WHAT WOULD JIMMY DO?
Waiting for the Next Storm—Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 1 March 2018
‘I was working on my first novel—I thought I would never be able to finish it—and I finally realised that one of the reasons I couldn’t finish this novel was that I was ashamed of where I came from and where I had been. I was ashamed of life in the Negro church, ashamed of my father, ashamed of the Blues (…) I realised that I had (…) buried myself beneath a whole fantastic image of myself which wasn’t mine, but white people’s image of me.’ The novel in question was eventually finished—and published; James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain came out in 1953 when he was not yet thirty. Today it is one of the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels. In Germany it was first published by Rowohlt in 1966 and has recently been reissued by dtv in a new translation by Miriam Mandelkow. Go Tell It on the Mountain tells the story of a broken family who come to the altar of their Harlem church to pray together. Baldwin’s astonishing talent for illuminating even the darkest corners of the human soul is already evident in his debut novel; he shows with uncompromising and oppressive clarity what it costs his characters to make that long journey to the altar. At first, we accompany fourteen-year-old John as he drifts around 1950s New York—a walk that culminates in John’s struggle with his duty to the devout community he has left behind and, in particular, to his violent preacher father. But we soon find ourselves caught up in a spate of family stories which reach back many generations and down into the southern states. There is no sign in the novel of the effort that must have gone into writing honestly about such a difficult topic; we read in a kind of trance. But we feel the pain it must have cost the young author to say what he had to say. Named after a spiritual, Go Tell It on the Mountain is the lament of a man who is only just beginning to develop his literary and political thinking, but already knows that great literature doesn’t come from taking sides. None of Baldwin’s characters save themselves from the fall.
It is no secret that the novel is semi-autobiographical. Baldwin, like his young protagonist, was an illegitimate child and grew up without his biological father. In 1927, when little ‘Jimmy’ was three, his mother left the southern states and came to New York where she married a Baptist preacher and had more children whom Jimmy helped to raise. At that time, New York was in the middle of what we now call the ‘Great Depression’. The family had hardly any money: Baldwin’s stepfather worked in factories when there was work to be had, his mother cleaned white people’s houses and young James was small and delicate and would stay that way. John, in Go Tell It on the Mountain, is forever being told he’s ugly. Julius Lester wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Baldwin looked as if he’d been ‘sculpted in flesh rather than merely being born of it’.
By the age of twenty-three, James Baldwin had moved to Greenwich Village. He worked as a waiter and had no money for college, but he had friends like Beauford Delaney who, as Baldwin put it, ‘opened an unusual door’ for him. It was in the Village, too, that he met his lifelong friend Marlon Brando; they would march arm in arm behind Martin Luther King’s coffin in 1968.
The new German translation of Go Tell It on the Mountain is being promoted with a quote from Time: ‘James Baldwin is everywhere’. What does that mean, everywhere? He is on human rights posters—most notably those of the US movement Black Lives Matter. He is in all cinemas showing the biopic I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Pecks. Hip hop stars such as Jay Z and Beyoncé quote him in their music videos. Director Barry Jenkins, who was awarded an Oscar in 2017 for his film Moonlight, is working on a cinema adaptation of Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. In fact, Moonlight itself, whose young gay black protagonist struggles to get a foothold in an unwelcoming world, could be an adaptation of a Baldwin novel.
It is surely true to say that Baldwin’s recent revival is closely tied up with the current political situation in the USA: with the race fights, police harassment—and with the new president, whom Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in We Were Eight Years in Power as the ‘first white president of the USA’, because his election was prompted by hatred and rejection of his black predecessor. Coates is said to write in the tradition of Baldwin. He is not alone. Baldwin’s urgency is universal, his poetry at once emboldening and unsettling. He has never been gone. His political commitment made him a central figure of the human rights movement. He held public debates with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. His essays and speeches were published in internationally acclaimed books such as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. In his theoretical texts he always manages to turn the tables—to write about white people using labels habitually used by his white readers to describe black people. He was adamant that he was not a victim, regarding the ‘bad black man’ as a white invention. White people demonised black people and shut them out of society because they were afraid of their own past. It was their job to face up to their fears—without that, there was no salvation for them.
But Baldwin was no politician, no propagandist. Just as the Persian poet Ahmad Shamlou didn’t write his poems for the banners that were carried through the streets of Iran in the Green Revolution, Baldwin didn’t write for posters. Right up to the end he refused to be a ‘spokesman’—to represent anyone except himself. Perhaps his greatest provocation was to reject the concept of skin colour. ‘It is not a racial problem (…) the American people are unable to face the fact that I am flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, created by them.’
