Better than most, James Baldwin understood the intricate nature of American race relations. He knew that whites were victims of their own delusions and that blacks had learned too well the art of suffering. Baldwin sensed that the races were moving closer and yet remained far apart and, most of all, that time was not an ally. We were fools, he said, if we intended to simply let history run its course. Patience had its limits, and America could not afford to wait another 200 years for reconciliation. Blacks hadn’t those centuries to spare. And whites didn’t either, though they might think otherwise.
Baldwin died in France earlier this month at age 63, still fearing the worst of America and searching for the best. Despite stomach cancer, he continued working on a book dealing with Martin Luther King—an awesome task made possible by force of courage and, more to the point, by a hopefulness that might not have been expected. Only those who believe in the future are apt to deprive themselves of a leisurely death, and Baldwin refused to slide easily into his own sweet night. So often viewed as angry and unyielding, Baldwin was, in fact, generous to the very end, a diligent and ambitious steward of his splendid talent.
It was his notion that writers were not born but created by common need. The artist, he said, must “bear witness to and for the people who produced him. That thought saves me from the nightmare of show business, of thinking that my talent belongs to me. It doesn’t. That’s why it is called a gift.” In what way did the author bestow his gift? How did Baldwin serve the constituency that called him to service? “What I tried to do or to interpret and make clear was that no society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.”
In shame, America saw James Baldwin pass with that social contract still a wreck. The Harlem of Baldwin’s youth remains much the same place after all, and its stark scene is duplicated in city after American city—the sombre streets, the abandoned buildings, the drugs, the booze, the no-wayout despair of life in districts where neglect is the closest neighbor. The poverty and gloom that surrounded
Baldwin as a youngster are, incredibly, all but unrelieved half a century later. One might argue that, with the scourges of AIDS and crack, conditions are only worse.
Progress? Taking inventory is an exercise in deceit. Yes, there are black yuppies and black politicians and black executives. Jesse Jackson provides us with a black presidential candidate, although, it must be said, his cause is hopeless. During business hours there is even the illusion of a society that has drawn itself together at last. Only at quitting time does the lie reveal itself. While middle-class whites depart for the suburbs or comely neighborhoods marked by Thai restaurants and poster-framing shops, their black counterparts too often must settle for the combat zone. “And if the word integration means anything,” Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “this is what it means: that we, with love,
The poverty that surrounded Baldwin as a youngster is, incredibly, all but unrelieved for blacks 50 years later
shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
Accordingly, Baldwin argued that mental health was more an issue in the United States than race. He spied a neurotic shadow lurking at the centre of white America—an inferiority complex that, at worst, turned to selfloathing and finally to pathological behavior. In the preface to his 1964 play, Blues for Mister Charlie, which was inspired to some extent by the murder of a black youth in Mississippi named Emmett Till, Baldwin addresses the question in chilling terms. “What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness. The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe.”
For blacks, Baldwin said, the ultimate tragedy would be to embrace the notion of worthlessness thrust upon
them—to annihilate their own hopes and dreams and dignity. “It was not pleasant to hear that, as black Americans, we had internalized white society’s hatred and turned it against ourselves,” wrote black novelist Gloria Naylor following Baldwin’s death. If they were to endure, Baldwin said, blacks had to keep the covenant with their own precious heritage. Salvation was within their power. Calamity awaited only if blacks struggled not to be black, but white.
Baldwin was passionate on the subject of self-esteem. “I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now—in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life—expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist,” he wrote. “It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power—and no one holds power forever.”
The words were provocative and meant to be. He had the ear of America and often was moved to shout directly within. A preacher in his teenage years, Baldwin was a master of the imperative voice, of the roiling, wrathful sweat-on-the-brow sermon. Except for his first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, Baldwin’s fiction received mixed reviews, but his essays—the literary equivalents of those childhood orations—rarely disappointed. “Nobody has more elegance than Baldwin as an essayist,” said Norman Mailer. “Not one of us hasn’t learned something about the art of essay from him.”
And yet writing about America was not the same as contending with its excesses. In the 1940s Baldwin moved to France—a “refuge,” he said, “far from the American madness.” Overseas, Baldwin found acceptance that he believed was unattainable in the United States. Baldwin was black and he was a homosexual, and America, he believed, was partial to neither. Baldwin denied he was an expatriate though and often returned to New York. “I love America more than any other country in the world,” he wrote in Notes of a Native Son, “and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Baldwin never lost his zeal for the task. America, slow to come of age, never denied him the opportunity.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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