Watered Whiskey: James Baldwin's Uncollected Writings
Baldwin changed as surely as the country did, and as all of the work in this collection—apart from the early book reviews—dates from 1959 and after, it would not be unreasonable to expect the editor to devote generous attention to these intersecting histories. Kenan, however, is a minimalist curator, offering only brief contextual remarks before pieces. In his introduction, where he could have strengthened the narrative arc the writings form, he balks, devoting the bulk of the space to an unnecessary biographical sketch of Baldwin, some of which is strangely written in the second person. He has forgotten that the book he has edited is a compilation of rare B-sides, not greatest hits. Grouping the writings by type—“Letters,” “Profiles” and so on—he opens with the sexiest, “Essays and Speeches,” burying the homely but earlier “Book Reviews” in the penultimate section. Either Kenan or the Pantheon publicity team, it seems, wanted so badly for the book to be displayed and sold as a general interest title that one or both deemed chronology and adequate footnoting too academic. The Cross of Redemption is not as strong a book as it should be: as the 23-year-old Baldwin wrote of another anthology, this one of Russian literature, the collection is like “watered whiskey; but, of course, even watered whiskey is better than none.”
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Baldwin thought of himself first and foremost as a novelist, but his finest accomplishment is his body of autobiographical essays, literary sleights of hand where a social truth is drawn effortlessly from personal narrative. Such mastery requires solitude, patience and time, three things Baldwin increasingly found in short supply. In the pieces from the early and mid-’60s in The Cross of Redemption, though the collection’s strongest, he has abandoned his signature style, and would never return to it with the same vigor. In “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” “Letters From a Journey,” “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” “The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston” and “The Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin holds forth on subjects such as history, nationalism, language, movies, theater and the artist. Analyzing the American personality in “The Uses of the Blues,” he shrewdly observes that a significant part of the country’s neuroses originates from the fact that slaves in the United States, unlike those in other Western countries, lived and labored on the mainland. Such close quarters required that Americans go further in convincing themselves that slaves weren’t human, which led to a “hidden, festering, and entirely unadmitted guilt” as well as the perpetual necessity for self-delusion. In “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” Baldwin criticizes F. Scott Fitzgerald for the lyrical sentimentality of Jay Gatsby, who “searches for the green light, which continually recedes before him; and he never understands that the green light is there precisely in order to recede.” We allow ourselves to be borne back ceaselessly into the past if we forget the realities of slavery and despoilment. Such a blithe disregard of American history was an illusion that Baldwin increasingly felt a duty to shatter. Unfortunately, his vehemence began to undermine his craft, resulting in generalization, hyperbole and needless repetition. Baldwin was still perceptive, but his passion was at times pitched too high.
The tragedy is that almost as soon as Baldwin was in a unique position to be heard by everyone, many of those he felt he was speaking for no longer wanted to listen. With his relationship to the black community already strained—what kind of black American would write a novel about a couple of gay white men in Paris?—his mainstream success alienated it further. Martin Luther King Jr. questioned his role, saying in a conversation recorded by an FBI wiretap in 1963 that the press mistook Baldwin for “a spokesperson of the Negro people,” when in fact he was “better qualified to lead a homosexual movement than a civil rights movement.” Baldwin insisted that the lives of blacks and whites were intertwined: he defended The Confessions of Nat Turner because rather than ignoring race issues or clinging to stereotypes, William Styron had “begun the common history—ours.” Even before the assassinations of King and Malcolm X, young radicals had grown weary of old Baldwin, who held, in Eldridge Cleaver’s words, an “antipathy towards the black race”; his open homosexuality was a “racial death-wish.” Having reportedly yelled, “The sons must slay their fathers” at Richard Wright during a fight over “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin was now the father whom the vanguard needed to slay. The point was not lost on him, and the writings from the late 1960s and ’70s are a fascinating record of his efforts to understand his new position.
