May 26, 2003
James Baldwin

"You must put your self in the skin of a man who is wearing the uniform of his country, is a candidate for death in its defense, and who is called a 'nigger' by his comrades-in-arms and his officers; who is almost always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial work to do; who knows that the white GI has informed the Europeans that he is subhuman (so much for the American male's sexual security); who does not dance at the USO and does not drink at the same bars white soldiers drink in; and who watches German prisoners of war being treated by Americans with more human dignity than he has ever received at their hands. And who, at the same time, as a human being, is far freer in a strange land than he has ever been at home. Home! The very word begins to have a despairing and diabolical ring. You must consider what happens to this citizen, after all he has endured, when he returns-home: search, in his shoes, for a job, for a place to live; ride, in his skin, on segregated buses; see, with his eyes, the signs saying 'White' and 'Coloured,' and especially the signs that say 'White Ladies' and 'Colored Women'; look into the eyes of his wife; look into the eyes of his son; listen, with his ears, to political speeches, North and South; imagine yourself being told to 'wait.' And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the twentieth century. The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless."

-James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

If I had my way, everyone on this earth would read at least one book by James Baldwin. For many, it would not be a very transformative experience. Sadly, the people for whom his writing is most pertinent are those who cannot read at all. Which is part of the reason God invented audio-books. If you want to do a good deed, buy a tape of James Baldwin for the illiterate bigot in your hood. Baldwin will sneak in under their radar, cut the wires, down the force-field, and lead the troops to the Palace wall. He will then single-handedly fill the moat, burn the bell-tower, and behead the king, and all this while you just sit back and watch.

There's a question as to whether he was more exceptional as an essayist, or novelist, that I have no idea about. Having read a bit of both, I'm struck by how novel-like his essays are, and the inverse seems equally true. The narrators of his fiction, frequently gay, black, poor, and born in the 1920s, (and always coping with the genius of their sinful eloquence) have often hardened in their minds into prodigious arguers. They're faced - blitzed - on a moment-to-moment basis, with the vitriol of those who would happily cast them into the flames of hell. So there is this patience to their tirades, this hope that ignorance will one day succumb to the intimacy if for no reason other than salvation.

In his essay Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region In My Mind in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin writes about having dinner with The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and the pleasantries and undertones of the meal, raked over by the lucidity of the author's thought-process, find such a sensical place in the context of his thesis you forget, temporarily, you're not just reading fiction. You forget that Baldwin, in this case, is not playing the narrator of an imagining, but authoring his own experience, in order to articulate the essence of a world-view.

Though his essays have floored me, there's a vulnerable place he transports himself as a novelist I haven't found in his non-fiction, which only makes sense, I guess. For instance, from Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone:

"When things go wrong, the good Lord knows they go wrong; one can find oneself in trouble so deep and so bizarre that one knows one can never get out of it; and it doesn't help at all, as the years swagger brutally by, to recognize that much of one's trouble is produced by the really unreadable and unpredictable convolutions of one's own character. I've sat, sometimes, really helpless and terrified before my own, watching it spread danger and wonder all over my landscape-and not only my own. It is a terrible feeling. One learns, at such moments, not merely how little we know, but how little whatever we know is able to help us. But sometimes things go right. And these moments, humiliatingly enough, don't seem to have anything to do with one's character at all."

A statement like this leads me to wonder: How'd he manage to cultivate such an outright gorgeous form of humility?

My guess is it must have started with the smile:


Beyond that, I'm all outta ideas.

Posted by at May 26, 2003 11:18 AM
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