When he won the National Book Award for fiction in 1953, Ralph Ellison finished his brief speech with a sentence that flowed with deceptive smoothness. “The way home we seek, is that condition of man’s being at home in the world, which is called love, and which we term democracy,” he summed up in his political and artistic credo. Ellison was never one to shy away from incommensurables like home, love, and democracy. Know the meaning of these things, he grandly proposed, figure out how each translates into the other, and you will hold the key to America’s future.
That same year, the young author James Baldwin published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, en route to a career that sought to plumb those very incommensurables that Ellison found so compelling. Baldwin preferred defining abstractions to invoking them. He turned again and again to providing a full reckoning of the difficulty of attaining home, love, or democracy in America, let alone all three.
Baldwin’s seamless prose and his searing and prophetic visions of the wreckage of 20th-century American culture have ensured that he has remained a popular figure of study. Rather than examining Baldwin from a revolving door of disciplinary perspectives or considering his impact on the civil rights era, this collection seeks to consider Baldwin the essayist as a voice of today’s understandings of what it means to be an autonomous human being and an American citizen. Baldwin used the personal essay as a form of artistic and political expression precisely because the genre fit his needs. In depicting his own life, he asserted that it had meaning and relevance, that he had a right to feel at home in the world, in Ellison’s formulation, no matter who he was or how his friends and foes perceived him. To examine his life, to take it and himself seriously, was to assert its value and his willingness to live the high-wire act that is openness to one’s own self and to others, without the safety of categories that structure our responses and obscure our individuality. Today we tend to define ourselves through more and more categories and regard the expansion of potential forms of categorization as a victory, a victory Baldwin would have regarded as anathema. But we also live in an age that increasingly questions whether such categories are enough—whether we must always see and know ourselves by race, by gender, by sexual orientation, by class, by choice of self-presentation—whether we will ever have the capacity to look at one another as autonomous beings, rather than a set of checked boxes that determine how we regard and treat one another. These are perilous, deeply personal and political questions that are at the crux of some of the most violent divides in present-day American life. But Baldwin would have been quick to say that real freedom is built out of small, intimate encounters, moments where we examine ourselves and others and do our best to see one another clearly and completely. And it is only as we build that sort of freedom individually that we will have a chance at true democracy together. Baldwin saw these connections in intimate, even visceral terms.
Baldwin preferred defining abstractions to invoking them. He turned again and again to providing a full reckoning of the difficulty of attaining home, love, or democracy in America, let alone all three.
With the possible exception of Walt Whitman, no other writer has given the foundational matter of love and democratic life in America such probing attention. The practice of democracy could only be fully accomplished, Baldwin was convinced, through a deep engagement with the matter of intimate attachment, of love, and at bottom, of sexuality.
The centrality of the politics of sexuality may seem self-evident enough, just a necessary extension of Baldwin’s position as gay black man living in a homophobic white-dominated 20th century America. But there was nothing self-evident or necessary about it. Intriguingly, Baldwin’s most searching engagement with American democracy—with the very definition of “America” or “American democracy” as an ideological construct—took place in his January 1985 Playboy essay, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” reprinted under the title “Here Be Dragons” in the volume of Baldwin’s collected nonfiction, The Price of the Ticket, published later that year. It is worth taking a close look at “Here Be Dragons,” whose title referred to the designation given to the terrifying emptiness on ancient maps where America “was waiting to be discovered.” “Dragons,” wrote Baldwin, “may not have been here then, but they are certainly here now, breathing fire, belching smoke; or, to be less literary and biblical about it, attempting to intimidate the mores, morals, and morality of this particular and peculiar time and place.” Baldwin’s real ambition in the essay was to explore the monsters within and without the self that he believed defined the deepest sources of alienation and repression, of humiliation and loneliness that had to be engaged before American democracy could honestly be attempted. Here, one might say, was Baldwin’s summa, his deepest and most comprehensive exploration of the unreconstructed self at the core of the unreconstructed society, that had to be engaged before the most intractable structures of enduring political and social slavery could be dismantled and genuine emancipation occur.
