

Last year, 1986.

Was that right before she died?

Yes. She died in the winter of 1987.

What month was that?

I received the award in June, and she died in January 1987.

And how did you feel with her being there?

I was very pleased. It was very nice. It was something that gave her a great pleasure and that meant a lot to me.

I thought that was a great story when he told me. I said I was definitely going to ask you about that. Because I thought that was fundamentally fantastic and so fundamentally, in a sense, spiritually right; but it's something which you don't expect to happen.

No, you don't, not at all.

Who gave you the award?

The president, the president of France, François Mitterrand. The ceremony was at the Élysée in Paris.

What other people received the award that year?

Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein and me. It was a very nice ceremony, very nice.

Okay. Let's change the subject and talk about some writers. What is your opinion of Amiri Baraka?

I remember the first time I met Amiri Baraka, who was then Le Roi Jones. I was doing The Amen Corner and he was a student at Howard University. I liked him right away. He was a pop-eyed little boy, a poet. He showed me a couple of his poems. I liked them very much. And then he came to New York a couple of years later. He came to New York when I came back to New York from Paris. And by this time I knew the business. I'd been through the fucking business by that time. I was a survivor. And I remember telling him that his agent wanted him to become the young James Baldwin. But I told him, "You're not the young James Baldwin. There's only one James Baldwin and you are Le Roi Jones and there's only one Le Roi Jones. Don't let them run this game on us, you know? You're Le Roi Jones, I'm James Baldwin. And we're going to need each other." That's all I said. He didn't believe it then but time took care of that.

He believes it now?

Yes, he knows it now.

What person has hurt you the most recently?

Ishmael Reed.


Because he is a great poet and it seemed to be beneath him, his anger and his contempt for me, which were both real and not real. He ignored me for so long and then he called me a cocksucker, you know what I mean? It's boring. But I always did say he was a great poet, a great writer. But that does not mean I can put up with being insulted by him every time I see him, which I won't.

What do you think about Toni Morrison?

Toni's my ally and it's really probably too complex to get into. She's a black woman writer, which in the public domain makes it more difficult to talk about.

Have you read Beloved?

Not yet. She sent it to me but I haven't read it yet.

What do you think are her gifts?

Her gift is in allegory. Tar Baby is an allegory. In fact all her novels are. But they're hard to talk about in public. That's where you get in trouble because her books and allegory are not always what it seems to be about. I was too occupied with my recent illness to deal with Beloved. But in general she's taken a myth, or she takes what seems to be a myth, and turns it into something else. I don't know how to put this—Beloved could be about the story of truth. She's taken a whole lot of things and turned them upside down. Some of them—you recognize the truth in it. I think that Toni's very painful to read.




Because it's always or most times a horrifying allegory; but you recognize that it works. But you don't really want to march through it. Sometimes people have a lot against Toni, but she's got the most believing story of everybody—this rather elegant matron, whose intentions really are serious and, according to some people, lethal.

I remember you saying that Alex Haley's Roots had another title. What was it called first?

It was called Before the Anger. But let me change the subject and just say this. It's very important for white Americans to believe their version of the black experience. That's why they have white and black commentators telling all those lies about us. You see, it's very important for the nigger to suffer. Therefore, they, white people, can feel guilty. Therefore, they can do something about it in their own good time. Let me again explain further. Once, after I published Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room, my publisher, Knopf, told me I was a "Negro writer" and that I "reached a certain audience." So, they told me, "you cannot afford to alienate that audience. This new book will ruin your career because you're not writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before and we won't publish this book as a favor to you."

As a favor to you?

So I told them fuck you. My editor, whose name I won't mention here, is dead now, poor man. Later on, Bennett Cerf and I tangled too, but that was about a Christmas boycott of books we were planning.

So what did they say after you told them "fuck you"?

I told them I needed a boat ticket. So I took a boat to England with my book and I sold it in England before I sold it in America. You see whites want black writers to mostly deliver something as if it were an official version of the black experience. But the vocabulary won't hold it, simply. No true account really of black life can be held, can be contained in the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which the vocabulary is based. But they won't let you do that. And when you go along, you find yourself very quickly painted into a corner; you've written yourself into a corner. Because you can't compromise as a writer. By the time I left America in 1948 I had written myself into a corner as I perceived it. The book reviews and the short essays had led me to a place where I was on a collision course totally with the truth; it was the way I was operating. It was only a matter of time before I'd simply be destroyed by it. And no amount of manipulation of vocabulary or part would have spared me. It's like I think that Al Murray and Ralph Ellison are totally trapped. It's sad, because they're both trapped in the same way, and they're both very gifted writers. Ralph certainly, and Al, I thought. But you can't do anything with America unless you are willing to dissect it. You certainly cannot hope to fit yourself into it; nothing fits into it, not your past, not your present. The Invisible Man is fine as far as it goes until you ask yourself who's invisible to whom? You know, what is this dichotomy supposed to do? Are we invisible before each other? And invisible why, and by what system can one hope to be invisible? I don't know how anything in American life is worthy of this sacrifice. And further, I don't see anything in American life—for myself—to aspire to. Nothing at all. It's all so very false. So shallow, so plastic, so morally and ethically corrupt.

We were talking once about the claustrophobia among writers. You said you prefer actors and painters to writers.

Yes. Well, first of all when I was coming up there weren't any writers that I knew. Langston Hughes was far away. The first writer I met was Richard Wright and he was much older than me. And the people I knew were people like Beauford Delaney and the women who hung out with him; it was a whole world that was not literary. That came later; then it wasn't literary. It came later in Paris, with Sartre and others. But there was something else. And in Paris it had nothing whatsoever to do with race for one thing. It was another kind of freedom there altogether. It had nothing to do with literature. But we can't talk about that. But when I looked back on it years and years later, looked back at myself on the American literary scene, I could see that what almost happened to me was an attempt to make myself fit in, so to speak, to wash clean for the American literary academy.

You mean they wanted you scrubbed and squeaky clean?

Exactly. You have to be scrubbed and squeaky clean and then there's nothing left of you. Let me tell you a story. When Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man, I was up for it the next near, in 1954, for Go Tell It on the Mountain. But at the time I was far from scrubbed. I didn't win. Then, years later, someone who was on the jury told me that since Ralph won it the year before they couldn't give it to a Negro two years in a row. Now, isn't that something?

A judge told you that? Can you tell us his name?

No, I wouldn't want to do that.

Okay. Do you have any comments on Norman Mailer?

Well the answer to that question is very short and very simple. Not simple, but short. Norman decided not to be a writer. He decided to be a celebrity instead and that's what he is now. Now let me tell you a story about Norman. Out of my father's first marriage there is a sister and a couple of sons, you know, a few sons. My sister had a brother who lives in California. He's a senior citizen now. But he lived with Norman Mailer when Norman was writing The White Negro. He was taking the pages out of Norman's typewriter, changing his clothes—they wore the same clothes, exchanged cars, and his car was better than Norman's at the time. He was like the second husband in a way. They lived together. They lived close together. Norman doesn't know I know this. No one knows this. This story took place in the forties, the early forties, in California. I've kept quiet about this all these years that Norman was living with one of my step-brothers when he wrote the book. No one knows it, though. You're the first one, outside of the family, that I have mentioned it to. His name is Osby Mitchell. Osby did something in show business, hung out with Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin, that crowd.

Okay. That's something. Now, what do you think of the great praise you have received in France for Just Above My Head, that it has gotten in translation. How does that make you feel?

As you know the French call the book Harlem Quartet. I don't know how to answer that, Quincy, because it was written here almost ten years ago. It was the hardest book I'd ever written until then.


I had to face my own legends, too.

Which were?

It had something to do about my brothers, my relationship to my brothers. And that implied relationship to my whole life really. The key to one's life is always in a lot of unexpected places. I tried to deal with what I was most afraid of. That's why the vehicle of the book is music. Because music was and is my salvation. And when the book was done, I was glad it was over. It got the usual stormy reception in America, but by that time I was used to it. In any case, by that time I was in a different kind of trouble altogether. The reception of Harlem Quartet here in France didn't mean as much as it might have meant if I had gotten the praise earlier. I never thought I'd see the book again. But its translation came about after my book on the Atlanta murders was published here in France. It was hard to get the Atlanta book published in America for complex and political reasons.

Can you talk about them?

I don't quite know what they are. It's difficult for me to talk about a book that involves a possible lawsuit. It's just another example of American business, the ways in which Americans, the American publishers, attempt to control and to demolish the American writer, regardless of color, but especially a black one. I had to fight that, so I brought the book here. And it was published by Stock. And it did better than anyone thought it would do in France. So Stock already had a contract for Just Above My Head (Harlem Quartet). And so they published it. Stock had gone through all kinds of publishing problems—it had gone through a breakup and a reorganization. The Atlanta book won a couple of awards, and a German writer and I won the Human Rights Award of France two years ago, in 1985. But the German writer, poor man, had to leave Germany. Anyway, behind all of this came this book Just Above My Head, or Harlem Quartet. And I think that the French for the first time really looked at my writing; the Atlanta book was something of a shock to them.


Because it demolishes, so to speak, the American myth of integration, you know, by using Atlanta, which is supposed to be the model of integration in the Deep South and exposes it for what it is; shit, you know? So the French reader goes through all of that in terms of those twenty-eight dead black children. And so it was a shock, you know. And it sort of set up, I don't know what, exactly, but it did set up expectations, or fears, whatever for the novel. It may have set up an audience for the novel. And so Just Above My Head turns out to be somewhat of a revelation for the French. So you know, I'm considered somewhat of an intellectual in Paris. I mean in France. For a black writer, you know? Essentially as an essayist. But the novel was a great revelation; it gave me another kind of reputation altogether. Because now, instead of an essayist, what they saw in me was a novelist. I'm much better known as an essayist in France and elsewhere, too, than I am as a novelist. Before, the translation of my novels in France have been so bad. But this was a good translation, a marvelous translation, which makes a tremendous difference. And the subject, my handing of the subject, they liked. So it's simply a matter of something happening at the right time, and that can never be foreseen, you know.

What's the award Harlem Quartet is up for now?

The best foreign novel published in France, the Prix Femina. We will know about that in a week.

Let me ask you about the difficulty the American press and critics might have had in getting into your fiction.

Well, probably the American legend of black life. It's one thing to be aware of a Miles Davis and quite another thing to know where he comes from and what sustains him. Hollywood should be sued for libel, it's true. So that the book, my book, and others come as a direct opposition of the myth by Americans of black life and black music. It's not like what they, the press and critics, say it is, not at all. But the books prove them wrong, so they ignore the books. You see what I mean? Like I very much liked the film 'Round Midnight, which is a very important film. It fills in something that is important in our lives, a gap that was once there, that one might have thought about but didn't know about.

Why do you say it's important?

Well, first of all the personality of Dexter Gordon, he gives at least a reading of what happens to the musician. The black musician inside the music industry in Paris, you know? The ruin that they met which they brought with them and which wasn't brought about by Paris.

You mean the black musicians brought the ruin with them?

Yes, that's precisely what I mean. And 'Round Midnight makes that point in some ways very clearly.

Can you talk about the neglect of the black painter Beauford Delaney?

That's hard to do because people are still lying about Beauford. Let's talk about that over supper.

Okay. You said something to me once about how people shouldn't be jealous of someone's success. Do you recall that?

Well, what I was really trying to say was that people don't know what it is sometimes to be very successful. Don't know what it is. What I meant to say was that you can't be jealous of somebody else's success because you have no idea what it means, you know? It looks like success to you, but you're not the one that's paying for it.

And there's a price?

Of course there's a price, are you kidding? It's definitely not easy. It's rough. But for most great black writers in general, "they"—meaning white and black Americans—won't read us until they have nothing else to read.

Why do you think that is?

Well, because of the entire way of American life, the marrow of the American bone. Now today it's a fait accompli. There's nothing to be done about it. The whole American optic in terms of reality is based on the necessity of keeping black people out of it. We are nonexistent. Except according to their terms, and their terms are unacceptable.

Let me ask you this, since you said that. How do you look at the American society as it was during Dr. King's time and now? Any changes? Do you think it is worse, or what?

Certainly, in my opinion, it's worse. I'm not sure it's the society, I don't know what it is now.

What do you think that Ronald Reagan represents to white America?

Ronald Reagan represents the justification of their history, their sense of innocence. He means the justification of Birth of a Nation. The justification, in short, of being white.

How do you think white Americans feel now that they're in this economic crisis?

They're not thinking about it.


They're not thinking about it. Americans don't think of such things. They try and get out of it. They hope it'll go away. And luckily they began to realize that maybe Reagan has to go, too. But they hope it all goes away. Because it's like a bad dream for them.

Won't they do anything to help it go away?

No. Because they don't know how. They don't know how they got into it or, worse, won't recognize how. I don't know. They don't know how they got into the chaos of their cities, for example. But they did it. Now how and why did they do it? They did it because they wanted their children to be safe, to be raised safely. So they set up their communities so that they wouldn't have to go to school with black children, whom they fear, and that dictates the structure of their cities, the chaos of their cities and the danger in which they live.

"They" being white.

"They" being white and their believing that they're white. But they did it; niggers didn't do it. They did it. Inch by inch, stone by stone, decree by decree. Now their kids are deeply lost and they can't even blame it now on the nigger, you know what I mean?


That's what happened, I don't care who says what. I watched it happen, I know because I watched it happen. And all this, because they want to be white. And why do they want to be white? Because it's the only way to justify the slaughter of the Indians and enslaving the blacks—they're trapped. And nothing, nothing will spring the trap, nothing. Now they're really trapped because the world is present. And the world is not white and America is not the symbol of civilization. Neither is England. Neither is France. Something else is happening which will engulf them by and by. You, Quincy, will be here, but I'll be gone. It's the only hope the world has, that the notion of the supremacy of Western hegemony and civilization be contained.

Do you have any feelings about yuppies?

I saw them coming. I knew them. They can't, I'm afraid, be taught anything.

You don't think they can be taught anything?

No. Because you can't be taught anything if you think you know everything already, that something else—greed, materialism, and consuming—is more important to your life. You know, I taught the yuppies before they were called yuppies. And then what happened to them, really? Perfectly sound young men came out of college, went to work for Nixon, and were hardened criminals on Wall Street before you knew it. Now, is it true or not?

It's true.

And here I've only mentioned Nixon. But it's true for Reagan, too. So that's that. It's the fiber of the nation, unfortunately.

Principal Works

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Go Tell It on the Mountain (novel) 1953
The Amen Corner (play) 1955
Notes of a Native Son (essays) 1955
Giovanni's Room (novel) 1956; also published as a play, 1957
Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (essays) 1961
Another Country (novel) 1962
The Fire Next Time (essays) 1963
Blues for Mister Charlie (play) 1964
Going to Meet the Man (short stories) 1965
This Morning, This Evening, So Soon (novella) 1967
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (novel) 1968
Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism [with others] (essays) 1969
Menschenwurde und Gerechtigkeit [with Kenneth Kaunda] (essays) 1969
No Name in the Street (essays) 1972
A Deed from the King of Spain (play) 1974
If Beale Street Could Talk (novel) 1974
The Devil Finds Work (essays) 1976
Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (novel) 1976
Just above My Head (novel) 1979
Jimmy's Blues: Selected Poems (poetry) 1983
The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (nonfiction) 1985
Harlem Quartet (novel) 1987

Sondra A. O'Neale (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "Fathers, Gods, and Religion: Perceptions of Christianity and Ethnic Faith in James Baldwin," in Critical Essays on James Baldwin, edited by Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt, G. K. Hall & Co., 1988, pp. 125-43.

[In the following essay, O'Neale "explores the complexities of Baldwin's concepts of fatherhood and how they impinge on his search—for a sympathetic Father/God—an odyssey that he deliberately identifies as the collective historic experience of the race and its artists."]

In a 1965 television interview for the BBC, British author Colin MacInnes said to James Baldwin: "You spoke just now of the soul, the soul of the black man, the soul of the white man. I never have been able to make out, Jimmy, whether you are or are not a religious writer. Does the concept of God mean something to you? Are you a believer in any sense, or not?" As he has done so often when people have tried to pin him down to traditional modes of religious persuasion, Baldwin answered MacInnes in ambiguities based on his own redefinitions of "the church as church," salvation as that which "we must do to save each other," and love as that which is not passive but "something active, more like a fire, like the wind."1 Perhaps not realizing that Baldwin's "fire-wind-energy" simile alludes to Acts 2, where it is recorded that the Holy Spirit came down "like a violent, rushing wind and tongues as of fire rested on seventy fearful disciples,"2 MacInnes did not steer Baldwin toward acknowledging the debt that his literature owes to a deep intellectual contemplation of black America's centuries-old struggle to formulate a Christian faith that would assuage and reconstitute the evil-oriented identity that white Christian culture had imposed upon them (i.e., interpretations of the Cain and Ham curses and interpolations of the significance of skin color, predestination, heathenism, sin, and hell).3 Nor did MacInnes acknowledge that Baldwin's relationship to what the critic called "religion"—presumably the traditional European-centered view that is the basis of American Protestantism: belief in a God whose holiness is imbued in puritanical white; a written word that calls for redemptive purging of nonpure, vis-à-vis nonwhite, phenomena from His world; and an orthodox, spiritless, liturgical form keeping strict legalistic step with a deterministic force that assures white believers of spiritual, political, and economic superiority—is, like that of all black American writers since 1760, an inherently different idea of religion. On the surface one cannot ascertain whether or not Baldwin is a "religious writer" because his works do not reflect the traditional treatment of Christianity in black American literature. Instead, Baldwin examines the enigmas of human affections absent in Christian professors: the failure of the Christian God to thwart the persistent onslaught of His African children; and the insistence of those children to forge a "normal" dependent interaction with that God. These witnesses are empirical evidences of God in Baldwin's world, and he exploits them to excess so that he can mold a composite God, discover His personality, and fathom His intentions toward black people.

Although scholarship has touched upon the recurrent father-son motif in Baldwin's works,4 there has been little discussion of those images for an understanding of his (and black America's) search for God and for an iconography that is not totally and suicidally antipathetic to the dominant culture. Baldwin often codifies his variable perceptions of a puritanical, unloving God as a woman-mother (e.g., Margaret Alexander in Amen Corner); however, his use of female characters and feminine symbolism to conceptualize these possibilities is a study in itself. This essay explores the multifarious complexities of Baldwin's concepts of fatherhood and how they impinge on his search—for a sympathetic Father/God—an odyssey that he deliberately identifies as the collective historic experience of the race and its artists.

Indeed, a close critical and theological exegesis—that includes traditional religious consciousness in the canon of black American literature—of Baldwin's writings reveals these themes and gives credence to what is already suspected: that more than the heritage of any other black American writer, Baldwin's works illustrate the schizophrenia of the black American experience with Christianity. Much of the symbolism, language, archetypal rhythm, and thematic call for justice in his essays are so steeped in Christian ethics that his readers may become deafened to the tragicomic Christian pathos that is agonizing at the heart of the Baldwin message. Agonizing because, in ways similar to those of the transformed biblical disciples, the experiential anointing and ethereal vision that fourteen-year-old Baldwin received on the threshing floor of a Harlem storefront church in 1938 is at constant warfare with the unremitting oppression he receives from the world. When he sought relief in art, the divisiveness of this apparently irreconcilable dichotomy dominated his world view, his theology, and his writing. By that time, however, Baldwin also knew that by wrestling with that dichotomous angel in the public arena of his own written word, he was unveiling the agony of simultaneous disappointment and hope in the psyche of the race. That agony is evident in the earliest offerings to the canon of black American literature. Even in the mid-eighteenth century, Africans enslaved in America, while sincerely acknowledging their own conversions to Christianity, nonetheless deplored the white man's use of the same Bible both to convert and to enslave them. They also haltingly revealed their various inabilities to reach satisfactory faith-embracing conclusions (or at least to express them in a manner palatable to doubting black readers) on such doctrines as color symbolism; predeterminism; the infinite, omnipotent sovereign will of God; the Old Testament curses placed on Cain and Ham, presumably in perpetuity; and the New Testament reenslavement of Philemon.5 For instance, in his poem "A Dialogue Between the Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant" eighteenth-century New York slave, poet, and essayist Jupiter Hammon, the first black to publish in America, craftily tells his religious master that he cannot follow him for life's guide and example because the master himself is not a true Christian; yet he is reduced to telling his slave audience in a sermon, "As Black and despised as we are," that nevertheless, God, "Our Father," will save "us" (i.e., from hell and slavery—concepts merged as one in the literature up to the 1870s) if "we" obediently trust in Christ. Hammon promised that this same God will also eventually judge (i.e., in eternity) the white man for his unjust behavior.6 But Hammon's faith was firm. His admissions were not to engender doubt but to establish belief.

Phillis Wheatley continued the tensions of faith in, among other salient poems, her famed poetic lines, "Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train."7 Other black poets, essayists, and narrative authors of the period, such as Briton Hammon, Olandah Equiano, Benjamin Banneker, John Marrant, and George Moses Horton—all slaves—expressed themselves in similar fashion.8 In the nineteenth century, freed or escaped slaves, such as David Walker, J. W. C. Pennington, James Whitfield, Nat Turner (who led a slave revolt based on his faith in the righteous judgment of the Old Testament God), Sojourner Truth, William and Ellen Craft, Frances E. W. Harper, and, most prominently, Frederick Douglass, expressed complete faith in the reality of the conversion experience, in the inerrant totality of Scripture, and in the absolute love and fatherhood of their God.9 While their stance as freed men and women was more militant than that of enslaved writers of the earlier period, their militancy involved a clear distinction between Christianity as they knew it and Christianity as it was practiced in the white world. Their faith in God, as reflected in the literature, was unswerving, and their relationship with Him could not be violated by injurious whites.10 In the epilogue of his shorter Autobiography, Douglass clearly distinguishes between black Christian faith and white Christian practice:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.11

In the secularized Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, God is either absent from artistic expression or mentioned (i.e., as the saving grace and artistic folk source of the black church) with reverence. Doubt or rejection is for an unredeemed, oppressive society. Representative works include James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Langston Hughes's "Cross," "Bound No'th Blue," and "Brass Spittoons," and the third section of Jean Toomer's Cane, with the wise, though blind, preacher, Father John.12 Perhaps the most cogent example of the black American writer's slight but expanding distancing from traditional racial concepts of God in that period occurs in a poem, "Yet Do I Marvel," by Baldwin's high school teacher Countee Cullen (Baldwin attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx from 1938 to 1942, during which time Cullen was employed as a teacher and supervisor of the school magazine, the Magpie, of which Baldwin was editor and to which he contributed):13

     I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
     And did he stoop to quibble could tell why
     Inscrutable His ways, are, and immune
     What awful brain compels His awful hand,
     Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
     To make a poet black, and bid him sing!


These were Baldwin's black literary progenitors, in whose works he was well read. In their volume entitled Dialogue, he tells Nikki Giovanni:

Now I can see what I own to Richard [Wright] and what I owe to Chester [Haines], what I own to Langston Hughes and what I owe to W. E. B. DuBois and what I owe to Frederick Douglass. But I could not see that when I was twenty. I don't think anybody can see that at twenty. But you see they were, on one level, simply more exalted victims…. And it takes a long time before you accept what has been given to you from your past. What we call black literature is really summed up for me by the whole career, let's say, of Bessie Smith, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, because that's how it's been handed down, since we couldn't read or write, as far as they knew. And it was at one time a crime to be able to read if you were black. It was punishable by law. We had to smuggle information, and we did it through our music and we did it in the church. You were talking before about the church you went to visit. I thought about the Apollo Theater. The last time I saw Aretha, what did she do at the Apollo Theater but turn it into a gospel church service—! And that's true religion. A black writer comes out of that: I don't mean he has to be limited to that. But he comes out of that because the standards which come from Greece and Rome, from the Judeo-Christian ethic, are very dubious when you try to apply them to your own life.15

Baldwin's position in The Fire Next Time is in the tradition of black Christian protest:

Negroes in this country—and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other—are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means that they are superior to blacks (intrinsically, that is: God decreed it so), and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared.16

He joins the black church in search of at least spiritual kinship: "My friend was about to introduce me when she looked at me and smiled and said, 'Whose little boy are you?' Now this, unbelievably, was precisely the phrase used by pimps and racketeers on the Avenue when they suggested, both humorously and intensely, that I 'hang out' with them. Perhaps part of the terror they had caused me to feel came from the fact that I unquestionably wanted to be somebody's little boy."17 But then he posits that the deity's historic treatment through His white representatives renders Him a nihilistic, loveless icon that cannot or will not proffer comfort at black men's altars. His rhetoric is strikingly atypical of ethnic conversion experience:

All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion. Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black: You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion.18

Instead of finding cardinal faith on the threshing floor, he concludes that God is indeed white and that the black man cannot obtain redemption in the universe:

The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, had made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God's love alone is left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why? In spite of all I said thereafter, I found no answer on the floor—not that answer, anyway—and I was on the floor all night.19

As his writing develops, he not only continues the thematic ambiguity between possibilities of individual faith in and societal practice of Christianity as a religious system, he goes beyond the point of doubt about white practice to question the validity of life-alternating salvation in the black church, and he imperiously accuses God of being at best a weak, powerless, detached, "watch-maker" creator and at worst a white-skinned being who truly does (as slave masters and Puritans declared) hate and predetermine His nonwhite creation for servitude. No black American writer before Baldwin had quite the literary nerve (i.e., to risk separating himself from the mainstream of Christian black America) or the agnostic impertinence (i.e., his frequent self-recriminations for slipping toward blasphemy)20 to question openly the justice, judgment, and sincerity of God.

Yet Baldwin claims to have had a traumatic Christian conversion. He was an ardent licensed preacher of the Gospel for three years, during which time he absorbed all facets of Christian doctrine, denominational practice, and, most importantly, biblical image, symbol, narrative, and meaning. His biblical allusions and references to the black nation's spiritual consciousness are innumerable. Today he claims membership in one of the largest Baptist churches in Washington, D.C.21 He reveres as much today the Christian commitment of Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers as he did when he joined hands with them in the civil rights movement.22 The unfailing optimism, seen in the entirety of his works, that only love within and between the races will ultimately save America and its black citizens is rooted in the philosophy of Christian faith.23

In spite of the above claims, an objective look at the constantly apposed treatment of his own experience and of the collective black Christian experience, leads to the suspicion that Baldwin really does not believe in the possibility of a spiritual epiphany to life the black man above the environment of his anguish. At least he seems to accept the prevailing social theories that treat Christianity as simply a force to keep black people insensitive to the need for more immediate freedom. Both aspects can be seen in John Grimes's conversion, in Go Tell It on the Mountain under the jealous eye of his cruel, oppressive stepfather, an un-Christian minister; in the tawdry, fractious, loveless relationships in the midst of "devout" religious fervor in Amen Corner—wretched "saved saints" who will not stoop to save the dying father, Luke Alexander; likewise in the spineless father, Rev. Henry, in Blues for Mr. Charlie, whose prayers and example of Christian meekness are powerless against the congregation of white "Christian" lynchers, who kill his son in the name of God; and in that very precise essay "Many Thousands Gone," he sardonically says that even the white man knows his "Negroes" got "real" religion. The smug white persona expresses what the mainstream really feels about the "Negro":

In the case of the Negro his shameful history was carried, quite literally, on his brow. Shameful; for he was heathen as well as black and would never have discovered the healing blood of Christ had not we braved the jungles to bring him these glad tidings. As he accepted the alabaster Christ and the bloody cross—in the bearing of which he would find his redemption, as, indeed, to our outraged astonishment, he sometimes did—he must, accept that image we then gave him of himself….24

The persona concludes that his simple dilemma must be borne in mind if one wishes to comprehend Negro psychology.

Today, thirty-eight years after the appearance of Baldwin's first successful, quasi-religious novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, critics are displeased with his continuing reliance upon religious themes. They want him to leave the arena of the black church and the black family portrayed again in his latest work. Just Above My Head, and "write about something more in keeping with the contemporary problems of Black America."25 Such advice misses Baldwin's point altogether, for he believes that understanding the black man's dilemma with Christianity is axiomatic to dealing with these contemporary problems—a position that on many levels is no different from the beloved Dr. King's admonishments or those of Malcolm X, who, because of the untenable hypocrisy of practiced Christianity, disavowed his father's Baptist faith; or of the contemporary black writers of the seventies and eighties who for the most part have rejected Christianity as a basis for moral standard and have turned to Islam and other African religions.26 Baldwin says in "Everybody's Protest Novel": "The African, exile, pagan, fell on his knees before that God in Whom he must now believe; Who had made him, but not in His image. This tableau, this impossibility, is the heritage of the Negro in America: Wash me, cried the slave to his Maker, and I shall be whiter, whiter than snow! For black is the color of evil; only the robes of the saved are white…. This reality, in the same nightmare notion, he both flees and rushes to embrace."27

Although Martin insisted that the black man was made in God's image and Malcolm and Elijah Muhammed held that there definitely must be two gods—one white and one black, with the white one and his white offspring being indisputable devils—Baldwin concluded that at the core of the question was an unsolved mystery with an illusive, incomprehensible God, sometimes white, sometimes black, with variant earthly fathers as representatives of the origins of man's being and causality. Perhaps one reason that they could be so absolute and he could not was that they had at least the psychological security of knowing a true father in the flesh while he did not. Surely, the Reverend David Baldwin was not his real father. Not only had his mother finally confessed that James was born out of wedlock, the boy spoken of in Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, and Nobody Knows My Name intuitively knew that this mean, insecure, spiteful man could not be his father. In his constant daily behavior, the elder Baldwin made it clear that James was not among his chosen sons.

Within the cosmology of biblical narrative is of course the Cain story in which God and his image, Adam, denied Cain the honor of an elder son because he had murdered his younger brother Abel. They gave the inheritance of the lineage to a third son, Seth, and banished Cain from the familial community to wander as a vagabond on the earth. To support slavery, white theologians said that the mark God put upon Cain to establish his identity on the earth was black skin.28 A thorough student of ancient lore, Baldwin was aware that the rejection he suffered from Mr. Baldwin made him quite analogous to Cain. As mimicked in the interpersonal relations in Go Tell It on the Mountain, David Baldwin, the younger son, was the reverend's beloved namesake. Thus, the harsh father—most succinctly because of his ministerial profession—becomes a symbol of the Calvinistic God, who had likewise cursed the African to a base position of sonship.

