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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.

It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. ("Notes of a Native Son," 1955)

Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle. ("Many Thousands Gone," 1960)

There's a stamp for Baldwin, last year a stamp for Paul Robeson. We've come a long way from 1960; democracy, it seems, marches on.

The world has never lacked for horrifying examples; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes. This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling. The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes. ("Fifth Avenue, Uptown," 1960)

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for the public comfort.

Americans will, of course, deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like "the final solution" -- those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. ("No Name in the Street," 1972)

More than 30 years later, the proliferation of the prison-industrial complex, and the disproportionate numbers of black men therein and on death row, demonstrates Baldwin's bitter truth.

There is a carefully muffled pain and panic in the nation, which neither candidate, neither party, can coherently address, being, themselves, but vivid symptoms of it. ("A Review of Roots," 1976)

The American ideal, then, of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden -- as an unpatriotic act -- that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood. ("Here Be Dragons," 1985)

The complexity of manhood, or womanhood -- of maturity itself -- may have become an archaic concept, leaving us to the manic posturings of hunks and screaming cheerleaders dressed in the flag. Certainly this is the impression conveyed by the current political campaigns. But, as Baldwin saw, our candidates and parties are only symptoms.

In his own lifetime, Baldwin could be seen as an apocalyptic prophet, as an instigator of black rebellion, as a provoker of "white guilt" (a concept he devastatingly dissected). But the truly remarkable thing about his writings (embedded especially in the novels "Another Country" and "Just Above My Head") is how, at an astonishingly young age, he took up Henry James' remark that "it is a difficult fate to be an American," filtered it through the lens of black experience -- historical, political and personal -- and tried to tell himself and his country the largest, most complex possible truths. His own experiences -- of nurturing and fear in the family, of the Baptist church, the streets, his early passion for literature, his sexuality, the knowledge of what it means to love and what it means to hate (both your own people and the Other) -- these were his landscape, his work as an American artist.

He, more than any American writer I can think of, had to make his way through the contradictions of early literary success, later iconization, vilification and incomprehension, particularly as a black writer, that fell onto his shoulders. Determined to remain a serious writer and not become a mere celebrity or spokesman, he lived for long periods, and died, outside the United States. He became a participant in the history of the civil rights movement somewhat reluctantly, seeing himself as a writer, not an activist, yet he knew he could and must bear witness to that history as it was being made, with respect and critical astuteness.

The artist, Baldwin wrote in a 1959 review of a collection of Langston Hughes poems, needs to be "within the experience and outside it at the same time." His own awareness of this difficult position (If I am, in spite of all, an American, what does this mean, for me and for America?) was, I think, a supreme artistic strength, giving him prescience, narrative power and an early and vivid anticipation of the real internal trouble toward which this nation, in its blur of wealth and fantasies, has been heading.

Baldwin's country has put his face on a stamp. But it has yet to confront itself as reflected by his unsparing intelligence, his hard-won, lucid vision of love. *

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