I just experienced the documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck based on James Baldwin‘s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. It is history that needs to be taught to all Americans. It is American History and can not be otherwise classified. My father, Gus Blaisdell, interviewed Baldwin in 1963. This is the article that appeared in the September issue of Alan Swallow’s Author & Journalist.
From Author & Journalist
September 1963 The Writer’s Journal
A KIDNAPPED PAGAN
by Gus Blaisdell
I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” runs the quotation from Whitman that introduces the reader to James Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room. Then what did he bring back” And, if suffering can be said to have a depth, how deeply did he suffer? The answers are to be found in his books and, more recently, in his meteoric rise as a public figure.
I know these questions, in an article on a writer, printed in a writer’s journal, could be answered very simply, if somewhat evasively, by merely listing Baldwin’s accomplishments in the field, mentioning a few anecdotes about his personal life, and quoting a handful of his multitudinously pithy sentences. This would be a relatively harmless, albeit academic, approach, innocuous; at best a kind of Child’s Garden of James Baldwin, at worst the deadly list of a pallid bibliographer or a landscape architect, I choose a more personal track in the hope that, with luck, I might accidentally succeed in giving the reader a little of the feeling of the man. I suppose this is to venture into a no-man’s land, to move out precariously beyond the wire, and to hope, however naively, that whatever fire I may draw will be badly aimed.
My point of departure is some years back, in Denver, before I met James Baldwin, although I knew and greatly admired his work which, at that time, consisted of two novels, Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, and two collections of essays, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name. His powerful third novel Another Country, was nowhere in sight, except for a few oddments scattered throughout the quarterlies, and the vitriolic yest loving indictment of America, The Fire Next Time, hinted at in small asides in most of his essays, was not as yet a glint in anybody’s eye.
That time in Denver, at which I have chosen to begin, I was sitting in a grubby bar drinking too much beer and smoking too many cigarettes. The piano player, who sometimes blew a sweet coronet and dug around in the bass of the piano, accompanying himself with his left hand, had just launched into a blues of is own composition. His name was Kenny Whitson. He wore an auburn goatee, short cropped hair, and his eyes were very bright and intelligent. He sang, a little off key, in a flat , nasal voice: You got to lissen to yousef / Ever’ time you talk, / If it ain’t the truth, brother, /Then turn you back and walk.
I was struck by these blues and , writing about Baldwin now, with three novels and three collections of short stories to be published this fall, and also his first play, it seems to me that if these blues were meant for any living writer, they were meant for him. He does listen to himself, painfully, I’m sure, and carefully sifts out as much truth as he can get hold of; and nobody, not even the very saintly, gets a full does. He listens, sounding himself; and his rage and pain, his courageous hope and loving concern, all the seasons of his emotions, are lucidly contained in his straight forward and gracious and aristocratic prose, a prose without peer in contemporary English. And graphically embodied in nearly every national magazine, from Mademoiselle to Life to the cover of Time, we have a visual record of the man and his passion during his grueling, whistle-stop stumping for the Congress On Racial Equality [CORE].
Baldwin has had the audacious tenacity to explore and attack two of our most sacrosanct totems, sex and color, and if he has, like any writer, approached his subjects with a revolutionary attitude, still he has written about them with all the tenderness, integrity, love and courage befitting his care for America, his concern for its destiny and future.
There is no easy way for Americans to think about the subjects of color and sex because Americans are used to thinking about both topics only as Americans, the only wasy we can think. And we are an odd race. Whether the opiate is religion or sex, gin or beer, LSD-25 or hallucinatory mushrooms, we always find an excuse –calling it a reason–an alley in which to hide, or a diaper with which we gird our barely controlled loins. We wear armor, when we should go naked, when silence is all that is required; work, because leisure causes anguish; and fall asleep when labor is demanded. All this is not meant to suggest that Americans are somehow more stupid or less enlightened than,say, the French, the Swedish, or the Japanese. Rather, as Baldwin has pointed out innumerable times, I want to suggest that no matter what your particular country may be, there is always the special and unique problem of having to re-evaluate the institutions of your land in terms of yourself , not in terms laid down by society as constituting your self. Social institutions and rules are, I suppose, always normative. But when they become sacred and totemic, they are totalitarian and dictatorial. And what makes the initial venture into the examined life (another country entirely) so difficult and dangerous and, often, fruitless and destructive, is that when one comes to criticize the totems of, say, sex and color, one is immediately confronted with a seemingly insoluble dilemma: you discover you are thinking in precisely those terms which the course of your enquiry has already rejected as inadequate. But this is, if I understand him, the journey Baldwin has invited each of us to undertake. The unexamined life is not worth living.
