SEPTEMBER 4, 2017
IN THE EARLY to mid-1960s, when he was nearing the age of 40, a little more than a decade after his first book was published, the novelist, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin — who died 30 years ago this fall, at age 63 — began referring to himself as a blues singer. His artistic forebears, he was suggesting, were not the likes of the writer Henry James — who had obviously influenced his style — but figures such as the vocalist Bessie Smith. He did not, of course, mean it literally: Baldwin did not begin physically singing the blues. He noted in one essay, “Down at the Cross,” that he “could not sing,” and he admitted in another piece, “The Uses of the Blues,” that “I don’t know anything about music.” What he meant, rather, was that for him, writing had come to serve the same purpose as the work of a blues singer.
A widespread idea about the blues is that it is the sad music of the down-and-out, which feeds the unconscious belief that those who sing the blues, literally or metaphorically, are a certain category of people, one whose ranks we will, with luck and proper care, never join. But in truth the blues is a testimony to the inescapable conditions of everyone’s life, which of its very nature includes suffering. The blues is not the cry of those too dumb or unlucky to avoid unnecessary strife, but a response to human truths which we must all face sooner or later. Further, the blues is not really a “cry” at all. A cry suggests that one is so much in the grip of emotion that he or she has lost control, and perhaps the first requirement of art is that the artist be in control of the tools of the given medium — whether the tool is the brush, horn, voice, or written word. The blues, then, as an art form, is a disciplined, controlled, and thoughtful response to the conditions of human life, a process of transcending our troubles by facing them squarely. It is what the cultural critic Albert Murray called “music for good times earned in adversity.”
What does it mean for a writer to say that he is a blues singer? Baldwin seems to have had in mind at least two things. One was to testify to the conditions not only of everyday human life, but to the peculiar and intolerable conditions facing American blacks, conditions from which, again, no amount of care on their own part was sufficient to save them — racism, to put it simply. But in a way, this mission was tied to the necessity of facing the truths of ordinary life. It was Baldwin’s contention that many white Americans sought to enjoy an exalted status, and thus to triumph over, or at least distract themselves from, the condition we all face — ultimately, death. This necessitated someone to be exalted above, a role black Americans filled nicely. It was necessary to keep blacks in their place so that whites could enjoy theirs; thus could white racists avoid facing the facts of life. This was a self-perpetuating cycle: the more whites felt the need to avoid truths, the greater the effort that went into keeping blacks in their place, and the more brutal those efforts, the greater white guilt became; the stronger the guilt, the greater the necessity of avoiding truth, when doing so was the very root of the evil. So by saying that he was a blues singer, Baldwin meant that like all blues singers, he was concerned with facing the truth, and having his countrymen, of all colors, do the same.
But Baldwin also had something else in mind, which was to begin to bring the sensibility, rhythms, and beat of the blues — of black American music in general, including jazz — to the written word. He had, he wrote, long used the English language as it existed to imitate the styles of great white writers, but now he hoped to recreate that language for his own purposes, not to imitate anything but to use the blues sound to share his experiences. The irony here is that Baldwin’s success in writing like a blues singer is, at best, arguable, while his other purpose was one he had been accomplishing all along: being a blues singer in the sense of facing his own truth and pain and those of his countrymen.
Baldwin’s own pain, his own blues, had many sources. He was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem Hospital, in the neighborhood that was to shape him. He was illegitimate; his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, was not yet 20 years old, and for a short while, the boy who would become the greatest of all African-American writers was named James Jones. In 1927, Emma Jones married David Baldwin, a transplant from the South and a much older man, possibly born before the Emancipation of 1863. His stepson, James Jones, became James Arthur Baldwin. James Baldwin was a teenager when his mother told him that David was not his biological father, and James was never to learn who that man was. The news came as a great disappointment to him.
