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.

One of the most haunting passages in The Fire Next Time identifies a fear which black children early learn to hear in their parents’ voices: ‘behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel.’ This authority is not only white power, and not only the deep determinacy of a world where white power seems merely natural: it is also the authority of prejudice itself, the imprisonment of one population in another population’s nightmare. Baldwin is endlessly emphatic and eloquent on this score. Blacks are the whites’ mirror, the model for everything whites have denied and displaced. Whites need to be released from the ‘tyranny’ of this mirror, since ‘all of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there.’ Well, the whites drown, but what happens to the mirror? Baldwin thinks the Black Muslim claim that the white man’s heaven is the black man’s hell may put the matter ‘somewhat too simply’, but he doesn’t think the claim is false, and he puts the matter scarcely less simply himself. Once white people have sorted themselves out, he suggests, ‘the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.’ ‘Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.’ Ah, si j’avais à écrire une histoire des noirs, Baldwin told a French reporter quoted by James Campbell, je devrais interviewer les blancs.

James Baldwin’s thinking recalls Virginia Woolf’s view of the way women have been used as mirrors by men, and Simone de Beauvoir’s suggestion that the very notion of a ‘woman’ is a male invention. It is even closer to Sartre’s sense of the Jew as the product not of Jewish culture but of the anti-semite’s panicky need. But Baldwin would not have read any of these writers when, at the age of 24 and treading on even trickier ground, he said ‘Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.’ Even then he knew that racism is not actually a matter of race.

Baldwin construes international politics in a similar way. ‘Russia’s secret weapon,’ he briefly says in The Fire Next Time – he is writing in 1962 – ‘is the moral history of the Western world ... the bewilderment and despair and hunger of millions of people of whose existence we are scarcely aware ... Our power and our fear of change help bind these people to their misery and bewilderment, and insofar as they find this state intolerable we are intolerably menaced.’ The Third World is the first world’s mirror, and a judgment on us. But again, what of the mirror itself?

Giovanni’s Room is Baldwin’s clearest answer to this question, but it is transposed here from colour and politics into the realm of sexual preference. Baldwin’s implied argument, I think, is not that the structure of prejudice, of blindness and denial, is the same in all areas, but that there are striking similarities from zone to zone, and that we can use one fear to illuminate another. In this novel David is a white American of uncertain sexual allegiance, more or less engaged to a girl called Hella. David falls in love with Giovanni, a barman in a gay bar in Paris. This love is vivid, captivating, the real coup de foudre, but also provokes in David a terrible contempt for himself and a creeping distaste for Giovanni’s need of him. Giovanni’s room, like home, becomes a state of mind, and David, who relates his own troubled story, repeatedly focuses on the room rather than Giovanni as his problem. ‘I’ve been living in Giovanni’s room for months,’ he says, ‘and I just can’t stand it any more.’ He is afraid of being ‘locked ... forever in that room’, and finally abandons Giovanni to his poverty and his emotional need. ‘I only knew I had to get out of Giovanni’s room.’ The room is where David’s confusions live, but also where they are visible, undeniable. It is even where love might live, if David could let it. ‘Is this what you should do to love?’ the desolate Giovanni asks. ‘You are, by far, the most immoral man I have met in all my life.’ By the time David is telling us all this, Giovanni has killed a former protector and is awaiting execution. David is going back to America and to a homosexuality which will be repressed or furtively pursued, or perhaps both; either way, twisted by David’s inability to see his own sexual tastes as anything other than a broken, criminal mirror of normality.

‘The end of innocence is also the end of guilt,’ David says in one of those fine phrases he and Baldwin are a little too fond of. He means that even guilt would be better than what he has got, since he has become no one, condemned to be a failed imitation of what he is not, incapable of allowing himself to spell his proper name. This is what a thoroughly internalised prejudice looks like. It is not a matter of Sartrean inauthenticity, or even of accepting, as Baldwin himself puts it, another’s definition of us. The definition is us, rooted in our history, in the very construction of our personality. It is not unshakable, but it can’t be shaken quickly, and it will almost always be further back in us, more a piece of us, than we like to think. This is why Baldwin sounds merely bland when he talks of the inability of white Americans to ‘renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives’, or invites us to ‘discard nearly all the assumptions’ that have been used to justify our lives and our crimes. Or sounds ‘only symbolic’ when he says white Americans do not believe in death and ‘this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.’ The hazy fountain and the swift discarding of assumptions represent Baldwin’s need for optimism rather than the logic of his views; conversely the death and darkness are his momentary attempt to become an honorary Black Muslim after all. We can sympathise with these slips without imagining that they reduce the difficulty. David, for example, will never leave the moral confines of Giovanni’s room, and only very patient and very courageous (or perhaps very young) blacks will escape the white construction. This is why Baldwin so resisted hatred and why we should still be listening to him. Not out of an easy evangel of love or the high tolerance which comes so readily to unthreatened people, but because hatred merely prolongs and confirms the old definition, adding new scars along the way. It traps you in the room by allowing you to believe you have left it. ‘My life, my real life, was in danger,’ Baldwin wrote, ‘and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.’