“I conceive of my own life as a journey towards something I do not understand, which is going towards, makes me better,” he wrote in Nobody Knows My Name. “I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means of control.” And in The Fire Next Time, he returns to the concept of God, grown totemic in the intervening years: “If the concept of God has any validity and any use, it can only make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
It is his voice that surprises you at first; then it is his concentration and the passion with which he delivers his sentences. He speaks softly, as if off the top of his soft palate. His r’s come out as ah’s his o’s with an a-ish sound, and his face is softly composed, almost malleable in its expressions, but hard and determined from listening to himself.
He speaks easily and clearly, and he is always willing to say that he hasn’t an easy answer to that one, or that his interlocutor is confused. “The terms are wrong. We can’t talk clearly about that…yet,” and his face may break into a broad warm smile, or he may laugh with a visceral ebullience peculiarly his own. He is a beautiful man, and a very brave one, and a writer we should all be proud of, especially when he presses our faces into slops of our own making.
In one of his finest essays, a love letter to Norman Mailer called The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy, Baldwin makes a distinction, marking out the difference between Mailer and himself, that will later appear as one of the fundamental axioms of The fire Next Time:
“There is a difference, though, between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose. Or, perhaps I ought to put it another way: the things that most white people imagine that they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence. It was this commodity precisely that I had to get rid of at once, literally, on pain of death. I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known have impresses me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they have tested and very often lost their lives.”
This essay caused an apparently irremedial rift between Mailer and Baldwin. Time and again Mailer has snipped at Baldwin in print. Baldwin has never replied. The split came over Baldwin’s criticism of Mailer’s White Negro, the Maileresque portrait of the American hipster and existentialist.
Somewhere in The Rebel, Albert Camus wrote that “every act of rebellion expresses a desire for order and a nostalgia for innocence.” And Mailer and Baldwin mutually enjoy the rebellious, existential stance. Both are concerned with the same issues, but their divergence is so radical and drastic that it often seems they inhabit altogether different worlds. Where Baldwin is religious, in some fundamental, rock-bottom sense, Mailer is romantic; where Mailer has gone into the penumbra of experience, where he has traveled to the very edge, and lingered too long, and been wounded, perhaps fatally, Baldwin has moved from the outskirts of the city into its epi-center, and made his uncomfortable residence in the ground-zero of the American heart. Consider the difference.
In the ubiquitous figure of the White Negro, Mailer has come to terms with atrocity by romanticizing it out of focus. His hipster is white, with a black soul-which is funky, the essence of hip his hipster lives, we are told, continually with the terms of death his benighted unconscious stamped with a limp metaphysical version of the extermination camp and the possibility of thermonuclear destruction, that fire next time; and his hipster is concerned with transcending the maddening mechanism of time, of kicking it entirely and entering what Cumming’s called the “one hell of a universe next door.” The only example of such transcendence Mailer has produced is sexual orgasm.
In short, whether Mailer’s effort is a brave one or a useless one, his hipster-the salvation of this cancerous world-is sadistic, anally erotic, an orgy-hunter, murderous,, and benumbed to such an extreme point that his only source of real pleasure lies in committing sexual atrocities. But when atrocity becomes thus palatable and sweet, however romanticized and apologized for, one has produced the monstrosity of an intellectual Buchenwald where, true to their penultimate calling, Mailer’s hipsters are the guards, at the outermost periphery of experience, giggling in their towers and clutching their machine guns like a young lover his new bride.
Necrophilia is not a way to come to terms with death, and a romantic abstraction of the ghoul or necrophile is neither very hip nor very existential. the pity of all this is that a fairly competent talent is wasting itself by merely reveling in the signs of a creeping putrefaction he diagnoses all around himself.
“The American bedroom has become a private concentration camp,” Baldwin said, talking quietly on the themes of color and sex. “And sexuality, sexual morality and sexual responsibility, is one of the biggest themes an American writer can undertake. It’s part of his responsibility as a writer, an obligation to himself. I suppose I put it in this way because America, at least in its conversation, comes on as so sexually enlightened and sophisticated. Well, it simply isn’t true, baby.”