Baldwin told an interviewer when he was about 50 that he “never had a childhood,” and one meaning of that statement has to be that he was too busy helping raise other children to be one himself. The Baldwin family eventually included nine kids. David Baldwin worked in a factory, earning very low wages, and the family lived in appalling poverty, with barely enough to eat. Scarcely able to provide for his family, or to combat the racism and segregation of the era, or to control any element of his life, David Baldwin became embittered, hating the white world and keeping an emotional distance from his family. (His wife called him “Mr. Baldwin.”) He often beat his children, and even his intermittent efforts to relate to his family ended in disaster: as Baldwin wrote in the essay “Notes of a Native Son,” whenever his father
took one of his children on his knee to play, the child always became fretful and began to cry; when he tried to help one of us with our homework the absolutely unabating tension which emanated from him caused our minds and our tongues to become paralyzed, so that he, scarcely knowing why, flew into a rage, and the child, not knowing why, was punished. […] I do not remember, in all those years, that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home.
Ironically, this dark-spirited man aimed to bring light to others as a preacher, though not with much success, going “from church to smaller and more improbable church” and finding himself “in less and less demand,” as Baldwin put it.
When James Baldwin’s perceptions moved beyond his wretched home life to the surrounding streets, he saw what awaited him and others his age. “Crime became real […] — for the first time — not as a possibility but as the possibility,” he wrote in “Down at the Cross,” the first of two essays in The Fire Next Time. “One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account.” Baldwin went on to add that every boy in his situation
realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is. It was this last realization that terrified me and — since it revealed that the door opened on so many dangers — helped to hurl me into the church.
At 14, Baldwin became a boy preacher. Because he had a feel for it, and because his youth was a draw, he proved to be more popular in the pulpit than his own father, the first but not last father figure Baldwin would take satisfaction in besting.
Among James Baldwin’s many gifts was that of facing and dealing with truths. Over his three years as a teenage preacher, he came to view the church as an institution founded not on love but on fear, self-protection, and exclusion, as a way of preparing for a world that was assuredly better than this one while remaining unconcerned about the fate of those outside one’s narrow circle. Baldwin had revealed himself by this time as an extremely bright boy and attended the prestigious public high school DeWitt Clinton, where many of his classmates were Jews; the belief that his friends there would suffer eternal damnation because of the accident of their heritage seemed to him both false and wrong. He also saw that the church to which he belonged had no love or use for whites generally, Christian or otherwise. And while Baldwin could have easily remained in a comfortable niche in the church, whose music he loved and whose texts would help inspire the fire and cadence of his writing, he knew that to be true to himself and his own beliefs he had to leave the church. He felt himself to be a writer, not a preacher, and as he often put it, he “left the pulpit to preach the gospel.”
Baldwin was similarly honest with himself with regard to other matters, including his sexuality and what awaited him in a country defined by racial animosity. As a young man he dated women but also became involved with men, and he seems never to have made an attempt to hide that — “I’ve loved a few men; I loved a few women” was how he put it. What seems to have been the harder adjustment was the recognition that his father had been right regarding one thing, which Baldwin referred to in “Notes of a Native Son” as “the weight of white people in the world.” Baldwin left home in his late teens to find work in a defense plant in New Jersey during World War II, and he wrote of simply not believing, initially, how he was treated in the whites-only restaurants and other establishments he encountered. He recalled vividly the bitterness and anger these experiences created in him, particularly on one night, when he became violent in a restaurant where he was told for the umpteenth time, “We don’t serve Negroes here.” After coming perilously close to getting himself killed, Baldwin realized, as he put it, that his life was in real danger, “not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.” And it was this realization that led him, with no knowledge of French and nearly no money, to Paris.
By the time he left the United States, in November 1948, Baldwin had begun writing for the literary journals, such as Commentary, that would help make his reputation before the publication of his first novel, but these short pieces did not bring him any fortune. In Paris, Baldwin found personal poverty to rival what he had known in the United States, and once that was relieved somewhat by the publication of his first two novels, he discovered something harder to escape: that as much as Europe was a sanctuary in some ways from the evils of America, he was, in fact, an American. This was brought home to him, in part, by news of the civil rights struggles he was missing in his time overseas. Baldwin could not truly live as a free man in the country of his birth, but in Europe he could not escape the feeling that he was in hiding and was not where he really ought to be.