The matter of love is everywhere in Baldwin’s writing. Its corruption is central to his idea of race. Race was nothing more and nothing less than a perversion of love. In its distorted way, race was a “communion,” a “confession” of love. The promise and the intensity of the one was both embodied and transmogrified in the other. “To be a black American,” Baldwin wrote in a review of Roger Wilkins’s autobiography, A Man’s Life, “is much worse than being in love with, tied to, inexorably, mysteriously, responsible for, someone whom you don’t like, don’t respect, and don’t dare trust.” Accordingly, the reclamation of and insistence on a certain kind of love is the only means forward for Baldwin. “Read it,” he says of the Wilkins volume, “if you have the courage to love your children. This book is an act of love, written by a lover and a father and one of the only friends your children have.” Political love and familial love were for Baldwin closely intertwined: the latter, in its most courageous form, offering a model for the redemption of the former.
Baldwin’s conception of sexuality in American political culture was rooted in a theory of alienation—an understanding of the processes in American culture that interrupted democratic attachment or love. It is instructive to set Baldwin’s understanding of alienation alongside the conventional Marxian understanding. Alienation, in Marx, or Hegel, or Baldwin, for that matter, is a state of being divided against one’s self, so that an essentially whole and integrated human self becomes ruptured, unable to find fulfillment in society and consequently subject to inhuman and debased power. Freedom—and a democratic culture that could sustain it—is only possible when people can choose to subordinate themselves to structures of their own imagining, not to the external demands of a system that turns human beings into objects. For Marx, the perversion of that integrated human self was accomplished through a privately owned system of industrial labor, which transformed the cooperative human essence, realized through work, into an alienating wages system and turned human beings’ humanity into surplus value.
Baldwin’s real ambition in the essay was to explore the monsters within and without the self that he believed defined the deepest sources of alienation and repression, of humiliation and loneliness that had to be engaged before American democracy could honestly be attempted.
For Baldwin in “Here Be Dragons” that integrated self was conceived differently: it was, as Baldwin put it, “androgynous.” To be truly and fully human was to acknowledge the “spiritual resources of both sexes” within each of us, a condition so mundane and self-evident that “the last time you had a drink, whether you were alone or with another, you were having a drink with an androgynous human being; and this is true for the last time you broke bread or, as I have tried to suggest, the last time you made love.” The rise of modern Western culture and particularly the form it took in America was synonymous with alienation from that complex spiritual self. The “American ideal,” Baldwin asserted, was rooted in the American ideal of masculinity—that ideal of masculinity, forged through countless acts of violence and humiliation, divided the world into “cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white.” This masculinist ideal, at the core of race itself, was “so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden—as an unpatriotic act—that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.” The distinction between the spiritual self, complexly androgynous, the essence of what it meant to be human, on the one hand, and the alienated masculinist self that was wrought out of acts of violence and humiliation, on the other, was so profound, that it resembled “in awesome ways, the ancient struggle between those who insisted that the world was flat and those who apprehended that it was round.” That rupture between different modes of being—between the whole and integrated and the violently alienated—was America, at its founding and through the present.
