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Why James Baldwin's words haven't lost their fire

The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985, James Baldwin, St. Martin's Press: 704 pp., $19

September 26, 2004|Adrienne Rich | Adrienne Rich is the author of 15 volumes of poetry, including "The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004," and four nonfiction books. She has received numerous awards and prizes, including the 1999 Lannan Foundation lifetime achievement award and the 2003 Bollingen Prize. She is the editor, most recently, of a volume of Muriel Rukeyser's poetry for the Library of America.

A few days before the Republican National Convention in New York, I received a letter bearing the new James Baldwin stamp -- a lived-in, unsmiling face against the impressionistic depiction of a Harlem street. I wondered at first why it had turned up in August, not February, which is designated Black History Month ("the shortest month in the year," as it's said). Writers and artists, certainly black ones, are not so common on our postage. In fact, the stamp commemorates Baldwin's birthday, Aug. 2; he would have been 80 this year.

I first came upon Baldwin's work in the Partisan Review in the late 1940s when I was 19. He was five years older than I, but this writer was possessed of both a literary confidence and a knowledge of life far beyond mine. As his essays appeared over the ensuing years, I read them not just eagerly but with the sense of having been thrown -- amid all there was for a young poet to read -- a lifeline or the coherent map of a buried reality I had been tacitly urged not to investigate. The writings of W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass and other classic black authors were not yet reissued in paperback, as they would be in the late 1960s. Black History Month was not yet officially recognized, nor was the political usage of "black" (as opposed to "Negro" or "colored" or a more brutal term that I had early been taught in segregated Baltimore, used only by ignorant and insensitive whites.)

I met Baldwin only once, in the early 1980s, at a large seminar table at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he was then in residence. I remember little of the questions asked and courteously responded to. Mostly I looked at the face, listened to the voice of a man whose work had unlocked much for me -- certainly had penetrated the unsayable in terms of my, our, racialized existence -- but, moreover, shone light on the moral and mental instabilities of my, our, country as a whole, whether in its laws, its folkways, its art or its claims, as a nation, to being "free."

He had shown me the life of postwar black American veterans studying on the GI Bill in Paris or returning to their ghettoes carrying the scars of a segregated, racist military (not to mention the experience of war). He had examined the bad faith underlying Broadway shows and Hollywood movies, white liberal hypocrisy and the compromises made by black leaders (always identifying and parsing the circumstances that bred them). He had insistently and strategically used the pronoun "we," meaning the American people, of which he felt so agonizingly a part yet stood off from in his criticism and his vision of unfulfilled possibility. More than anything, perhaps, he had exemplified the great artist fully conscious of the limits imposed on his medium by institutions that ruled the thinking, education and emotional life of his fellow citizens, his potential audience: using the art of his pen to probe and defy those limits.

Worn down over the last months by the impoverished discourse of both political parties and the repetitively slung sarcasms of liberal and conservative columnists alike, I decided to travel, cover to cover, through Baldwin's "The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985." Many of these essays I had read and reread when they were published, yet some either felt, or were, new to me. Tracing the writer's development (and steadfastness) through the history he recounted of those years sharpened my sense of what's missing from the desperate, hysterical public non-conversations in which we're presently mired.

Moreover, many passages -- on ghettoes and their meaning, on the concept of whiteness and how it has undermined the American sense of reality, on violence and moral balance, on the cognitive dissonance and emotional vacuity sown by racialism and its secrets and, finally, on the interior panic behind American triumphalism -- seem uncanny in their prescience, the more so after the Sept. 11 attacks, when our leaders began informing us that our nation is hated because we are so free, so exceptional, so much to be envied:

In America ... life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe and each generation is promised more than it will get; which creates, in each generation, a furious, bewildered rage, the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet. ("The Harlem Ghetto," 1948)

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something we do not understand and do not want to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are.... This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us, particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything." ("Lockridge: 'The American Myth,' "1948)

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