By 1963, when he published The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s writing had become almost exclusively polemical, foreshadowing the narrowing of black commentary into strident prosecution or spiteful apology. Considered the intellectual component of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin was a seminal influence on the subsequent era of regression in which Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Leroi Jones, and Eldridge Cleaver transformed white America into Big Daddy and the Negro movement into an obnoxious, pouting adolescent demanding the car keys.
The increasing bile and cynicism of Baldwin’s generalized charges and his willingness to remove free will from the black lower-class through what he called the “doom” of color, helped foster a disposition that put the Negro movement into the hands of those who had failed at taking it over before: the trickle-down Marxist revolutionaries and cultural nationalists whose flops and follies of imagination Harold Cruse documented so well in Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Those people led many up paths that resulted in imprisonment, spiritual collapse, and death for goals far less logical than acquiring political power through inclusion into the social contract. The alienation of abstract facelessness that Martin Luther King and the civil rights workers had won so many battles against was given greater strength when black political talk became progressively anti-white, anticapitalist, and made threats of overthrowing the system itself.
Before he was swept into the position of a media spokesman, Baldwin had been much more ambitious and much more willing to address the subtleties of being a serious writer. His first book of essays, Notes of a Native Son, contains “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” which was written in 1949 and observes that “…the avowed aim of the American protest novel is to bring greater freedom to the oppressed. They are forgiven, on the strength of these good intentions, whatever violence they do to language, whatever excessive demands they make of credibility. It is, indeed, considered the sign of frivolity so intense as to approach decadence to suggest that these books are both badly written and wildly improbable. One is told to put first things first, the good of society coming before the niceties of style or characterization. Even if this were incontestable… it argues an insuperable confusion, since literature and sociology are not one and the same; it is impossible to discuss them as if they were.”
The turmoil that would so twist Baldwin’s intelligence and abuse the possibilities of his talent is also evident in that first book of essays, much of the trouble circulating around his sense of himself as “an interloper,” “a bastard of the West.” “Stranger in the Village” finds him reeling toward the emblematic as he writes of some Swiss hicks in an Alpine town, “These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory — but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.”
Such thinking led to the problem we still face in which too many so-called nonwhite people look upon “the West” as some catchall in which every European or person of European descent is somehow part of a structure bent solely on excluding or intimidating the Baldwins of the world. Were Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, or Kiri Te Kanawa to have taken such a position, they would have locked themselves out of a world of music that originated neither among Afro-Americans nor Maoris. Further, his ahistorical ignorance is remarkable, and perhaps willful.
But breaking through the mask of collective whiteness — and collective guilt — that Baldwin imposes would demand recognition of the fact that, as history and national chauvinism prove, Europe is not a one-celled organism. Such simplifications are akin to the kind of reasoning that manipulated illiterate rednecks into violent attempts at keeping “their” universities clean of Negro interlopers. Or convinced black nationalist automatons that they were the descendants of “kings and queens” brought to America in slave ships and should, therefore, uncritically identify with Africa. Rather than address the possibilities that come both of ethnic cultural identity and of accepting the international wonder of human heritage per se, people are expected to relate to the world only through race and the most stifling conceptions of group history. The root of that vision is perhaps what Shaw spoke of in Major Barbara, hatred as the coward’s revenge for ever having been intimidated. Baldwin would call it rage, and write, “Rage can only with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence and is therefore not susceptible to any arguments whatever.”
Though his second book of essays, Nobody Knows My Name, is the work of a gritty and subtle intelligence, there are more than a few indications of the talent that would soon be lost to polemics. Perhaps the most illuminating is “Princes and Powers,” where he takes a remarkably sober look at the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists, held in Paris in 1956. Baldwin was faced with an international gathering of black people who were rejecting the justifications used to maintain the colonial structures they groaned under. Here Baldwin introduced themes he would later adapt to the American context: the denial by Europeans of non-Western cultural complexity — or parity; the social function of the inferiority complex colonialism threw over the native like a net; the alignment of Christianity and cruelty under colonialism, and the idea that world views were at odds, European versus the “spirit of Bandung,” or the West in the ring with the Third World.
At the time, Baldwin understood quite well the difference between colonized and Afro-American people, whom he rightfully referred to as “the most real and certainly the most shocking contributions to Western cultural life.” Though Afro-Americans also suffered under institutionalized prejudice, the nature of their experience was the manifestation of a very specific context. “This results in a psychology very different — at its best and at its worst — from the psychology that is produced by a sense of having been invaded and overrun, the sense of having no recourse whatever against oppression other than overthrowing the machinery of the oppressor. We had been dealing with, had been made and mangled by, another machinery altogether. It had never been in our interest to overthrow it. It had been necessary to make the machinery work for our benefit and the possibility of doing so had been, so to speak, built in.”
In assessing the performance of Richard Wright, Baldwin understood the danger of apologizing for brutal, Third World politics that the older writer was condoning. Baldwin didn’t miss the implications of Wright’s address: “…that the West, having created an African and Asian elite, should now ‘give them their heads’ and ‘refuse to be shocked’ at the ‘methods they will be compelled to use’ in unifying their countries… Presumably, this left us in no position to throw stones at Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, etc., should they decide as they almost surely would, to use dictatorial methods in order to hasten the ‘social evolution.’ In any case, Wright said, these men, the leaders of their countries, once the new social order was established, would voluntarily surrender the ‘personal power.’ He did not say what would happen then, but I supposed it would be the second coming.”
