As I was finishing up James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name, an African-American man was found hanging by a white sheet from a tree near his home in southwestern Mississippi. Not yet ruled a homicide, the very fact that it could be, it might be, in 2015, is nothing short of shocking. “Life matters. I commit to you, as the sheriff of Claiborne County, that I will not allow the shadows of the past to cast a shadow on the future,” said Marvin Lucas Sr.
Much of James Baldwin’s writing dealt with those past shadows in America. While certainly not pollyannish about the chances of putting those shadows finally in the past, Baldwin was remarkably optimistic (if inconsistently so), all things considered, such a possibility existed. But it would require a frank, unsparing discussion of that past, an honest appraisal not only of what happened but the lasting effects of America’s racist history on the present, and going forward into the future. Whether that would happen in Baldwin’s view, fluctuated from essay to essay.
Certainly, Baldwin was willing to have that frank and unsparing discussion about anything and everything including himself. Nobody Knows My Name chronicle’s his “return” of sorts to the U.S. from his self-imposed exile in Europe. He never did repatriate permanently. “In America, the color of my skin had stood between myself and me; in Europe, that barrier was down,” Baldwin writes in the book’s introduction.
What it came to for me was that I no longer needed to fear leaving Europe, no longer needed to his myself from the high and dangerous winds of the world. The world was enormous and I could go anywhere in it I chose – including America: and I decided to return here because I was afraid to.
We read about Baldwin’s first trip to the American south, the ‘Old Country’ as northern African-Americans (like Baldwin was) referred to it. Early into desegregation, he talks to one of the first black students who crossed murderously hostile white lines in order to attend previously white-only schools. His empathy is on full display with the white principal who personally made sure that black student safely crossed those lines.
After the principal tells Baldwin he doesn’t believe it’s ‘right’ that black students attend white schools just because they’re white, he proclaims it’s not because he doesn’t like it or approve of it. “… it was simply contrary to everything he’d ever seen or believed,” Baldwin writes.
He’d never dreamed of a mingling of the races; had never lived that way himself and didn’t suppose that he ever would; in the same way, he added, perhaps a trifle defensively, that he only associated with a certain stratum of white people. But, “I’ve never seen a colored person toward whom I had any hatred or ill-will.”
Rather than simply write this man off as a hopeless racist, Baldwin sees him as ‘gentle and honorable’, and attempts to understand him.
But I could not avoid wondering if he had ever really looked at a Negro and wondered about the life, the aspirations, the universal humanity hidden behind the dark skin.
This is what makes James Baldwin such essential reading, especially to entitled, white, straight guys like I am. For the opportunity to settle into the skin of someone who is none of that, and see the world through their eyes, a perspective almost entirely at odds with ours, and a world in need of fundamental change rather than simply a cosmetic, Benetton make-over. While Baldwin talks about a ‘universal humanity’, it is not one based exclusively on western European/Anglo-American ideals and aspirations.
Not that I’m suggesting Baldwin is some required, dry academic reading. As expressed in a previous book club entry, I remain firm in my belief James Baldwin is truly a magnificent writer, perhaps one of the best I have ever read. He can stop you dead with both his ideas and his style. Rarely do a couple pages go by where you don’t pause to re-read a sentence or a passage, marvelling at the place he brought you to and how he brought you to it.
In Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin not only travels and explores the American south for the first time but he attends the Negro-African Writers and Artists conference (Princes and Powers) where he dissects the notion of some monolithic black identity, exploring the differences between Africans, north and south American blacks, American blacks living abroad. He writes of his encounters with other famous artists, Norman Mailer, Ingmar Bergman. Baldwin eviscerates William Faulkner’s ‘middle of the road’ attitude to southern desegregation and his plea to give southern whites, Faulkner’s people, time to adjust to the new reality. “But the time Faulkner asks for does not exist – and he is not the only Southerner who knows it.”
Perhaps the most moving part of the book comes in the 3 essays Baldwin writes in the wake of the death of another self-exiled black writer, Richard Wright (Alas, Poor Richard, i, ii and iii). A decade and a half younger, Baldwin saw Wright as a mentor, the two having met in New York just as Baldwin set about on his writing career with Wright already well established. Theirs was a fractious relationship, splitting regularly along political lines and that of the role of the artist in society and as part of a ‘cause’. Baldwin is ruthless in his examination of the dynamic between the two men, unafraid to tear to shreds his own inability to overcome the obstacles both threw in the way between them. What becomes crystal clear is the burden a writer (or artist) of colour (or any other differentiation from the established white male heterodoxy) bears to represent their community, their ‘people’. Another privilege, us straight white guys operate freely of.
50+ years after the publication of Nobody Knows My Name, and nearly 30 years after Baldwin’s death, with another black man found, hanging in a tree in Mississippi – the possible appalling cause of death still hanging there with him – it’s difficult to share his belief that such a shameful, repugnant history can somehow be reconciled and overcome. Yet, contemplating an alternative is even less attractive. We should, however, attend to Baldwin’s view of how we must go about hopefully approaching such a reconciliation.
This illusion owes everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us uncomfortable and we handle it very ineptly. The principal effect of our material well-being has been to set the children’s teeth on edge. If we ourselves were not so fond of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be.
– bookishly submitted by Cityslikr