And so we begin to see the sources of James Baldwin’s blues: being a man without a country, being gay at a time when homosexuality was not only widely decried but could be punished by law, being a despised outsider in his native land, a minority within a minority. These were the blues he set out to sing, in stories, essays, and novels, and as befits the definition of the blues discussed earlier, he did so with great control and with a detachment and wisdom that let him recognize his troubles for what they were, and begin to transcend them. And he attempted to do the same for his native country.
A core fact about the blues is that, while a creation of black Americans, it is also a hybrid form; it combines elements of European melody with black vocal styles, sensibilities, rhythms, and the presence of bent, or “blue,” notes — the flatted fifths and sevenths, for example, that account in part for the music’s special sound. From the beginning of his career, James Baldwin was a literary blues singer in the sense that the rhythms of his prose combined the formal control of writers of European descent, whose works he had read from childhood, with the rhythms, repetition, and rising cadence of sermons in the black church. Consider a passage from the very first page of Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, when he was living in France. The novel is about the Grimeses, a Harlem family much like Baldwin’s, and its first page describes the family’s routine on Sundays:
They all rose together on that day; his father, who did not have to go to work, and led them in prayer before breakfast; his mother, who dressed up on that day, and looked almost young, with her hair straightened, and on her head the close-fitting white cap that was the uniform of holy women; his younger brother, Roy, who was silent that day because his father was home.
That passage is a single sentence, containing three semicolons and eight commas, a long, flowing river of words that would have made Baldwin’s beloved Henry James proud and that is representative of Baldwin’s style. Notice, at the same time, the repetition of “that day,” which is not strictly necessary for the sake of providing information but evokes church rhythms; one can imagine this passage being spoken from a pulpit, where each uttering of “that day” would add an almost indefinable dimension to the words, allowing the listener to reflect each time on a different aspect of their meaning.
Baldwin, as already noted, was a proponent of facing the truths of one’s life, of a singing of the blues that involved confrontations, not with others but with oneself. Many of the most significant passages in both his fiction and nonfiction recount either these confrontations or their tragic absence. The character John Grimes in Go Tell It on the Mountain, whose experiences were inspired by those of Baldwin, undergoes a confrontation with himself in the form of a religious conversion at church, feeling physically helpless while the forces of God and Satan struggle for command of his soul and his fellow believers pray loudly in order to “pull him through.” A passage from the near the end of the novel captures, at once, both the notion of confrontation and the blues-like literary hybridization that was Baldwin’s hallmark. This music-like passage contains three sentences; the third one fills nine of the passage’s 11 printed lines and repeats words strategically, with certain repetitions succeeding others that die away:
And something moved in John’s body which was not John. He was invaded, set at naught, possessed. This power had struck John, in the head or in the heart; and, in a moment, wholly, filling him with an anguish that he could never in his life have imagined, that he surely could not endure, that even now he could not believe, had opened him up; had cracked him open, as wood beneath the axe cracks down the middle, as rocks break up; had ripped him and felled him in a moment, so that John had not felt the wound, but only the agony, had not felt the fall, but only the fear; and lay here, now, helpless, screaming, at the very bottom of darkness.
Whereas John Grimes of Go Tell It on the Mountain undergoes a confrontation with the self to preserve his soul, David — the protagonist of Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room — avoids confronting himself, leading to the death of his soul and the physical death of his male lover, the title character. At a time when book companies hesitated to publish novels with homosexual themes for fear of lawsuits, when there were quite a few writers who were gay but very few gay writers, Baldwin boldly took on the subject of homosexual love with Giovanni’s Room, published in 1956, while he was abroad. (In another daring move, he followed up the success of his debut novel not with another book about black characters but with one in which there are none.) David, a white American who is engaged to be married, comes to Paris, where he falls into an affair with Giovanni. When David’s fiancée comes to Paris, David distances himself from Giovanni; the distraught Giovanni sinks to prostitution and, eventually, murder, for which he is guillotined. David, meanwhile, indulges his homosexual yearnings in secret while on the surface embracing a socially acceptable lifestyle. The novel’s ending passage, however, suggests the impossibility of outrunning the self. David receives a letter informing him of Giovanni’s execution; Baldwin writes,
I take the blue envelope which Jacques has sent me and tear it slowly into many pieces, watching them dance in the wind, watching the wind carry them away. Yet, as I turn and begin walking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me.