Listening then to Aimee Cesaire, Baldwin wrote, “I felt stirred in a very strange and disagreeable way. For Cesaire’s case against Europe, which was watertight, was also a very easy case to make… Cesaire’s speech left out of account one of the great effects of the colonial experience: its creation, precisely, of men like himself.” Baldwin could see that Cesaire was a modern man, a writer whose bearing and confidence were proof that, “He had penetrated into the heart of the great wilderness which was Europe and stolen the sacred fire. And this, which was the promise of their freedom, was also the assurance of his power.”
Such good sense wouldn’t last long in Baldwin’s writing. Once he settled into astonishingly lyrical rants such as The Fire Next Time, Negro neighborhoods were described as relentlessly grim and so inevitably deforming that only the most naive could accept Baldwin’s having come from such a “ghetto.” Ignoring the epic intricacy of Afro-American life, Baldwin began to espouse the kinds of simplistic conceptions Malcolm X became famous for: “It is a fact that every American Negro bears a name that originally belonged to the white man whose chattel he was. I am called Baldwin because I was either sold by my African tribe or kidnapped out of it into the hands of a white Christian named Baldwin, who forced me to kneel at the foot of the cross.”
Actually, a good number of Negroes named themselves after freedom came and the issue of converting slaves to Christianity was a subject of major debate because it broached the idea of slaves having souls. But such facts were of no interest to Baldwin. Rather, he chose to combine the Nation of Islam’s venom toward Christianity and toward whites with an overview so committed to determinism that it paralleled the explanatory recipes of the left. When mature thinking was most desperately needed, Baldwin was losing the ability to look at things the way they actually were.
In effect, Baldwin sold out to rage, despair, self-righteousness, and a will to scandalize. The mood he submitted to was one he had pinned down in “Princes and Powers.” Alioune Diop, editor of Presence Africaine, had delivered a talk and Baldwin perceptively noticed this: “His speech won a great deal of applause. Yet, I felt that among the dark people in the hall there was, perhaps, some disappointment that he had not been more specific, more bitter, in a word, more demagogical.” In America, there was a very similar attitude among those fat-mouthing Negroes who chose to sneer at the heroic optimism of the Civil Rights Movement; they developed their own radical chic and spoke of Malcolm X as being beyond compromise, of his unwillingness to cooperate with the white man, and of his ideas being too radical for assimilation. Baldwin was sucked into this world of intellectual airlessness. By The Fire Next Time, Baldwin is so happy to see white policemen made uncomfortable by Muslim rallies, and so willing to embrace almost anything that disturbs whites in general, that he starts competing with the apocalyptic tone of the Nation of Islam.
Perhaps it is understandable that Baldwin could not resist the contemptuous pose of militance that gave focus to all of his anger for being the homely duckling who never became a swan, the writer who would perhaps never have been read by so many black people otherwise, and the homosexual who lived abroad most of his adult life in order to enjoy his preferences. Baldwin’s increasing virulence had perhaps more than a bit to do with his homosexuality. As a small, even frail, man who wrote of being physically abused by his father, the police, and racists in the Greenwich Village; Baldwin was prone to admire and despise those who handled the world in a two-fisted manner (which comes out clearly in his essay on Norman Mailer, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”). He was also given to the outsider’s joy when intimidation was possible: “black has become a beautiful color — not because it is loved but because it is feared.” This same attraction to fear permeated his ambivalent attitude toward Christianity. Condemned to hell as an erotic pariah by Christian doctrine, he was understandably relentless in his counterattacks; at the same time, his alienation did not prevent him from being awed by the particular power and majesty Negroes had brought to the religion. Boldly, though unconvincingly, in Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, he presented an alternative order in which homosexuals served as priests in a religion based on love.
Baldwin’s prose was sometimes coated with the effete sheen of the homosexual straining to present himself as part of an elite, or it could be pickled with the self-defensive snits and bitchiness Lionel Mitchell called “our macho.” Beware ye who would condescend: Baldwin’s attitude wasn’t substantially different from the aggressive defensiveness of any outsiders, be they black nationalists who celebrate Africa at Europe’s expense, those feminists who elevate women over men, or any other group at odds with or at a loss for social and political power.
It is also true that Baldwin was the first of his kind, and perhaps the last we shall see for some time: the Negro writer made a celebrity and thrust into the national political dialogue. He had no models to learn from and settled for sassing the white folks when ideas of substance would have been much more valuable. His considerable gift for making something of his own from the language of Henry James and the rhetoric of the black church was largely squandered on surface charges and protest fiction. The talent for writing fiction that Baldwin showed in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, never achieved maturity. Though the rest of the novels are uniformly bad, almost every one contains brilliant passages in which Baldwin’s long, long sentences were indicative of his intricate sense of consciousness, boasting finely orchestrated details, declarations, and nuances of feeling. But they are, with the exception of the all-white homosexual melodrama Giovanni’s Room, ruined by the writer’s contrived and sentimental conception of race. The purple trumpet in his soul played the same tune over and over, one which depicted Negro life as insufferable, saintly, and infinitely superior to that of whites.
Though homosexuality loomed ever larger in his fiction as the years passed, by the last long essay, Evidence of Things Unseen, Baldwin streaks away from the issues surrounding the Atlanta child murders, ignoring particularly the exploitation of so many impoverished Negro boys by the homosexual subculture of that city. His eloquence gone, Baldwin reads as though his mind had so eroded that he no longer knew how to build an argument. Very little connects and any subject is an occasion for a forced harangue against the West, the profit motive, Christianity, and so on. It is a disturbingly dishonest book.
One cannot deny James Baldwin his powers, but it is tragic that he was never strong enough to defend and nurture his substantial talent and become the writer even such imposing gifts do not make inevitable. Finally, Baldwin’s description of his success as a boy preacher in The Fire Next Time says much about the decay of a writer who once seemed poised on greatness: “That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons — for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me…” ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 22, 2020