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James Baldwin: A Tribute

February 17, 2017

(Here is an excerpt from my book, THE EDUCATION OF A WHITE BOY)

In a famous essay, Irving Howe bemoaned Ralph Ellison’s lack of militancy, and then he chastised another African-American writer, James Baldwin. The argument against Baldwin was that what militancy he did have was unleashed, not on the white man, but on Richard Wright, and not just once or twice, but on three separate published occasions. What made it all the more baffling – or perhaps all the more explainable – was that Baldwin, like Ellison, owed much of his career to the author of Native Son.

In 1949, a twenty-five-year-old James Baldwin, a black American expatriate living in France, published an essay, on both sides of the Atlantic, called “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” It begins with a review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is called a prude, a sentimental do-gooder and a bad writer. The only way the chaste Mrs. Stowe could bear to write of a naked dark male was to transform the title character into a black Jesus, a myth, one who “has been robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex.” Uncle Tom prefigures the cinematic Sidney Poitier, who, though he may come to dinner to meet the parents of his white fiancée, will not touch the girl until their wedding night and only with mom and dad’s permission. The white public, no matter how liberal and advanced in their racial views, becomes uneasy at the idea of a normal, flawed brother wanting to get laid as much as the next guy. But since Mrs. Stowe’s intentions are so noble, the book is forgiven the “excessive demands” it makes “of credibility.” The “aim of the protest novel” is little different from “the zeal of those alabaster missionaries to Africa to cover the nakedness of the natives, to hurry them into the pallid arms of Jesus and thence into slavery.” Then, midway through the final paragraph, Baldwin calls to the stand Bigger Thomas and asks if he is not an inverted Uncle Tom, another stock character that allows white Americans to breathe easier by reinforcing their preconceived notions of the no good nigger. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Richard Wright “are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle: the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.” Wright had modeled himself on naturalists writers like Sinclair Lewis, never imagining that one of his disciples, Baldwin, would associate him, Wright, with a Victorian lady abolitionist writing fantasy. When he and Baldwin met on the street after the publication of the essay, the younger man defended himself by taking refuge in Greek mythology, screaming that the “sons must slay the fathers.”

Two years later, Baldwin, in “Many Thousands Gone,” resumed the slaying, with a more thorough attack on Native Son. He discounts Wright’s claim to realism. Bigger is too isolated from his family and friends for even the most antisocial black kid. This gives the reader the misguided notion that “in Negro life there exists no tradition.” – and a tradition is “nothing more than the long and painful experience of a people” that comes “out of their struggle to survive.” In this observation, one can imagine Ellison standing over Baldwin giving dictation. But, just as fast, Ellison steps away and the young writer goes in an independent direction to say that Wright played into the hands of white America by verifying their worst fears about the black man who wants to rape and kill their women. Baldwin avows that blacks have no desire to wreak vengeance upon the state, since “Negroes are Americans and their destiny is the country’s destiny.” As for Bigger, “he wants to die because he glories in his hatred and prefers, like Lucifer, rather to rule in hell than serve in heaven.”

Though Baldwin continued to obsess over Wright, it was not until the latter’s death in 1960 that he again took out the hammer and this time nailed shut the coffin. This was done in a mini memoir entitled “Alas, Poor Richard.” Baldwin now suspects that Wright was not even a good protest writer, for he had no “real sense of how a society is put together.” Perhaps he should have, instead, labored in the theatre. But now, sighs Baldwin, the man…who meant so much to me is gone.”

Baldwin remembers how, at the age of twenty, he begged an invitation to meet Wright “because he was the greatest black writer,” the man who had produced “Native Son and, above all Black Boy,” works that “I found expressed, for the first time in my life, the sorrow, the rage, and the murderous bitterness which was eating up my life and the lives of those around me.” The older novelist was polite and supportive and helped him to win the Saxton Fellowship. In 1948, Baldwin moved to Paris where, once off the plane, he was met by a one-man welcoming committee named Richard Wright, who introduced him to the editors at Zero magazine, a favor Baldwin repaid by using the organ to publish “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Now, ten years later, he admits that “Richard was right to be hurt,” and, yeah, he, Baldwin, may have “used his work as a kind of springboard into” his own. Then again, Wright had been his idol by proving that a black kid from “the Mississippi nightmare and the Chicago slums” could rise in the literary world, and had died, as he “also hoped to do, in the middle of a sentence,” and “idols are created in order to be destroyed.” Still, he does not know how he will take the same treatment when his time comes. And it would come.

