When James Baldwin was my age—I just turned 24, and am amazed by how much I’ve learned and how little I know—he left New York for Paris with no plans to return. I wouldn’t leave this country even if I could, but any fleeting impulse toward escape is swiftly snuffed by a glance at my bank account balance. And so at the wise-dumb age of 24, I find myself marooned in the city of my birth, the same city that reared my idol.
I’ve spent the last several months with Baldwin, in a manner of speaking. Since June, the only voice I’ve heard in my head as often as my own is his, because I’ve been slowly reading my way through all of his published works. I can’t pin down exactly why I thought now was the right time to invite a long-dead Civil Rights-era writer to rent a room in my mind. I’m surely not the only one who finds added resonance in Baldwin’s lucid vision of the racial fabric of the United States in the era of Trump: Baldwin seems to be having something of a renaissance right now, at least in part due to the recent documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro. It may have been watching that film that spurred me to conquer his bibliography, but I don’t think so. Struggling my way through all of Baldwin’s writing, which is never opaque but always challenging, may have seemed like a simple personal project at first, but now my motives become less clear the more I strain to see them. I know I wanted to familiarize myself with Baldwin through his work, but I suspect this may have been less in the interest of better appreciating his impact on American letters and more of a covert attempt to dismantle the pedestal he occupies in my mind.
When Baldwin was young, Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, was the undisputed literary star of Black America. Before he had published anything of note, Baldwin ingratiated himself with Wright, and the two developed a mentor/protégée relationship in which there was always a hint of discord. With his first essay collection, Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin turned the unacknowledged fissure between his views and Wright’s into an unmissable gorge. The title alone could be interpreted as a lunge for Wright’s crown, but the essays “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” were explicit—and unrelenting—in their criticism of Wright’s greatest work, even placing its character development on a par with that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By the time Baldwin had published his second essay collection, Nobody Knows My Name, Wright had died and his old protégée’s opinion of him had softened. In a long essay entitled “Alas, Poor Richard,” Baldwin eulogizes Wright as both a friend and a former hero. Admitting that Wright must have interpreted the critical essays in Notes of a Native Son as a betrayal, Baldwin writes: “I had used his work as a kind of springboard into my own. His work was a road-block in my road, the sphinx, really, whose riddles I had to answer before I could become myself.”
Perhaps all writers feel an Oedipal urge to kill the one who made their existence possible. Only by murdering our literary ancestors can we convince ourselves of our own intellectual independence. Baldwin is now the sphinx that blocks my path, and while I would never compare his work to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, the six books I’ve read thus far have given me plenty to criticize, as well as to admire. Even in his very first book of essays, Baldwin’s prose is incisive and authoritative. His early fiction occasionally exhibits the same conviction, but just as often sounds self-conscious and stilted. Aside from his voice, which is devastatingly elegant at its best, Baldwin’s greatest literary gift is his empathy. When he burrows into the mind of his subject, he discovers the shadowy trove of unacknowledged emotions and impulses that is the hidden core of every human being. But when he joins his character in pretending that she possesses no such core, that no well of hidden rage or pain or wonder bubbles silently beneath her surface, he propagates the illusion which it is his highest purpose to dispel.
Early in Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s second novel, the protagonist experiences a chilling encounter with someone we might today call a trans woman, an urban sibyl who warns him that his budding relationship with the titular character will not end well. Baldwin likens the woman to a monster, “a mummy or a zombie,” “something walking after it had been put to death.” Throughout the only passage that describes her—she disappears from the novel after this scene—he refers to her as “it,” as in, “It carried a glass, it walked on its toes, the flat hips moved with a dead, horrifying lasciviousness.” While this diction might be an attempt to channel the perspective of the protagonist, a truly repugnant man, one can hardly imagine Baldwin using such grotesque language to depict a cis woman, and the cruel indifference he displays to this character’s humanity adds a sheen of hypocrisy to his constant calls for recognition of the humanity of black men.
And it is, more often than not, the humanity of black men that Baldwin’s prose champions. As in the writing of many black male luminaries of his time and ours, women are typically valued only in their capacity as wives, mothers, and sisters. In his fiction, this bias shapeshifts to impersonate a string of female characters whose lives are defined by the men who live with them, or leave them. The second act of Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, toggles between the minds of three of its central characters as they drift into private reveries during a church service. Florence, the main character’s aunt, recalls leaving home as a teenager to escape the vise of poverty in the South, only to have her ambitions shattered by the kind but profligate husband she finds up North. Elizabeth, Florence’s sister-in-law, reminisces about her passionate relationship with the unlucky character tasked with symbolizing the deadly psychic consequences of racial oppression, her subsequent marriage to the preacher Gabriel, and the short span of peril that separated them. By contrast, the tale of Gabriel, the only male character in this chorus, reveals his religious hypocrisy through his treacherous dealings with various women. Gabriel’s relationships with women serve to illuminate his character, the unholy man of God. Florence and Elizabeth’s relationships with men take the place of characterization: Florence’s life effectively ends with her marriage, and Elizabeth tells us little more about herself than her experiences with and feelings for various men, including her son, John. In the universe of this novel, as Florence thinks as she watches her husband sleep, “all women had been cursed from the cradle; all, in one fashion or another, being given the same cruel destiny, born to suffer the weight of men.”
