White Man’s Heaven

Michael Wood

  • Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin by James Campbell
    Faber, 306 pp, £14.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 571 15391 7
  • James Baldwin: Artist on Fire by W.J. Weatherby
    Joseph, 412 pp, £17.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 7181 3403 6

It may be an accident of rereading that makes me want to put James Baldwin’s essays and novels together, to see The Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room, for example, as versions of each other. But the matched books do make interesting sense: more thoughtful sense, perhaps, than the already powerful separate stories.

The Fire Next Time consists of a brief, hortatory letter to a young nephew about being a black American, and an eloquent memoir/meditation on the same subject, which includes an account of Baldwin’s childhood and of a visit to Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Black Muslim Nation in America. The black American, the Negro, is not a racial entity, Baldwin suggests, but a social scapegoat, and America’s so-called racial problems ‘are involved only symbolically with colour’. ‘Only symbolically’ goes a little further than Baldwin needs. It means, as he later makes clear, ‘politically’: ‘Colour is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality.’ A white liberal would say the same, but then, I take it, so would Nelson Mandela. The difference is in the intensity with which the political reality is experienced or denied.

Baldwin understands the needs met by the Black Muslim movement in America, even as he recognises that there is ‘nothing new’ in its reverse racism ‘except the explicitness of its symbols and the candour of its hatred’. He can’t condemn the movement, or offer to deny the claims of Malcolm X ‘simply because I disagree with his conclusions, or in order to pacify the liberal conscience. Things are as bad as the Muslims say they are – in fact, they are worse, and the Muslims do not help matters – but there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more far-seeing than whites ...’ There is a poignancy in Baldwin’s feeling so drawn to a movement he cannot join, and the language in which he describes his encounter with Elijah Muhammad visibly mourns lost purities and dignities: ‘The sunlight came into the room with the peacefulness one remembers from rooms in one’s early childhood – a sunlight encountered later only in one’s dreams ... The central quality in Elijah’s face is pain, and his smile is a witness to it – pain so old and deep and black that it becomes personal and particular only when he smiles.’ This language is nostalgic, but offers no sign of serious political or moral hesitation. Baldwin admires virtue, but as he says elsewhere, ‘most virtues’ are ‘ambiguity itself’. Elijah Muhammad’s virtue was particularly ambiguous, since he was later arrested for embezzlement, and accused of routinely harassing the women in his entourage. Malcolm X separated himself from Elijah entirely. Baldwin couldn’t have known any of this, and in the writing simply, scrupulously acknowledges the lure of what he cannot endorse. He seems at one swoop to have alienated almost everyone: to have become too black for the whites and to have remained too white for the blacks. This is not a middle ground or a place of poise: it is no man’s land, and it is a place that black women writers like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou seem to have understood better than anyone. They were at Baldwin’s funeral in New York when the white world had forgotten him and black militants were only just beginning to remember who he was.

‘Perhaps home,’ Baldwin’s narrator reflects in Giovanni’s Room, ‘is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition’: where the heart is, but also where the heart festers and the mind rots. Slavery in America may be a grim home in this sense for tormentors and victims alike, the place one can leave only by tearing up the most familiar landmarks. His own stepfather, Baldwin says, ‘was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said of him’. Blacks like his nephew are supposed to ‘perish in the ghetto’, Baldwin continues, ‘by never being allowed to go behind the white man’s definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name’. We remember that Nobody knows my name was the ironic, double-dealing title of one of Baldwin’s best-known books. The very name ‘Baldwin’ presumably comes from some white slave-owner. The nephew’s generation won’t perish, hasn’t perished, but the ghetto hasn’t gone either.

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