The young Baldwin yearned to know his "real" father. Why had he deserted him, denied him name and legitimization? Was it a matter of an unworthy son or of an irresponsible father? In either case, again as with Mr. Baldwin, the alienation becomes a representative allegory for the absence of an adequate protective father in the black man's life. The sociological implications, both in black American experience and in Baldwin's works, are obvious. The awesome limitations of a racist society will not allow any of his male characters to be economically or socially functioning fathers, or serve as role models for young men to follow. Both in life and as a personal source for his young black male characters, the steps of initiation thus presume that other "fathers" in the community are available as viable substitutes. In both his life and his work, Baldwin turns first to the church and then—discarding all but its spiritually artistic forms (i.e., its music as the cradling forerunner of jazz and the blues as contrasted in "Sonny's Blues")—to the world of art and literature.

Thus, Baldwin's chaotic, essentially orphaned childhood, his conversion, and the symbolic relationship with his "earthly" fathers are merely his metaphors for the religiously inconclusive psyches of the race. The black man's relationships with the Father-God of Christianity early became a central Baldwin thesis. For him, there is no other moral standard by which whites can be judged and through which, in vindicating black peoples, the Christian God can absolve himself as the moral center of the universe. In a commentary of the black preacher's socialization of the Gospel, Baldwin makes the assumption that the confessed spiritual piety has always been an ambiguous veneer veiling demands for social justice:

The word "belief" has nearly no meaning anymore, in the recognized languages, and ineptly approaches the reality to which I am referring: for there can be no doubt that it is a reality. The blacks had first been claimed by the Christian church, and then excluded from the company of white Christians—from the fellowship of Christians: which taught us all that we needed to know about white Christians. The blacks did not so much use Christian symbols as recognize them—recognize them for what they were before the Christians came along—and, thus, reinvested these symbols with their original energy. The proof of this, simply, is the continued existence and authority of the blacks: it is through the creation of the black church that an unwritten, dispersed, and violated inheritance has been handed down. The word "revelation" has very little meaning in the recognized languages: yet, it is the only word for the moment I am attempting to approach.29

An innate perfectionist, the younger Baldwin found these absolutes quite compatible with the orderings of causal existence offered by the church. After his "conversion" experience, the directions for life were quite easy: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." God, on behalf of the suffering saints, would quickly punish the wicked. Although such simplistic answers presented ideal solutions, Baldwin soon learned that they were not easily transferable into his expanding world. He notes in The Fire Next Time that all authority appeared to come from God to subversive white representatives, without whose permission the Harlemites indeed did not seem to be able to "live, move, or have their being."30

Even more perplexing, it became equally evident during Baldwin's three years in the ministry that although God did not seem to be doing His part, perhaps God's moral standard was operating in justifiable judgment against black Christians. They themselves were not fulfilling the laws necessary to receive the savior's blessings. Baldwin confesses in The Fire Next Time:

There was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-despair. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. But what was the point, the purpose of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me?31

Therefore, all external truths that were supposed to complement the new Christian's internal ecstatic experience—the Christian church and the Christian community—were in complete contradiction to it. White Christians, to the shouting black pentecostal church, were devils to be exorcised, not brethren to be loved. Yet the blacks themselves were either humble inheritors of some future earth or heaven; or pitiful imitators of the hypocritical whites whom they despised. Herein were the seeds planted for his agonizing message. For the next forty years, Baldwin examined these polarities in his fiction, drama, and prose. He looked into, if not resolved, the mystery that the "Church Fathers" had left untouched, and he wrote to influence a national reconciliation between the hope of Christian love that he may have tasted as a young man and the intolerable realities of hate in professing disciples. The ensuing philosophy of his dilemma is best stated in his denial of faith in the "Down at the Cross" essay, in which he states that the black man's experiential condition rendered it impossible for him (Baldwin in particular and the race in general) to find salvation in the black church.

Because Baldwin knew such a theorem was heretical to the Christian doctrine he was supposed to preach, he searched for a medium other than the pulpit in order to work out and affirm both a proper communal response for those who had valid spiritual experience and a proper holocaust judgment for those who profess salvation without manifesting universal love. This reordering becomes the philosophical foundation on which he creates. In all of his works, he emphasizes these extremes in a multileveled metaphor that has the ultimate vortex of estrangement from the father.

Baldwin's call for the reunion of fathers and sons is a modern continuation of the cosmic replay, both in the Bible and in America's religious culture, of the Trinity. The father—"white," light, pure, righteous judge of the universe—had to forsake, to "blacken" with the stain of sin, to sacrifice his only son. It was a necessary sacrifice. Mankind, black or white, could not be saved without it. But the gift of universal, unpredestined salvation for which Christ died on the cross has, in succeeding generations, been stolen by evil forces and persons who want to gain wealth and power. In much popular antebellum American literature, most sympathetically in Uncle Tom's Cabin, in steps the black man, chosen from eternity as the type of Christ. Through loving self-sacrifice, in obedience to his heavenly father's will, the black sacrificial son must redeem that gift for his own generation and for the salvation of the nation. He must in love lay down his freedom, his dignity, his life for his "lost" white brother. It is also so much of an archetypal pattern in American literature and theology, a pattern that Baldwin hates. But as much as he despised it in Stowe's novel, which he read over and over as a boy, it is nonetheless one of the solutions that he sets forth to reconcile America. This is why he could not espouse the Moslem faith of Elijah Mohammed—it was a doctrine of hate. As deeply as he understands the racial foundations of American power, Baldwin has never been able to hate the white man.

Herein lie additional levels of depth in the "father" symbolism. Baldwin advocates a reunion between white fathers and black sons—an action that is not only incredibly idealistic and in most cases impossible, but one that blacks as well as whites probably find repulsive. Historically in the literary canon, awareness of the specific identity of white parentage only intensifies the bitterness of black disinheritedness and heightens the sense of schizophrenia.32 Additionally, with this thesis, Baldwin transgressed a movement in black aesthetics that demanded that black writers turn away from the tragic mulatto theme that had dominated white authorial portrayal of blacks as well as the post-Civil War birth of black American literature. In the historicity of these issues, Baldwin was well versed. Nevertheless, he insisted, especially in his early works, that for total self-discovery and purgation, blacks, indeed, all Americans, must face the horror of "The Great White Father."

Continuing aspects of the mulatto theme, he says in The Fire Next Time that the American Negro must accept the history of his white parentage, that he is neither totally African, nor Moslem, but "a unique creation; he has no counterpart anywhere, and no predecessors…. I am called Baldwin … because I was kidnapped by a white Christian named Baldwin, who forced me to kneel at the foot of the cross. I am, then, both visibly and legally the descendant of slaves in a white, Protestant country,… this is what it means to be an American Negro."33 There is also the poignant prayer by Meridian Henry, in Blues for Mr. Charlie, lamenting the murder of his only son at the hands of a white pseudo-Christian terrorist: "But can I ask the children forever to sustain the cruelty inflicted on them by those who have been their masters, and who are now, in very truth … their parents? What hope is there for a people who deny their deeds and disown their kinsmen and who do so in the name of purity and love, in the name of Jesus Christ?"34 That parentage is both physical and spiritual. Baldwin wants the white religious zealot who placed the African on the auction block to be held accountable for his failure to demonstrate the Christian protectorate that he promised in Christ. Further, he wants the white biological forefather, through the repentance of his heirs, to face the retribution of damnation for the heinous crime of denying, enslaving, and murdering his own sons.

Another point that violates the black aesthetic endeavors to reverse the images of Africans in American culture is set forth in Baldwin's generic identification of the black self as "Devil":

In our church, the Devil had many faces, all of them one's own. He was not always evil, rarely was he frightening—he was, more often, subtle, charming, cunning, and warm. So, one learned, for example, never to take the easy way out: whatever looked easy was almost certainly a trap. In short, the Devil was that mirror which could never be smashed. One had to look into the mirror every day—good morning, blues / Blues, how do you do? / Well, I'm doing all right Good morning / How are you:—check it all out, and take it all in, and travel. The pleading of the blood was not, for us, a way of exorcising a Satan whom we knew could never sleep; it was to engage Satan in a battle which we knew could never end.35

If, as he repeated to Margaret Mead in A Rap on Race, the "good" Christian God is white and is vengeful toward black persons, is he saying later in The Devil Finds Work (as indicated in the title and the theme of the book) that blacks indeed represent God's opposite? Or is he merely speaking of that tiger to be tamed within the universal self that transcends race and color?

Aspects of the metaphor that most fill Baldwin's cup of anguish are the angry, self-depreciating relationships between black fathers and sons as a necessary insulation against the white world. He suspected that it was shame at having created a black son to perpetuate the myth that caused his natural father to disown him. Likewise, the ambivalent love-hate memories of his religiously violent stepfather were a vehicle for apprehending a causal iconography symbolic of the black man's relationship with God and society. Ultimately, one who is brought up to expect that any tender mercy can turn to cruelty cannot be disillusioned. In The Devil Finds Work, he acknowledges the effectiveness of the elder Baldwin's negativistic training and patriarchy:

The pride and sorrow and beauty of my father's face: for that man I called my father really was my father in every sense except the biological, or literal one. He formed me, and he raised me, and he did not let me starve: and he gave me something, however harshly, and however little I wanted it, which prepared me for an impending horror which he could not prevent. This is not a Western idea, but fathers and sons arrive at that relationship only by claiming that relationship: that is, by paying for it, If the relationship of father to son could really be reduced to biology, the whole earth would blaze with the glory of fathers and sons.36

This image culminates in a father's acrimonious disapproving of Anglicized theories of black manhood. But, ultimately, Baldwin's texts and personal direction indicate that neither his religious stepfather nor other ministers in the church provided significant answers for an initiate whose questions were more than superficial. In Notes of a Native Son, he reminisces about the variety of the old man's life:

"But as for me and my house," my father had said, "we will serve the Lord." I wondered, as we drove him to his resting place, what this line had meant for him. I had heard him preach it many times. I had preached it once myself, proudly giving it an interpretation different from my father's. Now the whole thing came back to me, as though my father and I were on our way to Sunday school and I were memorizing the golden text…. I suspected in these familiar lines a meaning which had never been there for me before. All of my father's texts and songs, which I had decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me. This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped.37

In his move from biological, familial, and church fathers, Baldwin—and, consequently, those among his black male characters who achieve reconciliation—eventually finds ostensibly compatible generative role models among the black artists and intellectuals who fostered his artistic development. His subsequent art became a journal of his search in self and society for evidence of God and His love. In that other world of the unseen black spirit—literature, art, jazz, black language, and blues—he finds authority figures who can guide him and other thoughtful young men unable to adjust to the holocaustic horror into which they had been born: "the American despair, the search, in our country for authority…. The streets of my native city were filled with youngsters searching desperately for the limits which would tell them who they were, and create for them a challenge to which they could rise."38

As seen earlier in a discussion of the strand of biblical symbolism in the works of black American writers since the eighteenth century, the racial literary heritage gave Baldwin at least a transitional basis on which to move from religious "principling" into modern secularized art and philosophy. Although he mastered the latter, he never fully renounced the former, which for his purposes was the more functional form. But he realizes that he is attempting to "marry" incompatible elements in agnostic art and traditional black Christian faith. His conflicting emotions when in late adolescence he moved away from the church and his ministerial calling are explored not only in The Fire Next Time and Notes of Native Son, but are perhaps most eloquently expressed in both Sonny's ("Sonny's Blues") and David's (Amen Corner) experiences when they suffer parental rejection because they must steal away to discover nonecclesiastical epiphanies in the ethereal grasp of black music.

Biographically, Baldwin's earliest artistic mentor was not really Countee Cullen but the prolific (and, even now barely recognized) genius, visual artist Beauford DeLaney. He was the first adult to assure Baldwin that the world of art and thought did not freakishly separate him from acceptable ethnic experience. When Baldwin visited Beauford's studio and lamented his abject poverty, the restricting duty to support eight younger brothers and sisters, and his inherent failure to maintain employment at any of the menial tasks he continually tried to swallow, he found in Beauford an understanding, compassionate friend. Beauford finally told Baldwin, who had lost his umpteenth dishwasher's job, "Perhaps you simply don't belong there," and encouraged him to pursue his writing instead.39 When the often sick and ultimately incompetent ministerial stepfather died, it was DeLaney—not black churchmen—to whom James Baldwin turned. The elder artist provided a haven for the young man, now freshly terrified at the prospect of total responsibility for the family. Beauford appealed to the neighborhood for donations to supplement his own generous cash gift, which was needed for the funeral because the impoverished family lacked the money to bury the father. Baldwin's brother David; his associate, dancer and choreographer Bernard Haskell; and distinguished black American literary critic Dr. Richard Long (who himself was strongly influenced by DeLaney and who first began his lifelong friendship with Baldwin through DeLaney) all agree with Baldwin's claim that DeLaney was the true father of Baldwin's art. In later years, Baldwin, after an intermittent but compatible association with DeLaney, was able to repay the artist's gracious gesture when he, Long, and Haskell not only buried DeLaney, who died in neglect and obscurity in Paris, but withstood the attempts of an avaricious French government to confiscate his paintings.40 Later Baldwin and Long coedited Beauford DeLaney Retrospective Exhibition: Harlem Studio Museum as a final tribute to a talented "father" who had encouraged them to let nothing inhibit their creative dreams.

Apart from Beauford's support, Baldwin was primarily on his own; though his quixotic initiative was also influenced by the world of black music, which beckoned him from Harlem's streets, as well as the consummate neighborhood and the downtown Forty-Second Street New York libraries (with their titular attempts at integration). In one interview, his brother David painfully recalls the benignly discourteous treatment that Baldwin received from Richard Wright and other members of the post-Renaissance New York circle. Later, the venerable Sterling Brown was one of the few prominent black writer/scholars who had published during the Harlem Renaissance to support Baldwin or his works when Amen Corner opened at Howard University in 1956. Brown single-handedly withstood the irate reaction of conservative black scholars who were deeply disturbed at Baldwin's portrayal of black life and language and at his irreverence for the black church.41 Although Wright interceded to get the budding writer an early fellowship to work on In My Father's House (the first title of the novel that later became Go Tell It on the Mountain), the true character of their relationship and of Wright's refusal to sponsor or associate with the younger writer is barely seen in "Alas, Poor Richard" or "Everybody's Protest Novel."

Like many black writers and artists who failed to find a congenial environment for their work in America, Baldwin set sail for France in 1948. He found some respite with white expatriots, but Beauford and Hoyt Fuller—the founder of Negro Digest and Black World, which were the major sources for publication of black writers in the fifties and sixties, and First World in the seventies—were mainstays of solace and encouragement. After hearing about his work, Hoyt wrote to Baldwin from Chicago to encourage him and to invite submissions. Through their correspondence and later acquaintance, Baldwin grew to respect Fuller as one of the few men who understood what he was trying to do.

Any conceptualization of Baldwin's quest for fathers must, of necessity, include a discussion of his own influence as an innovator in the mainstream of black American literature. Historically, Baldwin should be seen as the last black American writer to exploit as a major theme the black man's relationship with Christianity. Conversely, he may be considered the first black American writer to distance himself from the lone enduring black institution, the black church, not by its notable absence (as with Wright, Ellison,42 and other blacks writing in the first half of this century; for example, Ann Petry, Nella Larsen, Sterling Brown, Chester Himes, Paule Marshall, Robert Hayden, and William Demby), but by his overtly persistent portrayal of its lack of authentic Christian commitment. In this and his subsequent treatment of homosexuality as an acceptable form of human love (in Giovanni's Room and, most recently, in Just Above My Head)—a position he knew was not compatible with orthodox Christian behavior and thus utterly shocking even to black sophisticates—Baldwin opened the floodgate for contemporary anti-Christian, nonbiblically based black American literature. In most of his works, he only questions divine existence while still courting its allegiance, but his boldness invited younger writers to complete the schism between black art and black faith.

The schism between white-practiced Christianity and black American art was always axiomatically present. For two hundred years, black writers examined the Bible and indicted white society for the incorrigible refusal to love oppressed people (as the Bible commands); however, they agreed with the black preacher that faith in the true God and in His deliverance of them was the only accessible power upon which an enslaved or oppressed people could rely. In their works, the black church itself and faith as exercised in the hearts of black believers were sacrosanct.

Ironically, Baldwin intended his literature to influence national and personal reunification. He hoped that white fathers would repent and acknowledge their sons: that black fathers would be men of strength and love while throwing off the shackles of Tomism and that God the Father, indicated in even those oft-repeated prayerful exclamations, "God knows," would reveal the black man as an equally chosen son. The Trinity would then be restored. The trust of his message is that the validity of Christianity can best be measured by how it has affected the colored peoples of the world. That effect "seems" instead to resolve solely in oppression. I say "seems" because Baldwin still attempts to separate the visible history of black America's experience with Christianity from the spiritual, visionary experience that both he and the race may have internalized. The reality of that unseen spiritual truth, codified in his novels by the suffering blues and tarring spiritual motifs, enables him to keep advocating that the demonstrable love of Christ will bring to earth that paradise revealed on the threshing floor and fulfill that prophecy in Amos 9:7, "Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel?" Then Baldwin can have peace with the heritage of his forefathers. Then and only then will his quest end and he can unhesitantly acknowledge oneness with the Christian God, his father. Until that essence of true Christianity is revealed, Baldwin's dissociation from variant fathers tempts him to withhold absolute commitment. The totality of his theme is a cosmologically oxymoronic statement in both language and philosophy that sensible faith in an unseen God cannot transcend experience in self, race, or society. Faith, even in one's own soul, is difficult to capture in artistic medium. In an uncontrived moment, Baldwin jocularly confessed to Nikki Giovanni, "Well, it depends on what you mean by God…. I've claimed Him as my father and I'll give Him a great time until it's over because God is our responsibility."43 Although that is not belief, it at least indicates that his search for God, his primal father, is not abandoned.


1. "Race, Hate, Sex, and Colour: A Conversation," By James Baldwin with James Mossman and Colin MacInnes, Encounter 25 (1965): 55-60.

2. Acts 2:1-5. The allusion has more a pentecostal than fundamentalist flavor, as this, the more emotional mold, is essentially Baldwin's church background.

3. Most basic texts on American slavery deal with theological supports manipulated to support that institution. Studies going into the greatest detail are Winthrop D. Jordan, The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), and White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968); and Roger Bastide, "Color, Racism, and Christianity," in Color and Race, ed. John Hope Franklin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968).

4. See Michel Fabre, "Fathers and Sons in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain," in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Keneth Kinnamon (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974); see also Therman B. O'Daniel, "James Baldwin: An Interpretive Study," College Language Association 7 (1963): 37-47.

5. See the entries of ex-slaves in Roger Burns, Am I Not a Man and a Brother: The Anti-Slavery Crusade of Revolutionary America, 1688–1788 (New York: Chelsea House, 1977); and Dorothy Porter, Early Negro Writing, 1760–1837 (Boston: Beacon, 1971). The story of Philemon is in the New Testament epistle bearing his name.

6. Jupiter Hammon, "A Dialogue Entitled the Kind Master and a Dutiful Servant," in America's First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island, ed. Stanley Austin Ransome, Jr. (Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat, 1970).

7. Phillis Wheatley, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," in The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, ed. Julian D. Mason (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), 7.

8. Briton Hammon, A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man (Boston, 1760); John Marrant, A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black, 1785, in Narratives of North American Indian Captivities, vol. 17 (New York: Garland, 1978). See Black Writers of America for other authors cited.

9. The most inclusive anthology is Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon, Black Writers of America (New York: Macmillan, 1972). Hammon's poem is in America's First Negro Poet, ed. Ransome. The Crafts' narrative is William Craft and Ellen Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery, collected in Great Slave Narratives, ed. Arna Bontemps (Boston: Beacon, 1969). Sojourner Truth's most famous speech is in the Burns Collection.

10. See Benjamin E. Mays, The Negro's God as Reflected in His Literature (New York: Russell & Russell, 1938).

11. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845; reprint ed., Garden City, New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1973).

12. James Weldon Johnson, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (New York: Viking, 1927); Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Urban: University of Illinois Press, 1978). Hughes's poems are in Barksdale and Kinnamon. Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Liveright, 1975).

13. See Carolyn Wedin Sylvander, James Baldwin (New York: Ungar, 1980). 1-7. See also chapter 1 of Fern Marja Eckman, The Furious Passage of James Baldwin (New York: M. Evans; distributed by J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1966).

14. Countee Cullen, "Yet Do I Marvel," in Black Writers of America, 531.

15. James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, A Dialogue (New York: Lippincott, 1973), 36-38.

16. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dell, 1962), 39-40.

17. Ibid., 43.

18. Ibid., 45.

19. Ibid., 46.

20. See Baldwin and Giovanni, Dialogue, 36-38. See also "Down at the Cross," in The Fire Next Time.

21. Interview (April 1981) with James Baldwin and Dr. Eleanor Traylor of Washington, D.C., one of the organizers of an appreciation day of James Baldwin's mother in 1979 at the Baptist church that Baldwin subsequently joined.

22. Baldwin is currently working on a studied biography of the lives of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. His esteem for Martin is mentioned often in his works. See, for example, Dialogue, 25.

23. Baldwin admitted at various times that Christianity, not the church but the religion itself, was one basis of his own moral philosophy. See Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, A Rap on Race (New York: Lippincott, 1979), 85-59.

24. James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone," in Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon, 1955), 29-30.

25. Critical reception of Just Above My Head has been mixed. These remarks were included in a BBC broadcast on National Public Radio in 1982. See also Booklist, 1 October 1979, 216; New York Times Book Review, 23 September 1979, 3; Times Literary Supplement, 21 December 1979, 150.

26. Dr. Martin Luther King, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." in Why We Can't Wait (New York: New American Library, 1963), 76-95.

27. Baldwin, "Everybody's Protest Novel." Notes, 21.

28. Genesis, 4.

29. James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (New York: Dial, 1976), 114.

30. Baldwin, Fire, 40.

31. Ibid., 57-58.

32. The tragic mulatto theme and its attendant schizophrenic psychosis are treated variously and continually in black American fiction, beginning with such early novels as William Wells Brown's Clotel; or The President's Daughter (London: Partridge & Oakley, 1853) and Francis E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted (Philadelphia: Garringgues Brothers, 1892). See Robert Cone's Negro Novel in America, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), for a discussion of the theme.

33. Baldwin, Fire, 114.

34. James Baldwin, Blues for Mr. Charlie (New York: Dial, 1964), 77.

35. Baldwin, Devil, 116.

36. Baldwin, Devil, 30.

37. Baldwin, Notes, 112-13.

38. James Baldwin, "The Northern Protestant," in Nobody Knows My Name (New York: Dell, 1954), 180.

39. I am preparing a biography of James Baldwin. Much of the material in this section of the essay was obtained from conversations and interviews with Mr. Baldwin, his family, and associates, I am indebted to the Emory University Grants and Research Committee for a fellowship for support in obtaining these interviews and documentation in the course of this research.

40. Interviews with James Baldwin, Bernard Haskell, David Baldwin, and Richard Long, April 1980 and August 1980.

41. Interview, James Baldwin, June 1981.

42. Richard Wright's bitter exposure to Christian dogma was through his overbearing grandmother's relationship with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a denomination that had no historical axis in black American historical traditions. Thus, other than his hatred of her religious hypocrisy in Black Boy, his scenes are not religious and certainly did not reflect a church experience of his own. In Invisible Man, religion is confined to the rhetoric of the college campus and others political forums. Other than metaphors of groupism that also allude to the Communist party. Ellison avoids condemnation of the black church.

43. Baldwin and Giovanni, Dialogue, 38.

Chinua Achebe (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "James Baldwin," in James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe, Simon & Schuster, 1989, pp. 213-17.

[Chinua Achebe is a novelist whose works include Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah. In the following essay, he asserts the value of James Baldwin's legacy.]

The many and varied tributes to Jimmy Baldwin, like the blind men's version of the elephant, are consistent in one detail—the immensity, the sheer prodigality of endowment.

When my writing first began to yield small rewards in the way of free travel, UNESCO came along and asked where I would like to go. Without hesitation I said, "U.S.A. and Brazil." And so I came to the Americas for the first time in 1963.

My intention, which was somewhat nebulous to begin with, was to find out how the Africans of the diaspora were faring in the two largest countries of the New World. In UNESCO files, however, it was stated with greater precision. I was given a fellowship to enable me to study literary trends and to meet and exchange ideas with writers.

I did indeed make very many useful contacts: John O. Killens, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Paule Marshall, Le Roi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), and so on; and for good measure, Arthur Miller. They were all wonderful to me. And yet there was no way I could hide from myself or my sponsors my sense of disappointment that one particular meeting could not happen because the man concerned was away in France. And that was the year of The Fire Next Time.

Before I came to America I had discovered and read Go Tell It on the Mountain, and been instantly captivated. For me it combined the strange and the familiar in a way that was entirely new. I went to the United States Information Service Library in Lagos to see what other material there might be by or on this man. There was absolutely nothing. So I offered a couple of suggestions and such was the persuasiveness of newly independent Africans in those days that when next I looked in at the library they had not only Baldwin but Richard Wright as well.

I had all my schooling in the educational system of colonial Nigeria. In that system Americans, when they were featured at all, were dismissed summarily by our British administrators as loud and vulgar. Their universities, which taught such subjects as dishwashing, naturally produced half-baked noisy political agitators, some of whom were now rushing up and down the country because they had acquired no proper skills.

But there was one American book which the colonial educators considered of sufficient value to be exempted from the general censure of things American and actually to be prescribed reading in my high school. It was the autobiography of Booker T. Washington: Up from Slavery.

This bizarre background probably explains why my first encounter with Baldwin's writing was such a miraculous experience. Nothing that I had heard or read or seen quite prepared me for the Baldwin phenomenon. Needless to say, my education was entirely silent about W. E. B. DuBois, who, as I later discovered, had applied his experience of what he called "the strange meaning of being black" in America to ends and insights radically different from Washington's.

A major aspect of my reeducation was to see (and what comfort it gave me!) that Baldwin was neither an aberration nor likely to be a flash in the pan. He brought a new sharpness of vision, a new energy of passion, a new perfection of language to battle the incubus of race which DuBois had prophesied would possess our century—which prophecy itself had a long pedigree through the slave revolts back into Africa where, believe it or not, a seventeenth-century Igbo priest-king, Eze Nri, had declared slavery an abomination. I say believe it or not because this personage and many others like him in different parts of Africa do not fit the purposes of your history books.

When at last I met Jimmy in person in the jungles of Florida in 1980, I actually greeted him with "Mr. Baldwin, I presume!" You should have seen his eyes dancing, his remarkable face working in ripples of joyfulness. During the four days we spent down there I saw how easy it was to make Jimmy smile, and how the world he was doomed to inhabit would remorselessly deny him that simple benediction.

Baldwin and I were invited by the African Literature Association to open its annual conference in Gainesville with a public conversation. As we stepped into a tremendous ovation in the packed auditorium of the Holiday Inn. Baldwin was in particularly high spirits. I thought the old preacher in him was reacting to the multitude.

He went to the podium and began to make his opening statements. Within minutes a mystery voice came over the public address system and began to hurl racial insults at him and me. I will see that moment to the end of my life: the happiness brutally wiped off Baldwin's face; the genial manner gone; the eyes flashing in defiant combativeness; the voice incredibly calm and measured. And the words of remorseless prophecy began once again to flow.

One of the few hopeful examples of leadership in Africa was terminated abruptly when Captain Thomas Sankara, leader of Burkina Faso, was murdered in his fourth year of rule by his second-in-command. The world did not pay too much attention to yet another round of musical chairs by power-hungry soldiers in Africa. In any event Sankara was a brash young man with Marxist leanings who recently had the effrontery to read a lecture to a visiting head of state who happened to be none other than President Mitterrand of France himself. According to press reports of the incident, Mitterrand, who is a socialist veteran in his own right, rose to the occasion. He threw away his prepared speech and launched into an hour-long counterattack in which he must have covered much ground. But the sting was in the tail: "Sankara is a disturbing person. With him it is impossible to sleep in peace. He does not leave your conscience alone" (New York Times, August 23, 1987, p. 10).

I have no doubt that Mitterrand meant his comment as some kind of praise for his young and impatient host. But it was also a deadly arraignment and even conviction. Principalities and powers do not tolerate those who interrupt the sleep of their consciences. That Baldwin got away with it for forty years was a miracle. Except, of course, that he didn't get away; he paid dearly every single day of those years, every single hour of those days.

What was his crime that we should turn him into a man of sadness, this man inhabited by a soul so eager to be loved and to smile? His demands were so few and so simple.

His bafflement, childlike—which does not mean simpleminded but deeply profound and saintly—comes across again and nowhere better perhaps than in his essay "Fifth Avenue, Uptown": "Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement containing seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud and the Bible find this statement impenetrable." This failure to comprehend turns out to be, as one might have suspected, a willful, obdurate refusal. And for good reason. For let's face it, that sentence, simple and innocent-looking though it may seem, is in reality a mask for a profoundly subversive intent to reorder the world. And the world, viewed from the high point of the pyramid where its controllers reside, is working perfectly well and sitting firm.

Egypt's Pharaoh, according to the myth of the Israelites, faced the same problem when a wild-eyed man walked up to him with a simple demand, four words long: "Let my people go!" We are not told that he rushed off to his office to sign their exit visa. On the contrary.

So neither history nor legend encourages us to believe that a man who sits on his fellow will some day climb down on the basis of sounds reaching him from below. And yet we must consider how so much more dangerous our already very perilous world would become if the oppressed everywhere should despair altogether of invoking reason and humanity to arbitrate their cause. This is the value and the relevance, into the foreseeable future, of James Baldwin.

As long as injustice exists, whether it be within the American nation itself or between it and its neighbors; as long as a tiny cartel of rich, creditor nations can hold the rest in iron chains of usury; so long as one third or less of mankind eat well and often to excess while two-thirds and more live perpetually with hunger; as long as white people who constitute a mere fraction of the human race consider it natural and even righteous to dominate the rainbow majority whenever and wherever they are thrown together; and—the oldest of them all—as long as the discrimination by men against women persists, the words of James Baldwin will be there to bear witness and to inspire and elevate the struggle for human freedom.

Further Reading

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Cohen, William A. "Liberalism, Libido, Liberation: Baldwin's Another Country." Genders (Winter 1991): 1-21.

Explores the roles of race, sexual identity, and liberal ideology in Baldwin's Another Country.