Baldwin’s task as writer, as artist, was more challenging than simply guiding the reader through a history lesson, though in a few brush- strokes he attempted that in “Here Be Dragons.” The masculinist ideal, he observed, grew out of world developments such as the “triumph of the Industrial Revolution” and the “rise of Europe to global dominance” which had “among many mighty effects, that of commercializing the roles of men and women.” Especially important, Baldwin conjectured, was the specialization of roles that were prompted by the capitalist institution of private property, men becoming its “propagators” and women ” the means by which that property was protected and handed down.” The emergence of this conception of property meant not simply that a man was reduced to a thing, but a thing “the value of which was determined, absolutely, by that thing’s commercial value.” Here was a “pragmatic principle” that called for “the slaughter of the native American, the enslavement of the black and the monumental rape of Africa—to say nothing of creating the wealth of the Western world.” In a series of juxtapositions that the readers of Playboy in 1985 (who, one can imagine, were not used to having the magazine’s standard fare of sexuality framed in terms of centuries-old political economy) must have found unfamiliar, to say the least, Baldwin framed in a joined-at-the-hip relation predatory property and freedom: the raping and starving of Ireland and Latin America and the two legal and commercial documents that founded the United States, the Declaration of Independence (a “document more clearly commercial than moral”) and the federal Constitution, together and in relation. Those American documents of putative freedom, in Baldwin’s rendering, represented the enshrining in American political institutions of this principle of the absolute commodification of human beings. The Constitution defined “the slave as three-fifths of a man,” from which legal and commercial definition it legally followed [70 years later, in the Dred Scott decision] that a black man “had no rights a white man was bound to respect.” The American ideal of masculinity in Baldwin’s rendering both shaped these developments from the beginning of American settlement (“violence has been the American daily bread since we have heard of America”) but also flowed out of these developments into the toxic practices of the late 20th century. In a few paragraphs, Baldwin sketched out how the modern rupture between modes of being, spiritual androgynous self and alienated masculinist self, came to be.
The matter of love is everywhere in Baldwin’s writing. Its corruption is central to his idea of race.
At one level this rupture was an impassable chasm, which doomed the individual and society; at another level, it was not a rupture at all, but an ever-accessible knowledge, right there in and around us, if only we knew how to see. The world-historical beginning of the essay was followed by a painful personal history. Baldwin was saying to his readers, I have these truths in my past, you have versions of them in your past, and if we can confront our traumatic personal histories, then we can name and change the deep historical structures. It is all there, dear reader, both buried and right at the surface, legible in our life stories. “Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” We have met the enemy and he is us—we know him all too well.
So rupture and love, or distorted love, are opposite sides of the same coin in Baldwin’s painful memoir of growing up a “freak”—a gay, African-American artist-in-the-making in Harlem and Greenwich Village. The alienation and the rupture occurred differently in Harlem and in Greenwich Village, each corresponding to a different phase in Baldwin’s life, and a different politics of sexuality. In Harlem, he lived under his father’s—and his own—expectations that he would become a minister. The story of Baldwin’s life in Depression-era Harlem is one of extreme poverty, sexual abuse and adventure, all defined within the context of a loving family—including the misplaced love of his father, who beat him with an iron cord when he lost a dime in the subway. That love extended to another violative but caring father figure, a Harlem racketeer who “fell in love with me.” That episode, for Baldwin, in retrospect, meant that “all of the American categories of male and female, straight or not, black or white, were shattered, thank heaven, very early in my life. Not without anguish, certainly; but once you have discerned the meaning of a label, it may seem to define you for others, but it does not have the power to define you to yourself.”
With the death of Baldwin’s father (and the death of that paternal expectation that he would enter the ministry), Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village to attempt the daunting work of becoming an artist and not incidentally, supporting his family in Harlem. What he found was a different political, racial and sexual landscape, with black people all but absent, where the violence and humiliation of the masculinist ideal was enacted on a far more toxic scale. The dynamic that Baldwin reported, even on street corners where he was called a “faggot,” was complex. There were the gangs of men and boys who taunted and chased him, shouting epithets. There were also the same men and boys who, when with him one-on-one, apart from the gang (and even sometimes, not), propositioned him to take them home. Years later, “one of these men and I,” Baldwin wrote, “had a very brief, intense affair shortly before he died.” To conjure up this world of white loathing always superimposed upon and thoroughly suffused with attraction, and what it was like to try to construct his own identity in it, Baldwin imagined a “hall of mirrors”: “I knew that I was in the hall and present at this company—but the mirrors threw back only brief and distorted fragments of myself.”
