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James Baldwin: A Conversational Review

by Marita Golden, Baron Wormser, and Liz Blood

Edited with an Introduction by John Proctor

 

Introduction—John

I just finished Nobody Knows My Name in October, after reading Notes of a Native Son in September. I found it startling how much Baldwin refined and deepened and shaped his own perspective over the seven years between the respective collections’ publication. It seems like he was perhaps the perfect person to write from the inside about the most tumultuous, transformative period of American history since the Civil War, as his voice as a writer is absolutely fearless in confronting, yes, the issues of his time, but more importantly himself as a writer. In that way, I almost think of him as America’s Montaigne.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is “Alas, Poor Richard.” Baron’s reaction and analysis below are so spot-on that I won’t attempt any more, except to mention that in the essay Baldwin laments writing his earlier essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” collected in Notes of a Native Son, because “I had used [Wright's] work as a springboard into my own.” I noticed this quite a lot in Notes of a Native Son—whether it’s a Hollywood film (“Carmen Jones”), a Paris jailhouse (Equal in Paris”), or his own family (“Notes of a Native Son”), he seems to observing his subjects rather than living them, which he does with a caustic wit that drew me in, but only so close. Even the “Autobiographical Notes” he uses to begin the collection are cagey and truistic.

Compare this to his brief introduction to Nobody Knows My Name:

…and I know that self-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford. His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are.

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.

I see this newfound sense of self, which Baldwin says is what brought him back to the States from his Parisian exile, throughout the essays of Nobody Knows My Name: the questions he asks are harder, more personal, while at the same time the situations about which he writes are less personal to him and require a much sharper sense of empathy. It seems to me, perhaps, that he’s gotten rid of the springboard and jumped right in, to himself and to the world.

With a similar sense of conversation and empathy, I’ve invited some fellow writers—Marita Golden, Baron Wormser, and Liz Blood—into a month-long written dialogue about Baldwin’s work and its influence, on us and on the world. I then arranged some of their key text-based observations into what I’ll simply describe as a conversational review of some of Baldwin’s major work.

“Notes of a Native Son” (1955)—Marita

I like to talk to students, whether I am teaching fiction or nonfiction, about the power of beginnings, the importance of the first line, the opening line, or the opening paragraphs of a narrative as a sweet seduction and a kind of contract. In a good opening we get a sense of what is at stake in the narrative, what kind of world, universe, country we will be visiting, and whether or not we feel up to the journey, and even if we don’t feel up to it, do we feel that nonetheless we will be emboldened and made ready just because we are in the hands of this particular writer.

The opening lines of Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son” inform the reader that this will be a journey through two types of history—personal and political.

On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.

The day of my father’s funeral had also been my nineteenth birthday.

This iconic essay is so deeply moving for many reasons, not the least because it is the biography of a father, a son and a nation. Baldwin positions himself throughout the essay as his father’s son but weaves into the story of the descent of his father into bitterness and hatred induced by America’s poisoned soul, his own journey into manhood and confrontation with those same forces that sickened and killed his father. All this we are told takes place in the country that he castigates and loves. Baldwin is a son of America and his father’s son, and loving his father and loving his country at times required more of him than he thought or imagined he could ever possess.

Just as Baldwin in the aftermath grows into a tenderhearted yet clear-eyed understanding of his father’s inner turmoil and the tragedy of his life, he takes the reader on an emotional journey in which he sometimes literally wrestles his way past and through the anger and bitterness that ensnared him because of Jim Crow’s chokehold on his own heart. In this essay he opens his heart to his dead father in ways he could not when that father was alive and vows to keep that same heart open to the nation that has barely called him a citizen much less a son.

The imagery of riots in the streets in this essay also echoes the riots that upended Baldwin’s own soul, confronting raw, naked and unapologetic racism at every corner in the white world. There are the riots in the streets, the riot that is the distance between American ideals and reality, the riot of grief, the riotous path to finding oneself in a world in which there seems to be no room for who you are or who you want to be.