Giovanni’s Room is far worse. Its only major female character is Hella, the unfortunate fiancée of the self-loathing gay protagonist, David. While we hear much about Hella’s complexity and intelligence from David, the only trait she displays in the novel is hopeless, bottomless love for her loathsome boyfriend. In one of the many melodramatic conversations that pepper this mediocre novel, she begs David to sanctify this love by marrying her, and equates her subservient heterosexuality with the essence of womanhood itself. “David, please let me be a woman,” she pleads. “Just let me be a woman, take me. It’s all I want. It’s all I want. I don’t care about anything else.” In an earlier chapter, David discusses women with Giovanni, the lover he takes up in his fiancée’s absence, who expresses a hideous misogyny we are presumably meant to chalk up to the supposedly hypermasculine culture of his birthplace, Italy. “These absurd women running around today,” he rants, “full of ideas and nonsense, and thinking themselves equal to men—quelle rigolade!—they need to be beaten half to death so they can find out who rules the world.” Although Baldwin no doubt intended for the reader to reject Giovanni’s sentiments, the behavior of the only woman to whom he devotes more than a few pages of this book can only lead one to conclude that Giovanni is right, that all a woman needs is a strong man to dominate her.
On the other hand, Baldwin’s first play, The Amen Corner, proves that he can write female characters who realistically grapple with male oppression, rather than gratefully accepting it. The central character, Margaret, is a female foil to Go Tell It on the Mountain’s Gabriel: another fervent preacher whose sexual history hints at hypocrisy. Unlike Gabriel, Margaret is a successful pastor who both leads and owns her church. Also unlike Gabriel, she loses everything when her secrets become known. The most loyal members of her congregation devolve into a pack of conniving hyenas once they learn that Margaret, a single mother with a teenage son, was not abandoned by her husband, as she had told them, but left him to seek a holier environment for herself and her son. One of the mutineers repeatedly voices his belief that a woman has no business leading a church in the first place. As a result of the machinations of this man and his co-conspirators—and a series of short-sighted, self-serving sins of her own—Margaret loses control of her church, her son, and her life. The play is a straightforward pride-goes-before-a-fall tragedy, but it is also Baldwin’s first work that acknowledges that the heterosexual world order does not benefit women, does not put them in their proper place, that it instead holds them down, and often tears them apart.
If the depth or shallowness of Baldwin’s portrayals of women, trans or otherwise, depends upon his willingness to grant them empathy, then the corresponding determining quality of his depictions of relationships, particularly queer relationships, is honesty. Unlike the interpersonal skill of empathy, which requires that the writer make a good-faith effort to imagine living as someone else, artistic honesty demands a good-faith effort to understand oneself, as well as the courage to reveal oneself in one’s work. Aside from one erotically-charged wrestling scene in Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room was Baldwin’s first attempt to honestly address his sexuality in his work. (He dedicated the novel to Lucien Happersberger, the Swiss painter he fell in love with shortly after his arrival in Paris.) While the work is commendable for its unflinching depiction of same-sex desire, with none of the obfuscation of metaphor or symbolism, that is just about all it is commendable for. Its pulpy plotline, complete with a scandalous murder, seems hopelessly stereotypical to the modern reader, but much worse is the total absence of true emotion in the relationships it sketches. Like his protagonist, the self-loathing gay man David, Baldwin refuses to take the emotional risks that honestly requires, leaving his characters incapable of doing more than acting out a crude pantomime of love, a rigid script that gives them no choice but to deliver the lines as written. And what a shame that the script so happens to be the very one that straight audiences seem to love to hear gay male artists read from, in which the only available roles are the tortured closet case and the violent misogynist.