This distortion and fragmentation—alienation and rupture of selves— was true in the queer (“not yet gay”) world no less than the straight. Here, in the queer world, “I was black … and I was used that way, and by people who truly meant me no harm. And they could not have meant me any harm, because they did not see me … even today, it seems to me (possible because I am black) very dangerous to model one’s opposition to the arbitrary definition, the imposed ordeal, merely on the example supplied by one’s oppressor. The object of one’s hatred is never, alas, conveniently outside but is seated in one’s lap, stirring in one’s bowels and dictating the beat of one’s heart. And if one does not know this, one risks becoming an imitation—and, therefore, a continuation—of principles one imagines oneself to despise.” The prospect of surviving in a world founded on the masculinist ideal was tenuous at best. “At bottom,” Baldwin concluded about the gay New York he evoked with gentle despair, “what I had learned was that the male desire for a male roams everywhere, avid, desperate, unimaginably lonely, culminating often in drugs, piety, madness or death.” Loneliness, of this irremediable sort, was for Baldwin a spiritual equivalent of death, no less annihilating than the physical death that so often became the fate of these men. He said of his nineteen-year-old self, “It was … dreadfully like watching myself at the end of a long, slow-moving line. Soon I would be next.”
Baldwin was saying to his readers, I have these truths in my past, you have versions of them in your past, and if we can confront our traumatic personal histories, then we can name and change the deep historical structures.
In the end, Baldwin managed, against all odds, to begin to create a community for himself in the Village, and by extension, in the world at large, that was not predicated on what he called “dependence on a formula for safety.” One form of salvation came in Beauford Delaney, “the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist,” but also a father figure who protected him from the anarchic temptations of the Village, drugs and alcohol. Another in Saul Levitas, the white editor who took a chance on a young black writer. And, finally, another in Eugene, the love of his life (though, Baldwin confessed, “we were never lovers”) who hurled himself off the George Washington Bridge in winter 1946, after they had known each other only a few years.
The dynamics of these moments would be replayed on larger stages, as Baldwin became a citizen of the world. “During the height of my involvement in the civil rights movement, for example, I was subjected to hate mail of a terrifying precision. Volumes concerning what my sisters, to say nothing of my mother were capable of doing; to say nothing of my brothers; to say nothing of the monumental size of my organ and what I did with it.” But always, percolating beneath these outbursts, was, at once everywhere and so often just out of reach, the reality that “we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are part of each other.” This reality, in endless tension with the masculinist ideal that had been wrought through violence and humiliation, was for Baldwin the open secret of the great rupture that was America and, more challengingly, the key to the promise of American democracy. Only by transcending that rupture, Baldwin so fervently believed, can we truly make the world safe for democracy, something the end of slavery, the fighting of two world wars, and all the knowledge since the world was thought to be flat had failed to do. Somehow, against all odds, Baldwin found the resources in his personal life and in public life to evoke a counter-ideal of democratic communion, which he managed to find lurking within the heartbreak of race.
Baldwin sought to evoke that ideal in part by chronicling all our failures to recognize the sources of the ruptures between us and the pain of the personal and political alienation they inevitably caused. He was constantly conscious of his moral and artistic obligation to illustrate these situations of wreckage and rupture and rare moments of conjuncture and possible transcendence in which love could be felt, imagined, glimpsed. One such moment was Martin Luther King’s memorial service.
Baldwin barely made it into the church. Squeezing his skinny shoulders through walls of bodies, he remembered only that somebody found him and brought him inside, where he saw Harry Belafonte, Coretta Scott King, Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, and Sidney Poitier. He spoke to Jim Brown for a moment, and, when he stumbled coming out, Sammy Davis, Jr., grabbed his arm. All those names suggest just how much the service was a gathering place for the public figures of a movement in which Baldwin had become deeply involved. The activists, actors, writers, politicians, and preachers who had led the marches, spoken into the microphones, shepherded the legislation, were gathered in sorrow. But outside the church, unable to get in the doors, were the other mourners. “Every inch of ground, as far as the eye could see, was black with black people, and they stood in silence.” It was when Baldwin saw them that he began to weep.