One of the most ironic aspects of the story this essay tells is that Baldwin’s father was a minister, a man of the cloth, a man of God who despite that calling succumbed to hatred of those who hated him. The son who he saw as blaspheming the faith by turning to writing used words, language, imagination to minister to black and white and to show black and white the path to real freedom—love. Baldwin left the pulpit at the age of fourteen but continued to walk in his father’s footsteps the rest of his life, preaching and prophesying, putting himself in the line of fire and on the line for freedom for black and white with a courage that, if it is truly understood, was breathtaking.

Giovanni’s Room (1956)—Liz

Giovanni’s Room was my introduction to Baldwin. I read it for an “American Writers in Paris” course in college and was absolutely taken by him. We read a lot of great stuff that semester, but Baldwin was light years beyond any of them. Years later I read a Paris Review interview in which Baldwin said, “You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.” This was after I’d read Go Tell it On the Mountain and The Fire Next Time and much, much after I’d decided he was a favorite writer. When I read that sentence about the bone I realized what I loved most about his writing: the clarity of its meaning and intent. He did not mince words or mix messages. When I finally succeeded in persuading my mother to read Giovanni’s Room six and a half years after I first had, she told me she thought the book was creepy. “It gave me the creeps,” she said. “I could feel what they were feeling.” I might use the word chilling, but tomato/tomahto.

“Alas, Poor Richard” (1961)—Baron

This is not an easy piece to read. I don’t mean that in the sense that Baldwin’s prose is hard to read. I mean that in the sense that what he is writing about is so painful—the relationship between a younger writer and an older writer, the wages of fame, the anguish that criticism can breed, the misunderstandings that even the best-intentioned artists can perpetuate and always the background, that is also the foreground, of race and the “grim emptiness of the white world.” The latter phrase has reverberated for me for a long time, not in terms of guilt (which Baldwin is always quick to skewer) as the uncompromising honesty of Baldwin’s vision. His sense of the bustling senselessness of workaday white America as it has gone about its business of business without much regard for any discernible human value. Only after the foremost fact of business, was Baldwin’s quarrel with white liberalism and the selfish, smug paternalism of the well-meaning.

In the course of the essay Baldwin writes of “moral intelligence,” and that is the quality I most esteem in his writing. In that sense Baldwin is a nation unto himself. I’m never sure how many writers at any point in time carry around what Baldwin carried around inside himself and what he so unsparingly put down on the page. It’s easy to note others’ failings but much harder to note one’s own, yet Baldwin does this time and again in the piece on Wright as he locates unerringly his own ambition and myopia. At the same time he writes movingly but unsparingly about Wright’s wandering on the face of the earth.

Wright believed in the power of literature and so did Baldwin. That is why their disagreements are all the more painful. The essay reverberates with the sheer loneliness of being a moral writer, which Wright certainly was, and how one morality can clash with another. Baldwin found Wright’s determinism too simple and bleaker than it had to be yet he rightly honored the amazing force that Wright brought to the page and the journey from Mississippi and “the slums of Chicago” that Wright enacted. It seems, when one considers that journey, well nigh impossible to adjudicate between the “gratuitous and compulsive” (in Baldwin’s words) violence that Wright depicted on the page and the fact of “generation upon generation of horror,” of “blood dripping down through leaves, gouged-out eyeballs, the sex torn from its socket and severed with a knife.”

As Baldwin writes, “Which of us has overcome his past?” It seems as always with Baldwin a crucial American question that asks that we acknowledge the past but not be enslaved by it. I choose that verb, of course, purposefully. To my mind, Baldwin is a writer of hope because he was able to look at the failings of others and of himself so honestly yet he was able to grasp that “the experience of the American Negro, if it is ever faced and assessed, makes it possible to hope for such a reconciliation.” Baldwin’s continual reassessment stands as a monument in American literature, solitary yet brimming with the greatest feeling and candor.

The Fire Next Time (1963) & “The Uses of the Blues” (1964)—Liz

I originally read “The Uses of the Blues” because I thought it would be about blues music. The piece begins with the admission that the title “does not refer to music,” because Baldwin doesn’t “know anything about music.”

