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.
This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.
Baldwin also prefigures today’s anger over the “stop and frisk” act, part of what came to be known as the Rockefeller drug laws,” when he wrote that it permitted policemen “to stop anyone on the streets, at will, at any hour, and search him.” Baldwin recognized the inherent racism and unconstitutionality of stop-and-frisk more than four decades before it became a major issue in this year’s mayoral campaign. “Harlem believes, and I certainly agree, that these laws are directed against Negroes,” Baldwin wrote in The Nation. “They are certainly not directed against anybody else.”
This arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life—otherwise, they would not dare to claim it, would, indeed, be unable to claim it—creates a situation which is as close to anarchy as it already, visibly, is close to martial law.
Just before the 1980 presidential election, Baldwin surveyed the American political landscape in “Notes on the House of Bondage,” an attempt at answering the question posed by his nieces and nephews, “Who are you going to vote for, Uncle Jimmy?” Eventually he says he’ll vote for Carter simply as “a coldly calculated risk, a means of buying time.” He also explores the differences between veteran activists of his generation—those who linked arms with Marlon Brando at the March on Washington—and more impatient, post-black power activists of the present one:
Someone my age…may be pleased and proud that Carter has blacks in his Cabinet. A younger person may wonder just what their function is in such a Cabinet. They will be keenly aware, too, that blacks called upon to represent the Republic are, very often, thereby prohibited from representing blacks. A man my age, schooled in adversity and skilled in compromise, may choose not to force the issue of defense spending versus the bleak and criminal misery of the black and white populations here, but a younger man may say, out loud, that he will not fight for a country that has never fought for him and, further, that the myth and menace of global war are nothing more and nothing less than a coward’s means of distracting attention from the real crimes and concerns of this Republic. And I may have to visit him in prison, or suffer with him there—no matter. The irreducible miracle is that we have sustained each other a very long time, and come a long, long way together. We have come to the end of a language and are now about the business of forging a new one. For we have survived, children, the very last white country the world will ever see.
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In addition to his own contributions to the magazine, Baldwin’s writing has been the subject of vigorous debate by Nation critics, from Nelson Algren—who liked Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956) enough to call it “more than another report on homosexuality”—to Todd Gitlin—who wrote in 1974 that it was possibly Baldwin’s “limpid condensation” of experience “which makes him so quotable and so esteemed by a middle-class white public which is looking for ‘civilized’ access to Those People.” While Baldwin’s essays have always been treated with the utmost reverence in The Nation, his fiction did not fare as well. Randall Kenan’s 1994 review of the biography of Baldwin by David Leeming noted that this division was the fashionable story about Baldwin beginning with Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. (“His insights are unremarkable and blurred,” wrote Robert Emmet Long in The Nation, June 10, 1968.) The very title of Saul Maloff’s 1962 review of Another Country—“The Two Baldwins”—emphasized that divide.
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