DeGout, Yasmin Y. "Dividing the Mind: Contradictory Portraits of Homoerotic Love in Giovanni's Room." African American Review 26, No. 3 (Fall 1992): 425-35.

Discusses the conflicting images of homosexuality as both natural and deviant in Baldwin's Giovanni's Room.

Olson, Barbara K. "'Come-to-Jesus Stuff' in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Amen Corner." African American Review 31, No. 2 (Summer 1997): 295-301.

Analyzes how Baldwin's The Amen Corner functions as a response to the reception of his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Porter, Horace. "The South in Go Tell It on the Mountain: Baldwin's Personal Confrontation." In New Essays on Go Tell It on the Mountain, edited by Trudier Harris, pp. 59-75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Traces the role of the South in Baldwin's Go Tell It on The Mountain and asserts that Baldwin's experience of the South was derived secondhand from other sources.

Reid-Pharr, Robert F. "Tearing the Goat's Flesh: Homosexuality, Abjection and the Production of a Late Twentieth-Century Black Masculinity." Studies in the Novel XXVIII, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 372-94.

Discusses James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, and Piri Thomas' Down These Mean Streets, concept of black masculinity.

Tsomondo, Thorell. "Other Tale to Tell: 'Sonny's Blues' and Waiting for the Rain." Critique 36, No. 3 (Spring 1995): 195-209.

Asserts that Baldwin and Charles Mungoshi operate as artists and historians in "Sonny's Blues" and Waiting for the Rain, respectively, because of the multiple stories which arise out of the narratives.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (essay date 1 June 1992)

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SOURCE: "The Fire Last Time," in New Republic, Vol. 206, No. 22, June 1, 1992, pp. 37-43.

[In the following essay, Gates traces the course of Baldwin's thought and importance throughout his career.]

"I am not in paradise," James Baldwin assured readers of the Black Scholar in 1973. "It rains down here too." Maybe it did. But it seemed like paradise to me. In 1973 I was 22 years old, an eager young black American journalist doing a story for Time, visiting Baldwin at his home just outside the tiny, ancient walled village of St. Paul de Vence, nestled in the alpine foothills that rise from the Mediterranean Sea. The air carried the smells of wild thyme and pine and centuries-old olive trees. The light of the region, prized by painters and vacationers, at once intensifies and subdues the colors, so that the terra-cotta tile roofs of the buildings are by turns rosy pink, rust brown, or deep red.

Baldwin's house was situated among shoulder-high rosemary hedges, grape arbors, acres of peach and almond orchards, and fields of wild asparagus and strawberries; it had been built in the eighteenth century and retained its frescoed walls and rough-hewn beams. And yet he seemed to have made of it his own Greenwich Village café. Always there were guests, an entourage of friends and hangers-on, and always there was drinking and conviviality. The grape arbors sheltered tables, and it was under one such grape arbor, at one of the long harvest tables, that we dined. The line from the old gospel song, a line that Baldwin had quoted toward the end of his then latest novel, suggested itself: "I'm going to feast at the welcome table." And we did—Baldwin, and Josephine Baker, well into her 60s but still with a lean dancer's body and the smooth skin that the French called "café-au-lait," and Cecil Brown, author of The Life and Lovers of Mister Jiveass Nigger and one of the great hopes of black fiction, my fiancée, Sharon Adams, and I.

At that long welcome table under the arbor, the wine flowed, food was served and taken away, and Baldwin and Baker traded stories, gossiped about everyone they knew and many people they didn't know, and remembered their lives. They had both been hurt and disillusioned by the United States and had chosen to live in France. They never forgot or forgave. At the table that long, warm night they recollected the events that led to their decisions to leave their country of birth, and the consequences of those decisions: the difficulty of living away from home and family, of always feeling apart in their chosen homes; the pleasure of choosing a new life, the possibilities of the untried. A sense of nostalgia pervaded the evening. For all their misgivings, they shared a sense, curiously, of being on the winning side of history.

People said Baldwin was ugly; he himself said so. But he was not ugly to me. There are faces that we cannot see simply as faces because they are so familiar, so iconic, and his face was one of them. And as I sat there, in a growing haze of awe and alcohol, studying his lined visage, I realized that neither the Baldwin I was meeting—mischievous, alert, funny—nor the Baldwin I might come to know could ever mean as much to me as James Baldwin, my own personal oracle, the gimlet-eyed figure who stared at me out of a fuzzy dust jacket photograph when I was 14. For that was when I first met Baldwin, and discovered that black people, too, wrote books.

It was the summer of 1965, and I was attending an Episcopal church camp in eastern West Virginia, high in the Allegheny Mountains. This was no ordinary church camp. Our themes that year were "Is God dead?" and "Can you love two people at once?" (Episcopalians were never ones to let grass grow under their feet.) After a solid week of complete isolation, a delivery man, bringing milk and bread to the camp, told the head counselor that "all hell had broken loose in Los Angeles," and that the "colored people had gone crazy." Then he handed him a Sunday paper, screaming the news that Negroes were rioting in some place called Watts. I, for one, was bewildered. I didn't understand what a riot was. Were colored people being killed by white people, or were they killing white people? Watching myself being watched by all of the white campers—there were only three black kids among the hundreds of campers—I experienced that strange combination of power and powerlessness that you feel when the actions of another black person affect your own life, simply because both of you are black.

Sensing my mixture of pride and discomfiture, an Episcopal priest from New England handed me a book. Notes of a Native Son, it was called. Was this man the author, I wondered to myself, this man with a closely cropped "natural," brown skin, splayed nostrils, and wide lips, so very Negro, so comfortable to be so? This was the first time I had heard a voice capturing the terrible exhilaration and anxiety of being a person of African descent in this country. From the book's first few sentences, I was caught up thoroughly in the sensibility of another person, a black person. Coming from a tiny and segregated black community in a white village. I knew that "black culture" had a texture, a logic, of its own, and that it was inextricable from "white" culture. That was the paradox that Baldwin identified and negotiated, and that is why I say his prose shaped my identity as an Afro-American, as much by the questions he raised as by the answers he provided.

I could not put the book down. I raced through it, then others, filling my commonplace book with his marvelously long sentences that bristled with commas and qualifications. The biblical cadences spoke to me with a special immediacy, for I, too, was to be a minister, having been "saved" in a small evangelical church at the age of 12. (From this fate the Episcopalians—and also Baldwin—diverted me.) Eventually I began to imitate Baldwin's style of writing, using dependent clauses whenever and wherever I could. Consider a passage from Nobody Knows My Name.

And a really cohesive society, one of the attributes, perhaps, of what is taken to be a "healthy" culture, has, generally, and I suspect, necessarily, a much lower level of tolerance for the maverick, the dissenter, the man who steals the fire, than have societies in which, the common ground of belief having all but vanished, each man, in awful and brutal isolation, is for himself, to flower or to perish.

There are sixteen commas in that sentence. And so in my essays at school I was busy trying to cram as many commas into my sentences as I could, until my high school English teacher forbade me.

Of course, I was not alone in my enthrallment. When Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time in 1963, he was exalted as the voice of black America; and it was not long before he was spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize. ("Opportunity and duty are sometimes born together," he wrote later.) Perhaps not since Booker T. Washington had one man been taken to embody the voice of "the Negro." By the early '60s his authority seemed nearly unchallengeable. What did the Negro want? Ask James Baldwin.

The puzzle was that his arguments, richly nuanced and self-consciously ambivalent, were far too complex to serve straightforwardly political ends. Thus he would argue in Notes of a Native Son that

the question of color, especially in this country, operates to hide the graver question of the self. That is precisely why what we like to call "the Negro problem" is so tenacious in American life, and so dangerous. But my own experience proves to me that the connection between American whites and blacks is far deeper and more passionate than any of us like to think…. The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one's key to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours.

One does not read such a passage without a double take. By proclaiming that the color question conceals the graver questions of the self, Baldwin leads you to expect a transcendence of the contingencies of race, in the name of a deeper artistic or psychological truth. But instead, with an abrupt swerve, he returns you precisely to those questions:

In America, the color of my skin had stood between myself and me; in Europe, that barrier was down. Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch. It turned out that the question of who I was was not solved because I had removed myself from the social forces which menaced me—anyway, these forces had become interior, and I had dragged them across the ocean with me. The question of who I was had at last become a personal question, and the answer was to be found in me.

I think there is always something frightening about this realization. I know it frightened me.

Again, these words are easily misread. For Baldwin was proposing not that politics is merely a projection of private neuroses, but that our private neuroses are shaped by quite public ones. The retreat to subjectivity, the "graver questions of the self," would lead not to an escape from the "racial drama," but—and this was the alarming prospect that Baldwin wanted to announce—a rediscovery of it.

That traditional liberal dream of a non-racial self, unconstrained by epidermal contingencies, was hopefully entertained and at last, for him, reluctantly dismissed. "There are," he observed,

few things on earth more attractive than the idea of the unspeakable liberty which is allowed the unredeemed. When, beneath the black mask, a human being begins to make himself felt one cannot escape a certain awful wonder as to what kind of human being it is. What one's imagination makes of other people is dictated, of course, by the laws of one's own personality and it is one of the ironies of black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is.

This is not a call for "racial understanding." On the contrary, we understand each other all too well, for we have invented one another, derived our identities from the ghostly projections of our alter egos. If Baldwin had a central political argument, it was that the destinies of black America and white were profoundly and irreversibly intertwined. Each created the other, each defined itself in relation to the other, each could destroy the other.

For Baldwin, America's "interracial drama" had "not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too." In that sense, he could argue, "The history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met." These were not words to speed along a cause. They certainly did not mesh with the rhetoric of self-affirmation that liberation movements, including those masquerading as a newly "Afrocentric" science of man, require. Yet couldn't his sense of the vagaries of identity serve the ends of a still broader, braver politics?

As an intellectual, Baldwin was at his best when he explored his own equivocal sympathies and clashing allegiances. He was here to "bear witness," he insisted, not to be a spokesman. And he was right to insist on the distinction. But who had time for such niceties? The spokesman role was assigned him inevitably. The result was to complicate further his curious position as an Afro-American intellectual. In those days, on the populist left, the favored model of the oppositional spokesman was what Gramsci called the "organic intellectual," who participated in, and was part of, the community, which he would not only analyze but also uplift. And yet Baldwin's basic conception of himself was formed by the older but still well-entrenched ideal of the alienated artist or intellectual, whose advanced sensibility entailed his estrangement from the very people he would represent.

Baldwin could dramatize the tension between these two models, especially in his fiction, but he was never to resolve it. A spokesman must have a firm grasp on his role and an unambiguous message to articulate. Baldwin had neither, and when this was discovered a few short years later, he was relieved of his duties, summarily retired, shunted aside as an elder statesman. Indeed, by the time I met him, on that magical afternoon in St. Paul de Vence, he had become (as my own editor subsequently admonished me) passé. Anyone who was aware of the ferment in black America was familiar with the attacks. And nothing ages a young Turk faster than still younger Turks; the cruel irony was that Baldwin may never have fully recovered from this demotion from a status that he had always disavowed.

If Baldwin had once served as a shadow delegate for black America in the congress of culture, his term had expired. Soldiers, not delegates, were what was wanted these days. "Pulling rank," Eldridge Cleaver wrote in his essay on Baldwin, "is a very dangerous business, especially when the troops have mutinied and the basis of one's authority, or rank, is devoid of that interdictive power and has become suspect." He found in Baldwin's work "the most grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in any black American writer of note in our time." According to Amiri Baraka, the new star of the Black Arts Movement, Baldwin was "Joan of Arc of the cocktail party." His "spavined whine and plea" was "sickening beyond belief." In the eyes of the young Ishmael Reed, he was "a hustler who comes on like Job."

Cleaver attacked Baldwin on more than racial grounds. For the heated new apostle of black machismo, Baldwin's sexuality, that is, his homosexuality, also represented treason: "Many Negro homosexuals, acquiescing in this racial death-wish, are outraged because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man." Baldwin was thus engaged in "a despicable underground guerrilla war, waged on paper, against black masculinity." Young militants referred to Baldwin, unsmilingly, as Martin Luther Queen. Baldwin, of course, was hardly a stranger to the sexual battlefield. "On every street corner," Baldwin would later recall of his early days in the Village, "I was called a faggot." What was different this time was a newly sexualized black nationalism that could stigmatize homosexuality as a capitulation to alien white norms, and in that way accredit homophobia as a progressive political act.

A new generation, so it seemed, was determined to define itself by everything Baldwin was not. By the late '60s Baldwin-bashing was almost a rite of initiation. And yet Baldwin would not return fire, at least not in public. He responded with a pose of wounded passivity. And then, with a kind of capitulation: the shift of political climate forced him to simplify his rhetoric or risk internal exile.

As his old admirers recognized, Baldwin was now chasing, with unseemly alacrity, after a new vanguard, one that esteemed rage, not compassion, as our noblest emotion. "It is not necessary for a black man to hate a white man, or to have particular feelings about him at all, in order to realize that he must kill him," he wrote in No Name in the Street, a book he began in 1967 but did not publish until 1972. "Yes, we have come, or are coming, to this, and there is no point in flinching before the prospect of this exceedingly cool species of fratricide." That same year he told The New York Times of his belated realization that "our destinies are in our hands, black hands, and no one else's."

It is a stirring sentiment—and a sentiment that the earlier Baldwin would have been the first to see through. How far he had come from the author of The Fire Next Time, who had forecast the rise of black power and yet was certain that

we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task: there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

All such qualms were irrelevant now. In an offhanded but calculated manner, Baldwin affected to dismiss his earlier positions: "I was, in some way, in those years, without entirely realizing it, the Great Black Hope of the Great White Father." If there was something ominous about this public display of self-criticism, it was because we could not forget that the forced recantation had no value that does not purport to be freely given.

In an impossible gambit, the author of No Name in the Street sought to reclaim his lost authority by signaling his willingness to be instructed by those who had inherited it. Contradicting his own greatest achievements, he feebly borrowed the populist slogans of the day, and returned them with the beautiful Baldwinian polish. "The powerless, by definition, can never be 'racists,'" he writes, "for they can never make the world pay for what they feel or fear except by the suicidal endeavor that makes them fanatics or revolutionaries, or both; whereas those in power can be urbane and charming and invite you to those houses which they know you will never own." This view—that blacks cannot be racist—is today a familiar one, a platitude of much of the contemporary debate. The key phrase, of course, is "by definition." For this is not only, or even largely, an empirical claim. It is a rhetorical and psychological move, an unfortunate but unsurprising attempt by the victim to forever exempt himself from guilt.

The term "racism" is here redefined by Baldwin, as it has been redefined by certain prominent Afro-American artists and intellectuals today, to refer to a reified system of power relations, to a social order in which one race is essentially and forever subordinated to another. (A parallel move is common in much feminist theory, where "patriarchy"—naming a social order to which Man and Woman have a fixed and opposed relation—contrasts with "sexism," which characterizes the particular acts of particular people.) To be sure, it does express, in an abstract and extreme manner, a widely accepted truth: that the asymmetries of power mean that not all racial insult is equal. (Not even a Florida jury is much concerned when a black captive calls his arresting officer a "cracker.") Still, it represents a grave political error.

For black America needs allies more than it needs absolution. And the slogan—a definition masquerading as an idea—would all too quickly serve as a blanket amnesty for our own dankest suspicions and bigotries. It is a slogan that Baldwin once would have debunked with his devastating mock-detachment. He would have repudiated it not for the sake of white America—for white America, he would have argued, the display of black prejudice could only provide a reassuring confirmation of its own—but for the sake of black America. The Baldwin who knew that the fates of black and white America were one also knew that if racism was to be deplored, it was to be deplored tout court, without exemption clauses for the oppressed.

Wasn't it this conviction, above all, that explained Baldwin's own repudiation of Malcolm X? I should be clear. His reverence for Malcolm was real, but it was posthumous. In a conversation with Kenneth Clark recorded in 1963, a year and a half before Malcolm's assassination, Baldwin ventured that by preaching black supremacy, "what [Malcolm] does is destroy a truth and invent a myth." Compared with King's appeal, he said, Malcolm's appeal was

much more sinister because it is much more effective. It is much more effective, because it is, after all, comparatively easy to invest a population with false morale by giving them a false sense of superiority, and it will always break down in a crisis. That is the history of Europe simply—it's one of the reasons that we are in this terrible place.

Still, he cautioned, the country "shouldn't be worried about the Muslim movement, that's not the problem. The problem is to eliminate the conditions which breed the Muslim movement." (Five years later, under contract with Columbia Pictures, Baldwin began the task of adapting Malcolm to the screen.)

That ethnic scapegoating was an unaffordable luxury, moreover, had been another of Baldwin's own lessons. "Georgia has the Negro," he once pithily wrote, slicing through the thickets of rationalization, "and Harlem has the Jew." We have grimly seen where the failure of this more truthful vision has led: to the surreal spectacle of urban activists who would rather picket Korean grocery stores than crack houses, on the assumption that sullen shopkeepers with their pricey tomatoes, and not smiley drug dealers with their discount glass vials, are the true threat to black dignity.

As I say, by 1973 the times had changed; and they have stayed changed. That, I suppose, is our problem. But Baldwin wanted to change with them. That was his problem. And so we lost his skepticism, his critical independence. Baldwin's belated public response to Cleaver's charges was heartbreaking, and all too symptomatic. Now he would turn the other cheek and insist, in No Name in the Street, that he actually admired Cleaver's book. Cleaver's attack on him was explained away as a regrettable if naive misunderstanding: the revolutionary had simply been misled by Baldwin's public reputation. Beyond that, he wrote,

I also felt that I was confused in his mind with the unutterable debasement of the male—with all those faggots, punks, and sissies, the sight and sound of whom, in prison, must have made him vomit more than once. Well, I certainly hope I know more about myself, and the intention of my work than that, but I am an odd quantity. So is Eldridge, so are we all. It is a pity that we won't, probably, ever have the time to attempt to define once more the relationship of the odd and disreputable artist to odd and disreputable revolutionary…. And I think we need each other, and have much to learn from each other, and, more than ever, now.

It was an exercise in perverse and willed magnanimity, and it was meant, no doubt, to suggest unruffled strength. Instead it showed weakness, the ill-disguised appeasement of the creature whose day had come and gone.

Did Baldwin know what was happening to him? His essays give no clue; increasingly they came to represent his official voice. But his fiction became the refuge of his growing self-doubts. In 1968 he published Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone. Formally speaking, it was his least successful work, but in its protagonist, Leo Proudhammer, Baldwin created a perfectly Baldwinian alter ego, a celebrated black artist who, in diction that matched the eloquence of Baldwin's essays, could express the quandaries that came increasingly to trouble his creator. "The day came," he reflects at one point, "when I wished to break my silence and found that I could not speak: the actor could no longer be distinguished from his role." Thus did Baldwin, our elder statesman, who knew better than anyone how a mask could deform the face beneath, chafe beneath his own.

Called to speak before a civil rights rally. Proudhammer ruminates on the contradictions of his position:

I did not want others to endure my estrangement, that was why I was on the platform; yet was it not, at the least, paradoxical that it was only my estrangement which had placed me there?… It was our privilege, to say nothing of our hope, to attempt to make the world a human dwelling place for us all; and yet—yet—was it not possible that the mighty gentlemen, my honorable and invaluable confreres, by being unable to imagine such a journey as my own, were leaving something of the utmost importance out of their aspirations?

These are not unpolitical reflections, but they are not the reflections of a politician. Contrast Leroi Jones's unflappable conviction, in an essay called "Reflections of Two Hotshots" published in 1963, that "a writer must have a point of view, or he cannot be a good writer. He must be standing somewhere in the world, or else he is not one of us, and his commentary then is of little value." It was a carefully aimed arrow, and it would pierce Baldwin's heart.

The threat of being deemed obsolete, or "not one of us," is a fearful thing. Tell Me How Long depicts a black artist's growing sense that (in a recurrent phrase) he no longer belongs to himself, that his public role may have depleted the rest of him. Of course, "the burden of representation," as Baldwin once called it, is a common affliction in Afro-American literature, an unfair condition of hardship that black writers frequently face; but few black writers have measured its costs—the price of this particular ticket to ride—as trenchantly as Baldwin. He risked the fate, and in some ways finally succumbed to the fate, that Leo Proudhammer most feared, which was to be "a Jeremiah without convictions."

Desperate to be "one of us," to be loved by his own, Baldwin allowed himself to mouth a script that was not his own. The connoisseur of complexity tried his hand at being an ideologue. To be sure, he could still do anything he wanted with the English essay. The problem was that he no longer knew quite what he wanted, and he cared too much about what others wanted from him. For a generation had arrived that didn't want anything from him—except, perhaps, that he lie down and die. And this, too, has been a consistent dynamic of race and representation in Afro-America. If someone has anointed a black intellectual, be assured that someone else is busily constructing his tumbril.

We stayed in touch, on and off, through the intervening years, often dining at the Ginger Man when he was in New York. Sometimes he would introduce me to his current lover, or speak of his upcoming projects. I did not return to St. Paul de Vence until shortly after his death four-and-a-half years ago at the age of 63. This time I came to meet his brother David. The place had changed remarkably in the twenty or so years since Baldwin settled there. The grape arbors are now strung with electric lights. Luxury homes dot the landscape on quarter-acre plots, and in the midst of this congestion stands Baldwin's ten-acre oasis, the only undivided farm acreage left in St. Paul.

When I recounted for David Baldwin the circumstances of my meeting his brother for the first time, his wide eyes grew wider. He rose from the table, went downstairs into the study—where a wall of works by and about Henry James faces you as you enter—and emerged with a manuscript in hand. "This is for you," he said. He handed me a play. It was the last work that James Baldwin completed as he suffered through his final illness, and it was called "The Welcome Table." It was set in the Riviera, at a house much like his own, and among the principal characters were "Edith, an actress-singer/star: Creole, from New Orleans," "Daniel, ex-black Panther, fledgling playwright" with more than a passing resemblance to Cecil Brown, and "Peter Davis, Black American journalist." Peter Davis—who has come to interview a famous star, and whose prodding questions lead to the play's revelations—was, I should say, a far better and more aggressive interviewer than I was; Baldwin, being Baldwin, had transmuted the occasion into a searching drama of revelation and crisis.

Narratives of decline have the appeal of simplicity, but Baldwin's career will not fit that mold. "Unless a writer is extremely old when he dies, in which case he has probably become a neglected institution, his death must always seem untimely," he wrote in 1961, giving us fair warning. "This is because a real writer is always shifting and changing and searching." Reading his late essays, I would like to imagine him embarking on a period of intellectual resurgence. Despite the unfortunate pronouncements of his later years, I believe that he was finding his course again, and exploring the instability of all the categories that divide us. As he wrote in "Here Be Monsters," an essay published two years before his death, and with which he chose to conclude The Price of the Ticket, his collected nonfiction: "Each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it." We needed to hear those words two decades ago, and we especially need to hear them now.

Now we are struggling in this country to fathom the rage in Los Angeles; and slowly we are realizing how intertwined, as Baldwin insisted, are the destinies of black and white America, and how easily one can lay waste to the other in the fury of interracial fratricide. Thirty years ago, Baldwin believed that an effort by the handful of "relatively conscious" blacks and whites might be able to avert the prophecy of the old spiritual: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!" The belief proved difficult to sustain. Good intentions—increasingly scarce these days—seem easily defeated by the cycles of poverty, the structural as well as the cultural determinants of urban decay, alienation, and hopelessness. Today, as black intellectuals try to sort outrage from opportunism, political protest from simple criminality, they may wonder if the sense of mutuality that Baldwin promoted can long survive, or if his "elegant despair" alone will endure.

But perhaps times are due to change again. An influential black intellectual avant-garde in Britain has resurrected Baldwin as a patron saint, and a new generation of readers has come to value just those qualities of ambivalence and equivocality, just that sense of the contingency of identity, that made him useless to the ideologues of liberation and anathema to so many black nationalists. Even Baldwin's fiercest antagonists seem now to have welcomed him back to the fold. Like everyone else, I guess, we like our heroes dead.

Terry Rowden (essay date January 1993)

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SOURCE: "A Play of Abstractions: Race, Sexuality, and Community in James Baldwin's Another Country," in Southern Review, Vol. 29, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 41-50.

[In the following essay, Rowden analyzes racial and sexual identity in Baldwin's Another Country, focusing on the character of Rufus, his relationships, and his place in the community.]

Of the many blindnesses that have characterized critical readings of James Baldwin's work, one of the most consistent has been the critical failure to consider seriously the lack of continuity uniting the persona of racial spokesman that Baldwin adopts in many of his essays and that of sexual utopian that he develops in his fiction. Although it is usually the completely whitewashed Giovanni's Room to which Baldwin critics point when they want to strip him of his raceman credentials, it is actually in Baldwin's novel Another Country, with its general exclusion of black men and its racial scapegoating of the only one that it allows, that we are given the most explicit evidence of how ambivalent was Baldwin's relationship not only to the sexuality of the black man, but to the simple fact of the existence of black men in society.

Most works of fiction rely on some implied notion of community in order to maintain their narrative and normative coherence. They achieve this coherence by the explicit scapegoating of some person (or persons) who, by extension, become representative of something whose eradication would bring about the kind of communal situation that I am calling "utopian." The scapegoated character exists as the point in relation to which an anti-utopian or dystopian alternative can be glimpsed and textually activated, thereby making possible the normative coding of the various characters and their actions. It is as reactive movement away from this implicitly dystopian alternative that the narrative is constructed.

Of all of James Baldwin's novels, Another Country is the most important for a consideration of this narrative dynamic. In Another Country this dystopianism is enacted by, or perhaps I should say projected onto, the figure of Rufus. At best, Baldwin's Rufus is the depiction of a pathology that is never explicitly acknowledged, a case of internalized racism of almost Frankensteinian proportions. Contextualized by his unlikely group of middle-class white friends, Rufus's life and suicide can best be read not as the acts of a tragically self-aware black man destroyed by the inescapable forces of white racism, but as those of a racially alienated white/black man fatally frustrated by a lack of recognition from the only people whose recognition he can perceive as being of any value, the white bourgeoisie.

As both a self-proclaimed homosexual and a burgeoning literary superstar, by the time Another Country was published Baldwin was, socially, a very strangely situated man. Unfortunately, the more critics and black radicals commented on the dichotomy between the particulars differentiating Baldwin's own life from those of the people he claimed to represent, the more desperate he became to take on the mantle of race-man extraordinaire. The resulting contradictions explain perhaps better than anything else the problematic aspects of the fiction that he wrote after Go Tell It On the Mountain.

The observation that Baldwin's Rufus is, regardless of his other antecedents, in some sense a response to Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas is a critical commonplace, but whereas the claim can plausibly be made that, as Irving Howe put it in his essay "James Baldwin: At Ease in Apocalypse," Wright successfully deployed Bigger as "not so much a distinctive human being as an elemental force through which to release the rage black men had not dared to express," Rufus's sketchiness is much more problematic and ineffective. Rufus's suicidal response to racist oppression, the opening salvo in Baldwin's turn to the kind of protest writing for which he had previously chided Richard Wright, is supposedly the only option available to him in the unremittingly racist society of which he is a part. Unfortunately, we are never actually given any sense of the process that creates what Baldwin describes as "colored men who wanted to beat up everyone in sight, including, or perhaps especially, people who had never one way or another, given them a thought." In Another Country Baldwin never establishes a believable social ellipse upon which we can situate Rufus. What Baldwin wrote of Richard Wright's narrowness of focus in Native Son could more pertinently have been written about this aspect of Another Country:

What this means for the novel is that a necessary dimension has been cut away; this dimension being the relationship that Negroes bear to one another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life. What the novel reflects—and at no point interprets—is the isolation of the Negro within his own group and the resulting fury of impatient scorn.

The Rufus section of the novel fails to do the kind of textual work that would justify its privileged position in the novel. In order for it to function formally in the way that Baldwin wanted it to, i.e., to resonate throughout the rest of the book, elevating the whole to the level of a serious social critique, Rufus's representativeness and his special sensitivity to the racist dynamics of American society would have to have been established with a much greater degree of realism and social specificity. This is, unfortunately, exactly what Baldwin fails to do. Although Baldwin tells us that Rufus is "part of an unprecedented multitude," he is, in fact, presented as being almost totally isolated from any recognizable section of the black community. We are repeatedly told of how well loved and respected Rufus is by his fellow jazzmen, but he is never shown actually relating to them as one black man, or more specifically as one black artist, among others. Instead Rufus's position as an artist, a jazz drummer, is used to justify his friendships with the "artsy" group of whites by whom he has been taken up as a mascot.

From the start, the idea of Rufus as exemplary black man is consistently undercut. By depriving Rufus's plight of any social context beyond casually polemical references to a state of oppression whose particulars Baldwin seems to think are so well known as to be unworthy of delineation, Baldwin fails, to provide the kind of social detail that would narratively validate the relationships that take place in the rest of the book. Regardless of how rhetorically seductive individual episodes in Another Country may be, the kind of social detail that could link these set pieces into the coherent or even comprehensive social vision that Baldwin was trying to articulate is lacking. The attention that Rufus's line "You took the best, so why not take the rest?" has received suggests that it has for many people some special expressive force as an agonized cry from the heart of the racially dispossessed urban "subproletariat." When read in the context of the novel itself, however, it is almost impossible to figure out exactly what Rufus is talking about. Nevertheless, one soon realizes that given the narrative trajectory that Rufus will travel in the novel, this isolation has an absolute strategic necessity. Only this kind of social alienation could explain both the belatedness of Rufus's recognition of the social significance of his blackness and the destructiveness and self-hatred to which this recognition gives rise.

Despite the narrative prominence and popular notoriety that the sexual and racial dynamics in Another Country have been granted, dramatically they are vitiated by Baldwin's fundamental lack of familiarity with the systematic particulars of the bourgeois white world that he attempts to depict and in which he tries to situate Rufus. Baldwin's inability to adequately conceptualize this social milieu makes it impossible for it and the under-depicted black one to narratively coexist and critically interrogate each other. Baldwin's attempt to delineate the emotional and ethnic tensions that might actually be operative among the sexually and racially heterogeneous group of people with whom he populates the book backfires, primarily because he never provides any plausible reasons, beyond Rufus's marginal position as a musician, for these characters to be emotionally involved or even personally aware of each other in the first place. The social landscape upon which the story is played out can only make sense if one thinks about it solely in terms of its narrative utility. Only by going completely outside of the framework that Baldwin sets up and reading the novel as the depiction of the goings-on among a self-consciously experimental group of sexual radicals can this particular collection of people be rendered believable.

This brings full circle the charge that Rufus does not represent black men. Because Another Country's utopianized image of homosexuality as represented by the sexually messianic figure of Eric is, as many critics have pointed out, coded as being exclusively white and male, Rufus cannot be a homosexual. Still, because (at least emotionally) his relationship with Vivaldo is so obviously homoerotic, he can't, given the novel's racial calculus, be genuinely black either. The best he can do is to represent or theatrically enact the kind of black male that Baldwin needs to serve his ideological purposes. This is the black male as bearer of a kind of heterosexual dystopianism that will throw the homosexual utopia with which the novel ends into even brighter relief. The very formlessness and social pessimism of the two novels in which Baldwin actually tried to situate socially the openly homosexual black man, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone and Just Above My Head, indicate Baldwin's investment in the idea of this homosexual utopia and, implicitly, of positive community itself as something that was for whites only.

It is this dynamic of internalized racism that catalyzes the only genuinely well-drawn relationship in Another Country, the one between Rufus and Leona, the pathetic white southern woman whom he destroys. Although the fact of the white male's sexual exploitation of black women had been recognized since the beginnings of African-American fiction, it was not until Oscar Micheaux's The Homesteader that a black writer risked presenting a full-blown romance between a black man and a white woman. Charles Stember's book Sexual Racism: The Emotional Barrier to an Integrated Society, one of the best-known products of a strand of racist but not necessarily valueless sexology, reflects fruitfully on the master-idea of the Rufus section of Another Country and of many of the black novelists who have dealt with such relationships. This is the idea, best expressed by Calvin Hernton, that there is on the part of black men a "sociosexually induced predisposition for white women." If, as Stember has perhaps too sweepingly suggested, "Among men in our society sex is in fact closely associated with a feeling of defilement, and women, especially of the dominant culture tend to be seen as superior creatures," this imagined superiority may explain why the possession of or inability to possess a particular white woman is such an explosive issue for the men in Another Country.

In Sexual Racism Stember suggests that, "[w]hile the majority man attains maximum gratification only in situations where the woman is especially attractive according to cultural criteria, the black man can experience a strong feeling of conquest with almost any white woman." Bearing out this assertion, in Another Country the white woman seems to occupy a place squarely at the center of the black man's. Rufus's, consciousness. She occupies it, however, not as a woman but simply as an instrument, as the catalyst that sets into motion a sociosexual dynamic that seemingly involves not just this particular black man and white woman, but this man, this woman, and all of the men, black and white, to whom the relationship supposedly represents the ultimate act of social transgression. Just as, after a while, to think of Rufus is to think of Rufus and Leona, all of the culturally specific aspects of Rufus's experience that would have to be represented if Rufus were to have some force as an individual are reduced to peripheral elements which are subordinated, if not completely invalidated, by his desperate need, as a deindividualized black man, to acquire an equally deindividualized white woman. "You'd never even have looked at that girl, Rufus, if she'd been black," the imagined voice of his sister says to Rufus at one point. "But you'll pick up any white trash just because she's white." Correspondingly, throughout their time together, Rufus almost never refers to Leona by her real name. She is among other things "Honeychild," "Miss Anne," "Little Eva," "a funny little cracker," and "a splendid specimen of Southern womanhood," but rarely simply Leona.

The Rufus-Leona relationship for most of its course is simply a play of abstractions, one in which any real psychological contact is, obviously on Rufus's part and more subtly on Leona's, systematically evaded. This dynamic can be seen at work even in the initial moments of their relationship. After Leona's first words to Rufus, Baldwin tells us:

She had said enough. She was from the South. And something leaped in Rufus as he stared at her damp, colorless face, the face of the Southern poor white, and her straight pale hair. She was considerably older than he, over thirty probably, and her body was too thin. Just the same, it abruptly became the most exciting body he had gazed on in a long time.

"Honeychild," he said and gave her his crooked grin, "ain't you a long ways from home?"

"I sure am," she said, "and I ain't never going back there."

He laughed and she laughed. "Well Miss Anne," he said, "if we both got the same thing on our mind let's make it to the party."

Both the simple fact that Leona is a white woman and the equally important fact that she is a white woman from the South immediately create a sense of double scapegoating that decisively excises this relationship from the utopian drama that will be played out in the novel's remaining 288 pages. For example, soon after meeting Leona, Rufus:

remembered suddenly his days in boot camp in the South and felt again the shoe of a white officer against his mouth. He was in his white uniform, on the ground, against the red, dusty clay. Some of his colored buddies were holding him, were helping him to rise. The white officer, with a curse, had vanished, had gone forever beyond the reach of vengeance.

Leona's sexual availability as a woman enables her to stand in for and ground Rufus's relationship with Vivaldo, the white man with whom Rufus is involved in an unspoken game of racial and sexual competition, while her unique position as a southern woman enables Rufus to turn her into a surrogate for the white men against whom he cannot effectively express his resentment.

Leona, on the other hand, can scapegoat herself by "loving" and then allowing herself to be destroyed by the dangerous "other" that Rufus represents, just as another part of her had loved and been destroyed by the equally abusive relationship that her marriage to a hyperracist southern "cracker" had been. In fact, it is exactly Rufus's otherness, his blackness, that Leona must deny in order to perform her role in the drama that they are enacting. At one point Rufus asks, "Didn't they warn you down home about the darkies you'd find up North?" and she answers, "They didn't never worry me none. People's just people as far as I'm concerned." This response reveals her denial of both racial and sexual difference and, thereby, her repression of the distinctly sexual nature of her interest in Rufus. Being a product of the particular racial and sexual hierarchies which organize southern society, Leona could in fact never be unaware of the transgressive nature of her involvement with Rufus. She, perhaps more than any other character in Another Country, would know that people are not just people, and that there are real and potentially dangerous social implications in the sexual choices people make. Just as Rufus's self-hatred stems from his inability either to enact or reject the roles that have been socially validated for white men and made inaccessible for blacks, Leona's self-hatred is the result of a similar failure to fulfill internalized social expectations. She has "failed" as a wife and as a mother, and because of this failure has marked herself as someone deserving of destruction.

The catalyst in the Rufus/Leona relationship is the homoerotically charged presence of Rufus's best friend, Vivaldo. Because it is Rufus's status as a black man and not his sexual identity, whatever it may be, that makes him essentially unacceptable and places him outside of the positive community that Baldwin is conceptualizing in Another Country, whether Rufus can best be coded as homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual is finally unimportant. As the glimpses Baldwin offers into Rufus's relationship with Eric make clear, exactly the same kind of racial abstractions that will characterize Rufus's relationship with Leona would come into play if the homosexual aspects of the relationship between Rufus and Vivaldo were allowed to take their "natural" course. Tellingly, Rufus is the only character in the book whom Eric's love cannot save.

In a way comparable to the dynamics of the relationships that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick examines in her book Between Men, Rufus's relationship with Leona provides the means by which the idea of the white woman as the mediating factor linking black and white men can be dealt with. This mediation is one in which, despite the narrative prominence accorded to Rufus's sister Ida, black women play no part other than as sexual objects, as the sources of a sexual release that is peripheral to any status concerns that a man, especially a white man, might have. Emotionally and hierarchically, only white women can situate black and white men in relation to each other. Baldwin writes:

Vivaldo was unlike everyone else that he [Rufus] knew in that they, all the others, could only astonish him by kindness or fidelity; it was only Vivaldo who had the power to astonish him by treachery. Even his affair with Jane was evidence in his favor, for if he were really to betray his friend for a woman, as most white men seemed to do, especially if the friend was black, then he would have found himself a smoother chick, with the manners of a lady and the soul of a whore. But Jane seemed to be exactly what she was, a monstrous slut, and she thus without knowing it kept Rufus and Vivaldo equal to one another.

By forgoing sexual access to the kind of white women to whom Rufus as a poor black man could never have access, Vivaldo creates an equality that enables his friendship with Rufus. The continuum along which white women are placed in the novel goes from Jane who, according to Rufus, is "a monstrous slut" who "dresses like a goddam bull dagger" to the "frail and fair" upper-class Cass who, for Rufus, is thoroughly mysterious and unattainable. By aligning himself sexually with Jane, a white woman who has been coded as undesirable, Vivaldo becomes, symbolically, exactly the kind of black/white hybrid that Rufus envisions himself as being, thereby enabling their relationship.

Because relationships with black women are not in any way a constitutive part of Rufus's sexual self-image and because (given the dictates of the heterosexual codes that he resents but still feels compelled to follow) he knows that he must eventually choose some woman as his woman, Rufus thinks of Leona at the beginning of the novel as simply another disposable sexual conquest, but soon she becomes the woman upon whom his entire sense of himself hinges. Having revealed herself to be one of the few white women to whom a poor black man like Rufus has access, Leona's value as a sexual object is for that very reason suspect, and Vivaldo's response to her becomes a source of tremendous anxiety for Rufus. Rufus thinks:

Perhaps Vivaldo was contemptuous of her because she was so plain—which meant that Vivaldo was contemptuous of him. Or perhaps he was flirting with her because she seemed so simple and available: the proof of her availability being her presence in Rufus's house.

At one point, after his relationship with Leona has become an unceasing round of domestic violence, he snarls at Vivaldo, "I guess you don't think she's good enough for you" and Vivaldo's reply, "Oh, shit. You don't think she's good enough for you," goes straight to the heart of Rufus's dilemma. As long as his relationship with Leona remains the stereotypic interaction of two neurotic social misfits, what I have called a play of abstractions, Rufus is secure, but when he realizes that the oppositions that have characterized his notion of sexual difference and of female sexual value do not really reflect the reality of the flesh-and-blood, pitifully human woman for whom he feels a growing affection, his world collapses.

As Murray Davis has suggested in his book Intimate Relations, "when an individual acquires a new intimate, he is acquiring an identity appendage that is large enough to alter his social group's reaction to him in general and their evaluation of him in particular. Intimates, that is, affect each other's reputations." From Rufus's perspective, Leona's willingness to align herself permanently with a black man reveals her essential limitations. Of all of the white women who would be willing to do so, she is probably one of the best, and she is no Cass. She is not the "princess" that Rufus had half-facetiously and half-longingly called her soon after their first meeting. In fact, at best, Leona would be situated midway between Jane and Cass on the objectifying continuum of sexual value that men like Rufus and, perhaps, Vivaldo use to gauge a woman's attractiveness, and this knowledge is more than Rufus's ego can withstand. Leona instantiates neither the pole represented by Vivaldo's grossly physical Jane or that represented by the princesslike and, for Rufus, untouchable Cass. Tragically, because of Rufus's inability to think outside of these all-or-nothing, virgin/whore dichotomies, these two antithetical female images are the only ones available to him and the only ones by way of which he can orient himself emotionally in relation to Vivaldo and, by extension, to white men in general. His realization that Leona is not Cass, a realization most forcefully brought about by his recognition of the pleasure she takes in sex, forces him to attempt to drag her to the other end of the scale if for no other reason than to relieve the unbearable emotional tension that her unplaceableness creates. Leona cannot be worshipped, and Rufus is incapable of actually loving a woman. Therefore, Rufus's only option is to defile or, as Stember would say, "animalize" her. Having finally attempted to maintain a socially visible relationship with a white woman, rather than just another covert and simply sexual one, Rufus has been forced to see exactly what his romantic options are. He realizes that he and Vivaldo are equals only in private.

The dynamic that I have been describing is borne out most forcefully by the fact that Vivaldo's "abandonment" of Rufus occurs when, for the first time in Rufus's presence, Vivaldo seriously considers taking advantage of the kind of romantic possibility that Rufus is denied:

A tall girl, very pretty, carefully dressed—she looked like an uptown model—came into the room, looked about her, peered sharply at their table. She paused, then started out.

"I wish you were looking for me," Vivaldo called.

She turned and laughed. "You're lucky I'm not looking for you!" She had a very attractive laugh and a slight Southern accent. Rufus turned to watch her move daintily up the steps and disappear into the crowded bar.

"Well you scored, old buddy," Rufus said, "go get her."

"No," said Vivaldo, smiling, "better leave well enough alone." He stared at the door where the girl had vanished. "She's pretty isn't she?" he said partly to himself, partly to the table. He looked at the door again, shifting slightly in his seat, then threw down the last of his drink.

Rufus wanted to say, Don't let me stop you, man, but he said nothing. He felt black, filthy, foolish. He wished he were miles away, or dead.

The fact that Rufus feels not only "filthy" and "foolish," but specifically "filthy," "foolish," and "black" represents one of the most telling moments in the novel. By recognizing both the physical specificity of his blackness and its social implications, Rufus must at last face his repressed awareness of the fact that Vivaldo, his best friend, is a white man with all of the advantages that this entails, and that he, Rufus, is not. Baldwin's strangest achievement in Another Country is that he creates a world in which, when Rufus says of the brutalized Leona, "she's the only chick in the world for me," it makes perfect sense.

Finally, despite his limitations, Rufus is the most complex and important character in Another Country. This is because he is the only one who actually seems to grow not only in self-awareness, but in the awareness of himself as a specific self in the specific world in which Baldwin has placed him. His suicide functions as an overwrought but existentially respectable manifestation of his desire to live and die in accordance with the one "truth" that his history has taught him. This truth is that, appearances to the contrary, James Baldwin's world at this point just didn't have enough room for everyone.

Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: "If the Street Could Talk: James Baldwin's Search for Love and Understanding," in The City in African-American Literature, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert Butler, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 150-67.

[In the following essay, Hakutani traces the protagonist's search for love and salvation in If Beale Street Could Talk, and contrasts Baldwin's optimistic view in this novel with the pessimism of other African-American writers, including Richard Wright.]

No Name in the Street, a book of essays Baldwin wrote immediately before If Beale Street Could Talk, is about the life of black people in the city just as the story of Beale Street takes place in the city. While No Name in the Street is a departure from Baldwin's earlier book of essays in expressing his theory of love. If Beale Street Could Talk goes a step further in showing how black people can deliver that love. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin does not talk like an integrationist; he sounds as if he is advocating the ideas of a militant separatist who has no qualm about killing a white enemy. Although the book turns out to be a far more sustained examination of the falsehood to which Americans try to cling than his previous works, it still falls short of a vision in which love can be seized and recreated as it is in If Beale Street Could Talk.

Whenever Baldwin wrote about American society, he became the center of controversy, for his career coincided with one of the most turbulent eras in American history, marked by the civil rights movement at home and the Vietnam War abroad. A realist as he was, he was forced to take a stance in dealing with the current issues of society and of race in particular. He has been both extolled and denounced for his unique vision of racial harmony in America. Praising him for his ideas is not difficult to understand, because he is not only an eloquent writer but an acute historian. Modern American society is predominantly urban; black and white people live and work together in the city. Those who look forward to the future embraced him as a prophet; those who want to place politics over history and impose the past on the future dismissed him as a dreamer.

Some black readers also disparaged Baldwin's work. "The black writer," Joyce Carol Oates observed in her review of If Beale Street Could Talk, "if he is not being patronized simply for being black, is in danger of being attacked for not being black enough. Or he is forced to represent a mass of people, his unique vision assumed to be symbolic of a collective vision."1 A black writer like Richard Wright is seldom assailed because he not only asserts being black but openly shows his anger as a black man. To Baldwin, Wright's portrayal of the life of black people seems to be directed toward the fictional but realistic presentation of a black man's anger. Although sympathetic to this rage, Baldwin sees a basic flaw in Wright's technique, contending that the artist must analyze raw emotion and transform it into an identifiable form and experience.2 Baldwin cannot approve of Wright's use of violence, which he regards as "gratuitous and compulsive because the root of the violence is never examined. The root is rage."3

This basic difference in vision and technique between Wright and Baldwin has a corollary in the difference between the two types of novels exemplified by Native Son and If Beale Street Could Talk. Both stories take place in the city, Chicago of the thirties in Wright's novel and New York of the sixties in Baldwin's. Bigger Thomas is accused of murder in the first degree for the accidental death of a white girl, and Fonny Hunts is imprisoned for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, which he did not commit. Behind similar scenes of racial prejudice, lie fundamentally different ideas about the existence of black people in American society. During his act of liberation, Bigger becomes aware of his own undoing and creation, but he achieves his manhood through murdering his girl friend. Fonny, an artist and an intellectual, consciously aware of the primacy of love, is able to revive that relationship and achieve his deliverance. Wright's novel, whether it is Native Son or The Outsider, ends tragically with the death of its hero, and neither of the victims can lead others to the discovery of love. Fonny's search for love and liberation, on the other hand, is accomplished through his sense of love, which others can emulate and acquire. Not only does he survive his ordeal, but his child is to be born.

Baldwin's technique of elucidating this idea of love and deliverance differs with that of a protest novel. Native Son was intended to awaken the conscience of white society, and Wright's strategy was necessarily belligerent. To survive in his existence, Bigger is forced to rebel, unlike Fonny who defends himself in the interior of his heart. Bigger learns how to escape the confines of his environment and gain an identity. Even before he acts, he knows exactly how Mary, and Bessie later, have forced him into a vulnerable position. No wonder he convinces himself not only that he has killed to protect himself but also that he has attacked the entire civilization. In contrast to If Beale Street Could Talk, Native Son departs from the principles of love and sympathy which people, black or white, have for their fellow human beings. In "How 'Bigger' Was Born," Wright admits that his earlier Uncle Tom's Children was "a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about."4 In Native Son, however, Wright could not allow for such complacency. He warns that the book "would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears" (xxvii).

The salient device in If Beale Street Could Talk is the narrative voice of a nineteen-year-old black girl named Tish. She is Fonny's fiancée and is pregnant with his child. Not only is she a compassionate and lovable woman, but the reality of her pregnancy inspires others to generate love and hope. Baldwin's concept of love and liberation is conveyed realistically by many of those involved in the story, her husband-to-be, their relatives, the lawyer, the landlord, the restaurant owner, and others regardless of their race. But what makes Baldwin's concept vibrant is Tish's voice through which it grows enriched and spiritualized. Her manner of speech is warm but calm and completely natural. Only through her vision can the reader learn to know the meaning of love and humanity.

By contrast, Wright's authorial voice, as Baldwin noted, succeeds in recording black anger as no black writer before him has ever done, but it also is the overwhelming limitation of Native Son. For Baldwin, what is sacrificed is a necessary dimension to the novel: "the relationship that Negroes bear to one another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life … it is this climate, common to most Negro protest novels, which has led us all to believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse, such as may, for example, sustain the Jew even after he has left his father's house."5

What Baldwin calls "ritual or intercourse" in black life is precisely the catalyst for the attainment of love and deliverance in If Beale Street Could Talk. To see the relationship of Tish and Fonny as spiritual rather than sexual, genuine rather than materialistic, is commonplace, but to make it thrive on the strength of the communal bond in black life is Baldwin's achievement. Baldwin seizes upon this kinship in family members, relatives, friends, and associates. Tommy in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, like Fonny, falls a victim of circumstance, and changes his family name to Wilhelm but retains his Jewish heritage in his battle of life. "In middle age," Bellow writes about Tommy, "you no longer thought such thoughts about free choice. Then it came over you that from one grandfather you had inherited such and such a head of hair … from another, broad thick shoulders; an oddity of speech from one uncle, and small teeth from another, and the gray eyes … a wide-lipped mouth like a statue from Peru…. From his mother he had gotten sensitive feelings, a soft heart, a brooding nature."6

The antithesis to Baldwin's idea of bondage is the focus of an existentialist novel of Richard Wright's. Cross Damon in The Outsider, rejecting his heritage, wishes to be renamed. His mother, the product of the traditional Christianity in the South that taught black children subservient ethics, tries to mold her son's character accordingly. He thus rebels against his mother, who moans, "To think I named you Cross after the Cross of Jesus."7 As he rejects his mother because she reminds him of southern black piety and racial and sexual repression, he, in so doing, discards genuine motherly love altogether. He resembles Meursault in Albert Camus's The Stranger, who stands his trial for the murder of an Arab.8 Meursault is not only accused of murder, but condemned as immoral because he did not weep at his mother's funeral. Damon's action, like Meursault's, derives from his nihilistic belief that "man is nothing in particular" (135). At the end of the story, however, Wright expresses a sense of irony about Damon's character. Tasting his agonizing defeat and dying, Damon utters:

"I wish I had some way to give the meaning of my life to others…. To make a bridge from man to man … Starting from scratch every time is … no good. Tell them not to come down this road…. Men hate themselves and it makes them hate others…. Man is all we've got…. I wish I could ask men to meet themselves…. We're different from what we seem…. Maybe worse, maybe better…. But certainly different … We're strangers to ourselves." (439)

As if to heed Damon's message, Baldwin challenged the climate of alienation and estrangement that pervaded black life. Not only did he inspire black people to attain their true identity, but, with the tenacity and patience seldom seen among radical writers, he sought to build bridges between black and white people. In contrast to African-American writers like Richard Wright and John A. Williams, who fled the deep South to seek freedom and independence in the northern cities, Baldwin always felt that he was a step ahead in his career. "I am a city boy," he declared. "My life began in the Big City, and had to be slugged out, toe to toe, on the city pavements."9 For him the city was a place where meaningful human relationships could evolve through battle and dialogue. As in any confrontation of minds, there would be casualties but eventually a resolution and a harmony would emerge. In Another Country, a novel of black life in the city, Rufus Scott, once a black drummer in a jazz band but now lonely and desperate, meets with a poor white girl from Georgia. They are initially attracted to each other, but eventually she becomes insane and he commits suicide. Even though hate overrules love in their relationship, it is the traditional southern culture in which she was ingrained rather than the estranged environment of New York City that ruins their relationship.

Because Another Country is not a polemical tract but a powerful novel, as Granville Hicks recognized,10 it seems to express a subtle but authentic dilemma a black man faces in America. The novel suggests not only that the South is not a place where black people can have their peace of mind and happiness, but also that the city in the North is not a place where they can achieve their identity and freedom. And yet the novel is endowed with an ambivalent notion that America is their destined home. It is well known that Baldwin loved to live in another country. Paris was his favorite city, where he felt one was treated without reference to the color of skin. "This means," he wrote, "that one must accept one's nakedness. And nakedness has no color" (No Name 23). But Baldwin returned home, as did American expatriates in the twenties, and trusted his fortune in America.11 In "Many Thousands Gone," he stated, "We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key—could we but find it—to all that we later become" (Notes 20).

In search of home, black writers quite naturally turn to the city in the North, where black and white citizens live side by side and talk to one another. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin intimated his sentiments: "Whoever is part of whatever civilization helplessly loves some aspects of it, and some of the people in it. A person does not lightly elect to oppose his society. One would much rather be at home among one's compatriots than be mocked and detested by them" (194-95). The black citizen would be drawn to city living only because the interracial relationship in a melting pot could thrive on mutual respect and understanding, the lack of which has historically caused black people's exodus from the South. Such a relationship, as Baldwin quickly warns, is possible only if white people are capable of being fair and having goodwill and if black people themselves are able to achieve their true identity.

The burden that falls upon the shoulders of both white and black citizens is poignantly expressed with a pair of episodes in No Name in the Street. For the white people's responsibility, Baldwin recounts a white juror's attitude toward the American system of justice. The juror spoke in court:

"As I said before, that I feel, and it is my opinion that racism, bigotry, and segregation is something that we have to wipe out of our hearts and minds, and not on the street. I have had an opinion that—and been taught never to resist a police officer, that we have courts of law in which to settle … that I could get justice in the courts"—And, in response to Garry's [the defense attorney's] question, "Assuming the police officer pulled a gun and shot you, what would you do about it?" the prospective juror, at length, replied, "Let me say this. I do not believe a police officer will do that." (159-60)

The juror's reply not only provides a "vivid and accurate example of the American piety at work," as Baldwin observes, but also demonstrates the very honesty in Baldwin that makes his feeling credible to the reader.12

Baldwin calls for responsibility on the part of black people as well. In the middle of the chapter "Take Me to the Water," he now plunges himself into the dreary waters of urban society. This part of the narrative, in contrast to the personal and family episodes preceding it, abounds with experiences that suggest impersonality and superficiality in human relationships. After a long sojourn in France, Baldwin saw his school chum, now a U.S. post office worker, whom he had not seen since graduation. At once Baldwin felt a sense of alienation that separated the one who was tormented by America's involvement in Vietnam and the one who blindly supported it. Baldwin felt no conceivable kinship to his once friend, for "that shy, pop-eyed thirteen year old my friend's mother had scolded and loved was no more." His friend's impression of the famous writer, described in Baldwin's own words, is equally poignant: "I was a stranger now … and what in the world was I by now but an aging, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak?" What impressed Baldwin the most about this encounter was the fact that despite the changes that had occurred in both men, nothing had touched this black man. To Baldwin, his old friend was an emblem of the "whitewashed" black who "had been trapped, preserved, in that moment of time" (No Name 15-18).

No Name in the Street is an eloquent discourse intended for all Americans to attain their identity and understanding. It takes its title from the speech by Bildad and Shuhite in the Book of Job that denounces the wicked of his generation:

     Yea, the light of the wicked shall be put out,
     And the spark of his fire shall not shine.
     His remembrance shall perish from the earth,
     And he shall have no name in the street.
     He shall be driven from light into darkness,
     And chased out of the world.


Baldwin sees in Bildad's curse a warning for Americans; without a name worthy of its constitution, America will perish as a nation. "A civilized country," he ironically observes, "is, by definition, a country dominated by whites, in which the blacks clearly know their place" (177). He warns that American people must remake their country into what the Declaration of Independence says they wanted it to be. America without equality and freedom will not survive; a country without a morality is not a viable civilization and hence it is doomed. Unless such a warning is heeded now, he foresees that a future generation of mankind, "running through the catacombs: and digging the grave … of the mighty Roman empire" (178) will also discover the ruins of American cities.

The responsibility for American people to rebuild their nation, Baldwin hastens to point out, falls upon black people as heavily as upon white people. This point echoes what he has said before, but it is stated here with a more somber and deliberate tone. It sounds comfortable to hear Baldwin speak in Notes of a Native Son that "blackness and whiteness did not matter" (95). He thought then that only through love and understanding could white and black people transcend the differences in color to achieve their identity as human beings and as a nation. In No Name in the Street, such euphoria has largely dissipated; the book instead alludes to the reality that black Americans are descendants of white Americans. "The blacks," Baldwin stresses, "are the despised and slaughtered children of the great Western house—nameless and unnameable bastards" (185, my italics). A black man in this country has no true name. Calling himself a black and a citizen of the United States is merely giving himself a label unworthy of his history and existence. To Baldwin, the race problem is not a race problem as such; it is fundamentally a problem of how black Americans perceive their own identity.14

No Name in the Street also addresses their cultural heritage. Baldwin admonishes the reader that the term Afro-American does not simply mean the liberation of black people in this country. The word, as it says, means the heritage of Africa and America. Black Americans, he argues, should be proud of this heritage. He demands they discard at once the misguided notion that they are descendants of slaves brought from Africa, the inferiority complex deeply rooted in the American psyche. An Afro-American, in Baldwin's metaphysics, is defined as a descendant of the two civilizations, Africa and America, both of which were "discovered" not by Americans but by European settlers.

Baldwin's prophecy, moreover, is rendered in epic proportion. "On both continents," Baldwin says, "the white and the dark gods met in combat, and it is on the outcome of this combat that the future of both continents depends" (194). The true identity of an Afro-American, the very term that he finds the most elusive of all names, is thus given a historical light. To be granted this name, as he stresses, "is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend—which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn—and who yet spoke out the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life" (194). Historically, then, Baldwin bears out his old contention that both black and white citizens on this continent are destined to live together on the same street and determine their own future.

No Name in the Street, however, ends on a dark note, as some critics have suggested,15 precisely because Baldwin had not yet discovered the true name for American people. The most painful episode in the book that influences his outlook on the racial question is his journey into the deep South. There he discovered not only a sense of alienation between black and white people, who had lived together over the generations, but an alienation within the white man himself. While a Southerner was conceived in Baldwin's mind as a man of honor and human feeling like a northern liberal, he struck Baldwin as a man necessarily wanting in "any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life" (53-54). Baldwin was in fact conscious that white people in the South always loved their black friends, but they never admitted it. This is why Baldwin characterizes the South as "a riddle which could be read only in the light, or the darkness, of the unbelievable disasters which had overtaken the private life" (55).

But Baldwin's search for a national identity in the name of brotherhood and love does not end in the South. Baldwin returns to the streets of the North. In the eyes of a middle-aged black writer, the potential for a truly American identity and understanding emerges in the city of the North through the black and white coalition with the radical students, and even in the black and white confrontation in the labor unions. Moving to Chicago in the thirties, Wright witnessed a coalition that existed between black men and white underground politicians, but this interracial cooperation, as he realized, did not arise out of the brotherhood on the part of the white men but out of their political and economic motives.16 Such a white and black relationship as Baldwin envisioned in the sixties was a rallying cry for the black people who have seized the opportunity to make the once pejorative term black into what he calls "a badge of honor" (189). Although this encounter may entail hostile and dangerous reactions, it is, he asserts, a necessary crucible for black people to endure in achieving their identity. In the context of the late sixties, this is what he meant by the experience which a person, black or white, must face and acquire so that the person might attain identity. Baldwin hoped that the estrangement he witnessed in the South would not repeat itself in the North.

His most romantic quest in No Name in the Street involves the "flower children" he saw walking up and down the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco in the late sixties. Observing the young black men putting their trust not in flowers but in guns, he believed that the scene brought their true identity to the threshold of its maturity. The flower children, in his view, repudiated their fathers for failing to realize that black Americans were the descendants of white fathers; they treated the black children as their denied brothers as if in defiance of their elders. "They were in the streets," he says in allusion to the title of this work, "in the hope of becoming whole" (187). For Baldwin, the flower children were relying upon black people so that they could rid themselves of the myth of white supremacy. But he was undeniably a realist. He had no confidence in the black men who were putting their trust in guns, nor did he trust the flower children. In this episode he is quick to warn black listeners: "this troubled white person might suddenly decide not to be in trouble and go home—and when he went home, he would be the enemy" (188). In Baldwin's judgment, the flower children of the city in America became neither true rebels nor true lovers, either of whom would be worthy of their name in their quest for a national identity. In either case, he says to chide himself, "to mistake a fever for a passion can destroy one's life" (189).

The spectacle of the flower children thus figures as one of the saddest motifs in No Name in the Street. Although the vision of the young Baldwin was centered in love and brotherhood, the sensibility of the older Baldwin here smacks of shrewdness and prudence. Idealism is replaced by pragmatism, and honesty and sincerity clearly mark the essential attitude he takes to the problem of identity in America. His skeptical admiration for the flower children casts a sad note, for the encounter symbolizes the closest point to which black and white Americans had ever come in their search for love and understanding.

But at heart Baldwin was scarcely a pessimist. These pages, filled with love and tenderness, vividly express his feeling that, through these children, black Americans have learned the truth about themselves. And this conviction, however ephemeral it may have been, contributes to his wishfulness and optimism of the seventies. He has come to know the truth, stated before,17 that black Americans can free themselves as they learn more about white Americans and that "the truth which frees black people will also free white people" (129). Baldwin's quest continues in If Beale Street Could Talk, for the novel is the catalyst for disseminating the truth. Even though Baldwin stresses the human bondage that exists within the black community, he also recognizes, in his imagination at least, the deep, universal bonds of emotion that tie the hearts of people regardless of their color of skin.

For Baldwin, the bondage that exists on Beale Street is hardly visible from outside. City life, as depicted by American realists from Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser down to James T. Farrell and Richard Wright, often brings out isolation and loneliness to the residents. The city is a noisy, crowded place, yet people scarcely talk to one another. New York City, Baldwin's home town, also struck Baldwin as emblematic of the impersonality and indifference that plagued city life in America. On his way to the South on a writing assignment, he stopped by the city to rest and to readjust his life, spent on foreign soil for nearly a decade. But all the heard was "beneath the nearly invincible and despairing noise, the sound of many tongues, all struggling for dominance" (No Name 51). The scene is reminiscent of what Crane, in the guise of a tramp, faces at the end of "An Experiment in Misery": "The roar of the city in his ear was to him the confusion of strange tongues, babbling heedlessly; it was the clink of coin, the voice of the city's hopes, which were to him no hopes."18

Unlike an existentialist in search of individual autonomy in the face of the void, chaotic, and meaningless universe, Baldwin seeks order, meaning, and dream in one's relation to others. A critic has dismissed If Beale Street Could Talk as "pretentious and cloying with goodwill and loving kindness and humble fortitude and generalized honorableness."19 But because Baldwin is a confirmed romantic, his concept of love and honor is expressed with a sense of idealism. Neither the turbulence that embroils the urban ghetto nor the indifference that sweeps over it can disperse his dream.

It is ironic that the impersonality and estrangement which permeate Beale Street compel its residents to seek a stronger and more meaningful relationship with others. Tish, separated from her fiancé in jail, reflects on her happy childhood days, "when Daddy used to bring me and Sis here and we'd watch the people and the buildings and Daddy would point out different sights to us and we might stop in Battery Park and have ice cream and hot dogs."20 Later in the story, Baldwin portrays the crowded subway, an epitome of city life, and suggests the notion that city inhabitants are forced to protect themselves. When a crowded train arrives at the platform, Tish notices her father instinctively puts his arm around her as if to shield her from danger. Tish recalls:

I suddenly looked up into his face. No one can describe this, I really shouldn't try. His face was bigger than the world, his eyes deeper than the sun, more vast than the desert, all that had ever happened since time began was in his face. He smiled: a little smile. I saw his teeth: I saw exactly where the missing tooth had been, that day he spat in my mouth. The train rocked, he held me closer, and a kind of sigh I'd never heard before stifled itself in him. (52)

This motif of human bondage also appears as a faint noise coming from Tish and Fonny's unborn child. Tish hears it in the loud bar where she and her sister Ernestine talk about their strategy to get Fonny out of jail:

Then, we are silent…. And I look around me. It's actually a terrible place and I realize that the people here can only suppose that Ernestine and I are tired whores, or a Lesbian couple, or both, Well. We are certainly in it now, and it might get worse. I will, certainly—and now something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider's web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart—get worse. But that light tap, that kick, that signal, announces to me that what can get worse can get better. (122)

The bondage of black and white people in If Beale Street Could Talk could also be solidified, as could the black kinship, if the relationship were based upon a mutual understanding of others as individual human beings rather than as blacks who have typically been victimized by white society, or as whites who have habitually oppressed blacks under the banner of racial supremacy. No sooner does one treat another human being for an economic or political purpose than such a relationship ceases to exist. To show the possibility of a prosperous relationship between black and white people in the city, Baldwin has created many sympathetic portraits of white people. The Jewish lawyer the black families hire to defend Fonny is initially an ambitious man bent on advancing his career but later becomes an altruistic individual. The Italian woman who owns a vegetable stand informs the police of a racial harassment committed by a white hoodlum, thereby helping Fonny to be exonerated of his action to protect Tish, a victim of the white man's insult. The owner of a Spanish restaurant willingly allows Tish and Fonny to have dinner on credit out of his compassion for their unjust plight.

For Baldwin, black people in the North, in contrast to those in the South, can move freely and talk frequently with fellow residents. His white characters, unlike those in Wright's fiction, are seldom stereotyped. Whether they are prejudiced or fair-minded, materialistic or humanistic, they are always individuals capable of making their own judgments. It seems as though the spirit of individualism in which they have grown up becomes, in turn, contagious among the black people. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin shows why black men living in Paris were treated as individuals as Algerians were not. "Four hundred years in the West," he argues, "had certainly turned me into a Westerner—there was no way around that. But four hundred years in the West had also failed to bleach me—there was no way around that, either" (42).

The westernization of black people in America, as Baldwin would have agreed with Wright, has taken place by far at a swifter pace in the North than in the South. Southern life for black people, as vividly portrayed in No Name in the Street, was not only stagnant and dark, but it created terror. Baldwin traveled down the Southland at the time of the racial turmoil in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the late fifties, when black children attempted to go to school in front of a hostile army and citizenry to face the white past, let alone the white present. During his stay he encountered one of the most powerful politicians in the South, who made himself "sweating drunk" to humiliate another human being. Baldwin distinctly recalls the abjectness of this incident: "With his wet eyes staring up at my face, and his wet hand groping for my cock, we were both, abruptly, in history's ass-pocket." To Baldwin, those who had power in the South still lived with the mentality of slave owners. The experience convinced him that a black man's identity in the South was defined by the power to which such white men tried to cling, and that a black man's humanity was placed at the service of their fantasies. "If the lives of those children," he reflects, "were in those wet, despairing hands, if their future was to be read in those wet, blind eyes, there was reason to tremble" (61-62). It is characteristic of his narrative that the height of terror, as just described, is set against the height of love the child Baldwin felt when his life was saved by his stepbrother. His narrative thus moves back and forth with greater intensity between the author's feelings of abjectness and exaltation, of isolation and affinity.

Baldwin's style becomes even more effective as his tendency toward rhetorical fastenings and outbursts is replaced by brief, tense images that indicate a control of the narrative voice. For instance, one summer night in Birmingham, Baldwin met in a motel room one Rev. Shuttlesworth, as marked a man as Martin Luther King, Jr. Gravely concerned with Shuttlesworth's safety for fear that his car might be bombed, Baldwin wanted to bring it to his attention as Shuttlesworth was about to leave the room. But the minister would not let him. At first, there was only a smile on Shuttlesworth's face; upon a closer observation, he detected that "a shade of sorrow crossed his face, deep, impatient, dark; then it was gone. It was the most impersonal anguish I had ever seen on a man's face." Only later did he come to realize that the minister was then "wrestling with the mighty fact that the danger in which he stood was as nothing compared to the spiritual horror which drove those who were trying to destroy him" (No Name 67). A few pages later, this shade of dark and sorrow is compensated for by that of light and joy. Baldwin now reminisces about his Paris days—how little he had missed ice cream, hot dogs, Coney Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, but how much he had missed his brothers, sisters, and mother: "I missed the way the dark face closes, the way dark eyes watch, and the way, when a dark face opens, a light seems to go on everywhere." (71).

Unlike W. E. B. Du Bois and Jean Toomer, who viewed the South with deep nostalgia, Baldwin, like Richard Wright and John A. Williams, was repulsed by it. Even though at times he felt an affinity with the black people in the South and found his home there, he also found, as does Richard Henry in Blues for Mister Charlie, that once he had lived in the North he could not go home again. Baldwin's quest for humanity in If Beale Street Could Talk is not merely to seek out affinity with black people; it is to search the interior of city life. He is in search of a human bond in the hearts and souls of people. It stresses the conventional and yet universal bondage innate in man, a human affinity that can grow between man and woman, members of a family, relatives, friends—any group of individuals united in the name of love and understanding.

Fundamental to Baldwin's concept of human bondage is the relationship of love between a man and a woman that yields posterity. What saves Fonny and Tish from loneliness and despair is their expecting the child in her womb. Every time she visits him in jail, they focus their talk on the unborn baby. Whenever he sees her face during the visit, he knows not only does she love him, but "that others love him, too…. He is not alone; we are not alone." When she looks ashamed of her ever expanding waistline, he is elated, saying, "Here she come! Big as two houses! You sure it ain't twins? or triplets? Shit, we might make history" (162). While at home, she is comforted by Ray Charles's voice and piano, the sounds and smells of the kitchen, the sounds and "blurred human voices rising from the street." Only then does she realize that "out of this rage and a steady, somehow triumphant sorrow, my baby was slowly being formed" (41).

However crowded, noisy, and chaotic Baldwin's city may be, one can always discover order, meaning, and hope in one's life. The street talks as though conflict and estrangement among the residents compel them to seek their ties with smaller human units. Not only does the birth of a child, the impending birth of Tish and Fonny's baby, constitute the familial bond, but it also signals the birth of new America. Baldwin has earlier conceived this idea in No Name in the Street, in which the first half of the book, "Take Me to the Water," depicts the turmoil of American society in the sixties and the second, "To Be Baptized," prophesies the rebirth of a nation. In the epilogue he writes: "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." Alluding to the heavy burden falling upon American people, he remarks with a bit of humor: "This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the new born: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessarily evolving skill" (196).

Baldwin's extolment of the relationship between Tish and Fonny also suggests that the interracial relationships of love and sex as seen in Another Country are often destroyed by the forces of society beyond their control. In such a relationship, genuine love often falls a victim of society, a larger human unit. Baldwin's love story in If Beale Street Could Talk also suggests that a homosexual relationship is an antithesis to the idea of rebirth. Levy, Fonny's landlord, is a personable, happily married young man. Being Jewish, he values the closeness in family life and the offspring marriage can produce. He willingly rents his loft to Fonny, who needs the space to work on his sculptures, because he is aware of his own happiness in raising children and wants his tenants to share the same joy. "Hell," Levy tells Fonny, "drag out the blankets and sleep on it…. Make babies on it. That's how I got here…. You two should have some beautiful babies … and, take it from me, kids, the world damn sure needs them." Out of sympathy for Fonny's situation, he even forgoes payment of the rent while Fonny is in jail, saying, "I want you kids to have your babies. I'm funny that way" (133-34).

As urban society disintegrates because of its indifference and impersonality, the love and understanding that can unite smaller communities, couples, families, relatives, and friends become essential to the pursuit of happiness. Those who are deprived of such relationships cannot survive. Daniel Carty, Fonny's childhood friend, who is also arrested by the D.A.'s office, is a loner. Without ties to his family and relatives, he is doomed.

Tony Maynard, Baldwin's former bodyguard, who appears in No Name in the Street, is reminiscent of Daniel Carty. Tony is imprisoned on a murder charge arising from a mistaken identity.21 Since the title "To Be Baptized" in No Name in the Street suggests the idea of rebirth. Baldwin's motif of alienation, which Tony's episode illustrates in the latter portion of the book, seems incongruous. In any event, Tony is treated as a victim of the indifference and hatred that exists in society; like Daniel, he is without the protection of his family and relatives. Ironically, he is a professional bodyguard for a man but no one else can guard him.

While Baldwin often evokes the idea of rebirth in No Name in the Street by biblical references, he has a penchant to assail, in If Beale Street Could Talk, those who find their haven in the church. To him; a long history of the Christian church has partly resulted in the enslavement of black people in this country, and the black people "who were given the church and nothing else"22 have learned to be obedient to the law of God and the land but failed to be independent thinkers.23 Mrs. Hunt, Fonny's mother, like Cross Damon's mother in The Outsider, has a blind trust in Christ. She even believes that Fonny's imprisonment is "the Lord's way of making my boy think on his sins and surrender his soul to Jesus" (64). Her doctor convinces Mrs. Hunt, who has a heart problem, that her health is more important than her son's freedom. By contrast, Fonny's father Frank is a defiant disbeliever. "I don't know," Frank tells his wife, "how God expects a man to act when his son is in trouble. Your God crucified His son and was probably glad to get rid of him, but I ain't like that. I ain't hardly going out in the street and kiss the first white cop I see" (65). Although it is tragic that Frank commits suicide when he is caught stealing money to raise funds to defend his son, Frank's action suggests the genuine feeling of love and tenderness a father can have for his son.

Baldwin ends If Beale Street Could Talk on a triumphant note. Fonny is out of jail, however temporary it may be, because of the efforts by those who are genuinely concerned about his welfare. Not only has he been able to endure his ordeal, but his experience in jail has renewed his human spirit. The last time Tish visits him in jail, he tells her: "Listen, I'll soon be out. I'm coming home because I'm glad I came, can you dig that?" (193). The final scene once again echoes the voice that conveys Baldwin's idea of love and rebirth. Fonny is now a sculptor at work in his studio: "Fonny is working on the wood, on the stone, whistling, smiling. And, from far away, but coming near, the baby cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries, cries like it means to wake the dead" (197).

Baldwin completed this scene of freedom and rebirth on Columbus Day, 12 October, as indicated at the end of the book. The reference to Columbus Day may easily remind one of Pudd'nhead Wilson's calendar note for that day in the conclusion of Mark Twain's classic novel of racial prejudice: "October 12, the Discovery. It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it."24 While Twain's intention in the book is a satire on American society and on slavery in particular, Baldwin's in If Beale Street Could Talk is to discover a new America. When Baldwin declares in the epilogue for No Name in the Street that "the Western party is over, and the white man's sun has set. Period" (197), one can be puzzled. The question remains whether or not Baldwin had come away from the turbulent sixties as a disillusioned American. Throughout No Name in the Street he has fluctuated between his feelings of love and hatred as his episodes betray. From the perspective of his hatred and resignation, the book clearly bodes ill; from the perspective of his love and understanding, though avowedly less frequent, it nevertheless suggests its author remains hopeful. But in If Beale Street Could Talk Baldwin's ambivalence has largely disappeared, and the book tells that the sun will also rise in America, this time for black citizens as well as for white citizens.


1. Joyce Carol Oates, "A Quite Moving and Very Traditional Celebration of Love," New York Times Book Review, 26 May 1974, 1-2.

2. I agree with Kichung Kim, who advances the theory that the difference between Wright and Baldwin arises from the two different concepts of man. Kim argues that the weakness Baldwin sees in Wright and other protest writers "is not so much that they had failed to give a faithful account of the actual conditions of man but rather that they had failed to be steadfast in their devotion … to what man might and ought to be. Such a man … will not only survive oppression but will be strengthened by it." See Kim, "Wright, the Protest Novel, and Baldwin's Faith," CLA Journal 17 (March 1974): 387-96.

3. James Baldwin, "Alas, Poor Richard," Nobody Knows My Name (New York: Dial, 1961), 151.

4. Richard Wright, "How 'Bigger' Was Born," Native Son (New York: Harper, 1966), xxvii.

5. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 27-28.

6. See Saul Bellow, Seize the Day (New York: Viking, 1956), 25. Tish in If Beale Street Could Talk often wonders if their baby would inherit Fonny's narrow, slanted, "Chinese" eyes.

7. Richard Wright, The Outsider (New York: Harper, 1953), 23.

8. Albert Camus, The Stranger, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage Books, 1942).

9. James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (New York: Dell, 1972), 59.

10. See Granville Hicks, "Outcasts in a Caldron of Hate," Saturday Review 45 (1962): 21.

11. Saunders Redding observed that Wright, who paid homage to Africa, failed to find home there. See Redding, "Reflections on Richard Wright: A Symposium on an Exiled Native Son," Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States, ed. Herbert Hill (New York: Harper, 1966), 204. Like Wright, John A. Williams, who hailed from Mississippi, has said, "I have been to Africa and know that it is not my home. America is." See Williams, This Is My Country Too (New York: New American Library, 1956), 169.

12. To reveal this kind of malady in society as Baldwin attempts to do in No Name in the Street requires an artist's skills. The juror's response is reminiscent of Aunt Sally's to Huck Finn, who reports that a steamboat has just blown up a cylinder-head down the river:

"Good gracious! Anybody hurt?"

"No'm. Killed a nigger."

"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt."

See Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Henry Nash Smith (Boston: Houghton, 1958), 185. What Twain and Baldwin share is the genuine feeling an intense individualist possesses; both writers feel their own great powers and yet recognize the hopelessness of trying to change the world overnight.

13. Prose and Poetry from the Old Testament, ed. James F. Fullington (New York: Appleton, 1950), 77.

14. In a later volume of essays, Baldwin makes a similar assertion about black Americans' somber realization of themselves: "This is why blacks can be heard to say, I ain't got to be nothing but stay black, and die!: which is, after all, a far more affirmative apprehension than I'm free, white and twenty-one." See The Devil Finds Work (New York: Dial, 1976), 115.

15. See, for example, Benjamin DeMott, "James Baldwin on the Sixties: Acts and Revelations," in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Keneth Kinnamon (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974), 158.

16. See Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices (New York: Viking, 1941), 121-22.

17. In 1961 Baldwin wrote in his essay "In Search of a Majority:" "Whether I like it or not, or whether you like it or not, we are bound together. We are part of each other. What is happening to every Negro in the country at any time is also happening to you. There is no way around this. I am suggesting that these walls—these artificial walls—which have been up so long to protect us from something we fear, must come down" (Nobody Knows My Name: 136-37). In 1962 he wrote in "My Dungeon Shook": "Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations…. But these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it." See The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial, 1963), 23-24.

18. See Great Short Works of Stephen Crane (New York: Harper, 1968), 258.

19. John Aldridge, "The Fire Next Time?" Saturday Review, 15 June 1974: 24-25.

20. James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk (New York: Dial, 1974), 9.

21. I agree with Benjamin DeMott, who regards Tony Maynard as an undeveloped character despite much space given for that purpose, but the weakness of Baldwin's characterization results from his use of a sterile man in the context of creation and rebirth (DeMott, "James Baldwin on the Sixties," 158).

22. See Baldwin's interview by Kalamu ya Salaam, "James Baldwin: Looking towards the Eighties," Critical Essays on James Baldwin, ed. Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt (Boston: Hall, 1988), 40.

23. Sandra A. O'Neile observes in her essay, "Fathers, Gods, and Religion: Perceptions of Christianity and Ethnic Faith in James Baldwin," that "more than the heritage of any other Black American writer, Baldwin's works illustrate the schizophrenia of the Black American experience with Christianity." Black people, she argues, needed a distinction "between Christianity as they knew it to be and Christianity as it was practiced in the white world." See Critical Essays on James Baldwin, 125-43.

24. Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, ed. Sidney E. Berger (New York: Norton, 1980), 113.

Valerie Rohy (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: "Displacing Desire: Passing, Nostalgia, and Giovanni's Room," in Passing and the Fictions of Identity, edited by Elaine K. Ginsberg, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 218-33.

[In the following essay, Rohy analyzes how the questions of origin and identity in Baldwin's Giovanni's Room relate to the concepts of passing and nostalgia.]

"America is my country and Paris is my hometown," writes Gertrude Stein in "An American in France" (61). Placing in question the very notion of place, this transatlantic crossing relies on the terms—origin and identity—that it will expose as most unreliable. In the American expatriate tradition, the trope of nationality comes unfixed from its geographical moorings to become an emblem of other, more arbitrary identifications, producing a rhetoric of displacement that extends from national identity to ideology, subjectivity, sexual desire, and, in this case, "home." Stein's "Paris is my hometown" sets the scene for a performance of identity in which trappings of nationality and culture are put on by the expatriate in an act that becomes more "real" than the "real" and in which the fact of the matter—that Gertrude Stein, for example, was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania—itself comes to seem a piece of stage scenery, a pretext for her Parisian "hometown."

Questions of origin and identity are central to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, a text which not only participates in the tradition of the American expatriate novel exemplified by Stein and, especially, by Henry James but which does so in relation to the African American idiom of passing and the genre of the passing novel. As such, Giovanni's Room poses questions of nationalism, nostalgia, and the constitution of racial and sexual subjects in terms that are especially resonant for contemporary identity politics. After all, the trope of "home" which Stein invokes and which proves central for Baldwin as well can hardly escape political inflection in a culture that, today as in Baldwin's 1950s, champions the white, heterosexual, bourgeois home as icon of a mythical and sentimentalized family whose "values" reflect those of the dominant culture. And at a time when attempts to intervene in the imposition of such values frequently present themselves under the rubric of "identity politics," the intersection of notions of "home" with nationalism, identity, and essentialism has taken on a particular urgency. In addressing the question of identity through the metaphorics of "passing," Giovanni's Room articulates the ways in which identities, including "nationality," "race," and "sexuality," are retrospective, indeed nostalgic, constructions, subject to a pathos of lost origins and demanding, on the part of the dominant culture, the violent disavowal and projection of its own contingent identity. The logics of homophobia and racism, Baldwin suggests, are each rooted in the nostalgia of an impossible essentialism whose desire for coherent identity is barred by an ineluctable passing.

The term passing designates a performance in which one presents oneself as what one is not, a performance commonly imagined along the axis of race, class, gender, or sexuality. Although the American passing novel typically concerns an African American who successfully presents herself or himself as white to escape the virulent effects of racism or to enter into exclusively white social circles, passing means, in addition, the impersonation of one sex by another. In American literature, passing across race and across gender are thoroughly imbricated—most famously, perhaps, in the narrative of William and Ellen Craft (1860), who escaped from slavery, she dressed as a white man and he posing as her servant, and in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), when Eliza, traveling to Canada, disguises herself as a white man and her young son as a girl. In the twentieth century, novels such as Nella Larsen's Passing and James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man add to the discourse of racial passing a third important sense of passing: the appearance of "homosexual" as "heterosexual." Giovanni's Room may be read as a passing novel in both racial and sexual senses: appearing a generation after the Harlem Renaissance, it restages the doubling of disguises performed in earlier African American novels—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Passing in particular—which allows racial passing to figure (homo)sexual passing.1 Yet how does the vocabulary of passing make it possible to set tropes of racial identity along-side and against those of sexual identity? What would it mean to read Giovanni's Room "as" a passing novel or through the tropology that passing provides? Although race and sexuality by no means function in identical ways, in Baldwin's novel as in other texts, passing names a crucial nexus: a site of the relation between notions of racial and sexual identity whose intersection becomes a productive space in which to interrogate identity itself.

In America, Baldwin has said, "the sexual question and the racial question have always been intertwined" (qtd. in Goldstein 178), and in Giovanni's Room these questions are most clearly articulated through the discourse of nationality and nationalism. Not only does nationality stand in for race in the novel—as Giovanni's darker coloring and lower-class status contrast with David's blondness and privilege—but perhaps more important, the rhetoric that would equate "race" with "blackness" is suppressed, and the "whiteness" of the stereotypically Anglo-Saxon hero, foregrounded. In this text's extraordinary beginning, David's reflection on his own image signifies "white" with indelible quotation marks and invites, even insists on, a reading of his race in the context of his homosexuality and his homophobia: "My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past."2 Producing the narrator as a representative of white American dominant culture—its history of colonial conquest, its arrow-straight posture, even the banality of its familiarity—this meditation on culture and identity takes shape in terms of history and temporality. It is appropriate enough that a novel so committed to a reading of nostalgia and retrospection should present its own narrative as retrospection by beginning at the story's end, with Giovanni condemned to death and David about to leave home once again. But the terms in which the novel first frames race and sexuality—through the introduction of its narrator—themselves perform a kind of metaleptic reversal: in attempting to push back the frontier that emblematizes American futurity, David's ancestors have traveled not back to the future, but forward into the past. And for white America to confront its "darker past" is here, one suspects, to come face to face with the darkness or difference that its own light face—the face of an ideology we have all, in one way or another, "seen many times"—seeks to deny.

"The whole American optic in terms of reality," Baldwin has said, "is based on the necessity of keeping black people out of it. We are nonexistent. Except according to their terms, and their terms are unacceptable" (qtd. in Troupe 210). Yet Baldwin will appropriate passing, a trope that seems to literalize that "nonexistence" or invisibility, as a means of reading and resisting dominant constructions of race, gender, sexuality, and identity as such. Although no figure in Giovanni's Room passes across the color line, David produces himself as heterosexual with Hella and as gay with Giovanni, who is himself passing, for the moment, as a gay man. Even Hella, as Baldwin makes clear, performs the rigorously scripted role of the heterosexual woman, passing as feminine through the gender performance that Joan Riviere has termed "masquerade."3 While Baldwin as author does not attempt to pass for white, he may, outfitted in what some readers have persistently construed as a sort of Henry James drag, pass into the white literary tradition, whose conventions of first-person narrative require that an author always pass as his or her protagonist, as Baldwin does when he speaks in David's voice the "I" that is the novel's first word.4

These displacements of identity, the hallmark of passing, are juxtaposed in Giovanni's Room with a desire for placement seen as the retrograde movement of a nostalgia that remembers and longs for "home." In imagining nostalgia, Baldwin calls on both spatial and temporal metaphors: notions of "going back" to a place of origin on the one hand, and to a historical past on the other. I want to return to the relation between nostalgia and passing to suggest the ways in which spatial and temporal figures describe what amounts to the same logic of return, but let me begin by examining Baldwin's rhetoric of distance and placement and his figures of home, homeland, and nationality. If nationality, in Giovanni's Room, is an allegory of sexual and racial identity, "home" comes to represent sexual orthodoxy: when David finds himself "at home" neither in Paris nor in the United States, neither with his Italian iover nor with his American fiancée, his distance from father and fatherland suggests his venture into a space outside American bourgeois heterosexuality. When his father attempts to return the expatriate to his ideological, if not literal, homeland by recuperating for him the heterosexual masculine roles of wage earner, father, and married man, David has to admit that he "never felt at home" in the place where his father, reading a newspaper, would assume the stereotypical pose of the bourgeois American male. What is at stake in the return to, or resistance to, all things "American" is clear: "Dear Butch," his father writes, "aren't you ever coming home?" Yet only after he is brought "home" to heterosexual masculinity, here phobically opposed to homosexual effeminacy, can David be "Butch" (GR 119-20).

More persistently than his father's nagging letters, David's own homophobia pulls him back toward the America that constitutes his nostalgic ideal of secure gender and sexual identity. Prompted not only by his relocation in Paris but by the possibility of relocation in what he imagines to be a homosexual space, his nostalgia for home and homeland is a desire for an imagined site of heterosexual meaning. It is, after all, while breakfasting with Giovanni that David experiences his first bout of homesickness and "ache[s] abruptly, intolerably" with the desire to go "home across the ocean, to things and people I knew and understood … which I would always, helplessly, and in whatever bitterness of spirit, love above all else" (GR 84). In that moment the strangeness of the city, of Giovanni, and of their love seems to reanimate the promise of epistemological security that "home" holds out. David's knowledge of the knowability of American "things and people," however, depends on a denial of difference, as his admission of "bitterness of spirit" suggests. His "bitterness" toward America marks the difference within the American "homeland"—a difference that is, for David, his own homosexual desire. Homosexuality is understood here, as in Freud, as the unheimlich return of a desire that gives the lie to homesickness and to the hope of a return to American orthodoxy; like the uncanny, that is, homosexuality appears as the return of something familiar that has been repressed—in David's case his adolescent love for Joey, which is all the more unheimlich for being, in fact, so close to home.

The note of "bitterness" in this discussion of differences between American and European "things and people" points to two distinct systems of difference that operate simultaneously in Giovanni's Room. Although the text conspicuously compares David as American with Giovanni as European, the more telling differences are those within "the American," within David himself, and within the always permeable boundaries of identity. Lacan's notion of the split subject bears repeating here: "In any case man cannot aim at being whole … once the play of displacement and condensation to which he is committed in the exercise of his functions, marks his relation as subject to the signifier" (Feminine Sexuality 81-82). Because subjectivity is lacking or divided within the symbolic, the effect of coherence depends on the expulsion of difference, yet efforts to police boundaries can produce only the effect of "inside" and "outside"—an effect that nonetheless makes itself felt as a continual tension between the claustrophobic "inside" of identity and its dangerous "outside." Thus David both hates to be labeled an American and is horrified by the possibility of being anything else. When Giovanni calls him a "vrai américain," David responds, "I resented this: resented being called an American (and resented resenting it) because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was; and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing" (GR 117). Outside the putative safety of "America" is a territory so phobically overdetermined that it appears wholly evacuated, a "nothing." Producing this cipher as placeholder for a famously unspeakable love, David is as unwilling to imagine being anything other than a heterosexual as he is unwilling to imagine being anything other than an American. Yet "America," of course, is itself "nothing": it emerges as a locus of identification only by distinguishing itself from the foreign—or the perverse. In the narrative of Giovanni's Room, the space of that "nothing," alternately emptied out and filled up by representation, will also become, in the service of defining "America," an all too substantial abjected "something." Even so, being an American, "whatever that was," is never certain; indeed, there is perhaps no better illustration of the difference within, or impossibility of, identity than the way "nothing" haunts the phrase "nothing more than" an American.

Biddy Martin and Chandra Talpade Mohanty read "home" and identity in terms that usefully describe this mapping of culture's "outside" as a "nothing" or "nowhere":

When the alternatives would seem to be either the enclosing, encircling, constraining circle of home, or nowhere to go, the risk is enormous. The assumption of, or desire for, another safe place like "home" is challenged by the realization that "unity"—interpersonal as well as political—is itself necessarily fragmentary, itself that which is struggled for, chosen, and hence unstable by definition; it is not based on "sameness," and there is no perfect fit. (209)

Just so, Baldwin acknowledges the uncertainty of "home"—that is, of identity as such—yet admits its persistent attraction in David's reluctance to "risk" locating himself elsewhere. Of course, risk is not only found outside those encircling walls; home is always as uncanny as the foreign, for it is itself the foreign. For dominant ideology to produce itself as the natural, not the unheimlich, it must repudiate its other as "nothing"; the coherence of "home" is thus purchased at great cost—a cost literalized, in Baldwin's novel, as David's repudiation of Giovanni, Guillaume's murder, Giovanni's flight and execution, and David's own homelessness.

