He is 55 now, with lines that flow up his forehead like ripples on a dark pond. His face can crinkle in smiles, wreathe in them. There are swatches of gray in his hair. His skin seem almost translucent. But his eyes are best: They make him look, in a way, like some great, exotic, entrapped waterbug. James Baldwin is 5 feet 6.
He had become a boy preacher at 14, in Harlem, wringing wet with the Word, the truth. The wages of sin had been everywhere around him, "in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway." And so his flight to the church was not so much out of salvation as refuge. It lasted, this holy fire, three hysteria-tinged years until he found, or re-found, the fires of literature and the power of rage there with his own voice.
And yet, as James Baldwin has written, "nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and glory that I sometimes felt when. . . the church and I were one."
Yesterday, James Baldwin, author, seer, avenging angel of new Jerusalems -- stood at a pulpit in the Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ on 13th Street NW and burned once more. "Your somewhat maverick son is happy to be home," he said, softly, those huge, famous eyes counting a house that included his mother. It was nearly the last soft thing he said.
Peoples Congregational is a fine old place, with dark gleaming pews and plaster walls and a man-who greets you on the stone step even, or maybe especially, if you're white with a grin and a handshake. Somehow, the place smells holy. It also reminds of Emily Dickinson's poem about a "certain slant of light, of winter afternoons, that oppresses, like the heft of cathedral tunes." Yesterday, cold October light angled in. And an organ both oppressed and uplifted.
The church has 1,500 members, all but a handful of them black. The membership includes doctors, lawyers, poets, writers and at least three deans from Howard University. It has a long involvement in and support of black arts. The church invited Baldwin to Washington as the featured guest of its Heritage Week. Yesterday they pronounced him People's Man of the Century in Letters.
Yesterday, for the 11 o'clock service, there wasn't an empty seat in three blocks of the church. The place was packed by 10:40. Ushers put in folding chairs, and that wasn't enough. People stood in the vestibule, on the steps, out on the sidewalk. Kids hung over the rail in the choir loft. A couple of film crews, maybe two dozen photographers, were present.
A gray-and-scarlet-robed choir sang "We Marching to Zion" and "Go Down Moses" and "Way Over in Beulah Land." The minister, Dr. A. Knighton Stanley, said, "We come this morning like empty pitchers to a full fountation." He asked, "Oh, Lord, mount your milk white horse and ride by."
He also led a prayer "for my people. . . for the cramped years. . . to the gone years, washing, ironing, cooking, scrubbing, sewing, mending, hoeing, plowing, digging, planting, pruning, patching, dragging along, never gaining, never reaping, never knowing and never understanding."
It was possible then to close your eyes and think of places named Selma and Montgomery. This was a long way from there in more ways than miles, and nearly two decades had flowed on under the republic. But still.
The man everybody had come to see sat for most of the morning behind the pulpit, legs crossed, wearing charcoal academic cassock, black anklehigh zip-up boots and a look that seemed perpetually caught between remembrance of things past and a present, glazed pain.
Twenty-five years ago, when "notes of a Native Son" first galvanized a generation of black and white Americans, when the light from his pen was so blinding you wanted to shield your eyes against the glare, Baldwin wrote this about his father, a New Orleansborn minister who died in a madhouse: "He had lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit." It terrified him, Baldwin wrote, to consider, as he drove to the graveyard on the same bitterness that was passing out of the man going into the ground was now his.
James Baldwin went to his father's funeral half-drunk. The day happened to be Baldwin's birthday. Later, as anyone knows who has read that moving book, he went to Paris to try and vomit up his own hatred.
So here he sat yesterday, out of time and fashion these days, about to preach a sermon for the first time since those storefront churches and the Fireside Pentecostal in Harlem. Who knows what he could have been thinking?
He took for his texts Matthew 25, which warns that "inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of my brethren, you have done it to me," and Revelation 21, which promises "a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away and there was no more sea." It was not a sermon of love.
That new world is here, he said. We are on its threshold. "No one has willed this, and no one can will it away." He spoke in Washington, D.C., as the bastion of white supremacy, a myth "which time is so meticulously and ruthlessly destroying."
He said he wouldn't use the pulpit he has so long been out of as a forum for hate -- and yet to an observer, it sounded that way. And maybe he cannot be faulted: He said that when he was a little boy his mother had told him: "'Christians don't own slaves.' It was all I needed to know, really.
"When I was a little boy, I was told that black people never contributed anything to civilization and I was lucky the white man came to the dark continent and saved me from eating up my uncles. And I was not born 1,000' years ago."
White is not so much a color as a state of mind, he said a "moral choice." It is possible for blacks to be white, and vice versa. He said that was what he wanted "Jimmy Carter to hear." He spoke of his nephew, whom he did not name specifically: "My nephew knows he is not a thing, was not born to be a thing, is not a nigger, and that what the white man thinks does not bother him at all."
It was hard to tell if the congregation was nervous or delighted. There was not much response during the sermon (which Baldwin called "a talk"). Some people "amened" him at points. A lot nodded silently. At the end, there was applause, not shattering. And then the house rose to its feet. Afterward, there were long lines to meet him.
Dr. Stanley termed the sermon "tremendously received." He said the respect was both for Baldwin and "his presence." "There were many ages and understanding here," he said.
It almost seemed as if Baldwin was trying to restrain himself and his eloquence yesterday. And yet, eloquence outs. At one point, he said: "If we were unknown to history, we have made a history that rings around the world."
Friday night, Baldwin was honored at the Museum of African Art on Capital Hill with a champagne buffet (deviled eggs, potato salad, turkey -- all contributed by church members) and a dramatic reading from his works. The reading was given by the Rep. Inc., a black D.C. professional theater group. They preformed to an overflow house, in the museum's small, low-ceilinged third-floors auditorium.
Maybe because art was imitating life, or maybe because it was in a museum and not a church, Friday night's mood ws decidely more spirited. Effi Barry, standing in for her husband, sat in the front row. She howled as an actor impersonated the 14-year-old, imbued Baldwin, sermonizing his heart out.
"Help him, Lord," called out a man from the back.
"Preach it, brother, someone else shouted.
And preach it he did. It was revival hot in the auditorium. There seemed both a shock -- and a joy -- of recognition. Roots.
"When the trouble comes, oh, when, the trouble comes," shouted the actor playing Baldwin. His head was thrown back, his neck veins bulging. He had the Lord.
Afterwards, Baldwin stood up, shook his head slowly, and said: "Something historical has happened here tonight."