Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher, has written for numerous publications, and is an infrequent contributor to The Millions. Keep up with him and his adventures in surprising iconography at the Madonna of the Toast blog.
The first time I encountered James Baldwin, when I read Another Country, his work resonated immediately. With his ability to render an educated, upper-middle class white woman as perceptively as an ignored, begging-for-attention black musician who hurls himself off the George Washington Bridge, Baldwin revealed to me the problem with the race problem: no one really wants to talk about it. In America, it seems preferable to avoid the problem, or ignore its magnitude all together. Nothing in any of Baldwin’s writing seems dated today. The reason for this is simple (and disheartening): he understood America because it had made such an indelible and problematic impression on him, the people he grew up around and lived amongst, black and white.
In identifying the central issue of racial tension in America as America’s unwillingness to accept the fact that it doesn’t have the faintest clue how to endeavor the Herculean feat of resolving the problem, Baldwin proselytizes the faith of the individual, investing in every single person the power to enact change.
In the March 31, 2008, issue of the New Yorker, George Packer wrote a piece titled “Native Son,” a response to Senator Barack Obama’s, “rap on race” (to borrow another title from Baldwin, and Margaret Mead) at the US Constitution Center in Philadelphia on March 18. With the exception of some random comments in blog posts, this article marks the only searchable connection that has been made between these two figures.
Packer accurately characterized Obama’s Philadelphia speech as one of “moral and intellectual intricacy,” likening it to Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son,” which is framed by the death of Baldwin’s father, “the most sustained and brutally dissonant of codas.” The essay wrestles with Baldwin’s realization of why his father had become so full of hate, for everyone, and how that hatred was really Baldwin’s only inheritance. Baldwin’s father’s attitude about the world at large was a symptom of a rage that “can wreck more important things than race relations… [and] one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it.”
Packer wrote of Baldwin’s essay that it is “about the distorting power of rage, the charge to acknowledge the inheritance of racism without being defined by it.” These last five words – “without being defined by it” – undercut one of the revelatory tenets of Baldwin’s entire body of work, however. For Baldwin, it was not the fact that he was black that caused him consternation, but what it meant to be black in America. It was racism that defined his country and his place within it.
To be sure, at the heart of all of Baldwin’s writings, fiction and nonfiction, the issue of race throbs. It cannot be denied that issues of race formed America, and continue to do so today. What Baldwin urged readers to do is accept this fact and from acceptance create a dialogue that permits true communication. In his seminal essay, “The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American,” Baldwin declared, “The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.” Perpetuated by entities such as the government, media, corporations and the church, the American myth has always been very powerful, but also very misleading. Baldwin recognized this contradiction and spent a lifetime attempting to defeat the deception, or if nothing else to confront it head-on. For all of the constrictive structures Baldwin dealt with in his writing, both social and physical, he ultimately laid the responsibility for change in the only place change can really occur: with the individual. In the essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” he wrote, “[O]ur humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult – that is, accept it.”
The essay “A Stranger in the Village,” from the collection of essays Notes of a Native Son, exemplifies this notion of acceptance in his dissection of how the residents of a small, isolated Swiss mountain village react to his presence, which includes shouts from children of “Neger! Neger!,” the children oblivious to the “echoes this sound raises in [Baldwin].” Such reactions, in light of the setting – namely, not America – did not offend Baldwin so much as magnify for him what it takes to approach an understanding of who we are as individuals defined by characteristics that only account for a portion of our identities: “No one, after all, can be liked whose human weight and complexity cannot be, or has not been, admitted.” Baldwin wrote of African Americans looking to trace their ancestry back to Africa, that “to go back so far [they] will find [their] journey through time abruptly arrested by the signature of the bill of sale which served as the entrance paper for [their] ancestor.” According to Baldwin, it is a lack of history, the newness of America, that damns us all, black and white, should we not tare the scales of understanding to compensate for the void of an American history that pre-dates the arrival of African slaves in an unnamed America.
The issue is not black and white, or even the concept of racism; racism is human and not particular to America. It is an issue of defining what it means to be an American, and by default, an issue of defining America as an entity that can freight such a definition. Beyond citizenship, defining an American seems damn near impossible. We certainly do not all speak English as a first language; our geographies vary greatly, as do our incomes, values and priorities. How then do we reconcile the past and present to best forge our future?
In “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin announced, “nothing is ever escaped.” Baldwin knew he needed to define his home in order to cope with it, even when he lived abroad. It was his time observing the Old World that illuminated for him the intricacies of the New World. His definition of Americans relied on the intimate relationship between black Americans and white ones, as described in “Stranger in the Village”: “He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American; as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him – the Americans who became less than themselves, or rose to be greater than themselves by virtue of the fact that the challenge he represented was inescapable.” As Baldwin saw it, the only way we could arrive at any sort of cogent definition for us as citizens of a single nation is when we accept what it means to be as inexorably linked to our African and European (and Asian and South American and Australian) pasts as we are severed from them by this magnificently unwieldy country that we all now call home.
Baldwin biographer W.J. Weatherby wrote of how accusations by one of Baldwin’s most outspoken critics, Eldridge Cleaver, were framed as “a politician’s, not a writer’s, a would-be spokesperson, not a witness.'” This is not intended to be a political piece, yet in this political season, where there is so much talk about what it does mean to be an American, the ideas that define Baldwin’s work signpost a path that might just lead us out of the labyrinth of pundits, spin doctors and politicians because of his ability to relate his life’s hardships and epiphanies, resulting in his readers being provided a perspective they may not have otherwise had.
If nothing else, if you pick up one of these collections of essays, or Another Country, or Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone or Giovanni’s Room, all of which exude Baldwin’s constant demands for individual empowerment, and what happens when these demands are ignored or repressed, you can realize that Baldwin’s need to plumb these difficult depths was because they were all too often the barriers that prohibited what Baldwin believed was the essence of life: the apotheosis of love through human communion.
Happy belated birthday, James Baldwin, you would have been 84 years old. I don’t think much has changed since you left us, though it certainly isn’t because you didn’t supply us with enough ideas to think about and discuss.