Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Baldwin in Omaha

by Robert Vivian

When I first read the work of James Baldwin, I was house-sitting for a widow in Omaha, Nebraska as an undergraduate as she was trying to start a new life by attending law school at the state university in Lincoln at the age of 62. I was also responsible for her beloved yellow lab Dudley while she was away, so it was just me and Dudley in a spacious suburban house with a wooded creek in the back that Dudley liked to romp down into, always and invariably coming back with some new cocklebur or thistle tangled in his coat but happy and tongue-wagging for all that. I had no way of knowing at the time that I was on the verge of being reborn in that house, and yet it slowly happened to me through reading James Baldwin’s Notes Of A Native Son, the eloquent but odd familiarity of his voice casting a kind of bracing and devastating spell on me that I have never quite gotten over, nor ever quite understood. In a strange way that sounds prosperous and scandalous to admit, it was like his work was speaking directly to me and to my deepest felt experience even though he was black, urban and gay and I am white, live in the country and am straight—-or, even more accurately, like it was almost a voice I had somehow always known speaking on the page, the voice that I, paradoxically, was just beginning to hear and to pine after. At the time it didn’t seem strange at all that a black man from Harlem could speak so personally to me as a twenty-year old white kid from Omaha, which is the wonderful if supremely short-lived grace period of youth where such crucial differences are not the final issue, but I would soon come to learn that the world wouldn’t necessarily accept, endorse or understand this, and for very compelling and important reasons that must be acknowledged and appreciated. After all, Baldwin, as is searingly well-chronicled in his essays, suffered more than his share of racism that almost resulted in his own spiritual and physical destruction, in addition to struggling with a dominating and progressively paranoid step-father and the crushing poverty and limited opportunities of his family’s crowded apartment in Harlem where he took care of his many brothers and sisters like a third parent. I had experienced none of this, not even remotely, and yet, and yet: there was something about his voice and how he wrote that felt intimate and familiar and deeply personal, almost as if he were writing in my voice, my skin, my way of looking at the world, which must be why some writing is so capable of addressing the universality of human experience regardless of the very real and limiting facts of people’s lives through the mysterious, sympathetic alchemy of prose that can, in its greatest practitioners, so deeply strum the common chords that make us all one.

I couldn’t understand the paradox then, and I don’t now even after some twenty years, but I am thankful for it all the same and more so with every passing year. Almost everyone who reads James Baldwin is aware of his eloquence and his unflinching pronouncements about being black in America, and maybe it was this unflinching clarity that was partly responsible for capturing my attention and sympathy so profoundly. But even apart from these (or, rather, precisely because of them), there started to grow inside me this subtle but ever more insistent desire to write—and to write essays like James Baldwin, not, perhaps, the issues he wrote about but how he went about stringing together this same eloquent and prophetic prose in such marvelous sentences. If it’s true, as Saul Bellow once said, that every writer is moved by the act of emulation, then I wanted to write essays like James Baldwin, which even now despite the differences in our backgrounds seems a very beautiful and hopeful thing, maybe as hopeful as any such influence could ever be.

When I read the first paragraph to “Notes Of A Native Son,” I knew right away without quite knowing how I knew it that his prose would inspire and sustain me for a lifetime even as it made me shudder at its stark implications, how the one line “It seemed to me that God himself had devised, to mark my father’s end, the most sustained and brutally dissonant of codas,” would connect one man’s personal memory with dire historical events like the infamous race riot in Detroit, that the personal and the historical are in fact tied to each other in a thousand, ten thousand unseen filaments that stitch the individual self to larger social patterns and happenings in ways that are often not seen or outright ignored, which is a lesson anyone writing about his or her life would do well to keep in heart and mind. Out of sheer necessity Baldwin did this like no one else of his generation, like few ever have in American letters: he wrote from his own personal experience out in ever widening gyres that continue to ripple and resonate and touch and instruct readers to this day. Even in the spacious comfort of that widow-law-student’s house with faithful Dudley by my side, James Baldwin’s prose blew down the back of my neck and made my hair stand on end in sympathy, outrage, and the quietly growing if inchoate desire to write like he did, to dare to tell the truth and speak it loudly and clearly regardless of how it was received and to know, once truly and forever, that even white and black are not ultimate and defining categories, but part of the sometimes tragic price of the ticket of being human as his voice did the redeeming work of chipping away at the walls that separate us and are not even there at all if only we have someone with the courage to tell us that this is so, someone like James Baldwin.


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