The most interesting of the collection’s later essays—and not coincidentally also the most personal—is a profile of Sidney Poitier, published in Look magazine in 1968. While only very loosely outlining Poitier’s career, Baldwin delivers a veiled apologia and eulogy—not only for his friend but also for himself. Poitier and Baldwin had achieved unmatched celebrity as black men in their respective professions, and then were censured by the people they had inevitably been cast to represent. The stars came to be seen by many in the new generation as Uncle Toms, having spent too much time in the white world. This backlash was bound to happen, Baldwin reflects, because black celebrities are always distrusted by the majority of black people, who have a right to feel abandoned. “It can become very difficult to remain in touch with all that nourishes you when you have arrived at Sidney’s eminence and are in the interesting, delicate, and terrifying position of being part of a system that you know you have to change.” To the critics complaining that Baldwin’s public engagement with racial politics damned his art, he writes in his own defense: “It’s only the black artists in this country—and it’s only beginning to change now—who have been called upon to fulfill their responsibilities as artists and, at the same time, insist on their responsibilities as citizens.”
The Poitier piece bristles with resentment, as does much work from the period, but it is also written with cool candor, as if Baldwin were a dying man dictating his life into a tape recorder. There are also tender memories of Poitier, which, to my knowledge, Baldwin mentions nowhere else in print. Regarding the first time he watched Cry, the Beloved Country (1952), he writes, “That was the young Sidney, and I sensed I was going to miss him, in exactly the same way I will always miss the young Marlon of Truckline Cafe and Streetcar Named Desire. But then, I miss the young Jimmy Baldwin, too.” Poitier, Brando and Baldwin had stood shoulder to shoulder at the March on Washington in 1963. The profile ends with an anecdote to illustrate “how black artists particularly need each other”; it is also a beautiful expression of friendship, of how its greatest gestures are often small, and are recognized only after they’ve occurred. In 1962 Baldwin was terrified about the reception of his new novel Another Country; Poitier had read an advance copy and liked it. The night of the novel’s release party in Harlem, Poitier turned up early to find Baldwin all nerves, and he walked his friend around the block, preparing him to meet the crowds and faces. By the time the two returned, the party was in full swing. Baldwin calmly began his rounds; when he looked up Poitier was gone, and the truth dawned on him: Poitier hadn’t come for the party at all.
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Despite the temperamental gulf that separated Poitier and Baldwin from the likes of Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed, Baldwin continued to write and fight, defending the militants who had judged him unfit to lead while holding his ground: he published a response to Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power in 1968; composed “An Open Letter to My Sister Angela Y. Davis” in 1970; and delivered a speech on behalf of the Soledad Brothers the following year. Later, in 1978, he wrote the foreword to Bobby Seale’s A Lonely Rage. Baldwin reflects with lucid sadness on the distinct problems that America posed to these two generations of blacks. He notes that Angela Davis isn’t her father’s daughter “in the same way that I am my father’s son…. He was just a nigger—a nigger laborer preacher, and so was I.” A slogan like “Black is beautiful” could have been coined only with the civil rights movement, during that glow of promise in the 1960s. Baldwin knew that as much as the members of the black power movement needed to break from the past, they owed their right to rebel to the rank and file who had marched down a road in Selma and refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery. “I have suggested that Bobby’s time was more hopeful than my own,” Baldwin cautions, “but I do not wish to be misunderstood concerning the nature, the meaning, and the cruelty of that hope.” He was speaking of the bitterness and cynicism that could not but emerge when that hope had soured. He had good reason to be worried.
Much of the disorder and anger in Baldwin’s writing life evident in the uncollected works stems from a lacerating contradiction. There came a time when he was so famous that he could say that in New York, “I can’t go where I like to drink, to see people I like, to hang out,” yet white landlords on West End Avenue still refused to sell him a house. If this was the case for him, what did it mean for “the local cat on the corner?” That the answer was obvious, and that the question needed to be asked at all never ceased to enrage Baldwin. We may think times have changed, but Baldwin’s frank discussions of race and racism are still pertinent, and his ideas about the redemptive power of literature remain poignant. Minority writers who write about being minorities generally aren’t treated very well in America: too often they are offered up in high school and college courses merely as ritual sacrifices to the gods of multiculturalism. Yet the reason to read James Baldwin, and any good writer regardless of color or creed, is that he can teach us how to be more human. “Pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain,” Baldwin observed in 1963, “and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.” That is a theory of art and of salvation.