FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

James Baldwin: Word Warrior

by

Photo by dignidadrebelde | CC BY 2.0

He was born in Harlem Hospital, New York, August 2nd, 1924; oddly enough, the same year that my mother was born in the South.

His name, at birth, was James Arthur Jones, to a mother blessed with the gift of fertility; and to a father he would never know.

At the tender age of 3, he would be renamed, the gift of a stepfather, with the cognomen, ‘Baldwin’, the name that would resound around the literary and Black worlds. and continue long after his life was lived.

His stepfather fought to teach him the Bible, and for three difficult years, he acquiesced, and became a child preacher, winning souls in Harlem, until he could bear it no longer.

For he knew, at the tender age of 12, that he would be a writer, even as he won awards for his word-craft in school, and read (and reread) novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Tale of Two
Cities
, while, he would later write, he rocked a baby in one hand, as he cradled a book in the other.

His early schoolteachers recognize his early facility with words, and encourage his writing.

He would later write with keen insight and a savage wit about all around him: fellow writers, other books, movies, plays, all became grist for his ever churning mill.

Indeed, he would later eviscerate Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as much for its poor writing as for its bloodless, vapid telling of a tale that demanded courage and vitality to reflect the deep and abiding horrors of the American slave system—and its torturous aftermath.

In an early critical work (“Everybody’s Protest Novel”) reprinted in Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin slashes at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as Richard Wright’s breakthrough hit, Native Son.

Damning all such works as unequal t the task, Baldwin writes:

They emerge for what they are; a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream…Finally, the aim of the protest novel thing very closely resembling the zeal of those alabaster missionaries to Africa to cover the nakedness of the natives, to hurry them into the pallid arms of Jesus and thence into slavery (Baldwin, 1)

This is writing.

Baldwin published this book review in the spring 1949 edition of Zero magazine, and his simmering style brought him work in The NationCommentaryThe New York Times Book Review, and Harper’s. Many of the journals he wrote for are no longer extant.

But that bite, that crackle, that insouciance, would mark his writing, especially in his novels – and most especially when he brooked the river of race.

As a man of his time, he traveled widely, and lived to see life lived in different places, under different suns, so to speak. He met Africans abroad (more likely than not in France), and tried to learn from them many of the things which weren’t really available to U.S. blacks. For they may look alike, or remarkably similar to one another; but how they see and perceive the world is quite different. For one seeks entry into the White State: the other seeks freedom from the White Invader.

In his essay “Encounter on the Seine,” Baldwin notes how Francophone Africans regard the French:

The French African comes from a region and a way of life which—at least from the American point of view — is exceedingly primitive, and where exploitation takes a more naked form.  In Paris, the African Negro’s status, conspicuous and subtly inconvenient, is that of a colonial; and he leads here the intangibly precarious life of someone abruptly and recently uprooted. His bitterness is unlike that of his American kinsman in that it is not so treacherously likely to be turned against himself. He has, not so many miles away, a homeland to which his relationship, no less than his responsibility, is overwhelmingly clear. His country must be given — or it must seize—its freedom. This bitter ambition is shared by his fellow colonials, with whom he has a common language, and whom he has no wish whatever to avoid; without whose sustenance, indeed, he would be almost altogether lost in Paris 1881.

By contrast, he reasons, U.S. Blacks rush to disaffiliate themselves from other Blacks, making them lonely, isolated and quite lost in such places as Paris. For the U.S Black (who was called ‘Negro’ during Baldwin’s early days0 is so profoundly alienated from the lands, languages, and faiths of his fathers – not to mention a keener alienation from the forces in power in the land of his/her birth—that s/he is, in Baldwin’s prescient phrase (written several years before Ralph W. Ellison’s classic work) “an Invisible man”, whether in Paris—or in Harlem.

Baldwin’s brilliant observations and analyses reveal an utterly alienated soul, in truth nowhere at home, able to dwell anywhere, but to find safety, solace and true community, nowhere. But Baldwin, ever striving to be the exception rather than the rule, returned incessantly to Paris, where he could live, work and play in a way that the U.S. didn’t make possible.

Baldwin’s gift is this relentless truth telling, about Americans, both Black and white, who are locked, for centuries, in a fatal, repellent, loveless and sometimes loving embrace: each a stranger to the other, each knowing that which  is unsaid, but thought deeply, of the other.

From his earliest critic days, to his life as a successful novelist, Baldwin tells uncomfortable truths about what America means, and what it does not.

His eye is unerring, for he cites true. His tongue rakes the nation of his birth, which, by long centuries practice, hates and fears him and his kind, the habituation of American hatreds long-lived.

In this hour, in this day of conflict, his insights bear repeating, for although some things have indeed changed, we must scream the naked truth that some things remain the same.

