Campbell's description pays Baldwin the compliment of detailing his complexities rather than diminishing them and thereby essentializing him. But then Baldwin couldn’t be reduced because he was much like his hometown, New York, a “great unfinished” work."All the aspects of Baldwin’s character are exposed in the letters. He was magnetic, compulsively sociable, elaborately extrovert, darkly introverted, depressive, magnificently generous, self-absorbed, self-dramatizing, funny, furious, bubbling with good intentions, seldom hesitating over a breach of promise – capable of exhibiting all these traits between lunch and dinner, and between dinner and the last whisky at 4 am."
Writing from Paris in the mid-1950s Baldwin explains to Sol Stein, his New York editor and life-long friend, that writing and home are always intertwined:
"It will be nice to see the homestead [New York City, Greenwich Village and Harlem specifically] again. It would be even nicer if I could feel that I'd ever feel at home there. I'll tell you this, though, if you don't feel at home at home, you never really feel at home. Nowhere. I keep trying to remember something Peter Viereck told me, simply that you don't live where you're happy, or for that matter, unhappy: you do your best to live where you work."For Baldwin, a child preacher who became a secular intellectual, home was where the head was but not the heart. In 1957 upon returning to New York after nine years in Paris, Baldwin was chilled and relieved to be back in the city for it was only there that he would be able to figure out what his time in Europe had meant, what it had made of him. Baldwin’s self-interrogation exposed the intricate relationship between his identity and his hometown:
While he didn’t love New York, he couldn’t be indifferent to it or hate it either. Perhaps hatred didn’t arise because Baldwin knew the ironies of his interminable relation to New York: Baldwin’s family was in the city, his literary education and intellectual attitudes were fostered there, and his best writing is about New York. Campbell’s parsing of Baldwin’s character could be a short narrative of New York’s great unfinishedness."If I had ever loved New York, that love had, literally, been beaten out of me; if I had ever loved it, my life could never have depended on so long an absence and so deep a divorce; or if I had ever loved it, I would have been glad, not frightened to be back in my home town. No, I didn’t love it, at least not any more, but I was going to have to survive it. In order to survive it, I would have to watch it."
I receive lovely, stirring, Baldwinesque letters from Sarah Monique Broom. Sarah, a great friend and former neighbor of mine in Harlem, is now living in Bujumbura, Burundi working for the national public radio and writing essays about New Orleans, her hometown. Whether she writes me from New York, New Orleans, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Paris, or Bujumbura, her letters, written in scotch-scented ink, always deliver love and pleasure and wisdom. At the beginning of a recent long letter Sarah wrote, "I danced last night until 5 a.m. It was a so-so night." Only Sarah Broom can have it like that: dancing until dawn on a so-so night -- what are the great nights like!
More importantly, Sarah's writing is concerned with the meaning of "home." Her New Orleans essays "Cry Me a River" and "A Closer Walk with Thee" are like letters from home to home about home. When the water pulled back after the flood, New Orleans was pocked with toxic scars -- an unholy ground, the unburied without rites, their testaments etched on the walls of their homes. Sarah's sentences sit like the black, granular soot lines that mark the levels of receding waters in post-Katrina New Orleans. She shares Baldwin’s impulse to connect her identity to home, though unlike his New York her New Orleans is loved passionately.
Sarah’s last letter, beautifully scribbled, taut with worry and wonder, made me return to her epistle/essay, the lovely second-line blues, “A Closer Walk with Thee.” Here is Broom on New Orleans and home:
Before Aug. 29, my Creole mother, Ivory, six siblings and 13 nieces and nephews lived in my hometown, New Orleans. Today I have two brothers left in all of Louisiana. In New York, where I live, I've been homesick down to my gut and susceptible to every feeling of helplessness. So when I heard about a street parade in New Orleans on the Saturday after Thanksgiving -- a parade to give thanks -- I booked a ticket right then. But I was afraid of what I would find, and of what I might not be able to find anymore.Home can be where the head is and what the heart longs for -- a place where metaphysical constructions and longings merge with material structures, a place of walkable, personal history. The music of identity hums in the home zone, where we hear the second-line chant imbued with tragedy and comedy, where the melody that spells our private names rings out over the rhythms and harmonies we use to improvise the song of our selves.