But while the violence demanded by, and inherent in, the identity formation of the dominant culture may suggest the need for a gay "home" or community, the maid's room that David shares with Giovanni feels like a prison to him for most of the novel and seems an "Eden" only after it is lost. Though Guillaume's bar functions as a kind of gay "household" of which Guillaume is himself the founding father, the possibility of gay community and of essential gay identity is largely foreclosed in the novel. When the men who openly identify as gay, like Guillaume and Jacques, are called "disgusting old fairies" and worse, one hardly wonders why the only "homosexual" relationship validated here takes place between two bisexual men whose masculinity is continually and anxiously affirmed. But if Giovanni's Room implies that the best gay man is, in effect, a straight man—or at least one who mimics "straightness" impeccably—the novel also recognizes that something like gay identity, if not self chosen, can be homophobically imposed. That is, though David is sickened by the barroom queens who legibly signify their desire, he is himself read as gay on the street by a sailor who gives him a look of obscene contempt. "some brutal variation of Look, baby, I know you" (GR 122). This knowing gaze, seeming to recognize in David the identity he has so assiduously denied, engenders in him what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has termed "homosexual panic" at his inability to contain the public signification of his body (Between Men 83-96).5 This fixation of homophobic fantasy and anxiety on the supposed legibility of the gay body recalls the "I know you" of the racial gaze represented in African American passing novels in scenes of recognition and exposure. In Larsen's Passing, for example, when Clare and Irene meet accidentally at Drayton's restaurant, the phantasmatic epistemology of passing is all too clear: to see is to know. This is equally true in Giovanni's Room, where even the object of the gaze is enjoined to "look," as if only by looking at himself being looked at can he fully be interpolated as the other whom this scene labors to produce.

In reading the relation of race and sexuality in Giovanni's Room, it may be useful to consider the somewhat different ways Baldwin frames sexuality and race elsewhere. Although his observation on the blindness of the "American optic"—as a discourse "based on the necessity of keeping black people out" except on "their terms"—remains true if the word "gay" is substituted for "black," Baldwin does not, for the most part, imagine sexual identity as symmetrical with racial identity. Race is essential, communal, and public, whereas sexuality is contingent, individual, and private. Asked in a 1984 interview with Richard Goldstein about the meaning of writing homosexuality "publicly," Baldwin said, "I made a public announcement that we're private, if you see what I mean" (175). The act of publicly announcing one's privacy, something of a contradiction in terms, suits Baldwin's vision of homosexuality as an identity that is not properly an identity, a "we" that cannot be adequately named. Saying of the term gay, that "I was never at home in it," Baldwin echoes David's confession that he was "never at home" in his father's house (qtd. in Goldstein 174). His response construes homosexuality, however "private," as that which can only aspire to the status of "home" and, associating homosexuality with the failure of "home" and the failure of identity, seems to return "gay" to the "unacceptable terms" of dominant representation.

Giovanni's Room and other passing narratives, however, counter Baldwin's published remarks on race and sexuality; they suggest instead that both racial identity and sexual identity always rest on "passing," and they reveal the often brutalizing consequences of attempts by the dominant culture to deny identity's contingency. In the world of the novel, "true" identity is radically inaccessible: one can never not pass, just as one can never go home, for both homeland and identity are revealed as retrospectively constructed fantasies. Like the binary logic of "coming out," passing can suggest an hypostatized opposition, but it also marks "race" and "sexuality" as fictions of identity. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes, "Race has become the trope of ultimate, irreducible difference … because it is so very arbitrary in its application" ("Writing 'Race'" 5). Race is, however, not the only trope of difference: despite the ways in which racial and sexual identities are differently constituted, policed, and performed, both homosexuality and heterosexuality are themselves tropes of difference that, not despite but because of their arbitrariness, wield enormous social power. If difference is a trope and if the distinction that is supposed to exist before comes into being only after the naming of identity, passing is not a false copy of true identity but an imitation of which, to borrow Judith Butler's account of gender, "there is no original" (Gender Trouble 25).

To unfold more fully the relation of identity to passing and nostalgia, I'd like to return to some ways in which the tropes of passing in Giovanni's Room, as in Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun, and Larsen's Passing, speak to identity's essential difference from itself. Such novels, clearly engaged with issues of race, community, and what we would now call identity politics, have to varying degrees been read as denouncing imposture and defending "original" or "true" identity. In Larsen's novel, Mary Helen Washington writes, "'Passing' is an obscene form of salvation" (164). If passing, that is, for Larsen provides no "salvation" at all, it appears "obscene" in threatening the negation of identity and in transgressing the boundaries that constitute "truth" or meaning in opposition to the abject, the meaningless. As a figure, passing insists that the "truth" of racial identity, indeed of identity as such, relies on the presence or possibility of the false. Yet passing is not simply performance or theatricality, the pervasive tropes of recent work on sex and gender identity, nor is it parody or pastiche, for it seeks to erase, rather than expose, its own dissimulation.6 Passing, in other words, is only successful passing: unlike drag, its "performance" so impeccably mimics "reality" that it goes undetected as performance, framing its resistance to essentialism in the very rhetoric of essence and origin.7

To pass for is, according to the OED, "to be taken for, to be accepted, received, or held in repute as. Often with the implication of being something else." This formulation, flat and uninflected as it is, executes a sort of turn in a phrase that sounds like a redundancy: "Often with the implication of being something else." Here "being" or essence, the stuff of "true" identity, is reduced to, or endowed with, the status of "something else." Passing, however, must be understood as double: the gesture that can uncannily make what we think we know of "race" and "sexuality" into "something else" also represents the reversal of "being" and seeming that causes the dominant culture's self-presentation to be "accepted" as the natural. Passing, then, exerts rhetorical or political force not primarily as the betrayal that must be disavowed for an oppressed group to claim its own essential identity but as a betrayal of "identity" that offers one way of reading the production of the dominant culture's own identifications.

In matters of race as well as sexuality, passing both invokes and unravels the logic of primary and secondary, authenticity and inauthenticity, candor and duplicity, by placing in question the priority of what is claimed as "true" identity. The discourse of racial passing reveals the arbitrary foundation of the categories "black" and "white," just as passing across gender and sexuality places in question the meaning of "masculine" and "feminine," "straight" and "gay." Racial passing is thus subject to an epistemological ambiguity; from the beginning, the discourse of passing contains an implicit critique of "identity" precisely because what constitutes "the beginning" of identity remains in question. Born into passing, Frances Harper's mulatto heroine in Iola Leroy is raised as a white child without the knowledge that her mother is black or that she is, in the eyes of the law, a slave of her father, whereas Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man relates the disjunction between the narrator's childhood experience of himself as white and the eventual revelation of his "true" race, whose definition is enforced by white juridical authority.8 Such texts' most salient question is the possibility or impossibility of predicating both identity and "politics" on a racial subject who stands before culture, before community, and before a relation to passing. But they also ask whether the law is not itself passing when it plays the role of authority so effectively that its own dissimulation or contingency is erased.

To recognize the masquerade of "natural" identity is also to reveal the unnaturalness of what the dominant culture would have us most take for granted: the ontological status of heterosexuality and whiteness. The rhetoric of passing brings into relief the inauthenticity of "authentic" identity by bringing to the fore the passing of heterosexuality and of whiteness as themselves—which is to say, the contingency at the heart of identity that engenders, in the dominant culture, endless attempts to naturalize its own position by positing the inauthenticity or secondariness of what it will construe as its others.9 As Baldwin himself has suggested in a published conversation, the constitution of the deviant or marginal subject is the paradigmatic gesture through which the subject position of the dominant culture is defined: "People invent categories in order to feel safe: White people invented black people to give white people identity…. Straight cats invented faggots so they could sleep with them without becoming faggots themselves" (Baldwin and Giovanni 88-89). That is, the white or straight world invents its other in order to recognize itself, making the "inauthentic" define the authentic. The instability of heterosexuality and whiteness is projected onto, and reified in, the passing subject, people of color, and gay men and lesbians, all of whom constitute what Judith Butler, in her reading of homosexuality and miscegenation in Larsen's Passing, calls the "constitutive outside" of regimes of sexual and racial purity (Bodies That Matter 167).

If passing, then, invokes origins only to displace origins, the passing of the law itself is manifest in its nostalgia for a point of origin that, in fact, it has never known. This nostalgia takes shape, both in Giovanni's Room and in other discourses of race and sexuality, not only in terms of home and displacement but in terms of retrospection and the past. Like David's nationalistic fantasy of his American homeland, subjectivity—and the various identificatory mechanisms by which we recognize ourselves as subjects—is always a story told from the vantage point of the present and projected into the past, where it gains the status of an origin. In order to think further about nostalgia, I'd like to return to some ways in which metalepsis, the displacement of the secondary into the site of the primary, has been imagined in recent criticism. While the deconstructive logic of these readings is no doubt familiar, they make it possible to trace more clearly the politics of a certain cultural nostalgia in relation to the retroactive construction of individual subjectivity.

Judith Butler has persuasively described the construction of the subject "before the law" by the very agency of the law, whose part in that history is retroactively erased: "the law produces and then conceals the notion of a 'subject before the law' in order to invoke that discursive formation as a naturalized foundational premise that subsequently legitimates the law's own regulatory hegemony" (Gender Trouble 2).10 As in Kafka's story of the same name, Butler's "before the law" at once suggests a space prior to juridical discipline and the very space organized under that discipline. To recognize such retrospective projections of the dominant culture, Butler cautions, is not enough if oppositional projects will also subscribe to a politics of representation that assumes a priori an essential sameness among its constituents; nor is it productive for coalitional or "representational" politics to decide in advance what the contours of their coalitions will be and thus to invent, through "description," the constituency they come to represent.11 Metalepsis is thus centrally a part of the ways we imagine politics as such and the ways that both hegemonic and oppositional institutions take shape; but no less "political" is the nostalgia of the subject within the symbolic—indeed, nostalgia articulates the relationship of social law to psychological subject.

Insofar as it is anchored by proleptic and retrospective projections, political "identity" comes to resemble subjectivity as Lacan understands it. Having suffered a splitting of self or loss of a presence-to-himself as a result of his entrance into the symbolic order, the subject confronts a "radical fissure, and a subjective impasse, because the subject is called on to face in it the lack through which he is constituted" (Feminine Sexuality 116). Unable ever to face its own constitutive lack, culture itself, not unlike the Lacanian subject, attempts to "cover over" or deny lack by positing an origin, a "before." Thus the pre-Oedipal state is produced as a site of wholeness, multiplicity, or indifferentiation-as the outside of the symbolic—only within the symbolic order, by whose agency we are able retrospectively to posit the pre-Oedipal as the prediscursive realm. And yet, for Lacan, the subject owes as much to anticipation as to retrospection: the mirror stage depends on the projected image in which the child misrecognizes himself in a proleptic fantasy of his future bodily wholeness and assumes, as "the armour of an alienating identity," the template or "rigid structure" that determines subjectivity ever after (Écrits 4).

Just as the image of the fragmented body that precedes the mirror stage can be only metaleptically imagined, even beyond the mirror stage, as Jane Gallop notes, individual subjectivity is thoroughly indebted to projections into the past and future: it is "a succession of future perfects, pasts of a future, moments twice removed from 'present reality' by the combined action of an anticipation and a retroaction" (82). That is, the effect of identity's coherence is generated in part by endless reference to an irrecoverable origin, an elsewhere. If nostalgia, like passing, gestures toward an absent "something else," it does so not to displace but to locate and confirm individual or institutional "identity." Thus what Susan Stewart has called "the social disease of nostalgia" designates not an aberration in society but the disease of the social as such, the enabling "disease" or condition that, by looking backward, allows culture to progress or persist (23).

The nostalgia of the social works to vivify, and is in turn represented by, the particular desires of individuals: in Giovanni's Room, David's longed-for home in American heterosexual ideology is, like identity itself, revealed to be deeply nostalgic, retroactively produced as an origin from a position of belatedness and lack. The object of David's desire exists only in fantasy, as Giovanni recognizes: "you will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home" (GR 154-55). "Home" becomes possible only after identity and the possibility of meaning are recognized as lost, when the contingency of the origin is erased by nostalgia and "home" is naturalized as an object of desire. As a condition of desire that, as Gallop says of the image of "the body in bits and pieces," the corps morcelé "comes after … so as to represent what came before" (80), the nostalgia designated in Baldwin's novel by "homesickness" does not so much represent a disturbance of desire as the fate of all subjects within the symbolic order. Nostalgia, "a desire constitutively unsatisfied and unsatisfiable because its 'object' simply cannot ever be defined," becomes a fundamental condition of subjectivity—and of culture (Gallop 151). More than a retroactive effect, nostalgia is an effect which, unable to name what it experiences as lost, can only misrecognize the object it desires, for although its etymology refers back to nostos, or return, Gallop notes, nostalgia is a "transgression of return: a desire ungrounded in a past, desire for an object that has never been 'known'" (151). In racist and homophobic discourse, the "desire for an object that has never been known" is the desire for the coherence of whiteness or heterosexuality, an impossible ideal that nevertheless must be sustained if dominant culture is to "reproduce" itself, as Butler recognizes, as distinct from its "constitutive outside."

To name this effect "nostalgia" is to suggest as well the pathos that colors its backward glance—a pathos that may mean the masking or misrecognition of the more coercive aspects of the ideology "home" represents. It means, too, the misrecognition of identity as such figured not only in Lacan's mirror stage but in Baldwin's: when David examines his reflection in the first page of Giovanni's Room, his misrecognition of himself as self, however problematic his whiteness and straightness have and will become, seems the precondition of speech, even the precondition of narrative. David's desire to return to America is insistent and deeply felt, but as the novel's brutal conclusion suggests, nostalgia and violence go hand in hand as inseparable aspects of the positing and policing of identity. That is, nostalgia's inevitability in no way means its effects are symmetrical, for it is precisely the nonidentity of the white, bourgeois, heterosexual culture that David represents in Giovanni's Room that must be phobically projected onto an other who, like Giovanni, will bear the burden of that nostalgia even to his death.

Baldwin's ambivalent revision of the passing novel both exposes, through David, the operations of nostalgia and trades on a pathos of lost origins. As Baldwin observes in Giovanni's Room, agency and self-consciousness are never fully ours: the effect of identity continually and repetitively produced by the subject to recognize itself as a subject is imbued with the pathos of David's misrecognition of his own agency and subjectivity. "Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden," Jacques says, after the news of Giovanni's sentencing, "I wonder why." David thinks: "Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don't know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life offers only the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both" (35-36). The allusion to prelapsarian bliss appropriately represents the subject prior to the imposition of the law and the symbolic order; indeed, as Gallop has noted, Lacan's account of the mirror stage is the story of a "paradise lost" (85).12 Just as we can understand Eden only in the language of exile, we can imagine pre-Oedipal presence only in the Oedipalized language of lack. If Eden, in this particular myth of origin, is a paradigmatic home, whether the original heterosexual household or the short-lived pleasures of Giovanni's room, it is, Baldwin suggests, always already lost. The "either, or"—to remember Eden or to forget—is, as Giovanni's Room makes clear, no choice at all, for to remember is to engage in a nostalgic gesture that, to posit home as the originary site of identity, must simultaneously erase its retrospective construction, and to forget is to accept the nonexistence of this Eden—or, if you will, identity—a renunciation the subject can never wholly make. Thus each decision, and each performance of identity, is necessarily a double bind: David is condemned never to remember or forget Giovanni, never to get "home" or give it up.

It is easy enough, perhaps all too easy, to say that the answer to the question of identity politics is a politics of identity that insists on the contingency of identity. Such a politics, taking its cue from the discourse of passing, might seek to de-essentialize "identity" so as not to impose, through anticipation or retrospection, an illusionary and exclusionary coherence on those it "represents" and in order not to accede in its own right to the logic of the dominant culture. Yet what Baldwin's novel brings home to us most forcefully and most poignantly is the danger not only of the exercise of nostalgia but also of the fantasy that one can ever escape it. No less than the desire for an impossible return, the denial of nostalgia is itself nostalgic, for the ending of nostalgia and the accomplishment of placement is precisely the impossible object that nostalgia forever pursues. No politics, then, can ever fully overcome the passing or impersonation of its own identity or disavow the nostalgia that sustains subjectivity in the imaginary. Instead, a "politics"—which is to say, a reading—of "race" and "sexuality" might work to uncover the constitutive nostalgia of the dominant culture, for about the notions of passing, nostalgia, and desire whose effects Giovanni's Room traces, there is still a great deal to be said.


1. For a reading of racial and sexual passing in Larsen, see the essay by Cutter in this collection. See also Deborah McDowell's "Introduction" to Quicksand and Passing and Blackmore, "'That Unreasonable Restless Feeling': The Homosexual Subtexts of Nella Larsen's Passing." Cheryl Wall discusses passing in relation to gender in "Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen's Novels."

2. Baldwin, Giovanni's Room 7. All further quotations from this novel will be from the Dell edition (1988) and will be cited in the text as GR.

3. See Riviere, "Womanliness as Masquerade," and Judith Butler's discussion of Riviere and the performance of gender in Gender Trouble 24-25, 50-57.

4. On Baldwin and Henry James, see Newman, "The Lesson of the Master: Henry James and James Baldwin."

5. See also Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet. For further discussion of the legibility of the gay male body, see Edelman, Homographesis 5-6.

6. In addition to Butler's work on performativity in Gender Trouble, see also Sedgwick's "Queer Performativity: Henry James's The Art of the Novel."

7. Marjorie Garber describes gender passing as "a social and sartorial inscription which encodes (as treason does) its own erasure" (234). For a concise formulation of the relation of drag to passing, see also Robinson, "It Takes One to Know One" 727.

8. The title of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man suggests that the man in question is originally "coloured," although the narrative begins with his perception of himself as a white child. See the discussion of this novel by Kawash in this collection.

9. For a useful discussion of the construction of racial hegemony, in which passing figures as "a model for the cultural production of whiteness," see Mullen, "Optic White" 72-74.

10. Whether the "nonhistorical 'before'" is invoked by the dominant culture or by feminists, Butler argues, its effect is conservative.

11. See Butler, Gender Trouble, on the contingency of gender (38) and the anticipatory logic of political coalitions (14).

12. On nostalgia and the prelapsarian, see also Stewart, On Longing 23. Lee Edelman offers an incisive reading of identity, narcissism, and Paradise Lost in Homographesis 101-04.

Hilton Als (review date 16 February 1998)

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SOURCE: "The Enemy Within: The Making and Unmaking of James Baldwin," in New Yorker, February 16, 1998, pp. 72-80.

[In the following review, Als presents an overview of Baldwin's life and career.]

Twenty-two years ago, when I was fourteen, I was given James Baldwin's second collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name (1961), by his friend and my mentor the writer Owen Dodson, who was one of the more ebullient survivors of the Harlem Renaissance. The dust jacket of the book featured a photograph of Baldwin wearing a white T-shirt and standing in a pile of rubble in a vacant lot. It was this photograph that compelled me to read the book. I had never seen an image of a black boy like me—Baldwin looked as if he could have been posing in my old neighborhood, in East New York—gracing anything as impressive as a collection of essays. In fact, shortly after Owen gave me the book I began to pretend that the photograph of Baldwin was of me, or the writer I meant to be, and that the book's contents were my spiritual autobiography, or a record of the life I longed to lead. I was living in a roach-infested apartment in Crown Heights, along with my mother, my older sister, my younger brother, and the wearying fear that I would never escape from it. Baldwin, though, had grown up in circumstances not so different from my own, and he had gone on to become one of the most eminent writers America had ever produced. In the book, there was Baldwin in Paris attending a conference at the Sorbonne, Baldwin in Sweden interviewing Ingmar Bergman, Baldwin grappling with the exigencies of the life of the writer. And there was Baldwin realizing that, no matter how hard he had tried to separate himself from that black boy picking his way through the rubble of Harlem, he would always be regarded by some as a "nigger."

I didn't believe that I was a nigger, but I was certainly viewed with contempt by friends and family whenever my differences—which took the form of reading and writing, and hanging out with boys who called one another "girlfriend"—declared themselves. In reading Baldwin, then, I was listening to my secret voice, the voice of someone who wasn't afraid to describe who he was and where he'd come from and what he'd seen. Baldwin was also able to convey, in his labyrinthine, emotional prose, the persistent guilt that I felt toward my family—the family I would need to leave in order to become myself. And what compounded the guilt was the vague suspicion that in leaving them behind I would be leaving my blackness behind as well, to join the white world—a world that more often than not hurt and baffled my mother and siblings. Baldwin understood these things, because he'd survived them.

During the following year, I spent many hours in the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, hunched over bound volumes of old magazines featuring stories about Baldwin. I was struck, in some photographs, by his enormous eyes, like dark poppies in bloom, raised in mock or serious consternation; in others, by his enormous grin, with the "liar's space" between the two front teeth. And then there were the interviews, during which he spoke with great candor and wit:

[Journalist]: When you were starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, and homosexual. You must have said to yourself, "Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?"

[Baldwin]: No, I thought I had hit the jackpot. It was so outrageous, you had to find a way to use it.

When I was older, and had become a writer myself, my feelings about Baldwin grew ambivalent. I have never been comfortable being identified as a black writer, particularly when that description comes from a white audience, which knows nothing of the limitations imposed by the term. Nor have I ever been comfortable with the presumed fraternity of black writers, academics, and intellectuals: I have spent my entire life trying to come to grips with my feelings for my own family, and had little interest in being adopted by another—one with its own provincialism, competitiveness, and misapprehensions. Baldwin, at one point in his life, felt the same. In 1959, when he was thirty-five, he wrote from his self-imposed exile in Europe that he had left America because he wanted to prevent himself from becoming merely "a Negro writer." He went on to become exactly that: the greatest Negro writer of his generation. Perhaps none of us escape the whipping post we've carved our names on. But Baldwin's career became a cautionary tale for me, a warning as well as an inspiration.

I recently returned to Baldwin, prompted by the Library of America's just-published two-volume selection of his novels, short stories, and essays, edited by Toni Morrison. And I found that what I identified with in his work—the high-faggot style of his voice, the gripping narrative of his ascent from teen evangelist to cultural icon—had not changed for me since the days when I devoured his books like "some weird food" (as Baldwin once described his own early love of reading). My admiration for the way in which he alchemized the singularity of his perspective into art had not diminished. Neither had my discomfort with the way he had finally compromised that perspective. But I came to recognize something I'd missed during both my early infatuation and my later disaffection: no matter how much I tried to resist my identification with Baldwin, we were uneasy members of the same tribe.

James Baldwin was disenfranchised from the start. Born James Arthur Jones, in Harlem Hospital, on August 2, 1924, he was the illegitimate child of Emma Berdis Jones, who worked as a cleaning woman to support herself and her son. He never knew his biological father. In 1927, his mother married a Baptist preacher named David Baldwin; together, they reared eight other children, in a series of Harlem tenements. "My mother's strength was only to be called on in a desperate emergency," Baldwin wrote in 1972 in "No Name in the Street." Her eldest child soon learned that his mother "scarcely belonged to us: she was always in the hospital, having another baby." His stepfather was an unforgiving man with a terrible temper, who eventually lost his mind: "Between [the] children, who were terrified of him, the pregnancies, the births, the rats, the murders on Lenox Avenue, the whores who lived downstairs, his job on Long Island—to which he went every morning, wearing a Derby or a Homburg, in a black suit, white shirt, dark tie, looking like the preacher he was, and with his black lunchbox in his hand—and his unreciprocated love for the Great God Almighty, it is no wonder our father went mad."

In the midst of the anger and chaos of this household, the young Baldwin developed an insatiable appetite for literature. He writes in the introductory "Autobiographical Notes" to his first collection of essays, entitled Notes of a Native Son and published in 1955, "I read Uncle Tom's Cabin, and A Tale of Two Cities, over and over and over…. In fact, I read just about everything I could get my hands on—except the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read." And, reading in the larger world of books, Baldwin began to see the smallness of the world in which he lived, and to devise ways of escaping. "I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart," he once said. "I didn't know how I would use my mind … but I was going to get whatever I wanted that way, and I was going to get my revenge that way."

Escape was intimately bound up with issues of race. In Notes of a Native Son Baldwin recalls that when he was nine or ten he wrote a play that was directed by a young white schoolteacher—"a woman, who then took an interest in me, and gave me books to read, and, in order to corroborate my theatrical bent, decided to take me to see what she somewhat tactlessly referred to as 'real' plays." He goes on, "Theater-going was forbidden in our house, but, with the really cruel intuitiveness of a child, I suspected that the color of this woman's skin would carry the day for me." And it did. David Baldwin could not object to Jimmy's education, because he could not contradict the power that the white woman's skin held in his imagination:

He would have refused permission if he dared. The fact that he did not dare caused me to despise him…. In later years, particularly when it began to be clear that this "education" of mine was going to lead me to perdition, he became more explicit and warned me that my white friends in high school were not really my friends and that I would see, when I was older, how white people would do anything to keep a Negro down…. The best thing was to have as little to do with them as possible. I did not feel this way and I was certain, in my innocence, that I never would.

And so his stepfather's resistance proved a goad to his ambition, spurring him to reconfigure his world by turning difference into strength.

During Baldwin's years at Frederick Douglass Junior High School—from 1935 to 1938—his early ambitions were encouraged by one of the teachers there, the black homosexual writer Countee Cullen, who had enjoyed a vogue during the Harlem Renaissance. Baldwin went on to De Witt Clinton High School, a distinguished—and racially integrated—public school in the Bronx. Among his classmates were the future writer Emile Capouya, the future editor Sol Stein, and the future photographer Richard Avedon, with whom Baldwin coedited the school magazine, The Magpie. And as Baldwin began to venture—both literally and metaphorically—out of the neighborhood, some of his stepfather's forebodings began to be realized. Avedon remembers bringing Baldwin home to his family's apartment on the Upper East Side: "The elevator man looked at Jimmy and said, 'You have to go up the back stairs.'"

But even as Baldwin was travelling beyond the boundaries of the black community he was also trying to find his place in it. He underwent a religious conversion when he turned fourteen, began preaching shortly afterward, and proved to be good at it. In the small world of Harlem's Pentecostal churches, he had his first experience of fame, but he took little pleasure in it. "At this time of my life, Emile was the only friend I had who knew to what extent my ministry tormented me," Baldwin wrote many years later, in "The Devil Finds Work" (1976). Capouya believed that his friend remained in the church out of cowardice:

Therefore, on the coming Sunday, he would buy two tickets to a Broadway matinee and meet me on the steps of the 42nd Street Library, at two o'clock in the afternoon. He knew that I spent all day Sunday in church—the point, precisely, of the challenge…. I had hoped for a reprieve, hoped, on the marked Sunday, to get away unnoticed: but I was the "young" Brother Baldwin, and I sat in the front row, and the pastor did not begin his sermon until about a quarter past one. Well. At one-thirty, I tiptoed out…. That was how I left the church.

He was seventeen. Shortly afterward, he left home, but he continued to help support his large family, working first at a defense plant in New Jersey, and then at a meatpacking plant in Manhattan. The racism he encountered during this period was debilitating in its unthinking brutality: twelve years later, he described the visceral response it evoked as being like "some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels," and he added, "It can wreck more important things than race relations. There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood."

David Baldwin died in 1943, several days before his adopted son's nineteenth birthday. Baldwin buried his stepfather, moved to Greenwich Village, and embarked on a new life as a bohemian. A year later, he met Richard Wright, who championed Baldwin's early efforts at fiction, recommending him to an editor at Harper & Brothers. It was Wright who first gave voice to Baldwin's experience of racism. "He was the greatest black writer in the world for me," Baldwin later recalled, in "Alas, Poor Richard." "In Uncle Tom's Children, in Native Son, and, above all, in Black Boy, I found expressed, for the first time in my life, the sorrow, the rage, and the murderous bitterness which was eating up my life…. His work was an immense liberation and revelation for me."

Through Eugene Worth, a black friend who committed suicide in 1946 (and who inspired the character of Rufus in Baldwin's 1962 novel, Another Country), Baldwin was introduced to leftist politics, and in short order the nineteen-year-old writer was a card-carrying Trotskyist, but he didn't remain one long. ("It was useful in that I learned that it may be impossible to indoctrinate me," he wrote in the introduction to his collection of pieces The Price of the Ticket.) Still, during that time he became acquainted with the intellectuals who would greatly influence the beginning of his career as a writer: Saul Levitas, of The New Leader; Randall Jarrell, of The Nation; Elliott Cohen and Robert Warshow, of Commentary; and Philip Rahv, of The Partisan Review. These editors supported Baldwin's growth as a critic and allowed him access to the social world of New York intellectuals, but their patronage was not without its restrictions: as a black, he was expected and encouraged to review black books. "As for the books I reviewed—well, no one, I suppose, will ever read them again," Baldwin mused. "It was after the war, and Americans were on one of their monotonous conscience 'trips': be kind to niggers, for Christ's sake, be kind to Jews!"

To some extent, Baldwin used his blackness as a kind of surrogate Jewishness: it was his "difference" that sold, and the Jewish intellectuals who knew persecution at first hand could understand racism as persecution of a different hue. Baldwin described the connection himself, in his essay "The Harlem Ghetto," which was published in 1948:

Though the notion of suffering … is based on the image of the wandering, exiled Jew, the context changes imperceptibly, to become a fairly obvious reminder of the trials of the Negro…. At this point, the Negro identifies himself almost wholly with the Jew. The more devout Negro considers that he is a Jew, in bondage to a hard taskmaster and waiting for Moses to lead him out of Egypt.

It is likely that this connection in suffering was clear to him as a citizen of Harlem, where the Jew was stigmatized for his whiteness, just as blacks were marked in the larger world for their blackness. But such observations must have also strengthened his sense of belonging to his new intellectual community.

Certainly this community helped to redefine Baldwin. By 1948, he was no longer the ugliest boy his father had ever seen but a promising young writer who was considered "very smart" by the older editors he worked for. And nothing is more necessary to a writer than attention. "Though it may have cost Saul Levitas nothing to hurl a book at a black boy to see if he could read it and be articulate concerning what he had read. I took it as a vote of confidence. And I loved him … and I think … that he was proud of me, and that he loved me, too." It is a touchingly vulnerable statement.

