James Baldwin. (AP Photo)
Last week marked what would have been the eighty-ninth birthday of the late James Baldwin—novelist, essayist and, for the last decade of his life, valued member of The Nation’s editorial board. Baldwin became internationally famous as the author of fictional works like Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and non-fiction collections like The Fire Next Time (1963), but his first-ever published piece, before moving from Greenwich Village to Paris, was a 1947 Nation review of a collection of Maxim Gorki’s short stories. In the review, one glimpses the beginnings of the qualities Saul Maloff noted in his Nation review of The Fire Next Time—“the confessional voice, the apocalyptic style, the prophetic warning, the turbulent emotion contained and disciplined by stylistic elegance, the gospel of love after the storm of hate.” One also sees a young writer beginning to construct his own identity around a set of fundamental values he cherishes in others. “Here, above all,” he writes of Gorki, though it could just as well be of himself, “is a carefully controlled rage at the lot of men and an insistence on their noble destiny.”
These qualities only became more refined in his later contributions. In a dual review in 1956 of the French writer Daniel Guérin’s Communist-inflected Negroes on the March and J.C. Furnas’ Goodbye to Uncle Tom, Baldwin criticized the orthodox Marxist analysis of American’s racial problems, saying it was both simplistic and dangerous, a point he developed later in his career as well:
Indignation and goodwill are not enough to make the world better. Clarity is needed, as well as charity, however difficult this may be to imagine, much less sustain, toward the other side. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about social indignation is that it so frequently leads to the death of personal humility. Once that has happened, one has ceased to live in that world of men which one is striving so mightily to make over. One has entered into a dialogue with that terrifying deity, sometimes called History, previously, and perhaps again, to be referred to as God, to which no sacrifice in human suffering is too great.
As the times changed, so did Baldwin’s tone. Ten years later, in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (July 11, 1966), writing about the riots that had gripped New York’s streets for the past several summers, he offered a blistering attack on the deeper causes of America’s mid-1960s racial strife:
…the police are simply the hired enemies of [the black] population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more sure-fire formula for cruelty.