I'm in my rented S.U.V., coming from the airport on Friday afternoon, when I see the first wrecked house. I am less shocked by the car in someone's living room, or by the abundance of tennis shoes and boats on the tops of bent fences, than I am by the absence of people. I notice that the tires are too damn loud. Why am I driving on pebbles?
I tour the streets -- Marigny, Roman, Burgundy, Mirabeau -- with John Coltrane. He is chanting, ''A love supreme, a love supreme. . .,'' when I see two people in masks and blue bodysuits cleaning out their homes. They wave, and I return the gesture. The only other movement that day is from a pack of scraggly dogs fighting over a plastic-foam to-go plate. When my car approaches, they don't bother to look up. They're hungry.
There's an evening curfew in the city, and with the encouragement of the patrolling National Guard, I head for Saint Rose, La., to my dead grandmother Amelia's house, 24 miles away, where my brother Carl now lives. I have to pass along St. Charles Avenue, where MTV's Real World was filmed and where most of the old-money mansions appear unscathed. I notice that one family is having a tea party on their porch. I feel an abiding sadness at my core.
The next day is the parade. I show up alone at 10 a.m. in front of Sweet Lorraine's, the jazz club, to join the crowds, some dressed to the nines in gold suits with shiny mahogany shoes. I spend an hour talking smack: ''Where y'at?'' ''How's your mom and them?'' ''You gone cut up out here or what?'' But soon the band chants, ''Feet can't fail me now.'' And I don't believe they can. The tuba player is in front of me; I clap hard to match his beat. Then, after we have danced wild, the Hot 8 Brass Band plays ''Just a Closer Walk With Thee'': Daily walking close to Thee/Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.
The trumpet wails its slow, sweet and with-plenty rhythm, just as Jelly Roll Morton once directed. It is a funeral dirge, and on the street we're swaying through there is barely a house standing. My heart is breaking into slivers. I fall off beat because I have to navigate piles of belongings: a moldy shoe, a brightly-dressed Barbie doll, a sewing machine.
At 1 p.m. we are three hours into a parade that will leave us at the foot of the Mississippi River. To break up the dancing, and to help the economy, we stop at bars along the parade route. By the time we make it to the river, I have had three rum-and-Cokes, which I drink out of plastic cups. I have also had a bowl of red beans and rice, which someone in a house with electricity has cooked for passers-by. At 3 in the afternoon, for the first time today, we start to feel our tired feet. So we limp. But it is worth it.
And I want more. A native has whispered that the Mardi Gras Indians, who dress regal in hand-sewn Indian costumes during Mardi Gras, are practicing their chants the next day. The location is Tchoupitoulas and Napoleon Avenue, at a bar called Tipitina's. The Indians are mostly African-American working people; there's a Big Chief, and young boys in clean sneakers with drums and tambourines play the beat. Imagine 15 sweating men with hard voices standing in a semi-circle, singing bare-bones songs. I think of the Haitian, the Creole, the Spanish, the voodoo, the Italian, in New Orleans history. It's as if I am at Congo Square in 1865, watching Marie Laveau, voodoo priestess, twirl in a spirit dance.
Near curfew, one man begins to sing. ''Mighty cooty-fiyo,'' he calls. Tambourines rattle out a snake hiss. And then they chant in unison: ''We are Indians/Indians of the nation/The wild, wild creation/We won't kneel down, not on the ground.''
As they sing, they change the words: ''We won't kneel down''becomes ''We won't bow down.'' ''The ground'' becomes ''the dirty ground.''
I call my brother Michael in Texas and leave a taste of drum music on his voice mail. Outside it is pitch black -- because it's night, but also because the electricity is still out. Out there is an awful quiet.
On my flight back to New York, I hum.
New York Times Sunday Magazine
22 January 2006