The essay is largely about what it means to be a human—a topic that Baldwin returns to over and over again in his work. What does it mean to evade the humanity of the “Negro?” It means you damage your own humanity. What does it mean to describe a fellow human as a “nigger,” a “fascist,” a “white man?” It means you describe yourself. “What I think of you,” Baldwin writes, “says more about me than it can possibly say about you.” Our humanity is directly related to knowing who we are and, then, being honest about that knowledge.

“The Blues,” whether you’re talking about the music genre or the state of being, is really the same thing—it’s a way to accept and deal with suffering. “Everybody born,” says Baldwin, “from the time he’s found out about people until the whole thing is over, is certain of one thing: he is going to suffer. There is no way not to suffer.” But, part of the idea, the non-reality, of the American dream is that one doesn’t have to suffer, that one can better him- or herself by accumulating things; material possessions are a way of showing improvement. The Blues (music) stems from a social class of people for whom buying Cadillacs and Coca-Cola did not improve their life. The Blues (state of being) is a confrontation of misery and strife—it’s a kind of ribbing of suffering, of moving outside of the experience and accepting it.

And there’s something funny—there’s always something a little funny in all of our disasters, if one can face the disaster. So that it’s this passionate detachment, this inwardness couples with outwardness, this ability to know that, all right, it’s a mess, and you can’t do anything about it.

Like so much of his writing, this essay hits racial buttons but it speaks to issues much greater than that. He speaks to all of human experience. I know people who shy away from his work because it is so racially charged, because it was written forty some-odd years ago, and because they think “these problems don’t exist now.” They do exist, but the problems are irrelevant when we talk about the staying power of his work. Even if these social and racial problems didn’t exist, Baldwin reaches a deeper, universal meaning, rather than staying on the surface of one issue or another. And he got better at this as he continued to write—as he swam in the ocean of words and ideas and life. No writer can do this without diving into the sea of experience and seeing what it’s all about. It’s taken me a bit to get back to John’s point about losing the springboard and jumping right in—but here we are.

The only way to know anything is to truly live. But what does that mean? It means to remove your cocoon and realize that salvation, abundance of life, having everything—sometimes these can only come through great suffering. And that is the gamble of life. You open yourself to wonder and beauty but also suffering because you cannot have one without the other. “You can’t know anything about life and suppose you can get through it clean,” he writes. “The most monstrous people are those who think they are going to.” You don’t know what anything is like until you have, at the very least, considered its possibilities. This also means confronting inevitable death.

Baldwin peppers “The Uses of the Blues” with quotes from various blues songs. Before his penultimate paragraph, he uses “The very time I thought I was lost/ My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” Baldwin readers will remember this quote from his very famous letter to his nephew James, which is included at the beginning of The Fire Next Time. He is saying that our prisons are self-imposed, and most of the prisons we trap ourselves in are really cages built of fear:

…if you spend your entire life in flight from death, you are also in flight from life.

What can we do with this, though? How is this an example of Baldwin reaching out past race to the entire brotherhood of humans? We live. And we live trying to make the world more human, and less afraid.

Baron touches on a couple of things below that I’d like to talk about, too—waking people up and remaining current. What we consider the past seems to become an increasingly more recent period of time, largely due to the nature of our world—the internet, 24-hour news, instant dissemination of information and entertainment. The Fire Next Time was written over forty years ago and, to my mind, is still relevant, though I can’t directly identify with the racial struggles of black Americans or speak to whether or not the exact social problems he identified are still ongoing. But, his accusations and claims in The Fire about white Americans provoke some feeling of anger or frustration within me. He pushes my buttons. And so I agree with Baron that he’ll always be current, because he will always be provocative.

Baldwin said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Those reasons are also what make reading him a challenge. I have very strong, visceral reactions to claims he makes about white Americans. For example, in The Fire Next Time he wrote that “white people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will not longer exist.” Ouch. Do I accept and love who I am? Not always. That bristling discomfort signals to me a nugget of truth rests in the passage I’ve just read. I imagine a lot of people who read Baldwin might feel this way.

In his 1963 New York Review of Books review of The Fire Next Time, F.W. Dupree wrote that Baldwin’s “imputing of ‘real reasons’ for the behavior of entire populations is self-defeating, to put it mildly.” Baldwin asserts in The Fire that white Americans basically can’t understand jazz and the blues because they “do not understand the depths out of which such ironic tenacity comes… they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality…” Well, hell. I like jazz and love the blues and, so, I want to pick a bone with Baldwin and his imputations. But to dismiss his generalizing would often be to miss truths in his writing. So is his “imputing of ‘real reasons’” self-defeating if members of those populations walk away with even a partial truth?

Baldwin goes on to say, “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does…Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they…become as joyless as they have become.” There is the takeaway: the idea that people have become joyless. I certainly don’t consider myself—or most of my friends and family—joyless. But I do consider a lot of people I know pretty humdrum and joyless, vapid and rat-racey. And I think the way we’re taught to behave—to be thinking always about some imaginary future, to be materialistic with no thought to consequence, to be sucked into a world of reality TV and instant gratification, to be “normal”—is as joyless as life can get. So to me, when he says white Americans don’t get jazz, I think that’s nonsense. Some don’t. But the takeaway is that I can recognize parts of that joylessness in myself and around me, and know that I’ve got to fight to not be like that. That I “ought to decide, indeed, to earn [my] death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” I’ve not read anything of his—fiction, letters, or essays—that didn’t stir some part of me, make me want to live more fiercely.

Coda—Baron

The comparison to Montaigne is instructive. Baldwin is an adjuring, fearless moral compass. He is also one of the greatest prose stylists to come down the pike. Certainly Baldwin is always writing about human nature. I’ve found that bracing in this era because a lot of people don’t believe there is something called “human nature,” everything being a cultural construct. It’s ironic because Baldwin understood how racism is very much a cultural construct while at the same time something called “human nature”—envy, longing, regret, fear, desire, among dozens of emotions—is at work. He was able to follow both paths. That seems a crucial part of his genius. That he refused to dismiss his own flaws makes his writing about the nation’s flaws and manias more credible.

The person whom I tend to compare Baldwin to is Emerson. I think Baldwin has that sense of American possibility that Emerson had. Again it’s ironic because Baldwin was so aware of suffering. But Emerson was too. He suffered hugely in his personal life. Both writers, it seems to me, were able to see through suffering, which is something very different from dismissing suffering. Both writers were keenly aware of the mental cages that human beings construct and that those cages were unnecessary constructions. Both writers sought not merely to record experiences but to wake people up. One feels the ministerial, sermonizing bones in their prose. Both tried to make morality something real as opposed to something conjured up on a Sunday morning. Thus they tried to face the dilemma of America’s often misplaced religiosity. As a Tibetan Rinpoche once commented, “Why are all these churches only open one morning of the week?”

Baldwin was able to examine his moral and emotional shortcomings in a way that is, to my mind, very uncommon and incredibly precious. We tend to consign anything from over five years ago to the amorphous closet called “the past.” Baldwin will always be current the way that Emerson always will be current. He worked through his anger at the enormous hypocrisy of America without abandoning the brutal premises of that anger. And while locating himself in the personal and historical context of that anger. That’s, to put it mildly, a hard thing to do, to say nothing of doing it while pursuing a prose style that is one of the finest this side of Henry James. Maybe the style, however, was his deepest balancing act, all those marvelously poised sentences that somehow evoke equilibrium and passion at the same time.

~

Marita Golden is the author of over a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoir Migrations of the Heart. She teaches in the low residency MFA Program at Fairfield University and is Visiting Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the MA Creative Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. She is co-founder and President Emeritus of the Hurston/Wright Foundation.

 

Baron Wormser is the author/co-author of twelve full-length books and a poetry chapbook. Wormser has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. His most recent book of poetry is Impenitent Notes (CavanKerry Press, 2011). He teaches in the Fairfield University MFA Program.

 

Liz Blood lives in Oklahoma City and is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she studied creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in Numero Cinq and Oklahoma Today. She has a forthcoming book of essays that will be published next spring by Penguin. Just kidding, no she doesn’t. She does have a forthcoming travel piece in Delta Sky magazine, which means her writing career is on its way up.



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