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White on Black on White: On James Baldwin

Updated on April 9, 2017

James Baldwin

From New York City, b. 1924.
From New York City, b. 1924. | Source

Individuals and Groups

It gets complicated from the outset. Ramping up anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, Hitler urged followers to harden themselves. They must forget Jews once thought completely okay, every bit as true Germans. Sounds ridiculous in 2017, when in post-war Germany, Germans have an uphill battle, if they still want to purify their population. But this is how one engages history. One immerses oneself in it in order to grasp it. Enter James Baldwin, who died in 1987, from whose notes for an unfinished work both a movie and book came about. If you were born in 1987, you are now about thirty years old. Why should you even care? I could not begin to answer. It is everybody else's call but mine. Baldwin was a writer, prior to the day and age when just about anyone with the inclination -- famous, infamous, or not famous -- gets published. There is a big difference between being a writer and being published. Racial politics was a main interest of Baldwin. I wish I had seen the movie to clarify the issue, but even without having seen it, the title generates random, unrelated thoughts. For instance, Blacks, or, if you will, a Black, held the Presidency for eight consecutive years. What is next? Below, I used The Fire Next Time, a 1963 bestseller.

The minor point of this paragraph is only to show how much easier it seems on the surface for Blacks to comment on Whites rather than the other way around, which usually results in clich├ęs and an assortment of superficial, often hypocritical remarks. Then again, Baldwin is just plain good at his craft. He employs his own life, too, to convey personal observations, rather than voice-of-God statements, wherein the author kind of shrinks away in order to find out if his or her words will remain above, like a billboard, or come crashing down. Baldwin speaks on the subject of the Holocaust, too. Instead of phrasing and re-phrasing astonishment at how brutal European Whites had become, Blacks were instead much less surprised. They held a lower opinion of them. Then, there are a series of miscellaneous comments on the Honorable Elijah Mohammad and Black Islam, including the unlikely notion of Blacks obtaining control of six or seven states, for the sake of a just compensation. Sometimes, exaggeration gets a less sensational point across better than spelling it out more rationally. It appears that injustice can never quite be reversed, if only because we cannot time-travel back to the time itself.


MLK, jr.

From the historic 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
From the historic 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial. | Source

The Demographics To Come

Read Patrick J. Buchanan side by side with Baldwin and one is compelled to entertain the additional thought of how neither Black nor White might matter much in comparison to the greater influx of Hispanics. Buchanan is well known for hammering in, not just making, assertions. Projecting into 2025, both Black and White, together, in California, could become a mixed minority. In three decades, things really have changed. One can hear on a 1979 Elvis Costello album, the line, "London is full of Abs". At least that is what I hear. I'm fairly sure it's Arabs. But the crux of the issue is only to show how in almost the same amount of time an observation that made the charts becomes, in Buchanan's book, a much bigger deal. It is demography, not GNPs or military spending, that is changing the world.

By the same token, I read in the book version of I Am Not Your Negro, sketched out in poetic lines, a sermon of some sort that never quite coalesces in my mind. Nonetheless, the use of blanket terms, mostly Blacks and Whites, who are, for the most part, not organizations, also never quite achieves form. I am only saying that taken along with Buchanan's lengthy research on a number of demographic statistics no scriptural-like prophecy ever crystallizes. I am positive that I am not dealing with parallel lines. There is a relationship between one set of principles that favor Blacks and another that laments the descent, if not demise, of Whites, while, at the same time, no significant changes are happening sight unseen. All the same, we deal in the latter case with 2040, 2050, 2060, and beyond. There are just no guarantees. In addition, it might sound trite indeed, but natural changes in ethnic relations require acceptance rather than knee-jerk reactions, which have in the past only fomented regrettable, not long-lasting, actions.

South Africa Apartheid Museum

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Minorities and Majorities

Now, I cannot remember if I read or heard it on a religious channel that one person together with God creates a majority. We are on the lookout should an inspired individual guide or "type" appear. In the meantime, lurking in the background, demonic ideas swirl about, herein purposely unstated, that have to do with population control, breeding, cultural manifestations, and so much else which do not merely border on fear and hysteria but unceremoniously cross over. It might not be out of place to mention on the centennial of the Russian Revolution that no matter how monstrous the "Evil Empire" grew, no utopian idealism articulated by either Lenin or Marx ever matched the real-life concept of the "True Russian". Throughout he was the top of the heap. It is nice of Baldwin to lump Whites together as if they were equal in their own sight. But in all honesty, they despise one another. Nevertheless, the plain fact is, racism is still a fundamental fact of existence -- everywhere.

Still, what Buchanan addresses is not prejudice but birth. Multiple births, that is, has privileges. For instance, if Palestinians vastly improve their population number versus Israelis, at some point in the future, they might be in a position to prevail upon them. From my reading the ratio now stands at something like 5:3 per family, Palestinian to Israeli. This is crazy stuff, to be sure, but no more so than the endless old school debates over relativism. If one hundred say green is red, then the single individual who insists they are wrong is apt to lose. But if two hundred re-enforce the latter, then the pendulum swings to the opposite direction. We, ourselves, are not relativistic. "We," according to the Declaration of Independence, "hold these truths to be self-evident." We deign to even offer proof. They were and remain, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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The Man (Apart From His Work)

What did it take back in the day to make it as a writer? Today it is totally different. But there was a time when becoming a successful writer of fiction, if only thinly disguised as such, was akin to winning a lottery. If you think it was hard work that separated winners from losers, you would be wrong. If you think talent, you are wrong again. Many musicians recall the time when they played three sets nightly and were sent home with a free beer. But this "nightclub" wherein writers dwelt was truly a nightmare. Still, the wannabes kept coming back for more. One of my writer-friends became a teacher on Riker's Island. Another became a professor in the Ivy League. Another kept his "day" job -- a night watchman. Another kind of dropped out and drifted away into the variegated economy. Schooling does not always insure a better lifestyle. After many classes, I didn't know anyone who had sold anything except someone who actually went to Los Angeles with a screenplay. Come to think of it, somebody else followed the same route. The studio system was long gone, but L.A. was still the place. For Baldwin, it was to leave the United States altogether, where, in Paris, he met just about everybody he needed to, and then some, to lift him into the big leagues. So, how do you sum it up? I never found the answer.

The general consensus of opinion at present is that writing, as a bona fide writer, is virtually dead. There are no writers anymore except in the plural. It is part of the money game and probably less. Individuality is also at risk, but that is more than I am bargaining for in this brief hub. I have remarked elsewhere that for a long time the best minds warned us that an open society would eventually replace democracy. This is what we have today, and are now in the process of refining. So, of course, owing to the private nature of book-writing, it would have to go, except insofar as it served the general needs of the entire commonweal. How long has it been since a book stunned the nation? The Bell Curve? That was in 1994. American Psycho? That was in 1991. Regarding the picture above, one might also add, there are no bibles anymore, except in the plural. There are, literally, so many translations, versions, and interpretations based solely on the multiple use and definition of words. In the beginning there was the Word. In the end, words.

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The Movie (Apart From the Man)

In film school, my colleagues and I used to criticize people who talked about movies without first having seen them. Finally, I have had the pleasure. It is easy. However, so as to really be able to endlessly circle round a problem, I found a Raoul Peck movie about the Congo on Amazon Prime. Lumumba (2000) might share something tangential with a Baldwin derivative, but I would rather let it go. You do, however, have a good part of that magical combination, both an excellent writer and director. I do not know how it was intended, but I found the human tragedy of Lumumba fascinating. He liberated his nation, became its first Black Prime Minister, then could not, after only two months, prevent his own assassination. It was the game of local and international politics that the liberator could not successfully master.

Lumumba was also as complicated as he was great. So was Baldwin, after a wholly different fashion. The point is, he is interesting, at least in print. That is all that matters in letters, the page itself, and little else. Black activism feeds into his material, too, which, from the 1950s, still attracts attention. You'll find references to all the seminal names and events as well as sporadic throwbacks about such things as signs marked "colored". The love-hate relationship with church is another factor. The real world keeps calling, wherein science will not permit the existence of angels and demons, nor turn holy bloodlines into scientific topics of interest. Further, so much goes into Baldwin's personal notes, observations, novels, essays, and plays that it is difficult to make sense of the whole. The larger picture always seems to escape.

Prejudice Piled High

"Piled high and deeper," a Florida golfer told me, about what he thought of holding a Ph.D., which I had spent years working on. Baldwin might have had trouble with this guy, too, though he drove a jaguar and had a touching, heart-warming affection for the clubhouse, along with annual membership costs exceeding $20,000. The best advice anyone can give is to never leave home, but everybody does. In any event, Baldwin's essays and novels grapple with issues such as emasculation, inequality, and downright bias. The sexualization of a perceived enemy in order to denigrate his or her image comes early in the history of cinema as well with The Birth of a Nation. So it would have been with Baldwin, too, except for the fact that he is so confessionally clear and honest about everything.

What concerned me, personally, was merely morphological size, especially for a man, as was the case with Baldwin, who did not seem to suffer much from his diminutive stature. He was a writer, after all, and worked in private. If you wanted to see him, you probably had to pay for the privilege. But take Little Jimmy Scott, for instance, a contemporary of Baldwin. He was a jazz vocalist, both short, as indicated above, by way of Lionel Hampton's casually conferred title, and able to hit the high notes so well recordings might indicate he was not male. Since I caught him performing on the comeback road years ago in a venue along NYC's West End Avenue, I kind of know what I'm talking about. He did an outstanding version of Blue Skies I have never heard topped -- not live, that is. This feat might not sound like much, especially to those who do not consider Irving Berlin's lyrics and music anything but archaic, but I took the opposite approach, having worked on standards myself. I was both playing guitar and singing at the time, but could never achieve the selfsame level of achievement on this rather familiar song long since made famous by Al Jolson, if not many others. It was a memorable rendition. At the same time, I had read that Jimmy Scott's career had almost been totally trashed by people, I don't know whom, who kept putting him down for being short.

Quoth the Raven

Nevermore
Nevermore | Source

What Goes Around Comes Around

I do my share of ridiculing others, too, so I cannot exclude myself. At some point, probably on our death beds, the raven will appear on the windowsill. With minutes left to live, possibly only seconds, the uninvited bird's one word mantra will finally take on a meaning we can carry with us into hell. After death, we will not lynch either literally or figuratively. The sad reality is that haters with musical instruments have overtaken true musicians. It is no use trying to reverse the trend. Print matter is so immense and ubiquitous that it is certainly one of the devil's last and best remaining tricks. Once again, we cannot understand one another. Those websites that convert to terror are not going away. Twits are more important than newspaper editorials. The future, however, is no longer about self-gratification through acquisition, or looking toward the arts for a messianic "high". It is about streamlining, downsizing, convictions, beliefs, and collectively forfeiting the terrible world that we have built in the name of pure selfishness and hedonism. It is all over. The nukes are being readied. Here is the fire -- this time.

Author's note: I found out the subject material of this hub was larger and much more substantive than originally thought. So, I ended it on a kind of sour note in an awkward attempt to bring Baldwin up to date. No, the world is not on the brink. But it is, you have to admit, not so very far off either.

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