Baldwin was 24 when he started writing Another Country, his third novel. It took him 14 years to finish it. It is his first mature work of fiction, with none of the self-conscious stylization of Go Tell It on the Mountain or the sensational, heavy-handed plotting of Giovanni’s Room. The first of its three parts charts the decline and suicide of Rufus Scott, a black musician; its remaining pages follow his friends and acquaintances as they cope with his death and their own lives. It is not until the second act, nearly 200 pages in, that we meet Eric, a long-absent member of Rufus’s social circle. Eric has spent the last few years in Paris, where he enjoys a loving relationship with a French teenager named Yves. Although Eric clearly adores Yves, he falls into an affair with Cass, a married woman. Eric also sleeps with his straight friend Vivaldo, who confesses his suspicion that Rufus, who had been Vivaldo’s best friend, was attracted to him. In turn, Eric describes the traumatic sexual relationship with Rufus that spurred his escape to Paris. Stated so bluntly, Eric’s sexual adventures seem nearly as tawdry as the sordid conclusion of Giovanni’s Room, but Baldwin’s sensual, tactful writing renders even Eric’s briefest dalliances—like the blissful afternoon he shared with a childhood friend in a forest—as fraught with fear, lust, confusion, exhilaration, love, and wrath as sex can be in real life. While Eric’s boundless love for nearly everyone he meets tests the limit of credibility—Claudia Roth Pierpont called him a “bisexual saint”—he is otherwise convincingly and specifically human, a self-aware and sensitive man attempting to make sense of his life: the necessary antithesis of the soulless gay men of Giovanni’s Room. In that novel, Baldwin makes homosexuality seem like an incurable illness, an indelible mark of difference that drives its bearers mad; In Another Country, queer sexuality shows its many true faces, from the ugliest to the most radiant. No doubt the 14 years Baldwin spent living as a gay man while writing this book informed its politics. Yves, who is said to have been inspired by Lucien Happersberger, offers this surprisingly knowing observation to Eric: “People do not take the relations between boys seriously, you know that. We will never know many people who believe we love each other. They do not believe there can be tears between men. They think we are only playing a game and that we do it to shock them.” The emotional depth of Eric’s relationships not only refute the delegitimizing notion of homosexuality that Yves so accurately describes, but also represent significant progress for the author in the journey that every writer must undertake: the probably endless process of learning to write in a way that honestly reflects oneself and one’s own experiences.
Baldwin’s greatest displays of both extraordinary empathy and artistic honesty can be found in his nonfiction, the sphere of literature that best suits his considerable intellectual gifts. In “Stranger in the Village,” the closing essay of Notes of a Native Son and one of Baldwin’s most famous works, he ingeniously uses his experiences living as a black man in a remote Swiss village to illuminate the unique nature of American racism. While it is perhaps only natural, if irritating, for a European child who has never seen a black man to react with fear or unseemly curiosity upon meeting one, the fear that grown American white men feel towards black men, whom they have known all their lives, is far more difficult to explain. Baldwin’s answer is that American racism is in part a symptom of white Americans’ aspirational identification with Europe, proof that they “still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist.” Self-delusion is the undeniable engine of all forms of prejudice, including racial—anyone who believes that she is better than another solely by virtue of her color, creed, class, or choice of partner has convinced herself of a lie—and Baldwin’s crusade to strip the many layers of justification from the communal self-delusion of white Americans unifies his early nonfiction. What differentiates a very early effort like Notes of a Native Son from his more mature work is the degree to which he blames white people for the lies they tell themselves. Consider the concluding sentence of the paragraph quoted above: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” Now compare that merciless sentiment to this depiction of white Americans taken from Baldwin’s famous letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time: “They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” These words, published eight years apart, represent a remarkable escalation of empathy, the growth from anger to love that, Baldwin tells his nephew, all black Americans must undergo if the country is to become whole:
“And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.”
More than 50 years after Baldwin wrote those words, enumerating the many ways in which this country has not changed is an exercise in futility I will leave to the columnists: suffice it to say that love has not yet conquered all. In fact, Donald Trump and his acolytes have exposed the raw meat of hatred in the American body as surely as did anything Baldwin ever wrote. (Unlike me and many other liberals, I doubt Baldwin would’ve been surprised by the results of the 2016 election.) About a week ago, Trump’s presidency looked as though it would never end—the first ten months lasted several years—and now it apparently could end at any moment, but the end of the Trump administration, whenever it arrives, will not be the end of Trumpism. No matter who next occupies the White House, many white Americans will continue to harbor the dream of returning to a wholly imaginary past in which white Americans were the center of the world, and furthermore, there were no other kinds of Americans. “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” Baldwin wrote in 1953. The world has perhaps never been less white than it is today; it is really no wonder, then, that some white people cling to the illusion of their inherent superiority more fiercely than ever. The only hope for this country, and the world of which it is only a small part, is that Baldwin was right—that love can heal the wounds left by hatred and force us all to work toward a shared dream of a better future.
Of writers, Baldwin once wrote, “I think we do have a responsibility, not only to ourselves and to our own time, but to those who are coming after us. (I refuse to believe that no one is coming after us.) And I suppose this responsibility can only be discharged by dealing as truthfully as we know how with our present fortunes, these present days.” For all the hysteria of the current moment, with terms like “unprecedented” and “now more than ever” being bandied about to the point of ubiquity, the truth is that everyone who has ever written has done so in the middle of the hurricane of the present, in which everything is happening for the first time or to the greatest degree, everything seems special—but the only truly special thing about the present is that it is happening to you, right now. It’s easy to look back on Baldwin’s work from the relative comfort of his future, in which the rightness of his pronouncements is (mostly) no longer in dispute, in which his place in history is obvious and unmoving—easy, even, to judge that work by standards formulated long after his death. It is far more difficult to make sense of these present days, these truly frightening days, and to do so with honesty and empathy and courage. But it is our responsibility to try.