Los Angeles Times

September 26, 2004

The fire that won't be doused
Race. Politics. Sexuality.

James Baldwin's themes endure. So does his influence.

by Lynell George

At first glimpse, the main stage at the Actors Studio theater on Sunset Boulevard looks eerily like a Day of the Dead altar cluttered with midcentury knickknacks, keepsakes to honor a departed spirit.

At center stage, on top of a faded Turkish rug, squats a coffee table piled high with a jumble of a life's odds and ends: a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red; a highball glass; a silver ashtray; a cassette player-recorder; and a thick, worn hardcover, the faded title scrawled across the spine, "Just Above My Head
." Photographs ring the room like visitors: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry. Not too far away, a typewriter lurks — a reminder of the task at hand.

A young man in a thin-lapeled sharkskin suit coat storms about among the mementos, a cigarette awkwardly jammed in his fingers. "I can't do this. I can't talk like Jimmy … I can't hold a
cigarette like James Baldwin. I'm gonna go out there and make a fool out of myself…. "

Out of the shadows, a figure emerges: Thin-lapeled suit of the same era, but darker; skin of the same hue, but duskier; same expression of determination, but wearier.

"Don't worry," the older man comforts the younger. "You understand me more than you think you do…. You need a little more faith in yourself. That's all."

Turning to the audience, the second man steps into the light, surveying the situation with a familiar, wide, inquiring stare: "Look at how this actor is struggling to know me. That shouldn't be … by the time I finish here tonight I'll leave enough of my essence behind so that this dear boy will be able to portray me with passion and fire."

This production, "James Baldwin — Down From the Mountaintop," is one of the many tributes — personal and public — that have sprung up recently to summon the spirit of one of the great voices of American letters, a prophetic writer whose import and impact, for some, has become a vague afterimage in the 17 years since his death

This year, however, a "welcome table" — Baldwin's own metaphorical meeting place for friends and loved ones to gather — is being set. People across the country are remembering the writer in personal ways, pushing his memory out of the wings with a series of books and conferences, art exhibits, stage productions.

An old high school friend and editor, Sol Stein, has just published "Native Sons," a collection of his correspondence with Baldwin and previously unpublished Baldwin manuscripts. Early last month, on what would have been the writer's 80th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a commemorative stamp: Baldwin juxtaposed against the Harlem storefronts he so vividly brought to life. And later this fall, Baldwin will be celebrated at a Pennsylvania conference tentatively titled "I'll Be Somewhere Listening."

James Baldwin was many things: He
was passion and fire. He was poetry and polemic. He was black and homosexual at a moment in history when it could be injurious to be either too loudly. The author of nearly two dozen works of nonfiction, fiction and plays, Baldwin saw few boundaries. He carved out a singular place for himself by tackling controversial themes and subject matter: interracial love ("Another Country"), the masks one dons in search of identity ("Giovanni's Room"), the wounds of racism in America ("Notes of a Native Son").

While his legacy is still deeply felt and far-reaching among older writers, thinkers and academics, a new generation struggles to know him.

"But Jimmy's coming back. Oh, yes, he's coming back!" says Cornel West, professor of religion at Princeton University. "You always got this sense we'd have to wait for another moment in the history of the country to have a deeper appreciation. He told the truth before it was fashionable."

Baldwin wasn't concerned with making things palatable. He was concerned with making things clear — peeling off the layers. Much like the layers actor Calvin Levels had to shave away to play him in his current stage production. "It was more than the cadence and rhythms and the physical behavior," Levels says. It was more than hours of reading and listening to the tapes. "There was something deeper than that that I had to get to — the soul."

"We really haven't had another like him," says New York-based musician and Obie Award-winning writer Carl Hancock Rux. "Someone who challenges race and politics and sexuality — especially an African American — who is listened to by both black and white. For him, it was about being a person."

A voice urgent and urbane

Some may not remember his words, but something of his essence lingers. Those "big ol' eyes," like high-power lenses, that poet Amiri Baraka eulogized; the pursed lips; the ecstatic gap-toothed smile, the hands, gesticulating wildly like birds in flight.

Fueled by his circumstances — an emotionally abusive father and a Harlem childhood he dismissed as "the usual bleak fantasy" — Baldwin began plotting novels early.

One of nine children, he recalls in an early essay that "My mother was given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. As they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a book with the other."

Baldwin's voice is infused with the blues, the church and jazz. It's both urgent and urbane. It's incantatory. He was a voice for black America, but for the benefit of
all of America. "The Negro in America is a social and not a personal or human problem," wrote Baldwin in "Notes of a Native Son." "To think of him is to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence. It is to be confronted with an endless cataloging of losses, gains and skirmishes…. Our dehumanization of the Negro is indivisible from the dehumanization of ourselves."

