Literary Life: Whatever happened to James Baldwin? | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Literary Life: Whatever happened to James Baldwin?

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When James Baldwin died, just under two years ago, he seemed to have been almost forgotten, a relic of the 1950s and the early 60s, a man whose passionate essays and novels had been early manifestations of the black revolt and whose unashamed sexuality had pointed to the even later gay-liberation movement. Yet his funeral overflowed New York City's cavernous Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. And this past year has seen the appearance of a documentary film, The Price of the Ticket, and of a wide-ranging memorial volume—James Baldwin: The Legacy, with interviews and articles by friends and critics from Maya Angelou to Mary McCarthy to Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Now the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center gives additional evidence that Baldwin's memory—and perhaps his influence—is not dead.

"James Baldwin: The Prophet" is a one-day tribute that will include a panel discussion and a showing of The Price of the Ticket. Speakers on the panel, moderated by In These Times editor Salim Muwakkil, will include Studs Terkel, literary critic and poet Sterling Plumpp, Kuumba Theatre director and founder Val Grey Ward, and Walter Bradford, a Chicago poet and social worker whose production company, Two Wings to Fly, is responsible for the event.

Baldwin, who grew up black and impoverished in Harlem, had no easy time establishing himself, or even being heard, as a writer in the inhospitable late 40s. He had to go to Paris to distance himself from the racism in this country. ("The only thing standing between [me and] my writing had to be me," as he later said.) But once he broke through, in the late 50s and early 60s, he became perhaps the most widely read black writer in our history.

As the storms of the 60s built and broke, however, Baldwin came to be seen by middle-of-the-road whites as a frightening symbol of black truculence and by radical blacks as not sufficiently militant; he began to seem more peripheral. In the early 1970s, he moved to a village in the south of France, disillusioned by continuing racism and feeling out of touch and out of sympathy with the direction the black movement was taking. Although he continued to write and publish, it seemed his time had passed; and when he returned to this country to teach during the last decade, it was almost as a relic of the past.

Baldwin's life seems to describe a familiar pattern: early success followed by a long period of decline. But is this picture accurate? His writing didn't fall off in style or intensity—at least I don't find that it did. Certainly Baldwin did not pull in his horns: "There was not, then, nor is there, now," he wrote as an old man, "a single American institution which is not a racist institution." This is not a mellow statement. In fact, what most stands out about his life and writings is consistency. This man forged conclusions from his early experiences, found a voice for them, and stuck by them to the end.

Baldwin's main conclusion, the message he preached to the end, was not primarily about race. Of course neither the writer nor the man ever ceased to be conscious of his own blackness, nor did he quit raging against racism. And he always found solace in the resources of black culture, particularly its music. (Fleeing to Europe in 1948, he brought only his typewriter, $40, and a Bessie Smith record; in The Price of the Ticket he can be heard singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord.") But Baldwin's primary theme was the necessity of love. He once said in an interview that Giovanni's Room was not really about homosexuality: "It's about what happens to you if you're afraid to love anybody."

How people pay for the refusal to love was his constant refrain: "People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead." "The price of the ticket"—the title of his final volume of essays and of the documentary—was a favorite phrase. It meant, among other things, that the oppressor paid a price for his oppression: "The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white—: and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited not to say dim-witted ambition has choked many a human being to death here."

Baldwin's voice is primarily the voice of the moralist. (His father was a storefront preacher in Harlem and so, for three years as a teenager, was he.) That voice is the secret of Baldwin's power as an essayist—the eloquent moral fervor shaping elemental black anger that gave The Fire Next Time an impact and intensity that brought it more readers than any Afro-American author had ever had before. But the same trait probably hurt his fiction: it may be impossible for a moralist to write a truly great novel. And it certainly stymied his participation in political movements.

For it wasn't really the issue of militancy that divided Baldwin and black radicals of the late 60s—it was a difference of vantage points, the moral versus the political. The moral point of view is most concerned with the inner, the individual's purity of soul; the political, with the group and effective action. For Baldwin to pose the problem of racism in terms of its spiritual impact was bound to strike radicals as an obscurantist hindrance to action.

Baldwin persevered in "bearing witness," as he often put it. He also came to think that perhaps repetition was futile: in an interview two weeks before his death he said, "I was trying to tell the truth and it takes a long time to realize that . . . there's no point in saying this again. It's been said, and it's been said, and it's been said. It's been heard and not heard. You are a broken motor." This may suggest a lack of development on Baldwin's part. It might also suggest a message that's timeless.

"James Baldwin: The Prophet" will take place at the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, Friday, November 10, from 9:30 AM to 1 PM. For more information call 346-3278.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Doyle Wicks.

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