David fails to sing his own blues, with tragic consequences.
Between his first two novels, Baldwin had published his first book of nonfiction, the 1955 essay collection Notes of a Native Son. The title piece is an achingly honest and unsentimental nonfiction blues song about Baldwin’s relationship with his father, the realizations at which he arrives with regard to race in the United States, and the lesson he took from his father’s life, which is that, as Baldwin put it, “nothing is ever escaped.” That is the truth behind the ending of Giovanni’s Room; it is, indeed, the animating idea at the center of Baldwin’s greatest works. We can escape nothing, but we can transcend much, provided we take on the task of simply confronting the truth. Baldwin knew this to be a very difficult task — there is probably no word that recurs more often in Baldwin’s work than “terrifying” — but he also knew it to be necessary. And for Baldwin, the second part of that task was to infuse his writing with that truth. He wrote in the introduction to his second essay collection, Nobody Knows My Name (1961), “[S]elf-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford. His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are.”
As the 1950s wore on, Baldwin felt another self-confrontation looming. As James Campbell notes in his excellent 1991 biography of Baldwin, Talking at the Gates, two occurrences in 1956 went a long way toward leading the writer back to his native land. In Paris, Baldwin attended the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists. The preeminent, outspoken black scholar, writer, and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois had been invited to the conference but could not attend, instead sending a message that was read aloud to the conferees: “I am not present at your meeting because the US government will not give me a passport. Any American travelling abroad today must either not care about Negroes or say what the State Department wishes him to say.”
The very next day, walking down a Paris street, Baldwin passed newsstands that all carried papers with the image of a 15-year-old black girl in Charlotte, North Carolina, who had tried in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education to enter what was up until then an all-white public school. Barring her way into the school was a mob of white men, women, and children who threatened violence and screamed taunts. The girl’s brave action, carried out while Baldwin wrote in Paris cafes, eventually led him to conclude that it was time to go home.
In 1957, Baldwin returned to the United States, where he got assignments from high-profile magazines to cover civil rights activities and general conditions for blacks in the South. This constituted the writer’s first visit to the region that had produced his stepfather and that had served as the setting for portions of Go Tell It on the Mountain. There, greeted by rank-and-file whites who did not know who he was, treated not as a famous writer but as just another black man and, therefore, just another second-class citizen, he was shocked though not surprised by what he observed and experienced. The bravery of the activists he met would inspire his own activism.
And yet, having faced his need to return home, Baldwin did not, as others might have, allow his pride in having accepted that truth to blind him to others; he did not permit his new fellowship with other blacks to cloud his view of them. His gaze continued to penetrate, and as a result his reportage went beyond the constraints, false authority, and pigeonholing that mars the work of many journalists. He plumbed below the surface, he acknowledged uncertainty where he felt it, and he acknowledged that blacks, as embattled and as in-the-right as they might be, were human beings and were not admirable simply by nature of being black. This could be an inconvenient truth, but it was one Baldwin faced; here was the blues singer as reporter. Consider a passage from “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” published in Harper’s Magazine in February 1961. Even in his very positive profile of Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin — in praising King — also tells the truth as he sees it with regard to other blacks of King’s profession and stature:
[T]he Reverend King is not like any preacher I have ever met before. For one thing, to state it baldly, I liked him. It is rare that one likes a world-famous man — by the time they become world-famous they rarely like themselves, which may account for this antipathy. Yet King is immediately and tremendously winning, there is really no other word for it. […]
I was not there in a professional capacity, and the questions I wanted to ask him had less to do with his public role than with his private life. When I say “private life” I am not referring to those maliciously juicy tidbits, those meaningless details, which clutter up the gossip columns and muddy everybody’s mind and obliterate the humanity of the subject as well as that of the reader. I wanted to ask him how it felt to be standing where he stood, how he bore it, what complex of miracles had prepared him for it. But such questions can scarcely be asked, they can scarcely be answered.
And King does not like to talk about himself. I have described him as winning, but he does not give the impression of being particularly outgoing or warm. His restraint is not, on the other hand, of that icily uneasy, nerve-wracking kind to be encountered in so many famous Negroes who have allowed their aspirations and notoriety to destroy their identities and who always seem to be giving an uncertain imitation of some extremely improbable white man. No, King impressed me then and he impresses me now as a man solidly anchored in those spiritual realities concerning which he can be so eloquent. This divests him of the hideous piety which is so prevalent in his profession, and it also saves him from the ghastly self-importance which, until recently, was all that allowed one to be certain one was addressing a Negro leader. […] What he says to Negroes he will say to whites; and what he says to whites he will say to Negroes. He is the first Negro leader in my experience, or the first in many generations, of whom this can be said; most of his predecessors were in the extraordinary position of saying to white men, Hurry, while saying to black men, Wait.
Baldwin’s activities back in the United States did not qualify him as a civil rights worker, but he was involved with the movement in his own way, debating the subject on television, for example, with personalities as different as Malcolm X and the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley. As befit a writer, his main contribution to the cause was literary. And a theme he often sounded in the late 1950s and early 1960s had its parallels with the blues. As has been discussed, Baldwin’s style, like the blues, was a hybrid form, a product of those of African descent and those of European ancestry. Baldwin saw the United States itself in much the same way; in his view, given the miscegenation that had taken place for centuries in America, racial hatred and discrimination were less an instance of one people mistreating another than an instance of a family abusing its members. Interracial friendships and romances were very much a part of Baldwin’s third, highly celebrated novel, Another Country (1962). And the idea of a shared black and white fate was a central idea in what is perhaps Baldwin’s most powerful piece of writing, the short nonfiction book The Fire Next Time. The book’s first section, “My Dungeon Shook,” called on black Americans to respond to whites with love, not for moral reasons but because blacks, in his view, constituted whites’ only means of seeing themselves and their lives clearly. It was through love, Baldwin felt, that blacks could perhaps make their white countrymen see the wrong of what they were doing and had long done to others, and it was love that might cure whites of what, in Baldwin’s view, was the greatest of all sins: innocence — not innocence in the sense of doing nothing wrong, but in the sense of being unaware. This kind of innocence had to do, as well, with an innocence concerning the true facts of life, the truth that one could not escape one’s ultimate fate — death — through a status that depended on the subjugation of others. Baldwin writes in the book’s second section, “Down at the Cross”:
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. […] It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant — birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love.
And, indeed, another term for this confrontation with, and celebration of, the constants of life, is “singing the blues.”
The 1960s is often remembered as a decade of great and positive change, but for many who lived through it, the change came at a great cost and was at times hard to discern. It must have seemed that for every stirring and uplifting line spoken by Martin Luther King, there was a corresponding tragedy, an act of senseless and sickening violence. For those hearing of the murder of Medgar Evers; the bombing of the Birmingham church in which four black girls perished; the killings of the civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; and other brutal acts, the cumulative emotional toll was great. Evers had been a friend of Baldwin’s, and Baldwin had other friends who were severely beaten as a result of their civil rights work. All of this not only saddened and angered Baldwin, but also led him to question his commitment to the course of nonviolence and the possibility of achieving change through love. It also seems to have led him to question the wisdom of seeking to become one with those who were dead-set against changing their ways.
This shift in Baldwin had implications for his writing. He began to question, as well, his association with symbols of the racist society in which he lived, including the English language itself. He would remain, of course, a writer, and one who wrote in English. He had already begun referring to himself as a blues singer when, in 1964, he published the essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” in which he wrote:
My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.