Baldwin could always write badly, and often did. He loved lurid phrases, as if he was Dylan Thomas on an outing (‘I left my village one wild, sweet day,’ ‘I smiled and I really felt at that moment that Judas and the Saviour had met in me’); and Giovanni, all urchin innocence and doom, is one of the most unbelievable characters in fiction. ‘I drink no alcohol while I work,’ Giovanni says, ‘but I will take a Coca-Cola.’ And: ‘Forgive me. I was not trying to be heretical.’ What has happened, I think, is that Giovanni is merely the victim Baldwin needs for his novel, sentimentalised and ethereal, and all the writer’s imaginative energies have gone to the guilty party. Many of the characters in his later novels are like this, mere outlines or spaces in a story that doesn’t belong to them, and sometimes whole novels belong to no one at all. But Baldwin is a brilliant explorer of guilt, and of pain, an expert on false gods, as Campbell sharply says. ‘The way to be really despicable,’ a character remarks in Giovanni’s Room, ‘is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.’ Men like to think of themselves as at the mercy of women, Hella says: ‘it strokes the misogynist in them.’ The metaphor and the insight are extremely precise. In The Fire Next Time Baldwin casually comments, reversing Fitzgerald’s more familiar notion about Americans, that ‘there are some things (not many alas!) that one cannot do twice.’ Much sinning, and much repenting, behind such a thought; plenty of knowledge of what Baldwin called the shabbiness of motive. And of course Baldwin could write wonderfully well, with an extraordinary mixture of force and grace. F.W. Dupee said Baldwin’s sentences ‘suggest the ideal prose of an ideal literary community, some aristocratic France of one’s dreams’; or we might think of a Fitzgerald who had got in touch with his anger and yet not lost his style. ‘I remember walking down the dark, tropical Brooklyn streets with heat coming up from the pavements and banging from the walls of houses with enough force to kill a man, with all the world’s grown-ups, it seemed, sitting shrill and dishevelled on the stoops and all the world’s children on the sidewalks or in the gutters hanging from fire-escapes ...’

Both Campbell and Weatherby point out that Baldwin, the erstwhile boy-preacher in Harlem, never left the Church, but what Baldwin himself says, with characteristic lucidity, is that he never left the excitement of the Harlem Church, the buzz of hope and despair rather than the articulated belief. What we hear in his best prose is not the cadence of religion but the rhythm of danger (that heat ‘banging’ from the walls) and loss and survival. ‘The goodness of the Lord’ in the following quotation is not a safe haven but a flimsy, recurring miracle, all the more thrilling for being so unsure.

The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning ... There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multi-coloured, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord.

Despair of goodness, speaking of the goodness? The ambiguity, intended or not, is perfect.

Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924; became a boy-preacher at 14; left school at 17 and took various jobs to support his family. He entered the American literary world by doing book reviews for Randall Jarrell at the Nation and Saul Levitas at the New Leader; his first major piece was ‘The Harlem Ghetto’ for Commentary. He was working on a novel, which took years to find a publisher and its final shape; went to Paris in 1948 and stayed away for nine years. Then the books began to appear: the novels Go tell it on the mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room (1956), Another Country (1962); the essay volumes Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody knows my name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963). He keenly supported and wrote about the Civil Rights Movement, but seems never to have found a place in it. He flirted with the Black Panthers and lost a lot of friends; spent much time in Istanbul; and finally moved to St-Paul de Vence on the French Riviera, making only occasional trips to America. He kept writing, but received less and less critical attention: from the cover of Time (in 1963) he slipped (by 1985) to what Weatherby calls ‘small and obscurely positioned’ reviews which weren’t even favourable. He died of cancer in 1987.

Baldwin told his own life thoroughly in his essays, or a version of it. Neither Campbell nor Weatherby has a serious quarrel with this version, and both of these books are modestly offered as ‘portraits’. Apparently an authorised biography, by David Leeming, is in the works as well. Weatherby knew Baldwin for more than 28 years and has talked, he says, to ‘more than one hundred people’ about his subject. Campbell knew Baldwin towards the end of his life, invited him to Scotland and visited him in St-Paul de Vence; he has also talked to a lot of people. Campbell writes crisply, and is discreet and delicate about Baldwin’s intricate private life, but is rather sketchy about the history and the politics of the period, which he seems to have got from a scrapbook (‘There was method acting and action painting; there was the Village Voice and Norman Mailer’s weekly column ...’, ‘From America’s racial agony there seemed to be no release’). His picture of America is generally rather lurid and remote, and he blithely talks of Europe offering Baldwin ‘an older, deeper vision of life’. Weatherby is much better on America and on the politics but rather vague about Baldwin’s books, inclined simply to recount negotiations and summarise reviews. He is also a little given to the journalist’s tag, the flat, unneeded paragraph-clincher (‘So much for Franklin D. Roosevelt.’ ‘He always had a pleasant witticism’). However, both men write out of a great affection and concern for Baldwin; neither is uncritical; and they pick their way with subtlety through the minefields of colour.

The man who emerges from these books is charming, unreliable, gregarious, often generous, sometimes prickly, and as his writing would suggest, courageous and honest when the going gets rough. He has had lovers, he tells an interviewer quoted by Campbell, but ‘the word gay wouldn’t have meant anything to them.’ ‘That means they moved in the straight world,’ the interviewer suggests, and Baldwin simply says: ‘They moved in the world.’ Closed categories were his enemies from first to last, and yet he seems himself to have been dazzled and bewildered by the categories of fame and success. They took over his life without becoming real to him; got in the way of his writing without giving him anything to write about. It’s not just that he began to preach or that his thought became crude, although both of these things happened. It’s that his great gift, in both novels and essays, was for putting grace and intelligence in the path of excitement, and his excitement became too diffuse or too private or too pale. Neither of these books quite tells us how this happened. Perhaps comfort and adulation were too much for the man habituated to difficulty and disorder, and drink could only simulate the old risks. David, in Giovanni’s Room, is afraid that his mind will one day miss its ‘hard places and sharp, sheer drops’. This is frightening scenery to cling to, and terrible scenery to lose.