Author James Baldwin Defines Life: 'You Learn to Make Love with Whatever Frightens You'
updated 01/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
It is a tableau of extremes, and it seems entirely appropriate for someone who has learned to occupy that no-man's-land called the middle. At 55, Baldwin is already a historical figure stranded by a couple of divergent streams of time. In the late '50s and through much of the '60s, he wrote the words around which both black activists and white liberals could rally. Those who had not heard of him before certainly did so in 1962 when, in a New Yorker essay, he summed up several years of marches and sit-ins and a couple of centuries of hope: "If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!"
The Fire Next Time (a book of two essays) became a nationwide bestseller in 1963, the time of early Beatles, Mercury astronauts and the New Frontier. A lot has changed since then, including the thoughts and power of James Baldwin. Whites began edging away from him when he publicly admired Malcolm X. The 1968 murder of Martin Luther King Jr. ("my younger brother," as Baldwin still calls his slain friend) cost the writer what little hope he had left that American blacks and whites would change history. At the same time, younger blacks like Eldridge Cleaver started pillorying Baldwin for his earlier opinions and for having succeeded so visibly within the white establishment. Feelings have mellowed with the passing years.
Baldwin doesn't write strictly to provoke change anymore. His newly published novel, Just Above My Head (Dial Press, $12.95), is a big, sprawling book, filled with gospel singing, preaching, jazz and the blues. It is a family saga (in part his), and if the book has a message it is, according to Baldwin, that "life is about survival, and music is one of the techniques of survival."
The novel is also about love, particularly homosexual love, a subject that Baldwin began treating fictionally as far back as Giovanni's Room in 1956. Yet homosexuality is that rare topic on which the author is not outspoken. He did once describe himself as "an aging, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak." He lives and travels openly with Frederick James, a muscular, good-looking New Yorker in his late 20s, but he has never made his preference a public issue or joined in gay causes. Baldwin appears visibly nettled when this area of his life is mentioned: "I love a few people; some are women and some are men."
The author is hard to pin down on any subject. Dizzyingly volatile, he will play a gracious, erudite host one moment and a Mau Mau theorist the next. In the latter disguise, his favorite theme is one he has been working on for years: Apocalypse Any Day Now. "White Americans," he says, "are the most curious and disastrous invention in the history of the world." Invention? "Everybody turned white when they crossed that ocean. Before that, they were Greek or Italian or whatnot. You are only as white as you think you are. Whites in America invented a vocabulary of power; their self-assumed power made black visible."
While calling down "the fate of Rome" on the white, technological world, Baldwin's manner is patient, even a little pedantic; his lecture is punctuated with "don't-you-know" and "if-you-see-what-I-mean," lest any listener fail to keep up with him. As his catalogue of impending doom lengthens, though, he unaccountably begins to twinkle. "Look," he says suddenly, "when I went to Paris 31 years ago, the sun never set on the British Empire. Now, the sun can't even find the British Empire." The gravelly voice has gone funky; Baldwin claps his hands and laughs. For every gloomy pronouncement or dire prophecy, he seems to have a joke, a witticism, an expression of optimism that runs counter to what he has been saying.
The oldest of nine children (Just Above My Head is dedicated to his three brothers and five sisters), Baldwin grew up in Harlem, terrorized by a strict minister father who later died in a madhouse. "Part of his problem," Baldwin has said, "was he couldn't feed his kids. But I was a kid, and I didn't know that." At 14, Baldwin became a child preacher at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. He quit three years later, but his oratorical skills never left him, and to this day he can be roused to deliver an eloquent sermon in a packed church. Wistfully, he once wrote, "Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and glory that I sometimes felt when...the church and I were one."
Just Above My Head hints at those early years. Ostensibly the novel tells the stories of Arthur Montana, a famous gospel singer, and Sister Julia, a child evangelist in Harlem, and of the fates awaiting these two. But the book is really a collection of set pieces, some as powerful and affecting as any Baldwin has ever written. Sister Julia's sermons catch the incantatory cadences of good preaching and radiate good-natured comedy. She speaks on the text "Set thine house in order": "You go down on your hands and knees, amen, and you get the Old Dutch Cleanser. Oh, yes! and then you start to run the water—and you take out the big brush of faith and that little brush of love because the big brush scours the stove, children, and that little brush gets into the corners—and you got the water to running, the water of salvation!"