James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem. He was a different kind of African-American from the start, becoming one of the few black men ever to prefer the name “Jimmie,” another example being Walker, as in the Kid Dy-No-Mite! It was not long before Jimmie felt the impulse to slay fathers, and for good reason. His own father was a vicious, abusive and borderline insane task-master, and, further, was not even his real dad, a secret that was not divulged to him until his teens. The old man was a factory worker and a storefront preacher, and when not thus occupied, he was knocking up Mrs. Baldwin. In the end, Jimmie would have eight younger half siblings. He was a high-strung and sensitive kid who suffered when his dad called him ugly, which hurt worse than the subsequent beatings. James arrived at books early and read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dickens and later Dostoyevsky, in each case holding a volume in one hand and the latest baby in the other – anything to escape the raging patriarch. He dreamed of killing that sonovabitch preacher of an old man.

He attended Frederick Douglass Middle School where a white lady teacher noticed his precocity and began, away from class, taking him to plays and movies, though dad resisted such secular activities as un-Christian. But then, at thirteen, he was “saved” and so he renounced the teacher, who said to him: “I’ve lost a lot of respect for you.” This may have hurt Jimmie, but now he had the Lord to soothe his chronic injuries, both real and imaginary. For the next three years, he was a child preacher, a star at the Fireside Pentecostal Faith Church in Harlem. This served two purposes: He received love and affirmation all throughout his sermons. That’s right, Brother James! Second, in excelling at daddy’s profession, he was also taking the old man down one Proverb at a time.

Meanwhile, he attended high school with a large Jewish student body in the Bronx. At sixteen, he began to again read serious literature. It was Dostoyevsky who helped ruin his Christian faith, for the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov could turn even Jesus into an atheist. He graduated high school in 1942, after which he worked for a year in New Jersey in a defense factory. He was an undersized black kid with oversized eyes and effeminate mannerisms. The white guys at the plant hated and abused him with total abandon, being that this was an era that long predated today’s society that holds up gay people as heroic celebrities. Then, the biggest abuser of all, Daddy Baldwin, after a stint in a mental institution, met his death. Jimmie came home to bury the bastard on the same day as the Harlem riot of ’43, the one Ellison covered for the New York Post and was to use as fictional fodder in Invisible Man. Baldwin was now free in a sense. He moved to the Village with the purpose of becoming a writer and a full-blown homosexual. When he was not getting rejected by editors, he was getting his ass kicked by gay-bashing drunken goons. He collected his injuries to fuel his art. Then he made the pilgrimage to Richard Wright.

He wrote for various magazines as the token black guy reviewing African-American subjects. He lived in France for the next eight years, where he practiced his craft until his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain was published in 1953, which put him on the literary map. In this autobiographical coming of age story, the character is based on his father who, of course, takes a literary beating. He wrote two more acclaimed novels by 1962, Giovanni’s Room, about gay white men, and Another Country, in which the sex is hetero- and homo, interracial and a few other forced combinations. His later fiction was a mediocre.

What Baldwin is best known for are his essays. If Du Bois was correct to say that blacks, as odd men out of white society, have double vision, then Baldwin, as someone even further off on the periphery due to his homosexuality, had triple-vision. This outsider status coupled with his reaching maturity during the McCarthy era made him an original voice. It was in the Fifties that he came to appreciate the blues of Bessie Smith, which added more texture to his literary gifts, until he became a prose stylist second to none. To take a highlighter to his early nonfiction is to color the entire page yellow, for no thought stands alone without the next one, and so on, and to paraphrase him is to attempt a different way of drawing a straight line. His every observation was made three-dimensional on paper. He could call Richard Wright both the greatest black novelist and a hack destined to spend eternity with Harriet Beecher Stowe, and still make sense. Not that he was ever above mauling himself, as when, in his last nonfiction work worth reading, No Name In The Street, he asks what was he “but an aging, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak?” Such self-examination can be traced back to the opening of his first collection of essays when he outlines his primary goal: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