Baldwin presents us with the existentially human. That is why he has not become a historical figure; his truth and relevance are permanent.
I heard a Baldwin book before I read one. A friend who had recorded Giovanni’s Room as an audio take sent the individual chapters to me on the Bosporus and soon I was impatiently awaiting my daily instalment. I had moved to Istanbul and my friend told me that Baldwin had also lived there for a time—maybe the book would help me find whatever it was I was searching for. He said that Giovanni’s Room had accompanied him when he was navigating his way through his various coming-outs; the novel helped you to get your bearings. Istanbul plays no part in the novel, first published in 1956. The characters move about the USA, Paris, Provence. They are male, white and in love and hang out in seedy bars that smell of sweat. The pages are full of nervous laughter and abrupt silences. It is a novel about inaccessible fathers and the fear and self-disgust aroused by the first erotic experiences of childhood—about a man’s inability to face up to his love and a betrayal that ends in the execution of his abandoned lover. Baldwin said that if he hadn’t written it, he would have stopped writing altogether. That was right at the beginning of his career; Giovanni’s Room was only his second novel. People advised him not to mention it to anyone; they said the explicit love scenes between men would cost him his career. He took the manuscript to England and had it published there. In Germany, Giovanni’s Room is his best-known novel—the only one to have remained in print ever since it was first published.
In his legendary Village Voice interview of June 1984, Richard Goldstein asks Baldwin about the necessity of speaking or—the equivalent for an author—writing openly about gay life. In his reply, Baldwin explains why he has never described himself as gay. The word homosexual, he says, is a verb for him. Something that he does. Yes, he sleeps with men. But what he is, he says, is more complex than that. Here, too, Baldwin turns the tables, showing that the desire to label and pigeonhole is all on the side of his interviewer, insisting on the indivisibility of human existence, rejecting the fragmentation of the individual. He does, however, state very clearly that it was his insecurity about his sexuality that motivated him to write. Back then everything was unclear in his life, but the ‘sexual thing’ was definitely the most tormenting and possibly the most dangerous. Asked why, he replies simply, ‘Because it frightened me so much.’ There it is again—the shame, the fear. Baldwin, like all great authors, uses them as scalpels in his writing.
After Giovanni’s Room—still on the Bosporus—I read Another Country. For a hundred pages, young Rufus drifts, frightened and half-crazed, through the night, begging food from men in bars and eventually throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge. For me, every walk over a New York bridge is now a Rufus walk, a tribute to a friend who took the feeling of never being able to go home to its logical and devastating conclusion. Another Country also tells the story of a circle of friends in New York—authors, actors, vagabonds. I read the book in one sitting and as I turned to the last page I saw the place name and date under the final paragraph: Istanbul, Dec. 10, 1961. It took a few minutes to sink in: Baldwin had finished writing the novel in the city where I was reading it. Istanbul. He was here. James Baldwin is everywhere. But where is everywhere?
In James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile, Magdalena J. Zaborowska gives us an impressive portrait of Baldwin’s time on the Bosporus, bringing to life his encounters with Turkey in photographs, interviews and personal testimonies. Perhaps most striking, though, is the strong sense the book gives us of how much an exile Baldwin felt at the time. He left the USA after becoming the face of the black movement there in the early sixties—the ‘spokesman’ he never wanted to be—and spent the rest of his life writing in the diaspora, first in France, then in Turkey. Strolling through the streets of Istanbul in Sedat Parkay’s short documentary From Another Place, Baldwin says, ‘I think all poets—and I’m a kind of poet—are caught in a situation, which is a kind of pre-revolutionary situation; they have a very difficult role to play. (…) My own effort is to try to bear witness to something that will have to be there when the storm is over, to help us get through the next storm. Storms are always coming.’ I made that quote my motto. I wrote it on the board in the seminar rooms where I was teaching a course called ‘The Private is Political’. I sent it to all my friends when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. And added, more for myself than them: We know what to do—keep writing, keep producing. We are witnesses. The word is Baldwin’s and it resonates in all his poetic texts. In The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity, he suggests that we think about poets as the only people who know the truth about our society. ‘Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.’ Poetry writes identity, individual and collective alike. We know about one another because there are books that spread our stories.
James Baldwin is everywhere and belongs to us and our thinking, not because we live in politically charged times, but because the world is always hungering for honest, uncompromising literature.
Tr. Imogen Taylor