Baldwin’s need to meditate on the deeply personal and its intersection with the political, and his uneasy but consistent connection to the public forms of power are wrenchingly illuminated in this moment. In characteristic fashion, he transmuted his own grief and horror at the scene into a tightly calibrated piece of the essayist’s art in “To Be Baptized.” But it is not his own talent and his own work that occupies Baldwin’s attention here; he reserves his awe for the courage and skill of a woman who, at Ralph David Abernathy’s request, sang during the service. “The song rang out as it might have over dark fields, long ago; she was singing of a covenant a people had made, long ago, with life, and with that larger life which ends in revelation and which moves in love.” In that electrifying moment, the only salvation could be to confront the long history of rupture and alienation, and to wrest from it a way to move forward to freedom and to a love deeply personal and publicly lived. Baldwin knew such a feat was almost impossible. But he also knew it was desperately necessary.
When Baldwin wrote his famous letter to his nephew James, he summed up what had happened to him and to those he loved, what the “world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it.” His family and his friends had been denigrated and denied by a society that sequestered them in crumbling ghettos, on the understanding that they would be left there to fight one another, to self-medicate their despair with alcohol and drugs, and to accept that their degradation was all they deserved. This was what America had done—Baldwin articulated the charges with ruthless clarity. These forms of discrimination were the contemporary manifestation of generations of history, centuries of insistence that black people were not truly human beings. Here was wrenchingly clear evidence that history continued to live, that it shaped everything, that its toils were seemingly inescapable. They were so strong that white Americans, who had benefited from their power, did not wish to acknowledge their crushing and continued authority. Instead, white people would ignore these present manifestations of past injustices and claim complete innocence of older crimes, even as they perpetrated new ones. “But it is not permissible,” Baldwin ended his excoriation of these acts, “that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
To be innocent, in Baldwin’s terms, was to be willfully obtuse, to accept as inevitable the benefits bestowed by historically entrenched inequality and then to deny that they existed. Neither individual citizens nor the nation they lived in could afford that kind of innocence, Baldwin believed. Indeed, he remained convinced that America was great because its very hodgepodge of peoples might demand of one another that they face the past honestly. They would speak to one another of the suffering they had endured, and they might thus come to grips with the inequities the nation continued to enforce. Only then would a decent future be possible for people and for their country. This hope might be utopian, he acknowledged, but what else was a responsible person to look to? He turned to Bessie Smith to express his conviction that impossibility was no excuse. “You can’t stay there, you can’t drop dead, you can’t give up, but all right, okay, as Bessie said, ‘picked up my bag, baby, and I tried it again.’”
“At bottom,” Baldwin concluded about the gay New York he evoked with gentle despair, “what I had learned was that the male desire for a male roams everywhere, avid, desperate, unimaginably lonely, culminating often in drugs, piety, madness or death.”
Baldwin adamantly refused to let the project lapse into futility, to get lost in abstractions, in capital-letter nouns that resisted puny human intervention—which, for Baldwin, was the only meaningful intervention there was. When Baldwin spoke of History and the Future and Justice, he was always fiercely conscious that he was speaking of frail, battered, confused human beings. Those who came before thread in and out of his writing— the father twisted by self-destructive rage, the proud parents who sacrificed their dignity when it was necessary to gain their children something. They were the characters in and the victims of history. Nothing, for Baldwin, so embodied America’s refusal to accept the burdens of its past than his imagined chronology of white immigrant assimilation—the upward mobility of a boy with an Anglicized name who despised his father’s backwardness and his broken English. Baldwin believed that Americans feared their history because it demanded empathy for the broken, the rejected, and the despised. But he called on every American to embrace his own personal past, his experience of alienation, and thus, in the sum of the parts, create a national engagement with history. It was an obligation to the future. And that future was embodied in children—the siblings, nieces, nephews, protégés, friends—who are scattered throughout Baldwin’s writings. He had seen the face of the future early, seen what history could do to a vulnerable child, as the eldest in a large family. It was time to grow up and accept responsibility for those who could not save themselves, he insisted bitingly. The future of everyone’s children—black children convinced of their own inefficacy, white children poisoned by barren complacency—depended on it. In 1964, while working on Blues for Mr. Charlie, a play based on the Emmett Till murder, Baldwin visited his family in Harlem and attended the funeral of a friend of his nephew’s, a boy in his late twenties dead of heroin addiction. The reality of racism and its costs was just that simple, Baldwin said. “Anyway, that dead boy is my subject and my responsibility. And yours.”