His first good essay, “The Harlem Ghetto,” is reminiscent of his hero Dickens in Sketches of Boz, wherein the young English author takes the reader on a casual tour of London’s streets. This time a young black man guides us through his old ‘hood in a gentle and reassuring way so as not to scare us off before he can make his point. He reminds us that “the white man walking through Harlem is not at all likely to find it sinister or more wretched than any other slum.” But do not be fooled by the commonplace veneer, as just below the surface is an explosion waiting to happen, and which did happen in 1935 and 1943, whereupon the rest of the city shook its head at these troublesome Negroes. Politicians made speeches and launched investigations, and then authorized the construction of playgrounds and housing projects. Baldwin introduces us to the black politicians, many of whom make a living from Harlem’s misfortune – think Al Sharpton. He also sits us down and reads to us from a few African-American newspapers. This one is dedicated to crime and sensation, a tabloid, while another follows the achievements of a limited number of black celebrities, with Lena Horne writing her own column. Then there are the storefront churches, which are “a fairly desperate emotional business.” The services emphasize the Old Testament in that blacks can commiserate with the Jews held in bondage and wishing to flee to the Promised Land. Thus the “images of the suffering Christ and the suffering Jew are wedded with the image of the suffering slave.” Yet Jews own much of Harlem, and so blacks also resent the Chosen People. In the end, Boz stands with us on a street corner and issues an unsettling truth: Just “as a society must have a scapegoat, so hatred must have a symbol. Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.”

Each essay, regardless of the subject, starts with James Baldwin and his ongoing self-examination. Toward the end of his life – he died in 1987 in France – he did a slim book on the Atlanta child murders that was almost a satire of his own youthful writing technique. Here, in Atlanta, there were dozens of dead kids and a murderer, Wayne Williams, each with their own stories, and still Baldwin has the need to tell of his growing up in Harlem. He could never get to a subject without first running the gauntlet of his own related – even non-related — experiences. But the early self-exploratory pieces were brilliant, and never more so than in “Notes of a Native Son” – a title filched from the slain Papa Wright and written in 1955.

“Notes of a Native Son” deals with the death of his father and the Harlem riot that accompanies the funeral that is also his nineteenth birthday. Such a collision of events reinforces the idea that he, James Baldwin, stands as a pivot around which turns the entire history of Mankind. This is also his first mention of the racial Armageddon that he will speak of so much in later works. He states that he “had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been so central to” his “father’s vision; very well, life seemed to be saying, here is something that will certainly pass for the apocalypse.” He describes how the old man had come north from New Orleans, the Southern town in which, at the same time, another black child was running the streets — Louis Armstrong. Yet Daddy forbids his own kids from listening to Sachmo because the music is un-Christian. He is proud of his blackness, though bitter, too, that it has “fixed bleak boundaries to his life.” When the white schoolteacher takes Jimmie to plays and movies, Daddy relents only because, deep down, whites intimidate him, however much he may rage against them in private. The year the younger Baldwin spends in New Jersey at the defense factory marks his baptism in hardcore discrimination. Harlem may be dangerous, but it still insulates one from white persecution. Now Jimmie is taunted and thrown out of restaurants and movies and anything else that frowns upon a dark face. Then he is informed that Daddy is ready to meet, postmortem, the white Jesus Christ, and so he rushes home in time to witness the rendezvous. Baldwin remembers three years ago when he was preaching with less frequency – his faith being on the descent – and his father, out of the blue, had asked him: “You’d rather write than preach, wouldn’t you?” “Yes,” answered the son. This was one of their few real conversations. Now Baldwin looks down into the open casket and sees “simply an old man dead, and it was hard to believe that he had ever given anyone either joy or pain.”

In the months leading up to this day, the streets have been tense. Black people who would otherwise not mingle are now nodding toward each other as comrades in this world run by the Man. Hookers speak with church matrons, and Garveyites with zootsuiters. It is pissing them all off that their brothers and fathers are going to war in Europe but only after being trained down South where they are experiencing Jim Crow. For whose freedom are they risking their lives? Not their own, that’s obvious. On the night of the funeral, “a Negro soldier, in the lobby of the Hotel Braddock, gets into a fight with a white policeman over a Negro girl.” – and the rumor spreads that the cop has shot the brother dead. Then comes the riot, “for Harlem had needed something to smash.”

