I have come to see James Baldwin as one of the greatest American writers. His writing flows perfectly from soft and thoughtful to adamantine; it’s hard for me to describe it because I don’t play at that level and I never will.
To read James Baldwin is to wonder where such a voice came from. You should do your own research, there, and not rely on mine but let me say one thing about him: he personally, by his very existence and writing, demolishes racists’ preconceptions. The fundamental tenets of racism depend on the idea that there is something inheritable about people – something that predetermines their class, abilities, and destiny. Baldwin just didn’t play that game. He was a man that American society of his time would deem predisposed to being an ignorant thug, instead he delivered social commentary, wrapped in barbs and wit, and did it so smoothly and articulately that it’s easy to mistake it for some kind of beat poetry. One minute he’s droll, the next he makes Malcolm X seem gentle in comparison. He goes into the deep south, where his friends were delivered severe beatings, and does it with urbane style and flair that would make James Bond envious – and, in his private books, writes with naked honesty, “I was terrified.”
Baldwin’s great friends and sparring partners: Malcolm X, Medger Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. – they were all gunned down; they threatened the establishment too much. What’s odd to me is that Baldwin not only survived, he landed some of the most ferocious blows against the system, and his words are largely buried and unheard, now. If you pick up something by Baldwin, or listen to one of his speeches, you can’t help but think “that’s quotable,” or “wow, that’s good.” Over and over. I watched I Am Not Your Negro three times back to back on my flight to Sao Paolo, and I ended up with 27 notes that there was something particularly interesting at such-and-such a time. I said he was one of America’s greatest writers – and I’ll stand by that – but he was an amazing orator as well. In his famous debate against establishment fluffer William Buckley Jr. Baldwin destroyed him before he opened his mouth. I do not say that lightly – he sucked all of the oxygen out of Buckley’s arguments before they were made. Buckley, slouching in his chair, looked and sounded every bit the wanna-be patrician jackass – and, for all his airs, he was no mean opponent.
The film version of I Am Not Your Negro is narrated beautifully by Samuel L. Jackson, Jr. Jackson’s delivery is so good that, if you’re like me and considered him over-rated, you’ll change your mind. The words flow like ice and honey, unstopping and relentless, but somehow just short of anger. It sent shivers down my spine when I realized what it was: a performance right in line with many of Baldwin’s, taking his argument right to the point where white shame would bring white embarrassment lashing back at him. And he smiles as he delivers it, because he knows exactly what he’s doing. Jackson’s voice-over is not a typical documentary, “then, James Baldwin did this, and then he did that” – he’s reading from a 36-page fragment of an autobiographical book that Baldwin was working on, but he never finished. So I Am Not Your Negro is a sort of autobiographical documentary and spoken word performance, rolled together.
I have no idea how the film came to be decorated with so many amazing photographs and such brilliant footage. The editing is dynamic and subtle, the black and white film is punchy and crisp, it’s all fine art quality and it’s the naked, grinning skull of America sticking through the thin veneer of civilization. There are some photographic masterpieces that I’ve never encountered before, that pop up where you don’t expect them. I can’t write well enough to really describe it properly; that is the best I can do.
Every American should watch I Am Not Your Negro. It’s that good.
But what happened to Baldwin? He seems to have disappeared, though the conversation he participated in was one that (sadly) is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Baldwin was perhaps too honest. In the second part of The Fire Next Time he writes about meeting Elijah Mohammed, the current leader of the nation of islam, and ruminates at length about that organization. He hasn’t got much good to say about christianity, at all, but he seems to waffle a bit about the NOI. There were many factors, there, including personal solidarity for Malcolm X, and an attitude that “christianity has not been good for black people, so if they need a religion, islam might be a good alternative.” Baldwin seems to want to reject the whole mess of religions as a pile of decaying lies, but he can’t – too many of his readers in those days still took those dead issues seriously.
Baldwin’s attitude on race, combined with his attitude on religion, was certain to make him unpopular. So, perhaps it doesn’t matter. He said what he had to say. And, how he said it:
The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro’s relation to America. To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply, a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded. One began to pity them, or to hate them. You must put yourself in the skin of a man who is wearing the uniform of his country, is a candidate for death in its defense, and who is called a “nigger” by his comrades-in-arms and his officers; who is almost always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial work to do; who knows that the white G.I. has informed the Europeans that he is subhuman (so much for the American male’s sexual security); who does not dance at the U.S.O. the night white soldiers dance there, and does not drink in the same bars white soldiers drink in; and who watches German prisoners of war being treated by Americans with more human dignity than he has ever received at their hands
It boggles my mind that today’s secular humanists are listening to lesser powers like Pinker and Harris – or even Hitchens, when Baldwin was by far their superior in quality and delivery of thought.
