An American Writer

The hope-tinged despair of James Baldwin


“I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”
— James Baldwin, 1952

I didn’t have much in common with James Baldwin when I first read him in the late 90s. Baldwin, who died in 1987, was black, gay, born into poverty, the son of a reverend, a key figure in the Civil Rights movement, and a fixture of American literature. I was some frat kid in college on my parents’ dime with an interest in writing and, really, no particular beliefs.

A teacher introduced me to Baldwin through his Civil Rights polemic, The Fire Next Time, and, word by word, my worldview changed. I quickly ran through more of Baldwin’s books — Another Country, Giovanni’s Room, No Name in the Street. There was power in his work and an urgency that few writers (even the greats) could capture. Baldwin wrote like an old slave spiritual, crying to the heavens, filled with the hard-earned wisdom that pain must be mixed with hope.

That said, it’s been years since I’ve thought about Baldwin, or most of the writers who influenced me in college, but the civil-rights-tinged events of last week brought Baldwin back. I heard echoes of his prose in President Obama’s eulogy, and I sensed the exhausted joy Baldwin would have felt after the long, brutal struggle that resulted in the Supreme Court’s same-sex-marriage decision.

Baldwin never stopped fighting and, as we are painfully aware, the social injustices he wrote and marched against persist. But I noticed, as I read his later work, that the tone changed. His desperation changed, even if he could still write beautiful, thundering, heartbreaking passages. Witness this description from No Name in the Street, of black schoolchildren marching into a recently integrated Little Rock school:

"Here they were, nevertheless, scrubbed and shining, in their never-to-be-forgotten stiff little dresses, in their never-to-be-forgotten little blue suits, facing an army, facing a citizenry, facing white fathers, facing white mothers, facing the progeny of these co-citizens, facing the white past, to say nothing of the white present: small soldiers, armed with stiff, white dresses, and long or short dark blue pants, entering a leper colony, and young enough to believe that the colony could be healed, and saved. They paid a dreadful price, those children, for their missionary work among the heathen."

There’s no question of power, but in that same book, elsewhere, depression rises; his hope is shadowed. Much of that is explainable: friends of his had been assassinated; progress in the Civil Rights movement was unmercifully and unnecessarily slow; and he had sparred with close friends (most notably, Richard Wright).

I wonder if he was content. Baldwin was a central member of a movement and, through that movement, he had a family. But both of those come with politics, and nothing kills an artistic spirit more than politics. The moment your work is tempered is the moment it’s no longer true.

I’ve always remembered a passage from The Fire Next Time, when Baldwin met Elijah Muhammad and was invited to join his group: “I’m a writer,” Baldwin answered. “I like doing things alone.”

Nothing’s truer. In the act of writing fiction, you have to abandon politics, but also country and religion and family. There may be a truth to your characters that extends beyond those boundaries and, if you ignore it, you’re blind. It’s a hard thing to do, to turn your back on a country, to discard your identity. It’s loneliness.

And that loneliness is a peculiarly anti-American act. After all, writers have it pretty good here. We’re not jailed for criticizing this country, or tortured and killed, or forced to write propaganda (although many do anyway). Few of us can make a living this way, but almost all of us have the opportunity.

“I love America more than any other country in this world,” Baldwin wrote, “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Ideally, as last week’s Supreme Court’s decision hopefully demonstrated, the necessity for that criticism will lessen, but a writer must resolutely stay on his or her lonely path. After all, there are always people begging for alms on either side of you.

Don’t blind yourself to them.

On Saturday, July 18th, at 7 p.m., I'll be giving a reading at One More Page Books in Arlington, VA, with musical accompaniment by jazz singer Sara Jones and blues musician Andy Poxon! There will be booze, cupcakes, and raffle prizes! This is all for my new thriller, You're As Good As Dead. Buy your copy now so you can sing along on the 18th. And click here for more information about the reading.

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