In the next morning’s aftermath of broken glass, as Baldwin accompanies his father to the grave, he says of the old man: “This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped…Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” This leads to the epiphany that a black man must “hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance.” The “second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept…injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”

Throughout his work there are a few consistent themes. One is “reality” and the other is “identity,” and both go hand in hand. White Americans live in a fantasy world, unaware that the rest of the world does not share its high self-regard. They are even more deluded when believing that there is no such thing as Negro individuality; that blacks exist only as told they should by whites. But, as Baldwin says: “If I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either!” Due to a stronger sense of reality, blacks know whites better than whites know themselves, and only by facing facts will all of us achieve a solid identity.

At the same time, the very definition of what it means to be an American is nothing more than the search for an identity. This country is so new and lacking in tradition that we are making it — and ourselves — up on the fly. That is why exile is so instructive. “The American in Europe is everywhere confronted with the question of his identity.” What distinguishes one seeker from the other is how each “come to terms with their confusion.” It is hoped that from “the vantage point of Europe” this person may discover “his own country.”

“Stranger in the Village,” though another brooding meditation on self (Jimmie Baldwin) and racism, offers a few key insights. Baldwin repairs to a tiny Swiss town in which not one resident has ever encountered a black person in the flesh. These white hamlet-dwellers are innocent, and that is why he is forbearing when the children follow him, a gay black man from Harlem, down the street shouting Neger! Neger! They have no idea of the implications that the n-word carries back in the states. There is also “a custom in the village” of dropping spare francs into a box “decorated with a black figurine” for the purpose “of ‘buying’ African natives” so to convert them to Christianity. Last year they “bought” six or eight of them, and the villagers think Baldwin “might now breathe more easily concerning the souls of at least six of” his kinsmen. He recalls his father and how he never forgave “the white world (which he described as heathen) for having saddled him with a Christ in whom…they themselves no longer believed.” What is ironic is that Baldwin, for all his accomplishments in the Western literary tradition, is still deemed less of a descendant of European culture, due to genetics, than these ignorant villagers, many of whom have never left this isolated spot, nor read a book. Back in America, the two races are stuck together and whites have lost their grip on reality by forcing the insane laws of Jim Crow on the country. In this, the “white man’s motive” is “the protection of his identity; the black man” is “motivated by the need to establish an identity.” But, contrary to the official scorekeeping, the black man’s “battle for his identity has long ago been won. He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American.” The biggest problem facing white Americans is their wish to live as do these villagers, to return “to a state in which black men do not exist” – and people “who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” an apocalypse. In the end, Baldwin must concede that the white American is a better man than his European counterpart, since at least he is trying to become “involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa,” and not just tossing some coins into a box on some abstract principle and following a skinny gay black man through the street like the Pied Piper yelling Neger! Neger!

In the fall of 1956, Baldwin and Richard Wright and some others were walking to lunch when they came upon a newspaper kiosk. On all the front pages were photographs of a black fifteen-year-old girl, “Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by” a white mob “as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, North Carolina.” That decided Baldwin to return to America, though he was frightened by the prospect; or, as he churned the thought around in his hyperactive mind, “am I afraid of journeying any further with myself?” Either way, everybody “else was paying their dues, and now it was time I went home and paid mine.”

His father had often told him bedtime stories of what happened to black men in the South. He grew terrified of the region and avoided it all his life until 1957 when, at the age of thirty-three (do we need to dwell on the Christian significance of this number?), and with two controversial novels to his name, he toured the region. He was on a plane as it approached Atlanta and looked down on the fabled terrain and pondered whether the “rust-red earth of Georgia” had “acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from the trees” in which young black men had been hung, “while white men watched him and cut his sex from him with a knife.” His “father must have seen such sights.” After landing on terror-firma, he met Martin Luther King and then listened to him preach in the Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery. Baldwin was surprised to be moved by King’s words, being that, as a former minister himself, he knew the tricks of the trade and suspected all religious leaders as frauds. It helped that King was five years his junior, as there would be no need of Oedipal execution. He went on to Little Rock and Tuskegee and came back to New York committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement radicalized Baldwin and transformed him into not only a protest writer, and one that made Richard Wright seem an ivory tower intellectual, but into an actual protester. He began speaking at fundraisers and colleges. He summoned his old gifts of oratory and, with his intense nature and increasing identification with the injured black Southerner, made it a personal issue and would thunder down from the pulpit in all his apocalyptic fury. He often joined Malcolm X on radio and television programs. They were supposed to represent opposing sides of the race issue – separation versus integration – but Baldwin, off the air, agreed with much of Malcolm’s doctrine, and came to love the Nation of Islam minister and considered him one of the kindest and most gentle men in the world. He met James Meredith, the man who, with twenty-thousand U.S. Army troops, broke the color barrier at Ole Miss, and, while in the neighborhood, befriended Medgar Evers, a leader in the NAACP, who was shot dead in his driveway in Jackson in 1963. The killers of Evers confessed to the crime and were still acquitted of murder. Baldwin was at the March on Washington and then fell into a rage days later when the four black children were killed in Birmingham from a bomb tossed at a church by white patriots. He was also present at King’s greatest moment when the Civil Rights Movement culminated in the march from Selma to Montgomery where they brought Ole Dixie down.