In Giovanni’s Room, a novel ostensibly concerned with a doomed homosexual relationship, Baldwin explores the notions of responsibility and morality in the beginning of the novel, David meditates on his life with Giovanni and on Giovanni’s imminent death on the guillotine: “People can’t unhappily, invent their mooring post, their lovers and their friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say yes to life.” This and a few other sections from Giovanni’s Room have been recorded recently on Calliope Records. On the back of this record there is a short illuminating quotation from the New York Times in which Baldwin states his attitude towards writing:
“I think I really helplessly model myself on jazz musicians and try to write the way they sound. I am not an intellectual, not in the dreary sense that word is used today, and do not want to be: I am aiming at what Henry James called ‘perception at the pitch of passion.”
In Giovanni’s Room and his third novel, Another Country, Baldwin comes close to realizing this desired perception. Another Country explores the problems created by color and sex in the lives of eight New Yorkers. It is written in a straight third-person narrative style and its hero and protagonist is a woman, Ida Scott. She is the only character in the book that Baldwin simply presents to the reader; unlike the other characters Baldwin never analyzes Ida, revealing her motives and weaknesses to the reader encapsulated in several paragraphs. Ida reveals herself, and she moves through New York like a fallen angel waiting for its wing to heal. She has no delusions. She is aware of her need for love, and she is equally aware of the limitations imposed on her solely because of the color of her skin. Even this knowledge does not cause her to live or love resignedly. She is, to use an archaic phrase, courageous, and, unlike the doomed Giovanni or David, Ida also wounded and betrayed, is still able to say Yes to life, without having to lick her wounds. She has not made a peace; she lives in a world of war-torn emotions and has come to terms with her world. Perhaps, because she is such a stride forward for Baldwin, Ida’s strength is, in fact, so great that she has forced life to come to terms with herself.
The virtues represented by Ida Scott become moral and philosophical principles in Baldwin’s latest and most controversial book, The Fire Next Time. Fire is part autobiography, part doomsday prophecy, and part exhortation.
“The spirit of rebellion,” Camus writes in The Rebel, “can only exist where a theoretical equality conceals great factual inequalities.” And the rebel’s most persistent, gnawing question is, “Is it possible to find a rule of conduct outside the realm of religion and its absolute value?” This is one of the basic questions posed in Fire and, in terms of this searching query, the factual inequalities of the racial situation are brutally unmasked.
“God gave Noah the rainbow
No more water, the first next
Fire is a tough, grim book, its message is love, and what gives the book its body and sinew is Baldwin’s personal experience as an American negro incarcerated in Harlem, a ghetto in which he was set down to perish simply because his skin was black, the details and symbols of his life constructed and pre-established for him long before his birth. This is the more grisly aspect of a functioning totem, and Harlem, in Baldwin’s eyes, is a kind of unguarded extermination camp in which the victims undo themselves because they have allowed themselves to believe what “the Man” (whites) has said about them. It is one thing, and not an easy one by any means, to be an American; it is entirely something else to be both American and black:
“Yes, it does mean something- something unspeakable- to be born, in a white country, an Angle-Teutonic, anti-sexual country, black.”
Once we have learned to love each other, then, according to Baldwin, we shall no longer require the negro as a symbol and a scapegoat, an essential ingredient in filthy jokes, and a pornographically murky symbol of sexual prowess. But if we refuse, if we continue to hold the negro in abeyance, the result might possibly be disastrous.
“If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. This is precisely what the Nazis attempted. Their only originality lay in the means they used. It is scarcely worthwhile to attempt remembering how many times the sun has looked down on the slaughter of innocents. I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been down to them…
Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff—and I would not like to see the Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.” (Italics Baldwin’s.)
Throughout this piece i have often compared Baldwin to Camus. This comparison, I believe, is apt and precise. Baldwin, like Camus before him, is staking his life on life itself and, without the help or hindrance of religion, he is looking for human nobility and grandeur in a world that is , possibly, heading toward self-destruction. Nobility, graciousness, courage, candor, and bravery are pretty unhip concepts; sin, love, and guilt, have been laid to rest on the analytical couch, and the spirit of rebellion has been totemised into managerial conformity. But in the strong pen and compassionate heart of a small, wiry, relatively ugly man called James Baldwin, a kidnapped pagan, we have a voice that embodies the dilemmas of our epoch in the same way that Camus represented ourselves to us. Perhaps, if the bones roll right in the future, America will be very proud of having produced a black replica of Camus. At this point, I suppose, all one can do is offer Baldwin a few prayers: the ground-zero of the heart is far more dangerous a place to sit than the no-man’s land of the mind.