If Baldwin could see in a Harlem funeral the sum total of the costs of American history and American racism, if he could say, “there is no such thing as a Negro problem—but simply a menaced boy,” it was because he saw the private and the public as inextricably intertwined. To confront history in all its ugliness and to thus throw off its shackles was to realize true freedom. But freedom was not just Freedom, that amorphous, much-cited American value, meaning everything and nothing. It was not just a public attribute, a pillar of the state. It was a deeply private, personal matter, impinging on all aspects of human identity. Americans who were not personally free could never be civically free. To construct a viable future was to acknowledge a revolutionary conception of freedom—another impossible feat but one that might prevent so many of the pathetic, painful funerals that amounted to a national disaster on more fronts than American liberals had ever imagined.
“Human freedom,” Baldwin articulated his vision, “is a complex, difficult—and private—thing. If we can liken life, for a moment, to a furnace, then freedom is the fire which burns away illusion.” The illusion of innocence was dangerous enough. But they were bound up with another illusion Baldwin despised—the insistence that human beings could be divided into categories, understood and docketed on the basis of attributes that had nothing to do with the subtleties and complexities of their minds and hearts. Baldwin scathingly dismissed “those airless, labeled cells, which isolate us from each other and separate us from ourselves.” All that they accomplished was to give defining, coercive authority to “the normal—who are simply the many.” The incidental rapidity of this formulation indicates just how deeply Baldwin believed it—it was a basic foundational premise of his thought. Without accepting it, people would be incapable of pursuing freedom; children would be taught that their highest duty was to conform, to succeed comfortably, rather than to know themselves and others, to understand the wounds that had been dealt before they were born, to accept responsibly the wounds they dealt, and to live through their own injuries. This conception of American freedom was surely preferable to the potential equality in greed on offer in the 20th century. “I think it is a very sad matter,” Baldwin reflected, “if you suppose that you or I have bled and suffered and died in this country in order to achieve Cadillacs, Cutty Sark, Schweppes, and Coca-Cola.”
To be innocent, in Baldwin’s terms, was to be willfully obtuse, to accept as inevitable the benefits bestowed by historically entrenched inequality and then to deny that they existed. Neither individual citizens nor the nation they lived in could afford that kind of innocence, Baldwin believed. Indeed, he remained convinced that America was great because its very hodgepodge of peoples might demand of one another that they face the past honestly.
The path out of that bleak portrait of freedom was to accept other people on their own terms, to accept oneself, to strive to be completely honest about the realities of oppression and privilege, to abjure the safety of entrenched historical and social practice. Which is to say, that the path to true freedom was love, the love that Baldwin heard in the song at Martin Luther King’s funeral. “Complexity is our only safety,” Baldwin insisted as late as 1987, when he was confronted with the blusterings of Evangelical preachers and the inventive pornographies of violence that splattered across cinema screens, “and love is the only key to our maturity. And love is where you find it.” This kind of love was a solution to the problems of race, to the wrenching realities of dead children and blighted hopes. But he was not concocting a recipe to end racism; “I don’t know what race means,” he wrote impatiently. Instead, he was reaching for a way that human beings and the society they lived in could respectfully embrace people of all wildly varied colors, shapes, orientations, and experiences, in whatever combination they marked themselves on individual bodies.
Baldwin found himself constantly speaking on behalf of the civil rights movement, consistently involved in the struggles of politics. But he always insisted that he was an artist, that his obligations to and his views of the quest for freedom were those of a writer. It was a writer who could “defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle,” who could cry out publicly the truth of Baldwin’s deepest convictions about the private and public respect that was a human being’s birthright. This ability and obligation made the artist an invaluable combatant in the struggle for that dignity, in its rippling out from the intensely private to the public, from the home to the state. “Societies never know it,” Baldwin mused, “but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation make freedom real.” Just as everyone carried a charge to love, to make freedom, Baldwin and those with his talents should help to show the way, to remind their audiences of the realities that coercion and categories could not obscure forever.