Even as an undersized, pop-eyed kid, Baldwin saw language as his ticket out of the ghetto. "I read books [Dickens and Dostoevski] like they were some weird kind of food," he once explained. "I wanted school to save me from Harlem. I didn't know how I would use my mind. But that was the only thing I had to use. And I was going to get whatever I wanted that way and I was going to get my revenge that way." After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, he took a series of forgettable jobs—office boy, dishwasher, waiter—and wrote furiously at night. (This habit has outlived the need for it; Baldwin still starts each writing day at 11 p.m.)
In 1948, at 24, with just a few published book reviews and essays, mainly on black subjects, he emigrated to Paris so that he would not be "merely a Negro writer." France has remained his most consistent home to this day. The move drew criticism, both from whites who took it as a snub and from blacks who claimed that Baldwin had gone AWOL in their battle. Yet Baldwin spent much time in the U.S. during the peak years of the civil rights movement, worked closely with black leaders and put himself on the line at places like Little Rock in 1957 and Selma in 1965. "In a sense, I've never moved out of the U.S.," he says. "I am a black American writer. But I can barely write here. Here, I'm on a public stage."
This was not a position that Baldwin shunned, but he probably could not have avoided it either. Early books like Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955) quickly established his reputation as the most promising and talented black writer of his generation. White writers who came along at the same time had the option of sticking to their work and avoiding politics or polemics, but Baldwin really did not. A prominent black could hardly remain silent on the issue of race relations. These demands may have stunted the growth of Baldwin's fiction, driving him to expend crucial energy in the public arena, but Baldwin does not resent them. "Life is offered to you on certain terms," he says. "You accept the terms and create the terms, you learn to make love with whatever it is that frightens you."
Just Above My Head is his 19th book but his first novel in five years. Baldwin talks animatedly about the joys of authorship and the agonies of publication. "It's like falling through a trapdoor," he says. "You live with it for such a long time, and all of a sudden it's gone. It doesn't belong to you anymore." Yet he remembers the writing with pleasure: "An essay is more abstract, it is a precise generality. A novel is a mystery."
Baldwin works in the "torture chamber" of his two-story stone farmhouse in the South of France, near Nice. Life chez Baldwin is relaxed, the terrace furniture weathered and missing slats. Neighbors drop by casually, among them actress Simone Signoret, a friend since the early days in Paris. They are likely to find a bottle of Scotch open somewhere and a stereo playing azz. Artists, filmmakers and lawyers come and go. Baldwin often is too generous with his friends and pays for it financially and emotionally. He has long helped and encouraged younger writers, particularly blacks. Recalls Alex Haley: "He put a psychological arm around my shoulder."
In the evening, Baldwin walks to the village to pass time at the bar of the Coombe d'Or Hotel and dine out; the local restaurateurs pamper him shamelessly. One exception to this regimen came on his recent birthday, when friends dropped by his house to celebrate and managed to eat 21 fried chickens. Jokes Baldwin: "Fried chicken, soul food, sweeping the cuisine of southern France!"
Baldwin looks back on his writing with satisfaction ("Thank God I didn't say anything I have to take back") and enjoys all the fame and friends that anyone could reasonably expect. Not bad, it would certainly seem, for a kid who grew up haranguing Harlem storefront congregations, but the matter is not that simple. Even while visibly enjoying the comforts of his success, Baldwin will suddenly turn caustic. "I'm still a nigger shoeshine boy," he says, his eyes freezing over again. "I know whence I came, and I know how I got here. I'm not talking about all that Horatio Alger bullshit, but about the odds against someone like me succeeding. It wasn't because my countrymen loved my big brown eyes."
His single best-known work, The Fire Next Time, still confronts him regularly, in memory and in fact. "That book came at a peculiar moment in U.S. history," he says, looking back, "and that moment won't come again. What you won't face eventually faces you." That is the somber Baldwin, recalling the optimism that flared so brightly such a short time ago and that he can no longer rekindle.
He is almost instantly replaced by the impish Jimmy, with the same book as the trigger. Like so many people who live in or visit New York, Baldwin has a taxi story. "I came in from the airport," he says, "and the cab driver looks back at me and says, 'Jimmy Baldwin! Remember me?' " Eyes widening, Baldwin does a comic mime of incredulity. "I finally admitted that I didn't remember him, and he says, 'You must. I brought you in from the airport back in '62 or '63. You remember, just after you published The Fire Next Door.' " Baldwin repeats the misquoted title to make sure it has registered. "The Fire Next Door," he says, as the laughter wells up. "That was a long time ago," he says, "and I felt like asking him if the house ever burned down."