While I was in Chicago last summer, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad invited me to have dinner at his home. This is a stately mansion on Chicago’s South Side, and it is the headquarters of the Nation of Islam movement. I had not gone to Chicago to meet Elijah Muhammad – he was not in my thoughts at all – but the moment I received the invitation, it occurred to me that I ought to have expected it. In a way, I owe the invitation to the incredible, abysmal, and really cowardly obtuseness of white liberals. Whether in private debate or in public, any attempt I made to explain how the Black Muslim movement came about, and how it has achieved such force, was met with a blankness that revealed the little connection that the liberals’ attitudes have with their perceptions or their lives, or even their knowledge – revealed, in fact, that they could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man. When Malcolm X, who is considered the movement’s second-in-command, and heir apparent, points out that the cry of “violence” was not raised, for example, when the Israelis fought to regain Israel, and, indeed, is raised only when black men indicate that they will fight for their rights, he is speaking the truth. The conquests of England, every single one of them bloody, are part of what Americans have in mind when they speak of England’s glory. In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks, and the only way to defeat Malcolm’s point is to concede it and then ask oneself why this is so.
– New Yorker Magazine “Letter From a Region In My Mind.” By James Baldwin
It is interesting that the white liberals who backed the civil rights movement, only backed the non-violent frontman Martin Luther King, Jr. Attitudes toward Malcolm X were more complicated. There was palpable discomfort. And, there should have been. When I read Malcolm X, I thought he was largely correct in his politics, but fell for one religious con as an alternative to the mainstream, official, con. That was, perhaps, a con too far. Baldwin had to deal with the problem of actually meeting Elijah Mohammed, sitting across from him, looking him in the eye – the nation of islam was a powerful force at the time and was capable of violence, as Malcolm X discovered. I still wonder about that: the prevailing implication is that Farrakahn had something to do with Malcolm X’ death, but perhaps that was a head-feint and it was actually the FBI. My generation is expected to believe that Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr’s murders were unconnected – in spite of the FBI’s trying to kill them in other ways. Baldwin does not dwell on this; the dead men were his friends.
Let me describe/transcribe a bit of how I Am Not Your Negro is cut together and edited: (@55:00)
(Shot opens with Robert Kennedy speaking) Kennedy: Negroes are continuously making progress here in this country. Progress in many areas is not as fast as it should be, but they are making progress and will continue to make progress. There’s no reason that in the near – in the forseeable – future, a negro could be President of the United States.
(Cut to Baldwin, from his debate at the Oxford Union): Baldwin: I remember, for example, when the ex-Attorney General, Mr Robert Kennedy, said that it was conceivable that in forty years, in America, we might have a negro president. And that sounded like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard, and did not hear and possibly will never hear the laughter and the bitterness and the scorn with which the statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday. And now he’s already on his way to the presidency. We’ve been here for four hundred years and now he tells us that maybe in forty years, if you’re good, we may let you become president.
Baldwin’s got that trick, which is so important, of structuring his speaking so that there are little zones that repeat earlier zones. That drives home the point, helps it sink into our memory, and increases the likelihood we will believe it. For a writer and speaker of Baldwin’s caliber that sort of thing comes naturally. Baldwin’s point is inescapable but the director drives it home with the juxtaposition of Kennedy’s honking “Boston Brahmin” arrogance and Baldwin’s clear and dry delivery. That little moment in the film can lead you into a wilderness of exploring the notion of “sounding white” when speaking. Any racists who may feel that black people don’t speak well are forced to confront the fact that Kennedy’s accent is stronger. Baldwin’s little dropping of “the man in the Harlem barber shop” reminds us that Kennedy’s respected because he’s the descendant of rich immigrants and not ‘immigrants’ that were enslaved and picked cotton.
Where Baldwin’s rhetoric really comes to life is when he’s delivering it live.
I’m amazed Buckley had a career after that.
I am a pretty non-fan of Samuel L. Jackson but I am re-assessing my opinion.
“William F. Buckley is what an uneducated person thinks a smart patrician sounds like.” To me, he sounds like the smarmiest of assholes. This is not the post for hating on Buckley; perhaps someday I’ll write one of those. But let’s just say this: when Buckley threatened to punch Noam Chomsky in the face on live TV, his career should have ended. In a sense, Buckley was the proto-Trump; he could get away with things like that because his followers wished they could be nasty authoritarians, like him.
Kennedys: Because I was a kid when the Kennedys were murdered, I got a big dose of the plaudits and lamentations for them. The conspiracy theories around their murders, and the huge awareness of the role that John Kennedy might have played if he had survived, made them seem much better than they were. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned more about the Kennedys – frankly, they bore more than a superficial resemblance to the Trumps. Baldwin is courteous enough not to mention that daddy Joe Kennedy bought the presidential election and there was a tremendous amount of corruption swirling around that family. Joe was in charge of the Securities Exchange Commission because he was the biggest gangster on Wall St and knew where all the bodies were buried. The Kennedys were a horrible bunch, as Howard Zinn points out in some of his speeches. Looking back at them through the mist of laudatory death-offerings and “American Camelot” they seem like they were much better than they were.
James Baldwin – was he “intersectionality”?: [nbc]