Baldwin was relentlessly acute when it came to seeing all the ways in which those categories could be made flexible and clinging, could be adjusted but not eradicated, so that old forms of normalized inequality and restriction could continue to constrain the freedom of every American in his or her most private and most public life. He predicted and lived to see the “incorporating, the black face into the national fantasy in such a way that the fantasy will be left unchanged and the social structure left untouched.” That kind of integration was not his goal—the possibility that some black people might be able to drive Cadillacs left him unmoved. Nor was self-consciously virtuous interaction across racial lines any solution, he scoffed. It was impossible, he explained, for two people to be friends if the white friend thought of the other as black. “If one of you is listening, to all those things, precisely, which are not being said, the intensity of this situation can scarcely be described as the attention one friend brings to another. If one of you is listening, both of you are plotting, though, perhaps, only one of you knows it. Both of you may be plotting to escape, but, since very different avenues appear to be open to each of you, you are plotting your escape from each other.” This recognition of the differences wrought by history and experience was absolutely crucial to real friendship and real freedom, to a society where people gave each other only “the attention one friend brings to another,” that is, as Baldwin would say simply, love. Electing black people to high office would not necessarily produce that transformation; that election, by Baldwin’s lights, might be merely another obstacle obscuring the real personal, political, moral work necessary to save the nation and its citizens. He felt nothing but contempt for Robert Kennedy’s earnest, well-meaning assurance that, in perhaps forty years, a black man could be elected president. It must be said that Kennedy, with predictable political acuity, timed his estimate precisely right, but Baldwin could see it only as a patronizing sop from a man on whom power rested too lightly and prideful and self-conscious liberalism too heavily.
When Baldwin spoke of History and the Future and Justice, he was always fiercely conscious that he was speaking of frail, battered, confused human beings.
Baldwin met with Kennedy in an informal group at the Kennedy home on Central Park South in 1963. Afterward, he remembered most vividly Kennedy’s reluctance to commit himself morally to the cause of freedom and the burning rightness of Lorraine Hansberry as she rebuked him. Baldwin compared her face to his own mother’s and to Sojourner Truth’s, and in doing so he made her the inheritor of generations of women who had struggled not to allow history to overcome them, to defeat it with the power of love. Hansberry would die less than two years later of pancreatic cancer, and in her last moments, she recorded herself, “My Lord calls me. He calls me by the thunder. I ain’t got long to stay here.” Her expression as she looked at Kennedy must have been the one she had as she spoke those words, Baldwin later guessed. As he drove off, Baldwin remembered that he saw her walking down the street, “her hands clasped before her belly, eyes darker than any eyes I had ever seen before—walking in an absolutely private place.” He did not try to get her attention. “Our car drove on; we passed her,” he wrote. “And then, we heard the thunder.”
In the thunder, Baldwin heard the corruption and destruction of a nation that might lose de jure restrictions, only to conceal its own sinful history in a welter of self-congratulatory advances for people who, by reason of race, of sexuality, of belief, of sheer inclination, were different. What he demanded was the union of the personal, the interpersonal, and the social and political that Ellison had so neatly summed up. Despite the years he spent documenting all the ways in which the quest for that union had failed, despite his fear that the goal was unattainable, it remained his calling. The impossibility of having all people truly at home in the world, of freedom and love and democracy, was no excuse. It was the effort, not the attainment, that would be salvific.
“Complexity is our only safety,” Baldwin insisted as late as 1987, when he was confronted with the blusterings of Evangelical preachers and the inventive pornographies of violence that splattered across cinema screens, “and love is the only key to our maturity. And love is where you find it.”
The essays in this collection seek to comment on and to continue Baldwin’s quest. They discuss Baldwin from a variety of personal and intellectual perspectives, but many are also deeply autobiographical—stories of lives told in the midst of the wreckage Baldwin explored. But lives lived amid wreckage are not necessarily wrecked lives. These are examinations of lives in which Baldwin has had a guiding presence, lives that must be examined, as Baldwin would have said, to begin us on the path to our personal and national salvation.