In support of this possibility, I had two mighty witnesses: my black ancestors, who evolved the sorrow songs, the blues, and jazz, and created an entirely new idiom in an overwhelmingly hostile place; and Shakespeare, who was the last bawdy writer in the English language. […]
I was listening very hard to jazz and hoping, one day, to translate it into language, and Shakespeare’s bawdiness became very important to me since bawdiness was one of the elements of jazz.
Baldwin refers here to blues and jazz, two different but closely related forms. Much of jazz is based on the blues, but I would argue that where blues represents an approach to living, jazz carries the rhythm and bent notes of the blues to an approach to music. Jazz is often, in addition, an investigation of music: jazz versions of pop tunes, for example, involve a remaking of songs by taking them apart and putting them back together in a different way, in the process seeing what they are made of, even as new elements are added as the result of improvisation. By writing that the English language “reflected none of my experience,” Baldwin was perhaps suggesting the need for a remaking of language that would show what his experiences were, what they were made of.
How well did Baldwin succeed in the task he set for himself? The answer is complicated. In some cases his sentences took on an improvisatory freedom, with shorter sentences and fewer commas holding the various clauses in place; as a result the rhythm was faster, much like up-tempo jazz solos. Listen to the beginning of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, from 1968, the first novel Baldwin began writing after announcing his intention to write with the beat of jazz and blues:
The heart attack was strange — fear is strange. I knew I had been working too hard. I had been warned. But I have always worked too hard. I came offstage at the end of the second act. I felt hot and I was having trouble catching my breath. But I knew that I was tired. I went to my dressing room and poured myself a drink and put my feet up. Then I felt better. I knew I had about twenty-five minutes before I was due onstage. I felt very bitterly nauseous and I went to the bathroom but nothing happened. Then I began to be afraid, rather, to sit or lie down again and I poured myself another drink and left my dressing room to stand in the wings. I had begun to sweat and I was freezing cold. The nausea came back, making me feel that my belly was about to rise to the roof of my head. The stage manager looked at me just as I heard my cue. I carried his face onstage with me. It had looked white and horrified and disembodied in the eerie backstage light. I wondered what had frightened him. Then I realized that I was having trouble finding my positions and having trouble hearing lines. Barbara delivered her lines. I knew the lines, I knew what she was saying, but I did not know how to relate to it, and it took an eternity before I could reply. Then I began to be frightened and this, of course, created and compounded the nightmare, made me realize that I was in the middle of a nightmare. I moved about that stage, I don’t know how, dragging my lines up from the crypt of memory, praying that my moves were right — for I had lost any sense of depth or distance — feeling that I was sinking deeper and deeper into some icy void. “Shall we ring down the curtain?” Barbara whispered, and “No!” I shouted or whispered back. At one point in the scene I was called upon to laugh and when I laughed I began to cough. I was afraid the cough would never stop, some horrible-tasting stuff came up, which I was forced to swallow, and then, suddenly, everything passed, everything became as clear and still and luminous as day. I got through a few more lines, and I thought, Hell, it’s over, I’m all right, and then something hit me in the chest, tore through my chest to my backbone and almost knocked me down. I couldn’t catch my breath to deliver my lines. They covered for me. I knew we were approaching the end of the act. I prayed that I could stand up that long. I made a few more moves, I delivered a few more lines. […] The curtain came down. I heard the crash of applause, like the roar of a cataract far away, and for the first time I heard the sound of my own breathing, it was louder than the cataract. I took a step and fell to my knees, then I was on the floor, then I was being carried, then I was in my dressing room. I was trying to speak, but I couldn’t speak. It was Barbara’s face above me that told me how ill I was. Her brown hair fell over her face, half hiding it, and her storm-colored eyes stared into mine with the intention of communicating something which I had to know, but did not know. “Be still,” she said, “don’t move. Don’t speak.”
But I wanted to ask her to forgive me for so many errors, so many fears.
Note the difference in rhythm between that passage and the passages I cited earlier. Here we see the vitality of an improvised piece of music, as opposed to the formal beauty of one that is composed note for note — a tradeoff.
Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone is one of Baldwin’s most critically reviled works, lambasted by reviewers, then and since, and perhaps justifiably, for having little or nothing in the way of a plot, among other faults. And yet I would argue that of all of Baldwin’s works of fiction, it comes the closest to an examination of the demons of his adult life. Leo Proudhammer, the novel’s narrator, as the just-cited passage makes clear, is an actor. Baldwin himself did not ultimately become an actor, though he had some theatrical experience and was temperamentally suited to the profession. He was — and I do not mean this term in its homophobic, pejorative sense — something of a drama queen (he also seems to have been a bit of a hypochondriac). He was small and not conventionally handsome but a natural entertainer, and he drew people to him easily. As already noted, he claimed to have loved a few men and loved a few women — indeed, there were more than a few, of different races — but he did not create a life with any of them, and a man of Baldwin’s reflective nature must have given some thought as to why. Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone finds the narrator, Leo, looking back on three loves of his life: Barbara, a white woman and fellow actor; Christopher, a younger black man; and Leo’s own older brother, Caleb, with whom, at one point, Leo engages in a physical act of love — not lust, but love, an outward manifestation of a very close emotional connection. The “errors” and “fears” for which Leo wants Barbara’s forgiveness are no doubt reflections of what Baldwin perceived as his own personal failures. The novel is thus a jazzlike reconfiguration of Baldwin’s own life, with existing parts examined and rearranged and new parts added.
Ironically, as the jazz musician in Baldwin came to the fore, the blues singer he claimed to be suffered a setback. It was not so much that he abdicated the blues singer’s role — looking squarely at the truth — as that the terrible events of the 1960s led him to view that truth, or whatever can be said to be truth, through the lens of his own bitterness. The Fire Next Time, published in 1963, had called for blacks to love whites, in spite of everything; Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, appearing five years later, ends with a passage in which one black character, Christopher, says, “[W]e need us some guns,” and Leo replies, “Yes. […] I see that.”
The shift in Baldwin’s thinking from love to guns might seem at first glance to mirror the shift in the black liberation struggle of the time, the move from the love-and-nonviolence message preached by Martin Luther King to the “by any means necessary” call uttered by Malcolm X and taken up by Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, and the Black Power movement. But whereas the black revolutionaries of the late 1960s who advocated violence, or at least were not opposed to it, had rejected love in favor of an energizing anger, Baldwin felt rejected by love and felt himself in danger of an exhausted despair. His nonfiction work No Name in the Street, a memoir of sorts published in 1972, is a very good, often angry book that is nonetheless written in the key of resignation. Its ending is similar to that of The Fire Next Time, but with this crucial difference: Fire warned of what was to come if America did not change its ways; No Name in the Street seemed to suggest that the die was cast. Black people “have always seen,” he wrote, “spinning above the thoughtless American head, the shape of the wrath to come.”
Baldwin had one more good nonfiction book in him: The Devil Finds Work, from 1976, which focuses on film. That work, along with No Name in the Street and pages from Baldwin’s never-completed book “Remember This House,” provides much of the voice-over — spoken by Samuel L. Jackson — in Raoul Peck’s excellent 2016 documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. But Baldwin’s days as a novelist of any power ended with Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and, indeed, some would have said they ended earlier than that. If Beale Street Could Talk, from 1974, is a thin work whose poor, 19-year-old, female narrator often seems to speak in the voice of a certain world-famous middle-aged writer; Just Above My Head, from 1979, is a lumbering, ponderous affair, which, published by someone else, would have seen its author accused of plagiarizing Baldwin’s earlier works, as a friend of mine put it. Baldwin’s final full-length nonfiction effort, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, published in 1985 — two years before his death — is the work of a writer who has lost his way, a singer whose voice is gone.
It may be better, then, especially with regard to Baldwin’s fiction, to remember his earlier work. A fitting place to conclude reflections on a writer who self-identified as a blues singer is with a passage from one of his most celebrated short stories, “Sonny’s Blues.” In that tale of a jazz piano player, Baldwin has his narrator tell us,
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.
And Baldwin’s triumph, when he triumphed, was ours.