Throughout these years, his essays became more hard-hitting. He slew two old mentors, William Faulkner and Langston Hughes, the latter being one of the black poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Faulkner was a racist who thought that black and white relations had improved, because, according to police figures, only “six Negroes were killed by whites in Mississippi last year.” As for one of the pioneers of black literature, every time he reads Langston Hughes, he is “amazed all over again by his genuine gifts – and depressed that he has done so little with them.”

Then, in 1963, all that had gone into the making of Jimmie Baldwin – the illegitimate birth; the abuse from Daddy; the teenage stint as a preacher; the insults and persecution from cops, whites and homophobes; Bessie Smith; Richard Wright; the hard fight to gain a prose style that was leaning toward apocalyptic language and increasing bitchiness – now came together in one great book-length essay that set out to slay the ultimate father, Uncle Sam. The book was called The Fire Next Time.

It begins, as always, with the personal, a letter to his nephew, James. He wastes no time in summoning Daddy Baldwin and the theme of identity. The old man “had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.” The reason whites are compelled to label blacks as inferior is that to abandon such a myth will result in “the loss of their identity.” It is now our duty, James, to “force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” Signed, Your uncle, James.

The next part of the book is entitled the “Letter from a Region in My Mind.” He rehashes how he had become a serious Christian at fourteen and thence to view the Harlem streets through a more menacing lens. He could already predict where his peers were heading in life just by taking a hard look at all the older, broken souls drifting up and down Lenox Avenue. His friends were “unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was ‘the man’ – the white man.” Thus crime became, not “a possibility, but the possibility.” Money was not “made or kept by…adherence to the Christian virtues,” at least not “for black Christians.” But young Jimmie did not want to be a crook, nor would he “let any white man spit” on him. Therefore, preaching became his racket.

He goes on to recount the psychology behind the religious experience when one falls to the floor and gives oneself over to God. The feeling of renewal comes from letting go of the will to keep fighting a losing battle against white power, of being released from “guilty torment.” A black church service hitting on all cylinders is one of the most thrilling events on earth, and it affords blacks, with otherwise stunted lives, a healthy release.

Young Jimmie was not a born follower, and so, when saved, he became a minister. Then came Dostoyevsky and a change of heart, or, better, a change of mind. Christianity was actually not a release but the very thing that held back his people. He wished they would “throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize…a rent strike.”

Yes, he left the church, but in doing so he was also running from what gave the black version of Christianity its vigor — the blues. This “zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster” was “very moving and very rare.” White Americans knew nothing of this code. To these simpletons, “happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad.” Only blacks, “who have been ‘down the line,’ know what this music is about.”

Baldwin reminds us of what Malcolm X says: that the “white man’s Heaven is the black man’s Hell.” Europeans came to Africa holding a Bible and left with human cargo to work American plantations. In this world, it is power that reigns supreme, and in “the realm of power, Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty.” This white god, Jesus, has done nothing but persecute blacks. Perhaps, then, “it is time we got rid of Him” – and replace him with a black god.

Now we are introduced to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Baldwin has heard variations of the white devil rhetoric all his life from having grown up in Harlem. What makes him now take notice is how the cops, “in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces,” behave at the Muslim rallies. They are afraid of these self-respecting African-Americans — in contrast to the past when the police held the power and struck fear into any black individual they chose to select for abuse. And power “was the subject of the speeches.” The Muslims had good news: “white people are cursed, and are devils, and are about to be brought down” – as everyone turned to the shuffling cops.

