The Return of James Baldwin

In the defiant title of the brilliant new documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” James Baldwin, one of great voices in the racial debates of the 1960s, is back. But what have the nation’s black and white populations learned since his death in France in 1987, or since the explosive ’60s when Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were shot dead in public because they dared to say what they believed? Will we ever live together and love one another?

On Sunday Feb. 19, 2017, police caught up with Sergio Reyes, 18, who, waving a toy pistol, had swiped two six-packs of beer and headed down the street until police confronted him. Since he was still holding the fake gun, the cops opened fire and shot him 14 times. More than 250 black people were killed by police in 2016. In 37 cities, black residents are over-represented in homeless shelters. Twenty-three percent of black families live in poverty. Only 42 percent of those who go to college graduate.

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On the other hand, in 2013 there were over 130,000 marriages between white men and black women and nearly 320,000 between white women and black men. African-Americans are more prominent in television and film; the 2017 Academy Awards were the most diverse in history and set a record for the number of Oscars going to black stars. How radical these changes appear, however, depends on which generation is confronting and answering these questions.

The first black man I met, when I was 3, was Step Lipscomb, the man in charge of the horse stables at the 112th Field Artillery base outside Trenton, N.J. My father, then a retired captain in the National Guard, took the family there for polo matches and horseback riding. Our parents were so determined that we would respect and love our black neighbors that they introduced us to a black Catholic parish and bought a statue of Blessed Martin de Porres for our house so we could pray to a black saint. They welcomed Step and his family into our home and taught us there were two words we must never use, the n-word and “fool.” Years later, Step confided in me that when we first shook hands, I had examined my hand to see if his color had rubbed off on me.

As I grew older, my racial education included harsh awakenings.

As I grew older, my racial education included harsh awakenings. Trenton’s Lincoln Theater still confined black viewers to the balcony. After a basketball game between Trenton Catholic and Trenton High, a mob drifted into downtown and exploded in a riot. I recall a group of white boys stomping a black boy on the sidewalk. At 17, returning by bus from a railroad construction job in Alaska, I made a stop in New Orleans, where I saw my first “whites only” sign on a water fountain. When a white man saw the only empty seat on the bus was next to a black person, he yelled, “I ain’t sittin’ next to no n-----.” Neither my Jesuit prep school in Philadelphia nor Fordham University in the Bronx had black studen+ts. My U.S. Army battalion stationed in Germany had one black officer and few black troops.

Nevertheless, my most profound intellectual and emotional experience—which affected me as a Jesuit, teacher and writer—was my introduction to James Baldwin. I say I met, not just read, him because he presents himself so frankly, so fearlessly, that the reader feels that you and he are on your third beer, and now he will listen to you. That impact is even more pronounced in his unfinished novel, “I Am Not Your Negro,” which Baldwin wrote just before he died. In a summer course, the Jesuit theologian Jim Connor suggested I pick an up-and-coming writer, read everything he had written, write an essay on the author and publish it. My article, “James Baldwin’s Search,” was published in The Catholic World in 1964. After the project, I was a different person. I had always been sympathetic to black people, but I had no concept of their pain—suffering for which, simply because of my color, I shared responsibility.

I had always been sympathetic to black people, but I had no concept of their pain—suffering for which, simply because of my color, I shared responsibility.

I distinctly remember standing in a subway car looking around at all the black faces with a growing conviction that I should go up to at least one man or women and apologize for what my race had done to theirs.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, Thurston N. Davis, S.J., the editor in chief of America who had earlier been my dean at Fordham, brought me on as a summer editor and columnist; I wrote about race. In 1967 I was in Chicago to report on Jesuit community organizers working with Saul Alinsky and flew to Detroit to witness the race riot there. I had seen Watts, Newark and Rochester in the aftermaths of their purgatories and was weighed down by the growing hostility. Led by a local priest into a hard-hit neighborhood, we were suddenly shaken as three more police cars, sirens screaming, roared into the intersection. Brakes screeched and troopers leaped out, all armed with rifles aimed directly at us. They ordered black men to “Go home.” The men replied, “This is my home.” One middle-aged black man didn’t move fast enough. “Move,” the troopers shouted as three of them beat him to the ground and gashed open his head with a rifle butt and another hit him in the kidney. “Sorry about that bad language I used, Father,” the trooper said to my friend. “Forget the language,” my priest friend snapped back. “There was no need for that. That man was my parishioner.”

Today, with the 30th anniversary of his death at 63 of cancer of the esophagus in St. Paul de Vence in southern France in 1987, James Baldwin’s influence has returned just when we need him.

James Baldwin’s influence has returned just when we need him.

A good place to start reading Baldwin’s essays is “Notes of a Native Son,” which opens with:

On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots in the century. A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.

The oldest of nine children, Baldwin had not known his father well; he had hardly ever spoken with him. In fact, James did not know for many years that this man was not his real father. His children were never glad to see him come home. “The weight of white people in his world” had caused the bitterness that had killed his father, and James feared it might kill him, too.

