I'll never forget reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time at my parents' kitchen table in the suburbs of Detroit while the old city burned. Tanks patrolled the streets where we once lived and the A&P where I worked as a teenager was destroyed.
Baldwin's prophecy came through sooner than expected. All the anger captured in his words expressed the beginning of the end of the city my family had known for three generations, once the fifth largest city in the country. Few major cities were spared, but Detroit's the one that never came back. He didn't advocate it, he simply said it was bound to happen.
I just finished reading The Cross Of Redemption, his uncollected works, published in 2010. It's all there. What I most remember, then and now, was Baldwin's insistence that slavery meant not only the denigration of the black man but the white man as well. He charged that's true wherever racial or ethnic oppression is found, and especially when it's denied and allowed to undermine any claim to humanity a culture may have, or wish it had.
The black people in this country stand in a very strange place, as do the white people in this country--for almost the very same reason, though we approach it from different points of view. I suggest that what the rulers of this country don't know about the world which surrounds them is the price they pay for not knowing me. If they couldn't deal with my father, how are they going to deal with the people in the streets of Tehran? I could have told them, if they had asked. (1979)
A lot of folks don't know who Baldwin is any more, so here's his story: "A failed relationship left his mother with a child," according to Randall Kenan, who edited the book, so he was probably born out of wedlock in 1924. His mother moved to Harlem and married a preacher so James became the oldest of a progeny of eight.
At 14--fourteen--he bacame a preacher himself and never really stopped. He was on the cusp of survival, homosexual, and when his strict step-father died when he was 18, worked to support the family. The only indication he'd become one of the greatest writers of his generation--black or white was a figment only of his own imagination.
His views on the role of the artist are just as inspiring as those on race and deeply intertwined:
It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I would never come before you in the position of a complaintant for doing something I must do. What we...must get at is what the importance of this effort is. However arrogant this may sound, what I want to suggest is that poets (by this I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don't. Statesman don't. Priests don't. Union leaders don't. Only poets. (1963)
Today, one wonders if he could have gotten half as far as he did, not because he was black, but because not only did he not have a degree from one of the colleges that matter, but any college at all. That's another reminder of the changes that HAVE happened. They accepted him for what he said alone and the listeners he created. I don't think that's happenin' much no mo', despite the internet--few new voices are gettin' through.
He received his break when he was a messenger and met the Jewish editor of the Nation who let him review The Best Short Stories of Maxim Gorky in 1947. That review is contained in this book. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, an extravagantly precocious work introduced the world to "black Christianity" in 1953, Giovanni's Room (1956) to its homosexuality at a time that was far more forbidden than today, and Another Country (1962) his masterpiece and bestseller to it all. His fiction is awash in penetrating psychological insight and language that tie his characters inseparably to the culture from which they spring.
He wrote some of the finest essays we have of the American experience, threading a thin line between fury and acceptance of his role as a black man. When the cities started to burn, Baldwin was at his peak and joined in the national debate with gusto. He knew everybody, went everywhere, and had something definitive to say about it all.
I went to hear him speak at the beginning of the 70's at the Fillmore East in between sets by the Butterfield Blues Band, or was it Frank Zappa? I was shocked by how diminutive and uncomfortable he seemed--as if caught in his body trying find a way out with all his strength.
It was during the time he was ostracized by the radical wing of the black movement, which stressed him mightily, but he refused to join the side advocating violence--walking an even finer tightrope before all those prying, indecipherable white man's eyes. He stood up to every one of them.
The essay that left me in tears recounts the "summit" he organized with black leaders and Robert Kennedy--so telling of the time. He invited Kenneth Clark, the academic, a few leaders from moderate black political organizations, Harry Belafonte, his good friend, Rip Torn, the actor, Lena Horne, and Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright, who will forever be known for her participation.
It reminded me of a bunch of students meeting with the all powerful Dean. They wanted Robert, then Attorney General, to convince his brother, the President, to accompany a black child up the steps of a schoolhouse in the South. "That way it will be clear, whoever spits on the child spits on the nation," said Hansberry.
Kennedy called it a "meaningless moral gesture" and then was shocked when the group said it was totally defensible for blacks to deny taking up arms to defend the country. The plantation in those days was run by the grandsons of potato farmers who went to Harvard and history would consider them the good guys.
Baldwin never descended to the depths of racism given all that was ahead, and there was a lot ahead, and wrote over another dozen books, most of them heads and tails above the common fare. Kennedy said in thirty years there'd be a black president. Baldwin didn't question it but wondered "what kind of a president he would be."
There's no doubt in my mind he'd see the racism deeply insinuated in the Obama Presidency, particularly his strategy of appeasement with totally intractable enemies, and his chastisement as the "food stamp president" serving as the code to bring the good old boys out of the closet. What price "freedom?" What price freedom, indeed.
One strongly doubts, if Obama is not re-elected, if the matter will be re-visited--the collective shame is still that strong and pervades all else. It isn't an issue I've heard discussed and suspect if it comes up at all in the general election it will be resolutely dismissed as "the race card."
That's what's happened so far. The denial is no less palpable today than in Robert Kennedy's time. It's not blacks who are calling Obama an Uncle Tom, they know better, it's the naive faux liberals who helped elect him who don't understand his vulnerability.
I had a chance once to shake Baldwin's hand while he sat in a cafe in Paris. It was an opportunity that startled me when our eyes met, I did not take it, and will regret it until my final day.*
*Baldwin was recently the only black writer examined in An American Oracle: The Civil War and Civil Rights Movement by David W. Bright (Berkeley/Harvard University Press) along with Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, and Edmund Wilson. The sesquicentennial of the civil war will last until 2015.
Technical assistance: Mercedes Arnao
photo credit: goodfello.com