With the country on fire, who can tell us how this story ends?
I read James Baldwin’s “Another Country” in another country.
It was my junior year in college, and I was studying abroad in London. I’d taken a few books with me, including Baldwin’s 1962 novel, which is set mostly in Greenwich Village and Harlem in the late 1950's. My copy, which I still have, is a paperback Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic, in black and white and Tiffany blue. The cover is a bit wrinkled, its edges worn, but other than that it’s held up pretty well. Flipping through the pages, I can still see the passages I marked, the blue ink under the lines which struck or moved me.
My ability to recall the plots of books is terrible. I do, however, remember how books make me feel, especially those like “Another Country,” that do more than just tell a good story, but make me think and re-think, challenge my assumptions, and change the way I see the world.
As this country erupts over the murder of George Floyd, I feel myself drawn to Baldwin not so much for his writing on race, but for his singular assessment of humanity, the way he sized us up and dressed us down, his ability to call us out and draw us in, his bravery and dignity and wit.
In her 1987 remembrance of Baldwin for The New York Times, Toni Morrison wrote, “No one possessed or inhabited language for me the way you did. You made American English honest — genuinely international. You exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern dialogic, representative, humane. You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity. In place of soft plump lies was a lean, targeted power. In place of intellectual disingenuousness and what you called ‘exasperating egocentricity,’ you gave us undecorated truth. You replaced lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance.”
What I admire most about Baldwin, and there is much to admire, is his directness. He tells it like it is yet his bluntness should never be mistaken for simplicity. For example, in a 1979 speech at the University of California-Berkeley, Baldwin asked, “If you are a citizen, why do you have to fight for your civil rights?” On its face, that question may seem uncomplicated, but we still have no answer for it — and the 14th amendment was ratified a century and a half ago.
In observing the worldwide outrage over Floyd’s murder and feeling that outrage in my own heart, I almost turned to another of my favorite books, Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and his protagonist Bigger Thomas. Before I did, though, I wanted to learn about the relationship between Wright and Baldwin.
In her 2009 essay for The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote, “Wright was the most successful black author in history when Baldwin — twenty years old, hungry and scared — got himself invited to Wright’s Brooklyn home, where, over a generously proffered bottle of bourbon, he explained the novel that he was trying to write. Wright, sixteen years Baldwin’s senior, was more than sympathetic; he read Baldwin’s pages, found him a publisher, and got him a fellowship to give him time to write. Although the publisher ultimately turned the book down, Wright gave Baldwin the confidence to continue, and the wisdom to do it somewhere else.”
She continued: “Wright moved to Paris in 1947 and, the following year, greeted Baldwin at the café Les Deux Magots on the day that he arrived, introducing him to editors of a new publication, called Zero, who were eager for his contributions…One can appreciate Wright’s shock when Baldwin’s first article for Zero was an attack on ‘the protest novel,’ and, in particular, on ‘Native Son.’ The central problem with the book, as Baldwin saw it, was that Wright’s criminal hero was ‘defined by his hatred and his fear,’ and represented not a man but a social category; as a literary figure, he was no better than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom. And he was more dangerous, perpetuating the ‘monstrous legend’ of the black killer which Wright had meant to destroy.”
In the article, called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin wrote, “Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies his life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and cannot be transcended.”
It would’ve been easy to criticize or dismiss Baldwin’s article as a takedown of an established author by his protégé, a disrespectful swipe. But that wasn’t his intention at all. In a 1984 interview in The New York Times Book Review, Baldwin said, “I knew Richard and I loved him. I was not attacking him; I was trying to clarify something for myself.”
Today, I am doing that as well — attempting to get clear on how and if America, as a nation, as a people, can, when it comes down to it, be anything other than what it is right now: Headlines that scream about violence, despair, and turmoil. Photographs and video of police in riot gear faced off with protestors. Shattered glass, clouds of tear gas, a landscape on fire. A crisis so deep and so wide that it has bumped a pandemic which has killed more than 100,000 people in this country below the fold.
I’m not sure what Baldwin would say about this moment. I’m not a scholar or an expert on his work. Would he see a way out? Would he say that this country can indeed be another country, a better country, a healed country? Or would he say this is where America, in all its greed and hatred, ignorance and inequality, its absolute refusal to evolve in any meaningful way has been headed all along. That this is our fate, the inevitable, tragic conclusion, we, in all our stubbornness and blindness, have written for ourselves.
James Baldwin died in France in 1987. It is wonderful to be able to re-read his work, watch his speeches and debates online, hear his beautiful sonorous voice. But still, I wish he were here today to witness what we are doing to each other, to shed light on why we’re doing it, and tell us whether there is any hope of changing direction. I long for that undecorated truth and upright elegance, which we need now more than ever.