James Baldwin Strikes a Spark

Monday, February 16, 2004

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past

As a mature adult -- an international figure, the most prominent and venerated African American writer of his generation -- James Baldwin allowed fame to go a bit to his head. He could not always resist the temptation of oracular pronunciamentos, and there could be an excess of self-importance in his manner and his prose. Fame does things to people's egos, and Baldwin proved not much less susceptible to it than other authors before or since.

It was not always thus. The young James Baldwin was a real heartbreaker, a man of astonishing intelligence, sensitivity and vulnerability. There is evidence of this in his first two novels -- "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (1953) and "Giovanni's Room" (1956) -- but there is far more in his first collection of essays, "Notes of a Native Son," published in 1955. At the time it got a modest amount of review attention -- Baldwin was still relatively unknown -- much of which focused on its stinging yet nuanced exploration of "the Negro problem" and its admission "that I hated and feared white people."

This response was understandable and indeed proper, since black voices were still rare in American literature and the messages they sought to impart were new to most readers. In 1955 Baldwin's incredibly rich prose had a good deal of shock value, and his long, angry 1962 New Yorker essay -- issued the next year as a book called "The Fire Next Time" -- had even more. In it he took as his text "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!" and warned of apocalyptic violence unless America dealt honestly and aggressively with the terrible conditions in which its black citizens lived.

In subsequent years, as Baldwin became a highly skilled speaker on the lecture circuit and as he came under heavy pressure from black radicals to turn up the heat of his rhetoric, this angry eloquence became his stock in trade, and he employed it to great effect. One unintentional consequence was that it became easy to forget the young man whom readers first met in the "Autobiographical Notes" and 10 additional essays collected in "Notes of a Native Son." Meeting that young man anew, for the first time in more than four decades, has been for me incredibly moving. I first read "Notes of a Native Son" in the winter of 1962-63, soon after coming across "The Fire Next Time." That essay now seems overwrought, though its undeniable power is little diminished, but at the time it came as a body blow to me and many others. White America was only beginning to awaken to the social, political and moral consequences of its repression of black America -- the sit-ins in North Carolina in February 1960 had been the real wake-up call -- and Baldwin was quickly becoming one of the chief bringers of the news, certainly the most prominent literary messenger.

The marginalia in my old copy of "Notes of a Native Son" make plain that in 1962 I was most struck by the ferocity of its anger. I placed a heavy black pencil mark next to this passage, in which Baldwin employs strong language: "And there is, I should think, no Negro living in America who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruelest vengeance, their women, to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as that dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled; no Negro, finally, who has not had to make his own precarious adjustment to the 'nigger' who surrounds him and to the 'nigger' in himself."

Today the stony beauty of that passage seems to me no less arresting than it did then, and there are many other passages of comparable expressiveness and force. Baldwin could be angry, but he could also be introspective and even plaintive. In the brilliant title essay he uses the memory of his stepfather's death to touch on a number of subjects, among them the loss of his own innocence in 1943 when, at the age of 19, he left his native Harlem:

"I had been living in New Jersey, working in defense plants, working and living among southerners, white and black. I knew about the south, of course, and about how southerners treated Negroes and how they expected them to behave, but it had never entered my mind that anyone would look at me and expect me to behave that way. I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one's skin caused in other people. . . . That year in New Jersey lives in my mind as though it were the year during which, having an unsuspected predilection for it, I first contracted some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. . . . There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood -- one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die."

No doubt Baldwin carried it with him for three more decades, until his death in 1987, yet what leaps off the page now is not so much the anger as the innocence that was wrested away from him. Picture in your mind the 19-year-old James Baldwin. He is short and slight, with protuberant eyes that give him a look of perpetual astonishment. He is not merely black but deeply black. He has had a hard, marginal life as one of the nine children of a loving mother and a cold, distant stepfather who "had lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit." He has a passionate desire to write but was bullied by his stepfather into a brief career as a boy preacher. He is deeply uncertain about his sexual identity and is slowly moving toward open homosexuality, a subject he will explore a decade later in "Giovanni's Room."

All in all it would be difficult to imagine someone more vulnerable to life's cruelties, random or otherwise. When he says, at the outset, that "I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually," one's heart aches because of all the subterranean messages that sentence contains, chief among them passionate love of country and unbearable pain at being rejected by it. Much later he tells us that "the favorite text of my father, among the most earnest of ministers, was not 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,' but 'How can I sing the Lord's song in a strange land?' " and one feels, again, the anguish of alienation and rejection.

The "most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality," Baldwin writes, and it becomes apparent as the essays in this book unfold that this has to do not merely with discrimination and rejection but also with a search for his own place in a world he did not make. In the four lovely essays in the final section about his long exile in Europe, he confronts this in various ways. One is a meditation upon the residents of a small town in Switzerland:

"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."

The word Baldwin uses for this condition is "disesteemed." It gnawed deeply and painfully at him. "The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless," he believed, "but it is also absolutely inevitable," and "no black man can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare -- rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of white men." The theme arises over and over again: "the injustice of the white American," "the weight of white people in the world," "the idea of white supremacy."

It's easy to read this as stock racial rhetoric, but that is a mistake. What Baldwin wanted above all else was acceptance, by blacks and whites alike. He was a member of the black community and yearned for a high place within it, which indeed he soon achieved. Among whites he wanted acceptance not because they were white -- quite to the contrary -- but because they were Americans and so was he. He believed that America could never be a true nation, could never achieve anything close to its potential, until black Americans were allowed to contribute as freely and fully as whites. That argument is central to "The Fire Next Time," and is the note on which this book closes:

"[The black American] 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 presented was inescapable. . . . The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. . . . It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again."

The half-century since those words were published has proved nothing so much as that Baldwin got it prophetically, precisely right. However far we still may be from the state of grace that was Baldwin's most cherished dream, we certainly are much closer to being the "us" he envisioned than we were then. For this no small share of the credit rests with him, for he opened many eyes and changed many hearts.

He did so in prose of uncommon grace and, when the occasion called for it, wit. His influences, he thought, were "the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech -- and something of Dickens' love for bravura," and the reader will find all of that in his essays and novels. He was in fact a better essayist than novelist -- more controlled, more forceful, less tempted by long-windedness -- and his essays read as well now as they did when first published. It is too soon after his death for his real place in American literature to be determined, but it is certain that he will be read for many years to come, to readers' enrichment and enlightenment.

"Notes of a Native Son" is available in a Vintage paperback ($12).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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