ON BOOKS: The black nationalism of the new James Baldwin


ON BOOKS: The black nationalism of the new James Baldwin


ON BOOKS: The black nationalism of the new James Baldwin



THE RECENT CAREER of James Baldwin has come as a surprise to those people who have followed his writing with admiration and pleasure during the last ten years. Today, James Baldwin is a major spokesman for American Negroes. He writes and speaks with eloquent passion on behalf of the new generation of Negroes whose freshly stated demands for equality have thrown the United States into its greatest racial crisis of this century. In this role Baldwin is accepted by a large part of the white community, including Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, who attended a conference on the race issue arranged by Baldwin, and Time magazine, which recently put Baldwin on its cover. In the last eight months, Baldwin has emerged as one of the most exciting and compelling figures on the American scene.

To understand why this is a surprise it is necessary to note that Time fastened on Baldwin not as a literary figure — though he deserves Time's praise rather more than some of that magazine’s literary idols — but as an example of the New American Negro. This is how Baldwin is now regarded everywhere, and this fact is surprising for two reasons. First, because this new Baldwin is strikingly different from the Baldwin of a half-dozen years ago. Second, because a great deal of what he has said recently about the race question tends to be misguided when it is not incoherent.


James Baldwin, the social prophet of 1963, is the same brilliant intellectual who, just a few years ago, was trying hard not to be a “Negro writer" but to be a writer instead, and who sometimes criticized those writers (Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, among others) who limited their views to the discontents and aspirations of Negroes. Baldwin’s own best writing made the same point. His first novel. Go Tell It On The Mountain, was about a Negro boy in a storefront church in Harlem, but the boy’s race was far from the most important aspect of the novel — certainly no one admired the book just because it told about Negro life, anu Baldwin would have despised anyone who did. His second novel, Giovanni's Room, w'hich centred on a homosexual love affair in Paris, did not include a single important Negro character. On the other hand, his books of essays, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name, were mainly con^ycerned with Negro life. But they carried the implication that they were, in a sense, aimed at something larger than the problem they discussed, something which transcended their time and place. I mean to say that all of his work, fiction and non-fiction, was committed to life before it was committed to the Negro race.

In my mind, at least, this set Baldwin apart from other writers, Negro and white, who have tried to describe the Negro condition. But now

the American situation has changed, and Baldwin has changed with it. The difference is demonstrated in one sentence from The Fire Next Time, his last book:

“The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.”

There is a special kind of pride behind this remark — the kind of pride that produces separatism and nationalism for their own sakes alone, without reference to the lives of the people involved. This is more ominous than most of Baldwin's recent remarks, but it exemplifies his new attitude, an attitude based on the difference between we and they. This runs through The Fire Next Time, as when he describes American white society: “How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should? 1 cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of American civilization. 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. It is a bargain I refuse ...”

Now, it is not the outright rejection of American society which is surprising here: it is the rejection of white American society. Baldwin writes as if there were two Americas, separate in beliefs and attitudes. He writes as if the wildest dreams of the crazy Southern demagogues had oome true and one could now distinguish, at last, two separate societies, each with a moral code of its own, one of them more hypocritical or neurotic than the other. Baldwin knows that no such situation exists — his earlier books have done as much as anything else to show the similarities between whites and blacks. American Negroes, though

deprived of their rights in a thousand cruel ways, have become Americans, and they suffer from just those sicknesses which North American mass society produces in white men. Negroes, too, are in love with the values implied by cosmetics, quiz shows, Aerosol containers, TV dinners and politics-by-cliché. If American society is corrupt, as Baldwin says, then so are American Negroes.


The Fire Next Time recounts Baldwin’s early encounter with Christianity, then describes (with sympathy but without agreement) the violently nationalist Black Muslim movement, and then analyzes the present Negro condition. It is in the last section that Baldwin moves away from the position he has seemed to hold in the past and joins those earlier Negro writers who have expressed, on behalf of their fellow Negroes, a form of racial selfsatisfaction which poisons, at one time or another, all peoples in all times. And here, I think, Baldwin becomes trapped in his own rhetoric. It is his contention that American Negroes have developed special resources of character during their decades of mistreatment, and, furthermore, that American Negroes tend to look down on whites as, in some way, their spiritual inferiors. He offers no proof for either of these striking statements, which go counter to the general belief that slavery degrades a man whereas freedom elevates him. Baldwin simply states his view (he also believes the American Negro “has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling”) and couples this with the demand that whites should cease, immediately, to notice the color of men's skins. Unfortunately, the two propositions are mutually exclusive. If Negroes don’t like white sociey they cannot function within it; therefore no white man should be expected to see the point of providing a place in white society for a black man. Baldwin’s curious view makes a strange, sad joke of those enormous southern

Negro protest movements which arc demanding only one thing: admittance to white society.

Most of The hire Next Time appeared last fall in the New Yorker. At that time it was widely discussed and widely praised. When it was published as a book last winter, another wave of applause greeted it — far more than any other Baldwin book received. Yet it seems to me, on second reading, the least coherent, the least intelligent, even the least serious of all his books. It is hard to believe that it was better received than Another Country, his last novel, which was a vastly more impressive achievement.

Baldwin's style, of course, is a central reason: in 'The hire Next Time his prose, which has always been elegant, reaches new levels of baroque power — as one reviewer remarked, we had stopped hoping to see prose this good again. But more important than the style is the attitude Baldwin strikes, for the first time, in this book. The l ire Next Time takes its title from some words in an old Negro hymn: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time!” This is Baldwin’s demand and his threat: achieve the Promised Land, build the Good Society, now, or the nation will be consumed.


As a literary device, this is valid — indeed, it contains just that prophetic quality which is one of the distinguishing marks of modern literature, from Kafka to Orwell. At the same time, it appeals to a certain literary masochism which expresses itself in the desire to be told at all times that things are rotten and are getting worse.

But as a social ideal, Baldwin’s central point is meaningless. The fact is that, even if everything goes for the best (if the southern governors cave in. if congress passes the best possible civil rights law's, if major employers change their hiring policies), then the upward movement of American Negroes will still be heart-breakingly slow and will still require enormous effort from the Negroes themselves. Under the best circumstances, it will take generations for Negroes to educate themselves and obtain the social positions in which they can find genuine freedom and equality. It will take more than even a national change of heart to make up for centuries of cultural deprivation.

“All or nothing” is, in effect, what Baldwin’s book says, and some Negro leaders have taken to saying the same thing. But the idea of “all or nothing.” however comforting it may be to those who state it, has nothing whatever to do with the w'ay people actually study, work, bring up their children, and build their lives.