The reviews and essays Baldwin wrote for The Nation and other magazines are models of linguistic precision and critical acuity. In them he laid the groundwork for the themes he would explore and develop in his later essays: the tensions between blacks and Jews; black stereotypes in film; the effect of poverty on everyday life. At the same time, he was developing a style as a writer—a style that blended a full-throated preacherly cadence with the astringent obliquities of a semi-closeted queen.

Baldwin was also struggling to embrace a wider racial vision. At the end of his review of a biography of Frederick Douglass—a review published in The Nation in 1947, when Baldwin was only twenty-two—he wrote, "Relations between Negroes and whites, like any other province of human experience, demand honesty and insight; they must be based on the assumption that there is one race and that we are all part of it." At the same time, however, he wasn't trying to "transcend" his race: he was assuming the role of its spokesperson. In a review of Chester Himes's novel The Lonely Crusade Baldwin states, "On the low ground where Negroes live something is happening: something which can be measured in decades and generations and which may spell our doom as a republic and almost certainly implies a cataclysm."

In November, 1948, Baldwin decided to leave the country. Unwilling to end up like his stepfather, "sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors," he used the money from a literary fellowship he'd won to book passage to Paris. He arrived with just over forty dollars to his name and few contacts other than Richard Wright, who had arrived there two years earlier. But postwar Paris proved to be a refuge for a number of black Americans. And the Parisians, as Baldwin's friend Maya Angelou has said, were delighted with them: they were neither les misérables nor Algerians. "France was not without its race prejudices," she recalled in an interview. "It simply didn't have any guilt vis-à-vis black Americans. And black Americans who went there, from Richard Wright to Sidney Bechet, were so colorful, and so talented, and so marvellous, and so exotic. Who wouldn't want them?"

In Paris, Baldwin lived in a variety of hotels, some "ludicrously grim," and he supported himself in a variety of ways. His first summer, he worked as a clerk for a lawyer and he wrote pieces for French and American periodicals. And, for the first time in his life, he borrowed from friends and acquaintances. To live off the largesse of friends takes charm, but that was one resource he had in abundance. "He was able to really charm you, and entertain you, and beguile you, and I suppose seduce you if you were at all ready for it," the poet Richard Howard remembers.

Through Wright, Baldwin was introduced to the editors of the Paris-based magazine Zero, and for them, in 1949, he wrote his first critical piece about his former mentor—a devastating essay entitled "Everybody's Protest Novel." In it Baldwin argued that American protest literature simply confirmed stereotypes about blacks, and that Bigger Thomas, the anti-hero of Wright's 1940 novel, Native Son, was the spiritual and ideological twin of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom—a victim used as a vessel to project the author's self-righteousness. Baldwin felt confined by political fiction; as he later explained, he wanted to be a writer "instead of a pamphleteer."

Owen Dodson told me that when Baldwin attacked Wright's aesthetic most black intellectuals and academics felt that he had gone too far. Disdainful of intellectual protectionism among blacks, I replied that I guessed that we were not only supposed to look alike but like alike, too. Today, however, as I read Baldwin's essays on Wright and sort through my own jumbled feelings, the truth seems a bit more complicated. Certainly both "Everybody's Protest Novel" and Baldwin's later essay "Alas, Poor Richard" (1961) expressed real misgivings that the younger man had about Wright's work. But these essays—as the title of the second one suggests—also constituted a very personal attack. Baldwin meant not only to bury the tradition of black letters which had its roots in a Communism supported by white dilettantes but also to supersede Wright as the one black writer worth reading in the largely white world of American letters. The Oedipal nature of their relationship was not lost on Baldwin, who once described Wright as "my ally and my witness, and alas! my father."

It is a similar desire for a father—and an ultimate distance from him—that accounts for most of the pathos of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin's first and best novel, which was published, finally, in 1953. (Baldwin had worked on Mountain—originally entitled "In My Father's House"—in one form or another for a decade.) The story takes place in the course of a day—the day John, its hero, turns thirteen and is "saved" in the Baptist church where his father preaches. Sharing the stage with John are the dark, troubled "vertical saints." They are his immediate elders; his mother, Elizabeth; his stepfather, Gabriel; and Gabriel's sister Florence. While John writhes and moans on the "threshing floor," each of them recounts, in flashback, the sins of his or her own past. John's sins—his blackness and his gayness—are part of the filth that he lives in and from which he cannot imagine how to escape. John's "ugliness" is also part of his sin. "His father had always said his face was the face of Satan—and was there not something—in the lift of the eyebrow, in the way his rough hair formed a V on his brow—that bore witness to his father's words? In the eye there was a light that was not the light of Heaven, and the mouth trembled, lustful and lewd, to drink deep in the winds of Hell."

The extraordinary power of Mountain arose from Baldwin's ability to convey the warping intensity of an elder's judgment and a child's inability to protect himself from it. John cannot understand why his father despises him, because the fact that the father despises himself does not occur to John. Nor can John imagine being able to escape him: there will never be any reprieve from the memory of his cruelty and its effect.

The psychic tug-of-war between attraction and rejection was also destined to play itself out in Baldwin's relationships with other men. Shortly after his arrival in Paris, Baldwin met a seventeen-year-old Swiss artist named Lucien Happesberger. The fact that Happesberger was white and Baldwin black was less of a transgression than it would have been back in the States. "In Paris," Baldwin said, "I didn't feel socially attacked, but relaxed, and that allowed me to be loved."

"He was this rather silly, giddy, predatory fellow who was extraordinarily unattractive-looking," Richard Howard recalls. "There's a famous eighteenth-century person who used to say, 'I can talk my face away in twenty-five minutes.' And Jimmy could do that." To a point, perhaps. In the gay demimonde, where looks count for a great deal, Baldwin was not a success, even after he became famous, and he tended to be attracted to straight and bisexual men, who increased the sense of isolation he fed on. Even Lucien, his great love, was primarily attracted to women. For Baldwin, the first principle of love was love withheld; it was all he had ever known.

His second novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), traces a tragic affair between two men—a white American drifter and an Italian bartender amid the bars and hôtels particuliers of postwar Paris. The melodramatic plot—in which each man really does kill the thing he loves—creates, in microcosm, the sentimental, histrionic tone of Baldwin's later, unwieldy novels, notably Another Country.

Giovanni's Room isn't exactly self-affirming, but the fact that he wrote about the world of his sexuality at all is extraordinary, given the year and his race. (So intense was the stern Puritanism of most blacks I knew while I was growing up that one was not simply a faggot but a damned faggot.) When Giovanni's Room was published, Howard recalls, "it was regarded as an exceptional book, and gay people were proud that such a thing existed. And that it should have been written by a black person was kind of phenomenal."

It was in Baldwin's essays, unencumbered by the requirements of narrative form, character, and incident, that his voice was most fully realized. And his attacks on the straight-white-boy gatekeepers of culture and politics remain appropriately vicious. In the nineteen-fifties, his most pugnacious contemporary was Norman Mailer. In 1959, the thirty-six-year-old Mailer published Advertisements for Myself, which contained his essay "Evaluations—Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room." In it, he declares his admiration for James Jones and other major novelists of the time. But of Baldwin he says:

James Baldwin is too charming a writer to be major. If in Notes of a Native Son he has a sense of moral nuance which is one of the few modern guides to the sophistications of the ethos, even the best of his paragraphs are sprayed with perfume. Baldwin seems incapable of saying "F―you" to the reader; instead he must delineate the cracking and the breaking and the melting and the hardening of a heart which could never have felt such sensuous growths and little deaths without being emptied as a voice.

Baldwin's subsequent essay about Mailer—"The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," published in 1961—deflates Mailer's macho posturing with his "perfumed" wit: "Norman. I can't go through the world the way you do because I haven't got your shoulders," he writes. He also pits his defacto cool credentials against what he depicts as Mailer's privileged white petulance:

The anguish which can overtake a white man comes in the middle of his life, when he must make the almost inconceivable effort to divest himself of everything he has ever expected, or believed, when he must take himself apart and put himself together again, walking out of the world, into limbo or into what certainly looks like limbo. This cannot yet happen to any Negro of Norman's age, for the reason that his delusions and defenses are either absolutely impenetrable by this time, or he has failed to survive them. "I want to know how power works," Norman once said to me, "how it really works, in detail." Well, I know how power works, it has worked on me, and if I didn't know how power worked, I would be dead.

In the same place, Baldwin slyly makes fun of Mailer's infatuation with the predominantly black jazz world. "Negro jazz musicians … really liked Norman," he writes. But they "did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely 'hip.'… They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic." Baldwin did not, however, own up to his reciprocal fascination with straight white boys and their privilege. Certainly Another Country, Baldwin's own "hip" book about interracial sex, gay sex, pot smoking, and nihilism, turned out to be an artistic disaster.

By the time Baldwin published Another Country and the essay collection Nobody Knows My Name, both in 1962, he had become America's leading black literary star. Both books were commercially successful, but the reviews of Another Country were mixed. The novel centers on Rufus, a black male artist, who falls in love with a white Southern woman he meets at a party, and has sex with her on the hosts' balcony. ("He forced her beneath him and he entered her. For a moment she thought she was going to scream, she was so tight…. Then, from the center of his rising storm, very slowly and deliberately, he began the slow ride home. And she carried him, as the sea will carry a boat.") After becoming involved with her, Rufus is tormented by the world that cannot understand their love. He beats her; she ends up in a mental ward; he commits suicide. The subplots, about adultery, bedhopping, and ambition, are equally melodramatic. Elizabeth Hardwick astutely observed in her review for Harper's, "In certain respects this novel is a representation of some of the ideas about American life, particularly about the Negro in American life, that Baldwin's essays have touched upon. But what is lacking in the book is James Baldwin himself, who has in his non-fictional writing a very powerful relation to the reader."

In 1962, Baldwin's incantatory voice reached its largest magazine audience. Baldwin had agreed to write a piece about Africa for William Shawn, who was then the editor of The New Yorker; instead, he gave Shawn the essay that came to be known as "The Fire Next Time," which had originally been assigned him by Norman Podhoretz, of Commentary. The peculiar power of "The Fire Next Time" was intensified by the cultural moment at which it appeared, just as Martin Luther King's nonviolent movement was being overtaken by the violent nationalism of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.

"The Fire Next Time," which appeared as a Letter from a Region in My Mind, detailed Baldwin's evangelical upbringing and his views on Christianity as a form of slavery forced on and then embraced by blacks: oppression as the condition of black American life. In order to escape "the ghetto mentality" and be a "truly moral human being," it was necessary for anyone, white or black, to first "divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church," Baldwin wrote. "If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him." The godhead with whom many blacks were replacing that Christian god was Allah, as represented by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. When Baldwin visited him at his home in Chicago, he was impressed by the Nation of Islam's ability to transform some of Harlem's more disreputable characters into Allah-abiding men.

Baldwin was able to maintain a skeptical view of the militancy of the Nation of Islam in his essay, and yet his admiration for strong black men is palpable. At one point, he confesses that upon encountering the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's "marvellous smile" he was reminded of the day, twenty-three years earlier, when he first met the female pastor of what would become his church. "Whose little boy are you?" she asked him. And Baldwin's orphaned heart cried out, "Why, yours!"

With the publication of The Fire Next Time in book form, in 1963, Baldwin became something of an intellectual carpetbagger. He undertook a lecture tour for the Congress on Racial Equality; he registered voters in Alabama for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he travelled to Nairobi with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier to celebrate Kenya's independence. On May 17th, he appeared on the cover of Time. William Styron recalls seeing Baldwin in an airport shortly after the book came out: "He was being followed by crews of TV reporters with microphones. He saw me from a distance, and waved, and then he was swept along by the great media wave." An essayist once known for his ability to question any party line had become the official voice of black America, and almost immediately his voice as a writer was compromised.

In 1964, Baldwin was asked by Lee Strasberg, then the director of the Actors Studio, to stage a play about the Emmett Till case, which the writer had been working on intermittently since 1958. As originally conceived, by Baldwin and Frank Cosaro, who was slotted to direct it, the play, Blues for Mister Charlie, was to be a "balanced view" of America's racial scene. Baldwin, Cosaro says, wanted as objective a view of Mister Charlie—the white man—as of his victim, and Cosaro was impressed by that. But Baldwin couldn't ignore the political influence of the black leaders he was becoming friendly with. "He then came back to me and Strasberg," Cosaro recalls, "and said that he had to go after Mister Charlie." The result was dutiful, turgid, and unconvincing.

Baldwin had always been a preacher of one sort or another, and preaching imminent earthly damnation to liberal white folks became increasingly irresistible. Even as early as 1960, Baldwin, standing in front of Styron's fireplace in Connecticut, told his host, "Baby, we are going to burn your motherfucking houses down." By 1968, Baldwin found impersonating a black writer more seductive than being an artist. That year, he went to Hollywood to write a screen adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The producer, Marvin Worth, recalls, "White liberals were thrilled to have him come into their Beverly Hills houses and beat them up, say they were shit. He was a star who played on white masochism."

The irony, however, was that no matter how much Baldwin sacrificed his gifts to gain acceptance from the Black Power movement, his gestures went unrequited: while Baldwin may have been seen as a "bad nigger" by liberal whites, back in the hood he was just another twisted white boy in blackface. Eldridge Cleaver, in his 1968 "Soul on Ice," called Baldwin "a self-willed, automated slave" and "the white man's most valuable tool in oppressing other blacks." And yet, even after he'd been vilified by Cleaver, his response was appeasing and reverential. In No Name in the Street (1972) Baldwin referred to Cleaver as "valuable and rare," and excused his intolerance as the vigilance of "a zealous watchman on the city wall." And it is difficult to read Baldwin's description of Huey Newton in the same essay without wincing:

There is in him a dedication as gentle as it is unyielding, absolutely single-minded. I began to realize this when I realized that Huey was always listening and always watching. No doubt he can be fooled, he's human, though he certainly can't be fooled easily; but it would be a very great mistake to try to lie to him. Those eyes take in everything, and behind the juvenile smile, he keeps a complicated scoreboard.

Baldwin's biographer, David Leeming, told me that many of the civil-rights leaders didn't want to be associated with Baldwin, because he was so openly gay; it seems to have been why the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington pointedly ignored him. In the end, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver were reincarnations of his withholding and judgmental preacher father.

By the time the Black Power movement had started to ebb, Baldwin was adrift not only politically but aesthetically. Throughout the nineteen-seventies, Styron and Mailer were working on ambitious books like Sophie's Choice and The Executioner's Song, Thomas Pynchon was breaking new ground with Gravity's Rainbow, and a prolific new generation of black women—Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison—was claiming the public's imagination. Baldwin's fastidious thought process and his baroque sentences suddenly seemed hopelessly outdated, at once self-aggrandizing and ingratiating. Nevertheless, up until his death, in 1987, at the age of sixty-three, Baldwin continued to harbor the hope that he would be embraced as an important literary figure by the army of his desire: the black men who had forsaken him.

What became clear to me as I reread Baldwin's work (the Library of America selection mercifully excludes his ill-conceived and poorly written plays, The Amen Corner and Blues for Mister Charlie, and the novels written after Another Country) is that he never possessed a novelist's imagination or sense of structure—or, indeed, a novelist's interest in the lives of other people. Nor was he a reporter: most of his reporting pieces were stiff and banal. He was at his best when he was writing about some aspect of life or politics that reflected his interior self: he contained a multitude of worlds, and those worlds were his true subject.

But I also realized that my acute awareness of Baldwin's weaknesses as a writer stemmed from my sense of kinship with him. Certainly Baldwin understood this particular kind of ambivalence, having written the following at thirty-six, the age I am now:

One of my dearest friends, a Negro writer now living in Spain, circled around me and I around him for months before we spoke. One Negro meeting another at an all-white cocktail party … cannot but wonder how the other got there. The question is: Is he for real? Or is he kissing ass?… Negroes know about each other what can here be called family secrets, and this means that one Negro, if he wishes, can "knock" the other's "hustle."… Therefore, one "exceptional" Negro watches another "exceptional" Negro in order to find out if he knows how vastly successful and bitterly funny the hoax has been.

Baldwin had been eyeing the competition long before he was paid to do so by any white editor. In Notes of a Native Son Baldwin writes that he and his stepfather circled around each other endlessly before they had their only significant conversation. One Sunday afternoon, they were walking home from church when David Baldwin broke their habitual silence:

My father asked me abruptly, "You'd rather write than preach, wouldn't you?"

I was astonished at his question—because it was a real question. I answered, "Yes."

But in the end Baldwin could not distinguish between writing sermons and making art. He eventually returned to the pulpit—just where his stepfather had always wanted him to be.

Yet there is one great Baldwin masterpiece waiting to be published—one that was composed in an atmosphere of focused intimacy rather than in the stiff black preacher suit that was his legacy—and that is a volume of his letters. A number of them were lent to me while I was doing research for this article; they have the force and wit of his early essays and the immediacy of something written for an audience of one.

After Baldwin's death, the family's relation to their prodigal son continues to reflect the hazards of uttering family secrets. When I asked David Leeming why the Baldwin family would not allow his letters to be published, he explained that the family felt he shed a negative light on them, particularly on David Baldwin, who was their father and not his; and they were uncomfortable with his homosexuality. "They have no interest in further exploring who he was," Leeming says. The family's unease with the private Baldwin is something that he himself always understood. And yet he left his legacy in their hands. In the end, even a bastard may be reclaimed by his family.

Andrew Shin and Barbara Judson (essay date Summer 1998)

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SOURCE: "Beneath the Black Aesthetic: James Baldwin's Primer of Black American Masculinity," in African American Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 247-61.

[In the following essay, Shin and Judson analyze the change in Baldwin's presentation of homosexuality between Giovanni's Room and Just Above My Head.]

It has become commonplace to suggest the similarities in the histories of the black and feminist consciousness movements of the 1960s and '70s, especially the critical blindnesses that threatened to undermine the very solidarity crucial to political identity.1 The conspicuous elision of women from black nationalism's struggle to achieve political recognition for its people was matched by feminism's inability to countenance the interests of ethnic women in its vision of cultural renovation. Just as the Black Panthers lorded it over their women, middle-class white feminists failed to recognize the different needs of women of color—especially Black women—who served in their very households as domestic help. Although leading white feminists might have entertained the political possibilities of a gender-based alliance between white women and women of color, insofar as they understood black female activism as part of the broader struggle for racial liberation, they tacitly committed black women to a marginal role in an essentially masculinist enterprise. While ostensibly struggling against racial oppression, black nationalism cultivated an overt sexism; meanwhile feminism, in its battle with gender oppression, perpetuated an indifferent racism. Indeed, if all the men were black, then all the women were white.2

How interesting, then, that James Baldwin's voice has been both silenced and lost—silenced by the sexual politics of an emergent black left, lost because critics like Irving Howe decried Baldwin's putative aestheticism in favor of Richard Wright's militancy. But from our perspective, Baldwin's is a voice ahead of its time, one that explicitly addresses the implication of race and gender and, even more, attempts to articulate a gay ethic well before "gay" entered common parlance and certainly before the work of writers and scholars like Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Michael Lynch, Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, and Lee Edelman legitimated "queer theory" as a critical discourse. Baldwin's position is especially interesting because he synthesizes race and gay consciousness during some of the most politically volatile decades of the twentieth century. Moreover, Baldwin's career strongly suggests the influence of feminism on his gay aesthetic, the insights of which he subsequently recontextualized in the struggle for black liberation.

African American literature from approximately 1940 to the mid-1970s was primarily a masculinist enterprise dominated by Richard Wright's protest novel and Ralph Ellison's literary pluralism. Along with Alice Walker's re-discovery of Zora Neale Hurston and the pastoral tradition, the last two decades have witnessed an explosion of writing by black women and the recuperation of a black female literary history that dramatizes a specifically urban sensibility suggested by the novels of, among others, Nella Larsen, Ann Petry, and, of course, Toni Morrison. In the process, Baldwin's novels have been relegated to the archives of the unread, cast aside in favor of the lapidary, famously polemical essays. The novels, however, despite their poor critical reception, are interesting because they rarely capitulate to the urge for a simplified rhetoric that characterizes the essays of the early 1970s, persistently retaining the unresolved tension and complexity of a writer—a gay black writer no less—divided between his role as a popular spokesman for the race and his role as an artist whose imaginative life encompasses aesthetic standards that may alienate a popular audience. The novel form partially liberated Baldwin from the pressures that he felt as an essayist answerable to frequently hostile audiences, both black and white. Baldwin's work, moreover, suggests a cultural space where the trend in black literary history to polarize itself along gender lines might be reversed.3 Ours, then, is an especially compelling moment in both literary and social history to reassess Baldwin's importance in matters of black liberation.

Baldwin's famous rejoinder to Norman Mailer's manifesto of hipster culture, "The White Negro," specifically addresses the sexual mythology that obtains to black men living in America: "I think that I know something about the American masculinity which most men of my generation do not know because they have not been menaced by it in the way that I have been" (Price 290). Here, Baldwin suggests the straitjacket of black virility that he struggled to liberate himself from throughout his career. A legacy of the antebellum South, celebrated by 1920s primitivism and consumer culture, this cultural mythology was perpetuated in the 1960s by the radical black left and white liberals like Mailer and Norman Podhoretz. Baldwin, who challenged this orthodoxy, became the whipping boy of a cultural establishment that understood the black man as, in Baldwin's words, "a kind of walking phallic symbol" (Price 290). Thus the question "What does it mean to be a man in America?" became Baldwin's donnée, inflecting virtually all of his literary production.4

Baldwin resisted an uncritical embrace of black nationalism, developing instead a vision of the homosexual as the chief instrument of cultural renovation. Indeed, bodily pleasure between men functions as a paradigm for the body politic—two men lying together spoon-fashion becomes an image of the just society. The black man as fetishized phallus gives way to an image of wholeness, of reintegrated bodies and of community. David Leeming, Baldwin's friend and recent biographer, suggests that much of Baldwin's early work can be characterized in terms of a family romance, as elaborating a search for an absent, idealized father (Leeming 3), as though the restored authority and centrality of the father could redress the history of slavery, an institution enabled by the codification of illegitimacy, defining black children as bastards. Indeed, for Baldwin, personal and familial redemption is political; but the rhetoric of family and the inherited view of a body politic organized around paternal privilege and masculine autonomy give way to the more egalitarian ideal of brotherhood—of a society founded upon the love between men. Baldwin thus redefines the discourse of family grounded in biology and posits alternative social structures in its place.5

Throughout Baldwin's oeuvre, the ideal of brotherhood displaces the idea of redemption through the restored centrality of the father: Horizontal equity supplants verticality. Brotherhood in this instance, however, is not exclusive but all-encompassing, suggesting egalitarian relations between men and women as well. Cora Kaplan, for one, distinguishes Baldwin's fictional treatment of sexuality, the family, and women as much more sympathetic to women than Wright's or Ellison's, but still qualifies her judgment: "Although Baldwin is one of the first and major analysts of the intimate relationship between dominant notions of masculinity and oppression within the Black family, his view of women as somehow inevitably confined to heterosexual relations is one of the historical limitations of his writing" (185). But Kaplan here raises issues that Baldwin tacitly engages, to the degree that he emphasizes the historical limitations of heterosexual relationships for women. Additionally, it should go without saying that homosexual relationships, whether gay or lesbian, are vulnerable to hierarchy.6

Baldwin begins his enterprise of reimagining the body politic in the largely autobiographical Go Tell It On the Mountain (1952) and extends it in Another Country (1962) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), works in which homosexuality acquires an increasingly striking political dimension, but he elaborates his position most clearly through the change in his disposition toward homosexuality from Giovanni's Room (1956) to Just Above My Head (1978), the two works we will consider in depth. Baldwin dramatizes this shift in orientation iconographically by displacing the autonomous, middle-class, white-male body with the erotic, feminized, black-male body. Giovanni's Room invokes the expatriate experiences of a white man to make the case for the homosexual as hero, a possibility foreclosed by the construction of black American masculinity. But in Just Above My Head, Baldwin confronts the taboo of black homosexuality on his home ground.

Baldwin had good reason to be alienated from the contemporary literary scene. With the publication of Native Son (1940), Richard Wright was unquestionably the dominant black writer in postwar America, and he became the cynosure of an intense debate over the question of what it meant to be a black writer. Although Wright initially assumed the role of mentor to Baldwin and helped him win several prestigious fellowships, Baldwin quickly differentiated himself from the protest tradition with which Wright was associated. For Baldwin, the idea of protest necessitated an overly narrow conception of the black writer, restricting him to a racial category that preempted the exploration of a more expansive and imaginative notion of human potential. In other words, to be a protest writer both limited artistic expression and perpetuated the very stereotypes that the genre aimed to dismantle. Ironically, as Baldwin's career progressed, his greatest distinction lay in the almost universal praise bestowed on his skill as an essayist; on the other hand, he was repeatedly castigated for producing literature that was overly didactic and propagandistic, a literature that could not elevate itself to the level of the imagination. Indeed, the prophetic strain in Baldwin came increasingly to assume the stridency of protest as he became caught up in the Civil Rights Movement, but, importantly, his voice persistently challenges the sexism that was a prominent element of Wright's.

Liberal white critics like Irving Howe championed Wright, suggesting that the lived experience of blacks, as if by default, could only express itself oppositionally: "The program which the young Baldwin set for himself—a program of aesthetic autonomy and faithfulness to private experience, as against ideological noise and blunt stereotype—was almost impossible for the Negro writer to realize" ("James Baldwin" 97). In Howe's view, if one were black, to write was to protest. Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man (1952) rewrites Native Son and is the only mid-century novel by an African American to enjoy a stature comparable to Wright's, responded to Howe by suggesting that Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, exemplifies the limitations of the protest novel, precisely to the extent that Bigger Thomas is utterly incapable of imagining a character as complex and enigmatic as his creator Richard Wright.7 Wright himself offers perhaps the most interesting interpretation of the literary debates that he inspired. In his famous essay "The Literature of the Negro in the United States," Wright argues that the proliferation of a literature directed "toward strictly racial themes" bespeaks a period of heightened racial oppression; conversely, a turn toward a literature that "assumes the common themes and burdens of literary expression which are the heritage of all men" (149-50) presumes an amelioration of racism in society. Accordingly, Native Son might be interpreted as the legacy of an economically depressed but politically charged decade that witnessed the expanding influence of Marxism and the dissemination of an oppositional populism, a philosophy that Wright himself embraced; on the other hand, Baldwin and Ellison speak for the 1950s, a decade that basked in postwar euphoria and witnessed the inception of the Civil Rights Movement, which offered the promise of significant racial progress as realized in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

These literary debates aside, Wright left a far more insidious legacy of misogyny, which the radical black left embraced during the 1960s. That Baldwin even imagined the homosexual as the instrument of social change was no mean feat, given that homosexuality was still being censured both by mainstream culture and by black nationalists who equated blackness with heterosexual virility. Eldridge Cleaver, for one, who was famous for suggesting that he raped black women as a preamble to raping white women, characterizes Baldwin's homosexuality as a "racial death-wish" typical of the black bourgeoisie (103), who have rejected their blackness, their African heritage: "The cross they have to bear is that, already bending over and touching their toes for the white man, the fruit of their miscegenation is not the little half-white offspring of their dreams …" (102). Although Cleaver felt he had been racially oppressed, he embraced the hierarchy of traditional heterosexuality, convinced that it was his privilege to dominate women. Hence Baldwin's homosexuality struck him as a betrayal, because Baldwin presented a public image of the black man as castrated, the black man as woman. Cleaver saw no brave new world in Baldwin's vision, only the resurrected old world in which black men were lynched, their manhood desecrated.

Cleaver's homophobic observations were fueled by Norman Mailer's "The White Negro," which in a late Romantic gesture primitivized the Negro as a source of authenticity in an overly refined Western world. Likewise, LeRoi Jones, one of the most important figures of the Black Arts Movement, repudiated his early bohemianism, as exemplified by his plays The Baptism (1964) and The Toilet (1964), to join in the general condemnation of Baldwin's sexual politics, though later, Jones, in his 1987 eulogy for Baldwin, identified Baldwin's play Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964) as the inception of the Black Arts Movement. Thus, Baldwin occupied a complex position in the politics and culture of the sixties: An outspoken advocate of civil rights, he was nevertheless viewed as a subversive and fractious element by many of its leaders. Though Mailer cast him as the embodiment of virility by virtue of his color, he was, paradoxically, vilified by fellow blacks for not being black (read masculine) enough. And although Baldwin could assert his cultural authority over Mailer—"I could have pulled rank on him precisely because I was black and knew more about that periphery he so helplessly maligns in 'The White Negro' than he could ever hope to know" (Price 290)—he was himself characterized as a "Pussy Cat" by Cleaver (104).8

For his part, Baldwin tried to resist the erosion of his cultural authority by reinventing himself in the language of the new vanguard—in the very terms of the black left which composed jeremiads against a view it regarded as outmoded. Two essays published a decade apart witness Baldwin's shift from a vision of a unitary culture to a more separatist stance. The philippic The Fire Next Time (1963) argues the interconnected destinies of black and white America, resisting the separatist philosophy of Malcolm X. Elijah Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam, and locates the possibility of black salvation in cooperation: "… we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white" (Price 375-76).9 But the character of the Civil Rights Movement had changed, from the unassailable working-class dignity of Rosa Parks in 1955 to the hyperbole of the Black Panthers in 1968. A decade later, cast as a political Uncle Tom and facing tribal excommunication, a somewhat resigned Baldwin sounded a different note in No Name in the Street (1972), as protest displaced compassion as the agent of social change: "It must be remembered that in those great days I was considered to be an 'integrationist'—this was never, quite, my own idea of myself…. I was, in some way, in those years, without entirely realizing it, the Great Black Hope of the Great White Father … not only were no white people needed; they posed, en bloc, the very obstacle to black self-knowledge and had to be considered a menace" (Price 497-99). But the mantle of apologist and ideologue ill-suited Baldwin, and, in spite of his burgeoning militancy, by 1973, as Henry Louis Gates suggests, Baldwin was considered passé.10 Significantly, even as Baldwin was succumbing to the rhetoric of black nationalism as an essayist during this period, his novels assumed greater and greater risks in their exploration of black homosexuality.