Time, it seems, is a mirage, which passes, to be sure, but which replays itself, like a temporal Mobius strip, replaying horrors long thought past, with new, insidious forms.

In his essay, “Stranger in the Village”, Baldwin foresees the now that we are about to inherit, by observing, “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again” (Baldwin 129).

Could he foresee the rise of a Trump figure, who seeks, with might and main, to “make America great again”? by a mad dash to the 1950s? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Maybe this was a vision beyond his sharp ken.

But I wouldn’t bet on it. He was a man who knew and admired both Martin L. King, and Malcolm X. He was hurt by Black Panther Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver’s dismissal of him for his sexual preference; but Baldwin, being Baldwin, surely reflected on the hurt his reviews cost Richard Wright, in some ways, an older friend, and a mentor.

In his later years, hepatitis almost laid him low, but it would be cancer of the esophagus that would return him to his ancestors.

His words, his brilliance, his courage remain, to nourish new, younger lives, buoyed both by his greatness as by his gayness.

James Arthur Baldwin has become an ancestor; indeed, he has become an immortal.

WORK CITED

Baldwin, J (1998): Collected Essays: Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street, The Devil Finds Work (Other Essays). New York: The Library of America.

More articles by:

Mumia Abu-Jamal is the author of Writing on the Wall.

CounterPunch Magazine


bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

August 23, 2017
Richard Moser
Reclaim the Discourse on White Privilege
Andrew Levine
Will Nothing Rid Us of President WTF?
Dick Reavis
Amid the Tumult in Durham
Michael Barker
A “New Dawn” for Fascism: the Rise of the Anti-Establishment Capitalists  
Christy Rodgers
Total Eclipse Retrospective
Ralph Nader
Barack Obama: What’s He Waiting For?
Dean Baker
China-Bashing is the Dangerous New Sport of US Elites
Robert Fisk
From Dublin to the Somme: How the Death of an Irish Priest Exposes the Tragedy of Brexit
Binoy Kampmark
Statues in Defeat: the Confederacy, Treason and History
Colin Todhunter
Soil, Monsanto and the Agribusiness Giants: Conning the World with Snake Oil and Doughnuts
Ezra Kronfeld
Americans, Criminals, and Thelma & Louise
Martha Rosenberg
Stop Suicide By Helping Big Pharma, Says Shady Suicide Prevention Group
Arthur Wyns
Countries Underwater: the Looming Crisis of Climate Migration
August 22, 2017
Paul Street
“Deep State” Rules on Beneath CNN Mock Shock at NapoleDon BonaTrump
Edward Hunt
The U.S. is Fanning the Flames of Violence in Mexico
James Bovard
My Antiwar Awakening From a Boozing Baltimore Vet
Richard Greeman
Racism: North and South
Gregory Barrett
The Karma of Terror
Robert Fisk
Pig’s Blood Bullets: Trump’s Big Lie About the Philippines
Howard Lisnoff
The Streets: the Only Place Where Democracy Lives
Michael J. Sainato
Police Have Made No Arrests Over Charlottesville Assault of 20 Year-Old Deandre Harris
Dan Bacher
Winnemem Wintu, Fishing Groups Sue to Block Ecosystem-Killing Delta Tunnels
Monica Bond
A Wildlife Hero Lost, But His Legacy Lives On
Binoy Kampmark
Target Finding for the Empire: the NSA and the Pine Gap Facility
Dana Cook
Encounters With Dick Gregory: From Malcolm X to Howard Zinn
Tom Gill
Italy’s Water Crisis is a Private Affair
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Another Palestinian-American Deported: the Case of Rasmea Odeh
Vern Loomis
Blood and Soil: Hey Joe, Where You Goin?
August 21, 2017
Anthony DiMaggio
A Plea for Nonviolence: Fighting Fascism in Trump’s America
Robert Hunziker
The National Climate Assessment and National Park Neglect
Matthew Hoh
The Lies on Afghanistan 
Kenneth Surin
Narratives of Decline Among the US and UK Elites
Timothy B. Tyson
The History We Leave Out of Our Public Spaces
John Laforge
“We Burned Down Every Town in North Korea”
Gary Leupp
Trump and the Impending Statue Battles
Dave Lindorff
The Virtues of Tearing Down Statues Depends on Where They are Standing
Susan Babbitt
Why the Surprise About North Korea’s Resistance?
Uri Avnery
The Egg of Columbus 
Andre Vltchek
The World Remembers 64th Anniversary of the West-Sponsored Coup in Iran
Jimmy Centeno
The Gentrification of LA: Fight on Boyle Heights
Raouf Halaby
To Remove or Not to Remove?
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s Collapsing World
Victor Grossman
Charlottesville and Thuringia
Lydia Howell
Racist Masks Ripped Off in Charlottesville
Nyla Ali Khan
The Woman Question in South Asia
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail