Originally published in 1955, James Baldwin's first nonfiction book has become a classic. These searing essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and Americans abroad remain as powerful today as when they were written. "He named for me the things you feel but couldn't utter. . . . Jimmy's essays articulated for the first time to white America what it meant to be American and a black American at the same time."
They are all well-written. The ones I connected with most strongly were the first person "I" ones, as opposed to the ones where he takes a more distanced, professorial tone. It is disturbing to read about his and others' experiences with "We don't serve Negroes" and the like. I grew up beyond that particular time, but the schools in my town weren't desegregated until the mid-60s. Our struggles today with more subtle racism (e.g. in hiring and advancement to leadership, police misconduct, or even less overt hostility in restaurants) are frustrating and at times outrageous, but the America he describes is an outright nightmare. The rage he and others felt was justified and inevitable.
I've been the only white guy in any number of situations - wonderful, friendly, neutral, uncomfortable, dangerous - but I cannot truly and fully imagine a role reversal where I had to deal with such racism on a daily basis. His book certainly brings a lot of that home, especially in the more personal essays.
The brightest jewel of this collection is "Notes of a Native Son", which is set in 1943, the year that his stepfather died. He vividly describes the racially charged climate, when black soldiers were brutally mistreated and the daily racial strife led to riots in several US cities; his experiences working at a munitions factory in New Jersey and a explosion of anger toward a waitress who refused to serve him at a restaurant, which nearly led to his death at the hands of a white mob; his diificult and complicated relationship with his father, who died just before Baldwin 19th birthday; and a Harlem riot that occurs just after his father's funeral, triggered by a confrontation between a white city policeman and a black soldier on leave.
Baldwin makes a powerful statement of the complexity of black and white relations, and each group's hatred toward the other:
"One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene. Amputation is swift but time may prove that amputation was not necessary--or one may delay the amputation too long. Gangrene is slow, but it is impossible to be sure that one is reading one's symptoms right. The idea of going through life as a cripple is more than one can bear, and equally unbearable is the risk of swelling up slowly, in agony, with poison. And the trouble, finally, is that the risks are real even if the choices do not exist."
Baldwin's father was a preacher, but he was not very good, due to his bitterness and inability to connect with others. Baldwin was a successful child preacher, which won the admiration and love of his father. However, once Baldwin decided that he wanted to abandon the pulpit and dedicate his life to writing, he incurred the wrath of his father, and they rarely spoke after that.
Baldwin writes about a visit he took with his mother and aunt to visit his father at a hospital on Long Island, the last time he would see him alive:
"It was on the 28th of July...that I visited my father for the first time during his illness and for the last time in his life. The moment I saw him I knew why I had put off this visit so long. I had told my mother that I did not want to see him because I hated him. But this was not true. It was only that I had hated him and I wanted to hold on to this hatred. I did not want to look on him as a ruin: it was not a ruin I had hated. I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain."
The last part of the book concerns his life as an expatriate living in Europe after World War II. "Encounter on the Seine" describes the experiences of American blacks living in Paris, particularly the awkward interactions with white Americans, Parisians, and Africans. In "Equal in Paris" he is imprisoned in a Parisian jail for eight days for a crime that he did not commit. In the last essay, "Stranger in the Village", he is invited to spend time at the home of a friend in a small Swiss village whose residents have never seen a black man.
I did not enjoy this book as well as The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Things Not Seen, two of his other nonfiction books. However, the title essay is searing and brilliant, and the book overall is a worthwhile read to learn about the black experience in America and Europe in the mid-20th century.
Although the essays are all from 60+ years ago, there is nothing dated about Baldwin's observations, whether it is his wry commentary on Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin", Richard Wright's "Native Son", Otto Preminger's film version of "Carmen Jones" or his description of the 1943 Harlem Riot, the experience of his brother's jazz vocal group The Melodeers being exploited by so-called "progressive" political forces or the story of Baldwin's own jailing during over a Christmas season in Paris, France.
I listened to the 2015 audiobook edition from Blackstone Audio which includes Baldwin's 30th anniversary foreword from 1985. The narration by Ron Butler was very well done.
I picked the book up on account of being blown away (at least twice) by Giovanni's Room, but this was a pretty poor choice for a vacation read. Baldwin is a very smart writer and the subject matter leads him into some technical passages composed in a fairly academic style. The literary criticism in the first two essays (‘Everybody's Protest Novel’ and ‘Many Thousands Gone’) went pretty much over my head.
However, the essays that drew from his experiences with his father and his time in Europe were more readable and do a wonderful job of conveying nuanced emotion. The autobiographical stuff seems to loaded towards the back of the collection, so don't give up if you are having trouble starting out.
Baldwin exposed me to many ideas that were new to me, and, I felt, educated me so clearly on his perspective in ways that evoked surprising, visceral sympathy. I was surprised and pleased with what he made me learn and what he made me felt.
These are essays, memoirs of a sort, which detail the Negro experience in America in the early 1900s. It is not pretty. It is not easy reading, but it is an exploration of what constant degradation does to the soul. I wept. My heart breaks, and I am anguished that in spite of the many practical changes in our society such as integration and equal opportunity laws, there is still the undercurrent of hatred and distrust. One can change the circumstances, and one should, but who can mend the heart?