The year before his father’s death, James had been living in New Jersey, working in defense plants, where he learned that one is judged simply by the color of his skin. Told that he would not be served a hamburger and coffee for that reason, he was all the more determined to be served. One night at a diner in Trenton, he placed his order, only to get “We don’t serve Negroes here” in response. He wandered in a daze to a more fashionable restaurant. When the waitress approached, he “hated her for her white skin and frightened eyes.” She repeated, “Don’t serve Negroes here.” Baldwin picked up a water pitcher and hurled it at her with all his strength. It missed and shattered against the mirror behind the bar. Then he ran into the night. He could have been murdered, and he had almost committed a murder. He finally realized that “my real life was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.”

After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1942, Baldwin worked at odd jobs until 1945, when he received a series of foundation grants that financed his writings for most of his career. In 1948 he moved to Europe and lived in Paris with other black writers, including Richard Wright, author of Native Son, who told interviewers in 1946 that he “felt more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is the entire United States of America.” He also followed the advice of Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, to write about white people, which he did in Giovanni’s Room, his novel about homosexuality.

In 1958 Baldwin returned to the United States, met with various political leaders, including Robert F. Kennedy, and then traveled widely, giving lectures and writing about civil rights. He mingled with the likes of Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr. and published a string of articles and stories, most notably, Nobody Knows My Name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963) and Another Country (1962), in addition to plays, poems and film criticism. In 1966 America reviewed the short story collection Going to Meet the Man (1/15/66):

When James Baldwin first poked his black, accusing finger into the white Northern soul, he left a reader shattered…. Our culture was used to Negroes who could sing, hit home runs and wield political power. Baldwin, however, was the first Negro artist to turn the language of Shakespeare and the Old Testament prophets into a psychological-literary weapon in the racial conflict.

In the essay “Stranger in the Village,” Baldwin described the experience of visiting a small Swiss Catholic town where villagers had never seen a black person before. If he sat alone in the sun a villager might come and “gingerly put his fingers on my hair, as though he were afraid of an electric shock, or put his hand on my hand, astonished that the color did not rub off.” There was no suggestion of unkindness, “there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.” Inevitably, his rhetoric moves to generalizations about the races:

At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself. And the history of this problem can be reduced to the means used by Americans—lynch law and law, segregation and legal acceptance, terrorization and concession—either to come to terms with this necessity or to find a way around it, or (most usually) to find a way of doing both these things at once.

The long and demanding essay “Down at the Cross” takes us through Baldwin’s two years as a teenage preacher, his gradual alienation from organized religion because of the scandals in its history, his friendship with Malcolm X and his rejection of Elijah Muhammad, who preached that the white man is the devil and must be totally destroyed.

If we wish to sum up James Baldwin’s philosophy in one word, it would be “unity.” He ends, “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

 

In his own words: Excerpts from Baldwins' essays: 

 

Notes of a Native Son:

She began to cry the moment we entered the room and saw him lying there, all shriveled and still, like a little black monkey. The great gleaming apparatus which fed him and would have compelled him to be still even if he had been able to move brought to mind not benevolence, but torture; the tubes entering his arm made me think of pictures I had seen when a child of Gulliver, tied down by the pygmies on that island. My aunt wept and wept, there was a whistling sound in my father’s throat; nothing was said; he could not speak. I wanted to take his hand, to say something. But I do not know what I could have said, even if he could have heard me. He was not really in that room with us, he had at last really embarked on his journey, and although my aunt told me that he said he was going to meet Jesus, I did not hear anything except that whistling in his throat.

 

Down at the Cross:

Some fled on wine or whiskey or the needle and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church. For the wages of sin were visible everywhere, in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway, in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every helpless, newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parceled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail. It was a summer of dreadful speculations and discoveries, of which these were not the worst.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Warren Miller
6 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you for including this piece on the great American writer James Baldwin....well done!

Michael Basile
6 months 1 week ago

It was the summer of 1967 that I returned from Peace Corps assignment in a Turkish village to settle in Washington, DC and, together with another Peace Corps staffer and the minister of an AME church in the northeast quadrant, found an organization that worked to prepare folks like me to pave the way for the Poor Peoples Campaign to come the following year. Your recollection of Baldwin's pain reminds me of the difficulties we faced when working in small training groups with well-meaning but nonetheless naive fellow liberal types to, on SCLC organizers' advice, not make sandwiches in Resurrection City on the Mall, but instead get to DC's suburbs and open people's minds and hearts. For me the takeaway from this was to get in touch with my own deep-seated racism before I could be of any use in this project. One of the hardest lessons from this was coming to terms with the racism within, a feat for me surprisingly painful and resisted mightily, especially by my liberal peers, who prided themselves on their own superiority to those who had not done something so worthy and purifying as to have served in the Peace Corps. Thank you for this reminder. It tells me to redouble my efforts with those like me. It's not over.

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