Although Baldwin rejected the aggressive virility of both the white liberal intelligentsia and the radical black vanguard, he did celebrate the male body, not as a juggernaut of power but as a sensorium of comfort—the body as harbor and refuge, recapitulating the infant's relation to the mother, enjoying an amorphous, passive sexuality, a luxuriant dependency, played out, however, between men, Baldwin's emphasis on the pleasures of nurturance as opposed to mastery was anathema to black radicals who feared and despised such imagery as a return to childish dependence, a soft-pedaling of agency and activism. But Baldwin repudiates masculine autonomy as the instrument of a repressive social order by reveling in the sensate, celebrating the messiness of bodily odor and fluid—a convergence of bodies that opposes the formulations of white liberalism and black radicalism. He does not invoke the cult of the primitive as a reservoir of primal energy capable of bursting through social restraint; instead, he marshals love as the glue of a just society. The exchange of odors between men cuts across racial, class, and sexual lines.

The amorphous body figures Baldwin's vision of social progress founded upon the unrestricted expression of human sexuality, a view that contrasts with Booker T. Washington's program of racial uplift based on industrial and agricultural education for young blacks, which is linked to the discrete, clean body. Up From Slavery is replete with Washington's injunctions regarding the importance of personal hygiene and the utility of the clean body—cleanliness as a kind of currency. Indeed, Washington discovers that his passage through life, from his early employment as a houseboy to his admission to Hampton, is greatly facilitated by his embracing of the habits of his white employers and teachers, foremost among them the attributes of cleanliness and routine:

Life at Hampton was a constant revelation to me; was constantly taking me into a new world. The matter of having meals at regular hours, of eating on a tablecloth, using a napkin, the use of the bathtub and of the toothbrush, as well as the use of sheets upon the bed were all new to me. I sometimes feel that almost the most valuable lesson I got at the Hampton Institute was in the use and value of the bath. (59-60)11

Washington accordingly emphasizes the values of this "new world" upon returning to Malden to teach at the colored school:

In addition to the usual routine of teaching, I taught the pupils to comb their hair and to keep their hands and faces clean, as well as their clothing. I gave special attention to teaching them the proper use of the tooth-brush and the bath. In all my teaching I have watched carefully the influence of the tooth-brush, and I am convinced that there are few single agencies of civilization that are more far-reaching. (69)

Although his philosophy of the toothbrush is moving, it was unfortunately tied to the whole ethos of the houseboy and the structure of racial oppression that thinkers like Du Bois decried. Radical blacks did not view self-management of the body as crucial to political agency, but as the program of Uncle Tom.12 Washington here invokes the middle-class values delineated by the white male body, which was constructed throughout the course of the French Revolution and which elaborated the republican ideals that claimed the right to liberty, equality, and fraternity for every man. But while Washington imagined his program of racial uplift through the symbolism of the white male body, he was unable or unwilling to acknowledge that, in the early twentieth century, the black community did not have access to the attendant rights of citizenship, a state of affairs that arguably persists to this day, even after the vaunted gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Where Washington offered an image of the hyper-regulated body as an ideal, Baldwin suggested that this ideal capitulated to an oppressive social order, offering in its stead the indiscreet body of funky armpits, drunkenness, and sexual arousal, expressions of the feminized, bohemian body that achieved greater and greater political significance in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in which Baldwin became increasingly involved.

Baldwin's early novel Giovanni's Room dramatizes the consequences of self-deception through the experiences of a young expatriate American who is unable to come to terms with his sexuality. The novel opens with a proleptic image of the end—David, alone in an empty house in the south of France, staring at his reflection in a window pane, through which we learn, interestingly, that he is white, the son of an affluent father. That Baldwin ventriloquizes his story through a white protagonist is instructive, as though Baldwin wishes to distance himself from the autobiographical elements of the novel. Robert Bone suggests that, when Baldwin "attempts a novel of homosexual love, with an all-white cast of characters and a European setting, he simply transposes the moral topography of Harlem to the streets of Paris" (38). Bone's observation, however, elides how this "moral topography" is inflected by race.13 That David's experiences are largely expatriate underlines the untenability of black homosexuality as a lifestyle in America. David is socially unmarked by virtue of his color, a privilege that Baldwin himself enjoyed to a much greater degree in France than in America, but David's experiences in Paris nonetheless reinforce the web of self-deception that characterizes his life in America.

At its broadest reach, Giovanni's Room asks: What does it mean to be a man? This is the burden from which David takes refuge in flight but cannot escape, and it dominates his reflections on two formative experiences: a homoerotic childhood friendship that he terminates in deference to an internalized cultural homophobia, and his relationship with his parents marked by a sense of filial debt. Through the metaphor of a "cavern" (Giovanni's 15), Baldwin brilliantly condenses David's story as a dead-end, the cul-de-sac in which we find him at the end of the novel. The cavern of innuendo and rumor refers to the discourse of mortification in which the homosexual is pilloried, but it also symbolizes an intensity of pleasure so acute as to culminate in self-dissolution.

In suppressing his homoerotic impulses, however, David finds no solace in a more conventional heterosexuality, figured here through the activities of a philandering father and the memories of a mother who, Medusa-like, haunt David's dreams: "… she figured in my nightmares, blind with worms, her hair as dry as metal and brittle as a twig, straining to press me against her body; that body so putrescent, so sickening soft, that it opened, as I clawed and cried, into a breach so enormous as to swallow me alive" (17). Here, in contrast to the discrete male body, Baldwin presents the maternal body as monstrous, as an amorphous, enveloping softness that devours rather than nurtures. For David, compulsory heterosexuality is not the ground of phallic power but, as with all male infants, is potentially castrating, an orientation that defines his future relationships with women. David's fear of castration occurs, however, not through the process of heterosexual desire and the feelings of inadequacy generated in the presence of the powerful paternal phallus, but through a fear of a demonic female sexuality—the "cavern" transformed into a carnivorous "breach." In this scenario, the dream symbolizes a kind of wish-fulfillment in which David desires not to possess but to inhabit the eroticized female body and experience its dissolution, an untenable subject position in a homophobic culture. Here, Baldwin dramatizes the vexed identity of a man unable to countenance a sexual identity elaborated through the symbolism of the female body, when it is the very condition he desires.14

The novel subsequently situates David in various contexts which become vehicles for the exploration of identity: David's attempt to find himself becomes a search to discover a social space that will accommodate his sexual ambivalence. From the family dynamics of his household, David projects various potential futures for himself, all of them limiting: Taking little comfort in his aunt's ideal of masculine responsibility, an ideal of oppressive duty typically imagined in the context of marriage, he is nevertheless imprisoned by the social codes militating against the expression of his homosexual impulses. Faced with this double bind, a prisoner of both society and his own nature, repulsed both by social convention and by his own errant desires, David takes refuge, as he suggests, in "constant motion" (31), journeying to France, where he meets Giovanni.

Through an American acquaintance, Belgian-born Jacques, David readily gets caught up in the bohemian subculture of Paris, which, for him, revolves around Guillaume's bar, where Giovanni bartends, drinking and smoking into the early hours. Eventually, David finds himself living in Giovanni's room, where the cavern becomes literalized. The room is both the new world of avowed homosexuality as well as, sadly, the closet. As David suggests, "I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning…. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea change there" (99, 112). Removed from the demands of the world, the room becomes a "garden of Eden" (35), but also a prison. Baldwin believes in an ethic of love, and briefly this room provides a space for the efflorescence of desire, but precisely because it is a world apart, cut off from social and political demands, this aesthetic space becomes cloying, suffocating. With its closed and whited out windows and its "courtyard malevolently press[ing], encroaching day by day" (112), this is a room without a view; and the novel goes on to imply that love cannot be enacted meaningfully except in a social and political context.

David's sea-change is not a conversion to a homosexual identity; instead, the sea-change acquires ironic overtones. Despite Giovanni's overtures of love, David cannot imagine a life together with him, taking flight instead in his fiction of an imminent marriage with his fiancée Hella and the occasional liaison with a woman. For Giovanni, David's repudiation of their love is a symptom of a more generalized fear of intimacy expressed as a loathing of disorder and the uncleanliness of one body in contact with another body: "'You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror…. You want to be clean … you do not want to stink, not even for five minutes …'" (186-87). David's rejection of Giovanni's love leads to Giovanni's demise as, desperate and indigent, Giovanni returns to the sordid world of Guillaume's bar. Giovanni's love, in contrast to David's, is uncompromising, and in a fit of rage after having been sexually manipulated by Guillaume, Giovanni murders Guillaume, for which he is sentenced to death. Giovanni's imminent execution merely realizes the fate that David has projected for himself all along—"… I look at my body, which is under sentence of death" (223)—and which still awaits him, as the image of the torn execution notice blown back upon him at the end of the novel suggests. For a critic like Charlotte Alexander, the reflection that David sees at the end of his "lean, hard, and cold" body "trapped in [his] mirror" (223) attests to the rigor mortis of an emotionally and physically crippling narcissism. But David's narcissism is merely the symptom of a more deeply rooted political anomie—the incapacity of a self to imagine a socio-political context in which it might express itself. What Alexander types as narcissism we might read as heterosexism. David has internalized heterosexual norms based on the discrete, masterful, masculine body that he cannot eject. The messiness of intimate exchange is tantamount in his mind to the femininity he finds repulsive—because it is the very condition he unconsciously desires but cannot express—as well as the darkness of socially stigmatized homosexuality.15

Ultimately, David's existentialist quest—to find himself—fails, not because, confined by walls and mirrors, he has been unable to extricate himself from the malaise that plagues him at the beginning of the novel, but because, read in the light of Baldwin's subsequent career, the novel suggests that this quest is futile in the first place. Baldwin believes that Paris—a world of intellectual fertility and sexual outlawry emblematized by Sartre's lionization of Genet—is a milieu more tolerant of homosexuality than he can find in black America or the white liberal America of Norman Mailer. But the Paris of existentialism, of Camus and Sartre, in which the individual takes responsibility for constructing the rules of his own life, ironically defeats Baldwin's purpose, precisely because of its emphasis on the individual, its alienation from politics and collective action. David is unable to construct a gay identity for himself because this Paris is too aesthetic and its mandarin pleasures eventually degenerate into the grotesque lust of old fairies like Guillaume. In this context, Giovanni's room, both a haven from and a symbol of society's oppressive strictures, comes to sum up the impotence of the aesthetic ideal. In Giovanni's Room, homosexual relations cannot epitomize the new society because Baldwin cannot realize this vision apart from political commitment: Politics allows the gay man to rationalize his desires, and, in turn, his non-mainstream sexuality enables him to articulate a more egalitarian form of political protest. Ironically, Baldwin finds that his ability to mobilize the power of love depends upon the politics of American life, and he returns to this scene in Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, with mixed results, and again in Just Above My Head, which we read as the culmination of his career.

Just Above My Head contextualizes Baldwin's exploration of black masculinity in the most volatile decade of the Civil Rights Movement, a decade that witnessed the rage of Watts, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Moynihan Report, and the inception of the Black Panthers. Baldwin invokes the sphere of intimate relations to dramatize the pernicious mythology of black virility perpetuated by black nationalism, suggesting instead the power of brotherhood, an orientation rooted in the novel's very conception.16 As Barbara, a character in Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, explains, "We felt that it [a scene in a play] made a connection—between a private love story—and—a—well, between a private sorrow and a public, a revolutionary situation" (296)—and, likewise, the relationship between Arthur and his older brother Hall, the two protagonists of Just Above My Head.

The novel begins with news of Arthur's death, as his utopian quest for a more sexually tolerant society comes to a violent end in the bathroom of a London pub, which becomes the occasion for Hall's meditation on the meaning of Arthur's life. In the process Hall attempts to come to terms with his own identity as a black man in America. Arthur's quest is thus realized through Hall, who reminisces, "Your life can now be written anew on the empty slate of his…. I saw myself in Arthur" (Just 89). The novel becomes a kind of elegy in which Hall, too, becomes a blues singer, trying to redeem his brother's life from the squalor of his murder in a men's toilet. In a powerful image of the claustrophobic nature of the closet Arthur is described lying prone, while with the last remnants of consciousness he imagines the ceiling descending ominously upon him. Hall realizes that there never was a place for Arthur in society, and his elegy is an attempt to make such a space.

Early on, the novel introduces the interactions among members of the Miller and Montana families, whose stories dramatize the impotence of black religion, which is portrayed as otherworldly, indifferent to civic duty. Through the Miller family Baldwin examines the dark underside of the black church, traditionally conceived as the heart of black communities and an integral element of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the source of forms of indigenous black expression. As Hall suggests, "Somebody was jiving the public, and I knew it had to be … [Julia's] father and mother, who surely did not look holy to me" (69). Julia, who is called to preach when she is seven years old, is the cynosure of the Miller family, but she is merely the instrument of a dominating father—"the zoot-suited stud of studs" (70)—whose familial authority has its analogue in the institutional power of the church. Julia is possessed of a beauty and voice that is coopted by a system of hieratic privilege: "… as a child and as a preacher, she had not belonged to herself, nor had the remotest idea who she was. She had then been at the mercy of a force she had had no way of understanding" (524). Julia's precociously charismatic style enthralls parishioners everywhere, and her father exploits this talent to make money—she is ultimately raped by him, symbolizing her assimilation to his despotic power.

For Julia's mother Amy, religious enthusiasm assumes the form of sexual display: "Julia's mother put up the better show, though her hats were flaunting, and her skirts were tight … she always wore high heels—just to make sure you didn't miss those legs" (69). Baldwin here presents the church as incapable of organizing and using the energy of sexual desire to work for social and political change. Instead, this specifically feminine charisma is dissipated, channeled into the minutiae of sexual conquest, visual display, and vain enthusiasm, as witnessed by the erotic spectacle Amy makes in church: "When she got happy," Hall reports, "she would stroke her breasts" (69-70). Baldwin is not denigrating or ridiculing women; rather, he is dramatizing the tragic waste of Amy's spiritual energy, which, in the absence of a worthy political object to give it direction, ends by devouring her, consuming her from within—hence her death from breast cancer. In the Miller family, Amy's sphere of influence is limited to her ability to please her husband; thus, she is inevitably pitted against the charms of the daughter, who desires unconsciously to displace Amy in her husband's affections. Through Amy and Julia's fates Baldwin suggests that in the absence of political organization—like the Civil Rights Movement—female sexuality exhausts itself in invidious competition and aesthetic gesture. Baldwin does not aim to trivialize women in his depiction of Amy and Julia but rather to criticize the social structures that disempower them.

The relationship between Hall and Arthur Montana supplants the patriarchal incest of Joel and Julia Miller, a relationship based on coercion, violence, and rivalry. The boys take their cue from their father Paul, a jazz pianist who, unlike Julia's father, refuses to play the role of mentor, deeming it too authoritarian, allowing Arthur instead to cultivate his own voice in gospel music and the blues. Arthur develops into a fine singer and with his friends Crunch, Peanut, and Red tours the South, a trip that is also an excursion back in time; significantly, it is the site of Arthur's first fulfilling homosexual experience as well. From Tennessee to Atlanta and Birmingham, Baldwin presents a series of erotic images that rewrite the cultural mythology of the South, a mythology responsible for Peanut's lynching on a subsequent trip. Here, Baldwin challenges the sexual iconography that white Southerners consciously vilify and unconsciously imagine, offering in its place the tableau of two black men embracing: "They curled into each other, spoon fashion. Arthur cradled by Crunch" (207). This image of two musicians side by side offers a utopian vision of gay sexuality that challenges the figurations of a dystopic homophobia, destabilizing the culture's oppressive imagining of a fetishized black phallus. Through these images, Baldwin generates an alternative vernacular of black American masculinity.

This grammar rewrites the heterosexual assumptions of black music as it is traditionally conceived. In the transitional Another Country, Baldwin attempted to evoke the bohemian world through a sequence of riffs and montages, fractured forms that express the brilliance and movement of improvisation. The late-night world of jazz clubs, endless talk, and sexuality—this is the milieu that Baldwin depicts, but he debunks the popular representations of bohemian élan, extending his public argument with Mailer here through the novel from instead of the polemical essay. Baldwin contends that white liberals' celebration of jazz as a form of oppositional cultural power has in effect robbed black bohemianism of its vanguard potential, holding it hostage to the misguided hero-worship of white consumer culture. Positions like Mailer's construct the black musician as stud, making his artistic authority a function of his sexual potency, a rhetorical move that epitomizes unconscious liberal racism. For Baldwin, the black musician is the intellectual, the restless experimenter who takes apart dominant musical forms and recasts them; the sexual lionizing of the black musician merely appropriates him for white consumption, and, Baldwin warns, if black musicians embrace this myth, they will be destroyed by it, as demonstrated by the case of Rufus Scott, the tragic character at the center of Another Country.17

Understood in terms of mourning, blues and jazz typically express the desire of a masculine subject for a lost feminine object.18Just Above My Head revises this formulation by interspersing scenes of gospel performances with explicitly homoerotic tableaux, highlighted by Arthur and Crunch's harmonious antiphony in Birmingham, their voices witnessing their love and desire for one another, a sexual longing that will be consummated shortly thereafter. Mourning is the psychosexual process that connects an individual to the past, insofar as the ego is constituted by a history of its losses—through linguistic substitution, the introjection of lost objects. Yet here Arthur, the itinerant bluesman who sings of love and loss, transforms the traumatic history of African Americans into a prophecy of the future, and his voice becomes the oracle of a new world. Hall recognizes Arthur as the instrument of a religious tradition that makes itself felt in social protest: "He sang, he had to sing, as though music could really accomplish the miracle of making the walls come tumbling down. He sang: as Julia abandoned her ministry, Arthur began to discover his" (219). In this view the blues singer embodies political and cultural agency, the opportunity to change society through participating in a vision that can raise the political consciousness of an audience.

But although Arthur enjoys the refuge of a shared space with Crunch and, later, with Jimmy, Julia's jazz pianist younger brother, the walls do not so much come tumbling down as implode upon him. Arthur's song may be his confession, but it is left to his brother Hall to redeem Arthur by passing on his story. Arthur's legacy remains in the memories of his friends and brother, who, at the end of the novel, imagines Arthur's voice raised in song and understands that redemption lies in interconnectedness, in living relationships, and in the memories of loved ones: "… ain't nothing up the road but us, man" (559).

Although Arthur's quest for a homosexual utopia fails, Baldwin suggests that feminist self-determination is a crucial step toward achieving it. For her part Julia is finally able to recreate herself through Crunch's intervention and, by journeying to Africa, realizes her story is part of a larger history. Julia's trip to Africa offers a kind of secular redemption for the religious hypocrisy that she unwittingly contributed to as a child, as she discovers there a larger family, symbolized by the family of an African diplomat, a father figure who, in her words, is "really black, black in a way [she'd] never encountered" (526) and the only male who "understood something" (528). Africa provides a form of sustenance that the religious life never did, but although Africa enables Julia to understand something about herself, Baldwin suggests that pan-Africanism is not really a viable solution for the problems of American blacks. As Julia realizes, "A black girl in Africa, who wasn't born in Africa, and who has never seen Africa, is a very strange creature for herself, and for everyone who meets her … they don't know who they are meeting. You don't know who they are meeting either" (529). Baldwin here debunks the notion of an authentic blackness, as Julia realizes she has very little in common with the villagers she meets in Africa. Instead, she realizes that her future lies in America, for it is her home, however racially divided, she comes to recognize the need for a new vocabulary that will accommodate a culture of refugees, rather than merely reproduce the language of the fathers.19

By virtue of their experiences as sexual outlaws, Julia shares such a language with Arthur: "… she was, also, the only person in the world, now, who spoke his language. They knew the same things. And his jealousy had evaporated" (263). Here, love and the recognition of mutual need displace sexual competition over Crunch's affections. Later, Julia, the single woman, and Hall, the devoted husband, enact this love, as Hall realizes, "We looked like lovers … in truth, at last, we were" (534). This is not a sexual relationship, but an agreement to "'watch over those [they] love'" (534), an assumption of responsibility to others untainted by the coercive rhetoric of family: They are lovers, not fathers or mothers. The remaining members of the Miller and Montana families who come together at the welcome table—including Jimmy, Arthur's last lover—constitute a group bound by love rather than simply by blood or filial duty. But this idyllic community does not come without a cost: Crunch goes mad, Peanut is lynched, and Red becomes a junkie—all three the victims of a society that insists on casting black men as icons of virility. Arthur's violent death is especially poignant, for the bathroom of the London pub in which he dies symbolizes the world of odors and bodily exchange that Arthur embraces, as well as the squalor to which the homosexual is relegated. That he dies in such a context extends the example of Giovanni, who is ultimately executed as a consequence of his unflagging commitment to a homosexual lifestyle. Giovanni's death, however, changes nothing for the larger society; Arthur's sacrifice, on the other hand, makes possible a new order of relations based on equality rather than on the hierarchy of the paternal family. Whereas Giovanni's Room dramatizes a protagonist who is imprisoned by his sense of obligation to a model of heterosexual life, in Just Above My Head, Arthur is the agent who ultimately reintegrates family and community through his fight for civil rights. And for Arthur, social protest assumes the form of an unfettered expression of his sexuality. Just Above My Head thus dramatizes a family album that displaces the terms of Giovanni's Room.

This culturally constructed family, moreover, signifies the resolution of loss through the work of mourning—not however, through the reinstatement of positive parental images, but through the introjection of the lost brother, a process that displaces patriarchal authority in favor of a more horizontal structure of relations. The picture of the extended family with which Just Above My Head concludes is the social manifestation of transformed consciousnesses: The rehabilitation of Julia's psychic health begins with her trip to Africa, but culminates with her turn toward America, a reconstitution of a shattered ego that takes place in republican America, not in the land of the primordial father; so too, Hall comes more fully to understand his identity as a black man in America, for him realized through the memory of his brother's tragic life. Julia and Hall project a society informed by the lost object that dominates their consciousnesses, a culture figured through the metaphor of the contingent, feminized black body that Baldwin most poignantly depicts in Just Above My Head.

Arthur's legacy lives on in Hall and Julia, for whom life in 1960s America as a black man or woman demands that you watch over the people you love. This statement is as close to political commitment as Baldwin gets in this novel: On the one hand, it sounds cliché—a simple expression of fealty to one's family; but coming at the end of the novel, this homily acquires a political resonance, allowing Hall and Julia to articulate the beginnings of their commitment to Black liberation, and thus to the people they love.


1. See, for example, Showalter 347-69.

2. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton recognized the political possibilities of an alliance between black men and all women, a solidarity undermined by republican advocacy of black male suffrage. See hooks, Ain't I 3-4; and Hodes 59-74. For a cogent critique of the assumptions of contemporary black and white feminism, see McDowell, "New Directions" 186-99.

3. McDowell suggests the polarization of black American writers along gender lines as a struggle over discursive space. See "Reading" 75-97.

4. For an interesting discussion of the centrality of the black phallus in the sexual politics of black male writers and critics, and of its subversion in the work of black female writers and critics, see duCille 559-73.

5. Since the publication of Daniel Moynihan's report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965), many scholars have elaborated both the potential and limitations of the family metaphor to conceptualize social and literary experience. Houston A. Baker, Jr., specifically invokes the idea of a family romance to describe the relationship between contemporary writers and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, tacitly endorsing the importance of the absent father (Modernism). Hortense Spillers suggests that the very inadmissibility of white paternal origin perpetuates the transmission of human flesh as property ("Mama's Baby"). Anna Wilson discusses the ways that Audre Lorde's reconceptualization of family in Zami both challenges and reproduces conventional social structures ("Audre Lorde"). See also McDowell, "Family Matters."

6. For an extended discussion of Baldwin's treatment of women, see Harris.

7. We do not discuss this debate in great detail, as it has already inspired much spilled ink. Nevertheless, it establishes an important context for an understanding of Baldwin's work. See Baldwin, "Everybody's Protest Novel" and "Many Thousands Gone" (Price 27-34, 65-78); Howe, "Black Boys"; and Ellison. See also "Liberalism and the Negro: A Round-Table Discussion."

8. Mailer, although perhaps the most prominent, was not alone in primitivizing black males. See Podhoretz. For a critique of Mailer and the sexual politics of these black revolutionaries, see Dickstein 154-82.

9. Baldwin ultimately returns to this idea in an essay published two years before his death, assimilating gender to his vision of a racially unified culture: "But we are all androgynous, not because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white" ("Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood," Playboy Jan. 1985; rpt. "Here Be Dragons," Price 690).

10. See Gates 53.

11. Compare the lessons that Washington learns here with Zora Neale Hurston's observations of rural Negro life in "Characteristics of Negro Expression"—among other things, angularity, asymmetry, the will to adorn, and the jook. Although Hurston's representation of "the folk" has been questioned as a white pastoral fantasy—for example by Richard Wright and Hazel Carby-her observations here nevertheless offer an interesting contrast to Washington's cooptation by white middle-class values defined by the clean, hyper-regulated body and household. See Hurston 49-68. Wright, himself, in "The Literature of the Negro in the United States," distinguishes between "The Narcissistic Level"—borrowed forms of culture that middle-class African Americans try to make their own—and "The Forms of Things Unknown"—the native expressions developed from the experiences of migratory, working-class blacks. And it is Wright's conceptualization of "The Forms of Things Unknown" that provides the ideological justification for the Black Arts Movement as it is elaborated by thinkers like Amiri Baraka, Stephen Henderson, and Larry Neal.

12. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the ill-fated, Philadelphia-based back-to-Africa group MOVE actively resisted all forms of self-management.

13. In his essay, Bone subjects Giovanni's Room and Another Country to a scathing review, singling out Baldwin's elevation of the homosexual as redeemer for special censure. For a more sympathetic reading of Giovanni's Room and its ambivalences, see Adams. For a densely theoretical (read poststructuralist) approach that discusses Baldwin's work in the context of a more general theorization of the homosexual underpinnings of writing—what the author calls "homographesis," synecdoche as master trope—see Edelman.

14. Baldwin's metaphors anticipate the tropes that Leo Bersani invokes in his discussion of homosexuality and that Neil Hertz examines in his analysis of accounts of the 1848 Paris uprising. For Bersani, the homosexual, like the woman, desires to be penetrated, a position tantamount to self-dissolution that Bersani finds problematic ("Is the Rectum a Grave?"). Even more problematic, in the era of AIDS, is the persistent literalization of rectal penetration and death. Baldwin, however, through the metaphor of the "cavern" suggests a more ambivalent orientation toward penetration and dissolution. Hertz invokes Freud's Medusa in a brilliant analysis of the iconography of the 1848 Paris uprising, mapping the psychological/political fear of radical change in terms of a fear of castration (The End of the Line 161-91). The specular power of David's dead mother, both through the photograph and the nightmarish iconography of the body, likewise attests to David's fear of castration, but here without the overt political dimensions.

15. Alexander ("The 'Stink' of Reality") argues that David's distaste for uncleanliness dramatizes his fear of physical and emotional intimacy, a trait characteristic of the narcissistic personality. Although insightful, Alexander's discussion is somewhat limited because it does not address a political context, a dimension that is central to this essay.

16. Baldwin suggests that the novel originated in a dream of his about a ceiling descending just above his head, a dream that converged with his brother David's dream about the two of them sitting on a porch presciently observing the lives of all their friends (see Leeming 345). The novel, which takes its title from a traditional gospel song—a song that Ida sings repeatedly throughout Another Country—thematizes the relationship between two brothers, Hall and Arthur Montana.

17. Baldwin responded to early critics of Another Country by suggesting that he wanted to write the way jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Ray Charles sound. In "Hip, and the Long Front of Color," Andrew Ross offers a useful discussion of postwar intellectuals' response to popular culture, specifically in the context of black music and the culture industry. See also Jones and Hebdige. In Another Country, Ida Scott's relationship to Steve Ellis reproduces the relationship between black music and the culture industry in the 1920s. But arguably, Ida "changes the joke and slips the yoke" by exploiting Ellis's sexual attraction to her in promoting her career.

18. Compare this with Adomo's famous observation: "The aim of jazz is the mechanical reproduction of a regressive moment, a castration symbolism. 'Give up your masculinity, let yourself be castrated,' the eunuchlike sound of the jazz band both mocks and proclaims, 'and you will be rewarded, accepted into a fraternity which shares the mystery of impotence with you, a mystery revealed at the moment of the initiation rite'" (129).

19. Baldwin most clearly elaborates his resistance to the allure of pan-Africanism as a potential solution for the problems of black Americans in "Princes and Powers," Price 41-63.

works cited

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Adorno, Theodor. Prisms. 1967. Cambridge: MIT P, 1986.

Alexander, Charlotte. "The 'Stink' of Reality: Mothers and Whores in James Baldwin's Fiction." Kinnamon 77-95.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Baldwin, James. Giovanni's Room. 1956. New York: Dell, 1988.

――――――. Just Above My Head. 1978. New York: Dell, 1990.

――――――. The Price of the Ticket. New York: St. Martin's/Marek, 1985.

――――――. Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone. New York: Dial, 1968.

Bersani, Leo. "Is the Rectum a Grave?" October 43 (Winter 1987): 197-222.

Bone, Robert A. "James Baldwin." Kinnamon 28-51.

Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Dickstein, Morris. Gates of Eden. New York: Basic, 1977.

duCille, Ann. "Phallus(ies) of Interpretation: Toward Engendering the Black Critical 'I.'" Callaloo 16.3 (1993): 559-73.

Edelman, Lee. "The Part For The (W)hole: Baldwin, Homophobia, and the Fantasmatics of 'Race.'" Homographesis. New York: Routledge, 1994, 42-75.

Ellison, Ralph. "The World and the Jug." Shadow and Act. New York: Random, 1964. 107-43.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. "The Welcome Table." English Inside and Out: The Places of Literary Criticism. Ed. Susan Gubar and Jonathan Kamholtz. New York: Routledge, 1993. 47-60.

Harris, Trudier. Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1985.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1979.

Hertz, Neil. The End of the Line. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Hodes, Martha. "The Sexualization of Reconstruction Politics: White Women and Black Men in the South after the Civil War." American Sexual Politics: Sex, Gender, and Race since the Civil War. Ed. John C. Fout and Maura Shaw Tantillo. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993. 59-74.

Hooks, Bell. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End P, 1981.

Howe, Irving. "Black Boys and Native Sons." A World More Attractive. New York: Horizon P, 1963. 98-122.

――――――. "James Baldwin: At Ease in Apocalypse." Kinnamon 96-108.

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McDowell, Deborah E. "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism." The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature & Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Random, 1985. 186-99.

――――――. "Reading Family Matters." Changing Our Own Words. Ed. Cheryl Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. 75-97.

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Baldwin, James (Vol. 1)


Baldwin, James (Vol. 13)