I came to James Baldwin by accident. At the end of the summer I turned 20, right before my junior year at Indiana University, a young white woman I knew gave me a copy of The Fire Next Time. Even though I was about to declare as an English and African American Studies major, I couldn’t register Baldwin’s name in any significant way. In fact, I was more interested in trying to know this girl, not this book. She could tell that she had my nose open because my hands were groping. Maybe she realized something about me that I couldn’t yet articulate and that is why she handed me that book. Maybe she noticed the way I eyed the title and the author’s name, searching for a link to fill the synaptic gap. Maybe it was a way to ward me off, a talisman whose power\s she understood. But she sent me away to read it – “take a look, let’s have a conversation about it. I think you’ll like it a lot.”
The book saved us both. She was saved the trouble of embarrassing me with rejection and I was saved from failing out of the university. Instead, after reading the essays I dedicated myself to figuring out how someone like Baldwin could make the English language work so effortlessly, and yet be so decisive, so devastating, in raising my vision of the world in relief and then flattening it with swift sentences:
The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another – or others – always has been always will be a recipe for murder. There is no way around this. If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch . . . . But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know – we see it around us every day – the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself.
In my long trek to becoming a writer and critic this moment in the essay returns again and again – a simple incision, even a cliché, but one that remains at the center of human relations and the political struggles for power and equality. Of course, this ability to make an aphorism prescient is what made Baldwin seem prophetic about the burgeoning anger that would develop into the elocutions of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, and that would keep ghettoes from Newark to Watts blazing almost every summer after 1963. But that prophecy, as Baldwin notes, has legs outside of Negro contexts, and amazingly, even outside of specifically American racial circumstances.
The Fire Next Time is one of the greatest mergers of literary art and philosophical critique. Presented as two letters, each originally and separately published 41 years ago, Baldwin’s masterpiece is a statement of personal psychological torment not only made public, but also made representative of the American democratic dilemma, our crippled attempt to “achieve our country.” The opening section, “My Dungeon Shook,” is a letter addressed to Baldwin’s nephew and namesake in celebration of the young James’ fifteenth birthday and the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although that letter is short, in its conclusion Baldwin is able to establish one of the arguments of the second section, namely that American racism is a prison house where the white jailers and black inmates are both intimately incarcerated, thus: “we cannot be free until they are free.” Writing in early 1962 Baldwin’s vision of white American freedom could only arrive as a product of a tough Negro philosophy: “we, with love, shall force our [white] brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality, and begin to change it . . . . we can make America what American must become.” Implicit in Baldwin’s remark is an idea that his early benefactor, Richard Wright, eloquently described as a battle between white and black Americans over the nature of American social reality.
It is this particular point, describing American reality, that Baldwin uses as a drill bit to aid his process of revelation in the second section of The Fire Next Time. Appearing first in The New Yorker in late 1962, “Down At the Cross: Letter from a Region in my Mind,” is the longer, more powerful letter. In this piece Baldwin refracts the national racial history into its multiple layers through the prism of his personal story of growing up in Harlem. This is the Baldwinian trademark. Whether in “Sonny’s Blues” or “Notes of a Native Son” or Another Country, Baldwin’s accounts of Harlem life become the measure of American democratic failures. In 1938, in his fourteenth year, in the depths of a national economic depression, when his body was mounting its charge toward puberty, existential and sexual awareness, Baldwin realized that the evil he saw on the streets around him was generating an evil within him. In fact, as he noticed that he had only one foreseeable future financial prospect – crime – Baldwin also realized that his plighgt, which could not have been saved by “civilized reason” or “Christian love,” would only change when others began to fear his power to retaliate. Baldwin’s form of retaliation was to refuse “Harlem, the ghetto” as his only “place,” a cage to be trapped in.
Baldwin has been rightly criticized for his dark vision of Harlem – there never seems to be a balance between the affirmative aspects of Harlem life and his social critique. We must read Baldwin’s Harlem symbolically. Instead of claiming his demise as trapped animal or criminal, Baldwin claimed his birthright, his American citizenship. And as a citizen-critic he used Harlem as a metaphor for the larger critiques that surface in the essay; Harlem is not a measure of Negro deprivation but rather the measure of equality, citizenship and democracy denied.
The essay is also about race and religion, whiteness, Christianity, and the Nation of Islam – all of them, Baldwin implies, used as shields against reality. Rather than confronting the possibility of knowledge outside of ourselves, we turn quite simply to the demarcations of narrow protective ideologies:
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.
In the 1960s, as Baldwin understood matters, whites and Negroes, Christians and Muslims were all getting it wrong; they were engaged in deadly opposition rather than relieving themselves of their systems where they could face facts. On this front, Baldwin’s critique is centered on unmasking the ways in which white Christians used their religion to cloak the racist structures of American power. In this system whiteness is read as “morally superior Christian citizen.” Even more, the white male becomes the de facto representation of American ideals, political and spiritual. Under this philosophy any black body is the antithesis of white masculinity and thus, the antithesis of American citizenship.
What is striking is the way these themes of democracy, citizenship, and white masculinity all return to us over and over again even outside of the American domain. Baldwin’s explanation of the consequences of this vision of the world still resonates these 40 years later. He writes near the end of the essay that the inability of white American men and women “to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives . . . makes the discussion, let along [the] elucidation, of any conundrum – that is, any reality -- . . . [is] supremely difficult . . . . whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” So, as Baldwin explains, without knowledge (or the acknowledgment) of Negro citizenship it is impossible to actually achieve the American democracy. Even more, without acknowledging Negro humanity, white Americans can never realize their own human conditions. This, of course, is our representative operating mode in the world today, Dr. Rice and Mr. Powell notwithstanding.
FOUR: For Edward Said
Over the last several months I’ve been searching for articulate, intelligent contemporary critics to help me elucidate the political and philosophical dilemmas of our current political moment. Two voices keep rising above the cacophony: Edward Said and James Baldwin. Their wise, passionate books and essays describe the world so that a network of connected ideas and arguments emerge, clearing space for truth against the unsubtle lies tucked within the “official” rhetoric of preemptive action. While the world has shifted and changed radically in the four decades since Baldwin first day down to pen The Fire Next Time, the essential intelligence of that essay still speaks to the ideological quagmire of our contemporary politics. Said has spent the better part of the last 25 years extending a thread of the Baldwinian vision by showing us how the philosophies of Western European and American cultures have aided in the construction of social hierarchies and influenced imperialist missions.
When you read this, Edward W. Said’s death will no longer be in the news. His passing however, should linger and pester us in the same ways that Baldwin’s voice haunts us. Of Said’s phenomenal oeuvre, the pieces I’ve been turning to lately are his essays on criticism and intellectual performance. It is the intellectual, he explains, who stands in the margin, so to speak, between here and there criticizing, analyzing, and sometimes prophesizing, pointing out how we create artistic wonders but also marking the ways in which we fail our social and political principles. Baldwin, the essayist, fulfills that model better, perhaps, than anyone before or since. You should read his work, because it will turn you toward a new vision of yourself, as American and human being.
21 October 2003