The Agony and the Ecstasy of James Baldwin

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James Bald  Photo by Allan Warren. via/
James Baldwin in 1969 at the Albert Memorial in London, beside a statue of William Shakespeare. Photo by Allan Warren. via/

I was always told that I was lucky to be an American, but I learned the truth once I read James Baldwin. For Baldwin, who would have turned 90 this past August, was better than any essayist in the second half of the 20th century at excoriating the racism so endemic to the American way of life. Baldwin taught me once and for all that my seemingly benign jingoism was profoundly misplaced, if not downright dangerous. Yet reading and learning from “Jimmy,” as he was so affectionately referred, was not to be educated by a dry pedant nor simply stirred to anger by a racial agitator. Rather, Baldwin came to “bear witness,” as he often put it, and for the Jim Crow America in which he hurtled toward literary heaven, our long, deceitful mythology was about to have its reckoning. In “A Talk to Teachers,” published in The Saturday Review in 1963, Baldwin reminded his audience:

American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it

Equal parts novelist, essayist and social critic, Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. The oldest of nine children, he was the stepson of a preacher and the grandson of a slave. Setting aside his early literary aspirations, he preached in the Pentecostal church during his teenage years, later rejecting Christianity as deviously intermingled with racial subjugation and Puritanical self-denial. In his dazzling 1953 debut novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin explored the tension of liberation and repression between the African-American community and the Christian church, interpolating the flourished cadences and brandished morality of the proverbial church pastor within the piercing scrutiny of his own words, resulting in some of the most exhilarating prose to ever uncloak the American psyche. If racism was and is America’s original sin, then Baldwin would forever be the fervent voice advocating for its expiation. Unsurprisingly, he had no patience for hapless bromides like “liberty and justice for all” so long as the dehumanizing effects of American apartheid sabotaged our national integrity. He wholeheartedly loved America even as he left it for Europe, even as it consistently broke his heart.

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In The Fire Next Time, his 1963 duet of essays (“My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” and “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”), that elevated Baldwin to the literary stratosphere, he reflected autobiographically and philosophically upon a nation ravaged by racial disunion and seethingly admonished America to renounce de jure segregation not merely to redeem the nation’s ostensibly egalitarian aspirations, but to purify its own soul. The country was spiritually and morally corrupted, he contended, and a despotic, racialist narrative needed rejecting or the nation would be fundamentally betraying not just the black community, but itself. He urgently identified the so-called “American Dream” as a “nightmare on the private, domestic, and international levels,” and exposed the hypocritical presumption that one could champion freedom abroad while suppressing liberty at home. With evangelistic ferocity, in 1980 Baldwin assailed America, the onetime colonial outpost of Great Britain birthed in the name of freedom, as akin to a “house of bondage.” The nation’s racism revealed a deeper, marrowed panic, by turns existential and sexual, as Baldwin fulminated against its stunted adolescence with soul-rousing righteousness. In light of recurring tensions between police departments and African-American communities, among other despairs, Baldwin was always prescient. In The Fire Next Time, he wrote:

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White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.

While Baldwin invested his political writings with near-messianic agony, it wasn’t politics or law, however, that animated his bravura insights. Baldwin was a gay man, after all, and the jagged edges of race and sexuality in the postwar era compelled a conversation with himself (and the rest of us) that his contemporaries — including Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) or even earlier black writers, like Richard Wright (Native Son), left untouched. He sermonized as perceptively about the myths of masculinity as he did the lies of racial innocence less because he wanted to than because he felt as if he had no choice in the matter. A bundle of eclecticism, Baldwin often saw the restless artist emerge on his own witness watchtower; it was the sensitive pungency of his expression that couldn’t or perhaps wouldn’t reveal anything but the truth. He could all too readily probe the deeper recesses of himself, yet he was able to take anger and regret and turn them into artistic rhapsody. As a black and gay writer, he termed this “the price of the ticket”:

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.

Early on, Baldwin’s abusive stepfather told him he was ugly and for a long time he internalized an invidious self-loathing. His relentless anguish over his appearance, his homosexuality and his skin color, however, was what enabled him to open up the American heart of darkness. If oppression was to be the societal norm, it had everything to do with a corrosive society engulfing him, and it made his excavation of the human condition absolutely essential. Baldwin referred to his awareness of this in his 1985 book The Evidence of Things Not Seen, in which he inveighed against the U.S. justice system, finding its claims to impartiality laughable and part of a “paranoid color wheel,” calling the Atlanta setting of the book’s true story a “grotesque Disneyland.” If Baldwin were alive today, no doubt he’d employ similar terminology to the travesty of Ferguson, Missouri. For “Jimmy,” like the great writers Dickens, Tolstoy and Henry James who informed his rigorous intellect, a pointed question, one far more important than the answer, had to be asked: How white do you have to be to not be black? As he painfully knew, it was impossible not to be both. This seeming contradiction gnawed at him throughout his storied career, which saw him in his post-Harlem years in Greenwich Village, but mostly as an expat in Istanbul and, more frequently, France.

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With less diamond-cut precision than his nonfiction writings, Baldwin succeeded at fiction that unfailingly reflected his own writhing angst, be it in the characters of his boundary-breaking gay love story Giovanni’s Room (1956) or in perhaps his most enthralling work, the heart-searing Another Country (1962). And he could meld concepts of identity — his own and the nation’s — in ways that few if any public intellectuals, civil rights leaders or politicians could, then or now. While Baldwin wrote contemporaneously with the civil rights movement and enjoyed relationships with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin (who was also gay and helped engineer the 1963 March on Washington), he was never fully accepted by Christian-influenced civil rights groups. He later battled with the overtly homophobic Black Panther movement and Eldridge Cleaver, in particular, who enthusiastically emasculated him.

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But no matter for Baldwin. The rational jargon of compromise, interest groups and consensus wasn’t his bag, per se. For him, the political was personal, but it couldn’t just be political. There was moral imperative behind it all, and the canvas of the soul spread far too wide to be hemmed in by categories as clinical as rights or property. The question at hand was never just what but why. Baldwin lived out most of his later life in France, but was no less ardent about the psychic costs of dishonesty both for himself and an America that was still fearful and ever devoted to its infantile myths. In one of his last pieces before he succumbed to stomach cancer in 1987, he let loose a bluesy, pulsating riff on manhood, sexuality and the stigmatization of the other in an essay entitled “Here Be Dragons” (originally “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood”), he sums it up thusly:

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Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated — in the main, abominably — because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.

To “Jimmy” we are all freaks, freaks to each other and to ourselves, even though we delude ourselves that we can run away from this very inconvenient fact. Baldwin’s burning words have long since outlived him and he wanted us all to just come clean. But even if we wanted to, I’m still not convinced we’d know how to tell the truth.

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