The Last Witness

Colm Tóibín

On 1 February 2001 eight writers came to pay homage to James Baldwin in the Lincoln Center in New York. The event was booked out and there were people standing outside desperately looking for tickets. The audience was strange; in general in New York an audience is either young or old (in the Lincoln Center, mainly old), black or white (in the Lincoln Center, almost exclusively white), gay or straight (in the Lincoln Center it is often hard to tell). The audience for James Baldwin that evening could not be so easily categorised: it was, I suppose, half black, half white; half young, half old; three-quarters straight, a quarter gay. Also, there were a large number of young black men who had come alone, who carried a book and an aura of seriousness and intensity. There were a good number of writers. Some of Baldwin’s family was there.

The speeches made it clear that James Baldwin’s legacy is both powerful and fluid, allowing it to fit whatever category each reader requires, allowing it to influence each reader in a way that tells us as much about the reader as it does about Baldwin.

And what it tells us about Baldwin has to do with his contradictions, the large set of opposites which made up his personality. He was, for some of his life, a pure artist, using Jamesian techniques and cadences. He was also an agitator and a propagandist, political and engaged. He was steeped in the world of his Harlem childhood. He also loved the bohemian world of Greenwich Village and Paris. He was a loner. He was also a deeply gregarious and social being. He was the most eloquent man in the America of his time. His legacy is also one of failure. It is hard to decide what part of him came first. Was the colour of his skin more important than his sexuality? Was his religious upbringing more important than his reading of the American masters? Were his sadness and anger more important than his love of laughter, his delight in the world? Did his prose style, as the novelist Russell Banks claimed that evening, take its bearings from Emerson, or was it, as the writer Hilton Als put it, ‘a high-faggot style’, or did it originate, as John Edgar Wideman claimed, from a mixture of the King James Bible and African American speech? Was it full of the clarity, eloquence and intelligence that Chinua Achebe suggested? And was Baldwin’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement a cautionary tale for other writers, as Hilton Als insisted, or one of the things we should most admire him for, as Amiri Baraka argued? Is his best book the book that hasn’t yet appeared – a volume of his letters – as Hilton Als proposed? Are his essays his finest work, as many now believe? Are his early novels his enduring legacy, books which ‘blew my mind’, as Chinua Achebe said that evening?

The relationship of all the speakers, and indeed of the audience, to Baldwin’s work remains intense. The complexity of his character, the power of his prose and the abiding importance of his subjects make him a writer to argue with and confront as well as to admire. He made his essays out of his arguments with himself, and this gives them a compelling honesty and edge. In his novels, he sought to explore the parts of the self which most of us seek to conceal. He was also concerned with style, with how you write a sentence, how you control the music and rhythms of prose.

Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the eldest of a large family. His father died when he was 19. ‘On the same day,’ Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son (1955),

a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem . . . As we drove him to the graveyard, the spoils of injustice, anarchy, discontent and hatred were all around us.

Baldwin began with a very great subject: the drama of his own life echoing against the public drama. He also began with certain influences. He listed them in Notes of a Native Son: ‘the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech – and something of Dickens’s love for bravura’.

However, he added something of his own to his inherited subject and the influences he listed. It was something so all-pervasive in his work, both the essays and the fiction, that he may not have even noticed it, although he was alert to his strange relationship to tradition. He used and adapted the tone of the great masters of English eloquence: Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, Hazlitt, Emerson and Henry James. He brought, he wrote, ‘a special attitude’ to

Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral of Chartres, and to the Empire State Building . . . These were not really my creations; they did not contain my history; I might search in vain for ever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use – I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle and the tribe. I would have to appropriate those white centuries, I would have to make them mine.

By appropriating the heritage of English prose, Baldwin learned not only a style but also a cast of mind. The cast of mind used qualification, the aside and the further sub-clauses as a way to suggest that the truth was brittle and easily undermined. His prose played with the explicit and the implicit, the bald statement and the sceptical gloss. His style could be high and grave and reflect the glittering mind; his thought was embodied beautifully in his style, as though fresh language had led him to fresh thought. From Henry James, he also learned a great deal about character and consciousness in fiction, the use of the single point of view, and of nuance and shade.

Early in his career, he had what Eliot said of James, ‘a mind so fine that it could not be penetrated by an idea’; but later on public events, and indeed private ones, pressed in on his imagination, and forbade him the sort of freedom he naturally sought. His own heritage both freed and cornered him, freed him from being a dandy and freed him into finding a subject, and then cornered him into being a spokesman or an exile, cornered him into anger.

In his speech that evening in the Lincoln Center, Achebe spoke of an uncanny connection between his own work and Baldwin’s. In Things Fall Apart, the portrait of the father’s anger and powerlessness is very close to the portrait of the father in Baldwin’s essays and his fiction. That this father, who died when Baldwin was 19, was not really his father – he never knew the name of his real father – made his regret at not knowing him and not liking him all the greater.

Handsome, proud and ingrown, ‘like a toenail’, somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftains: he really should have been naked, with war paint on and barbaric mementos, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met . . . When he died I had been away from home for a little over a year . . . I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.

Baldwin’s bitterness was fired by working in a defence plant in New Jersey during the war, and learning that ‘bars, bowling alleys, diners, places to live’ were closed to him. There was something about him that made him insist on going into these places, suffering rejection, forcing them to refuse to serve him. He described his last night there when, having been refused in a diner, he went into ‘an enormous, glittering and fashionable restaurant in which I knew not even the intercession of the Virgin would cause me to be served’. He sat at a table until a waitress came and said: ‘We don’t serve Negroes here.’ He noted the fear and the apology in her voice. ‘I wanted her to come close enough for me to get her neck between my hands.’ Instead, he threw a half-full mug of water at her, missed and ran. Later, he realised that he ‘had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly, but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.’

Baldwin’s tone in these early essays was not simply political; he was not demanding legislation or urgent government action. He did not present himself as innocent and the others as guilty. He sought to do something more truthful and difficult. He sought to show that the damage had entered his soul and could not be easily dislodged, and he sought also to show that the soul of America itself was a great stained soul. He shook his head at the possibility that anything other than mass conversion could change things. He had not been a child preacher for nothing.

How from this raw anger one of the finest prose stylists of the age emerged remains fascinating. He moved downtown after his father died and began to hang out in Greenwich Village. ‘There were very few black people in the Village in those years,’ he wrote in 1985, ‘and of that handful, I was decidedly the most improbable . . . I was eager, vulnerable and lonely . . . I am sure that I was afraid that I already seemed and sounded too much like a woman. In my childhood, at least until my adolescence, my playmates had called me a sissy . . . On every street corner, I was called a faggot.’ He found odd jobs and then lost them, washing dishes, working as an elevator boy. He drank, he had casual affairs, he suffered a number of nervous crises. The five years between the death of his father and his leaving New York remained for him nightmare years during which he came within a breath of self-destruction.

The colour of his skin caused him, in both his essays and his fiction, to create a version of America which was passionate and original; his homosexuality caused a similar attempt to describe and dramatise the sexual politics of his time. ‘The American ideal, then, of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American idea of masculinity,’ he wrote in 1985. ‘This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden – as an unpatriotic act – that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.’

In an essay on Richard Wright, published in 1951, he wrote:

And there is, I should think, no Negro living in America who has not felt briefly and for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees or to varying effect, simple, naked and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruellest vengeance, their women, to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as that dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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