Elijah Muhammad has been able to do what generations of welfare workers have failed to do: “heal and redeem drunkards and junkies,” keep “men chaste and women virtuous” and make African-Americans stand up straight and be proud of their race. How has he “managed it?” Elijah says it is not him “who has done it but time,” for time “catches up with kingdoms and crushes them,” and time is up for Christianity and White Power. This gives black people hope, since they have lost all hope of ever getting a fair shake from the status quo. “God is black.”

Baldwin pays a visit to Elijah in his South Side Chicago mansion. Baldwin is frightened because of the tension in him “between love and power, between pain and rage,” and he does not want to be seduced into a bad decision. He is confronted by a small and delicate man “with a thin face, large, warm eyes, and a most winning smile.” Baldwin is “drawn toward his peculiar authority.” Elijah tells him that there is “no virtue in white people,” and that “the power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.” But that’s all right, since whites are a global minority, and “the sword they have used so long against others can now, without mercy, be used against them.” Or, as Malcolm would phrase it, the chickens will come home to roost. Elijah walks Baldwin outside and they stand together alone, and the writer confesses that he feels close to the old man and wishes that he could “love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father.” But this is one father he dares not try to slay, especially after what will befall Malcolm in two years.

Baldwin ends with a twenty-page sermon. He throws in the famous Du Bois quote that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” But the problem started long before that when “a white Christian named Baldwin” compelled him to kneel at the foot of the cross in order to obliterate his African identity. The Muslims are right to replace the slave name with an “X.” But now it is getting more difficult for the so-called master race to hold down the black man, who has never bought into the American myth that white “ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes.” Blacks have “been down the line” and are tough and “take nothing for granted” and “hear the meaning behind the words.” They know that whatever life “brings must be borne.” Whites, on the other hand, with their infantile need for happy endings, refuse to accept “that life is tragic” and that “one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.” Power does not last forever, as summed up “when we say, Whatever goes up must come down.” If whites continue to shy away from reality, there will come “the fulfillment of that prophesy, re-created from the Bible in a song by a slave: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

1968 was a difficult year for Jimmie Baldwin. He attended Martin Luther King’s funeral and was never again the same man. He lost all faith in white America. Everything he wrote thereafter ended with something about “the shape of the wrath to come” or some other apocalyptic vision. This was also when Eldridge Cleaver’s book, Soul on Ice, gained popularity. One chapter is entitled “Notes on a Native Son.” He first talks of how he, like so many other blacks, “lusted for anything that Baldwin had written…He placed so much of my own experience, which I thought I had understood, into new perspective.” Then Cleaver turns on his former mentor, calling him “a white man in a black body.” And let us not forget how he “drove the blade of Brutus into the corpse of Richard Wright.” He then equates Baldwin’s homosexuality with “baby-rape or,” worse, “wanting to become the head of General Motors.” Baldwin now became the slain father figure. But he was man enough to admit his hurt feelings borne from hypocrisy, thus achieving the goal he had set at the start of his career: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”


My own book, The Education of a White Boy, is drawing to a close. It may never reach the public forum, as it is not adaptable to a You Tube video; or, in truth, it may just not be good enough to sit on the shelf of a Barnes and Noble store. But that’s all right. The private Jimmy Johnson has still been enriched by the process of writing and researching — and, ten years later, rereading and editing — this book. I have learned a lot of life lessons from Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois, and especially the Big Three of African-American Literature.

Jimmie Baldwin reinforced the idea of starting from a personal view and then fanning outward to embrace the wider scope of history and social dynamics. He is also a warning not to take the same notion so far as to sound like a drama queen, and that is why humor is a key ingredient to any memoir. More important, the writer must let other people take center stage. Even the most gifted and charismatic actor, if alone too long in the spotlight, will bore the audience.

Ralph Ellison proved that one’s literary ancestors do not have to be of the same race and that my instincts were correct when, at eighteen, in Trenton, I gravitated to Joe Zook and the blues. Ellison showed me, too, the wisdom of sometimes having to go underground in order to lick my wounds and, with Louis Armstrong playing soft and low, tell my tale.

And the great Richard Wright made it laughable that I should ever use a lack of formal education as an excuse not to measure myself against the best in literature. All it takes is “the imagination and the will to do so.”

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