In the end, we will miss so much: his words, his fire, his voice as one of this century's major American writers. But nearly as much, we will miss his face. What a face it was.
When I saw him 12 years ago, James Baldwin's face seemed to embody the duality of the black experience in America. It was etched with crevices of despair and weariness, yet despite the hurt and sorrow that burned in his bright and bulging eyes, he was still able to fix you with an incredible smile that spoke of hope and was as gentle as an embrace.
The year was 1976, and Baldwin had already been awakening America to the potential of a racial Armageddon and the realities of the black experience for nearly a quarter-century. I had grown up watching him on television and reading his works, and my life was different as a result of both.
He was such an odd-looking little person. The whites had anointed him spokesman; yet he was able to express our case with such impact, and the power of his words hit a young girl growing up in the segregated South with the power of an epiphany. Here was a man able to articulate what my grandmother and my father felt about the contradictions of white Americans who called themselves Christians: "Christians don't own slaves." When, in 1963, he wrote a letter to his nephew James in "The Fire Next Time," telling him, "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger," he was my generation's oracle, and an earlier one's as well. And yet, in the same essay, his words projected a sense of belonging: "This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become."
But years had passed between those growing-up days and that day in 1976, and the lines of age and rank collapsed as James Baldwin folded his 5-foot-6-inch frame onto a yellow couch, leaned his face into a hand that gently floated up to meet it, and in a voice whose raspy edges summoned images of spirituals sung in ancestral fields, said: "I hate to sound so gloomy."
He had been struggling, in his characteristic way, to find the right words, the precise meaning he wanted to convey about a sheath of problems of the moment, particularly the plight of black children.
On that day, he had recently returned to the United States from France, where he had lived on and off since 1949, but his intimate knowledge of what was happening in America made it clear that a mere ocean could never remove him from the concerns of his homeland. "We must give black kids another model. We must build the structure within the family, because there are risks in living in the American republic."
Although American racism and Harlem poverty drove him into exile, and his French residency was part of his mystique, he never let white Americans rest easy with the pace of race progress. I can still remember picking up a copy of Saturday Review in the early '60s and reading the words with which he shocked a group of white teachers in Harlem. "What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one's heroic ancestors. It's astounding to me, for example, that so many people really appear to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free ... What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn't stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. That's all."
After that interview, three years passed before I again saw Baldwin. This time he was standing at the pulpit at Peoples Congregational Church, "a maverick son happy to be home," and just named Man of the Century in Letters. Swathed in the preacher's robes he gave up as a teen-ager, absorbing the adulation like sunshine and affirmed by the presence of his family in the pews, he romped through the transgressions of America like a prophet.
Yet despite this disappointment and anger at his country's policies, it did not make him into an embittered man, which was evident in the different manner of man I saw a few hours later. He was sitting in an antique chair in the elegant Riggs Place town house of Eleanor Traylor, a literary critic, professor and Baldwin friend, where the work of black artists adorned the walls, the sounds of laughter reverberated and the smells of Southern cooking gently wafted from the second-floor kitchen.
Traylor recalled yesterday how Baldwin had generously encouraged many black writers who were of his generation: Louise Meriwether, Maya Angelou, Rosa Guy, Amiri Baraka and others. But if he was almost a godfather to those writers, he encouraged the literary efforts of younger people as well. "He was able to achieve with every person who was his friend a kind of intimacy," remembered Traylor. "I might not see him for two or three years but he always wanted to know what I was doing, he was encouraging and he was always in praise."
But that October night in 1979, his special energy came from the presence of his family, whom he dearly loved and supported -- his mother, his brother, sisters, nieces and nephews -- and this engaging conversationalist was in rare form. But even in this casual atmosphere, he was thoughtful, fair and authoritative; his attention was focused not on himself but on the important currents of life in this century, the essential nature of what it meant to be human. "Our humanity is our burden. We need not battle for it. We need only do what is infinitely more difficult, that is, accept it."
And in the end, helping him transcend the ferocious writer's blocks and his anger at injustice was that quality of his people that he loved most, the center for which he was always reaching: their ability to turn annihilating hostility into a strength that lifted rather than buried the human spirit. He said it best 25 years ago: "You come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity."