Saturday, February 17, 2007
James Baldwin: Witness and Prophet
Okay, so I'm cheating a little bit here. I'm writing a book on James Baldwin and I've already posted my favorite passage from him elsewhere in this blog. But it's my blog and it's genius passage, so I'm going to post it again. From "Autobiographical Notes" in Notes of a Native Son:
"I do not like people who like me because I am a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
I want to be an honest man and a good writer."
Derrick Bell, legal scholar and writer (and perhaps the subject of tomorrow's post) says that American racism is permanent, yet the fight against racism is both necessary and meaningful. What's great about Baldwin's work is that you see him, over the course of a very long and incredibly prolific career, come to this same conclusion. In his essays we see his hope in the civil rights movement, his belief that racial divides could be crossed. And then we see his grief when that hope his lost, this anger and frustration after King and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers are killed. We watch as he goes from being the darling of American intelligentsia to being the whipping boy of black nationalism. What's particularly compelling to me about Baldwin isn't that his prose is often breathtakingly beautiful and his insights spot on. It's that Baldwin never gives us anything less than an honest view of the world and himself, warts and all. He has no agenda, no ideological drum to beat. Make no mistake--he is political. He wanted civil rights as much as the next black man. But he also wanted to be an honest man and a good writer. And these desires often conflicted. That conflict is there on the page for all of us to see and his work taken as a whole is one of the most brilliant portraits of the artist we have in the Enlgihs language.