Baldwin preached that being black — being American — was a multichambered thing, wide, complex and as varied and vivid as one wanted to paint it. One just had to get out, live it.

He acknowledged the crushing effects of racism, anger, hate, but he also acknowledged the redemptive, healing powers of love. Getting across that bridge to understanding meant being vigilant.

He marched, lectured and made himself intimately acquainted with America's most appalling
racial wounds — from the Jim Crow South in the '50s to the unfolding drama in the late '70s and early '80s of the Atlanta child murders in which nearly 30 black children and young adults disappeared — all in an effort to bear witness.

"I think Baldwin reached the conclusion that intellectual and moral integrity were sacred and he would do nothing to undermine it," says West. "He was going to conduct a lover's war with [the] country — and even with the world."

Baldwin took umbrage with the system and politicians of all stripes; he aired intraracial dirty laundry, only to make us all better: "I love America more than any other country in the world," he wrote, "and exactly for this reason insist on the right to criticize it."

He stressed America's collective responsibility, whether it was rebuilding the brick and mortar of decaying neighborhoods or retrofitting America's moldering morale, ever employing the collective Baldwin "we." Art was about "disturbing the peace."

"He had the courage to think and to care and to hope in his own distinctive way," says West, who has been leading a Baldwin revival on his campus and cites Baldwin extensively in his latest book, "Democracy Matters."

"Most people are just optimistic about their own future. Their own lives. That's not hope. He was concerned with what was coming down the historical pipeline. Negroes become free, now we need to care about the kids. He had such gentleness about him … an unbelievable sensitivity and unbelievable work ethic.

"He was a southpaw and he tended to lean into what he was doing at such an awkward angle. You'd see him and say: 'That cat gonna hurt hisself.' He writes like Al Green, all scrunched up, trying to sing a solo."

In the public eye again

Over time, certain writers get "a second bite at the apple," says J. Peder Zane, book review editor for the Raleigh News & Observer and editor of "Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading." Sometimes renewed interest comes with the anniversary of a book's publication or an author's birthday (John Steinbeck), or perhaps a movie tie-in ("The Stepford Wives"); or a book that launched a mini-movement ("Fear of Flying") or mini-industry (Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes).

Sometimes it is a hefty bio (John O'Hara, Somerset Maugham), or a hotly anticipated collection of journals or letters accompanied by a backlist reissue
(Christopher Isherwood, Truman Capote, respectively, due out this fall) that creates a flurry of interest.

But, says Zane, what often brings a writer back into the public eye is an angel: another prominent author and a prime perch. "With Dawn Powell it was Gore Vidal [and her biographer Tim Page]. With [novelist] Paula Fox it was Jonathan Franzen. Two extremely well-known writers, writing in high-profile publications, draw the attention of other people. That draws the tastemakers and they start writing about writers themselves," says Zane.

What ultimately resonates about some authors, though, says Zane, is the timelessness of their message and their prose. "Some people regain our attention because history seems to collide with their interests. They seem to become more relevant, and a champion of the present reminds us of the value of their work."

Unlike a Paula Fox, Baldwin
is still a figure, says Zane. "He was still identified with that struggle, civil rights — not just African American but the struggle of human beings. He will always be known for his beautiful moods and tones. He is not completely obscure, but you need advocates."

Indeed, unlike so many, Baldwin hadn't entirely slipped from the shelves. As well as being an enduring thinker, he has had the good fortune of being tended by several caretakers. His sister Gloria has kept close watch over his prodigious literary estate. There are handsome trade-paper editions of much of the work, and both the Modern Library and Library of America have reissued a sampling of Baldwin's classic works between hardcovers.

And figures like West, Toni Morrison and Henry Louis Gates have had an instrumental hand in keeping Baldwin in the public eye. The short fiction and essays still find their way onto some reading lists. And not long after L.A.'s 1992 civil unrest, many dipped back into their worn copies of "The Fire Next Time" — hoping for an explanation if not a solution.

"The main thing I wanted to do was to resurrect what Baldwin had to say," says Stein, whose new collection includes letters and collaborations forgotten in a banker's box for 40 years.

For Stein, the book was like reentering an unfinished conversation with an old friend: The letters, full of flying caps and over-inked serifs, are full of Baldwin's struggles with writing and life. The reader is also offered a glimpse into the puzzle of putting together "Notes of a Native Son" — risky, for it was not only a collection of essays but a nonfiction debut from a not-yet-well-known Negro writer.

"His voice was distinctive. I don't think anybody could imitate it. He compounds an idea, phrase, clause. Each extends from another. That comes from his years as a preacher. As an essayist, he was one of the best we ever had in this country," says Stein. "Some even think the world."

But that's exactly what has been overlooked. "Baldwin is under-taught," says Noliwe Rooks, associate director of the Program in African American Studies at Princeton University. "There is a whole generation of students who don't know him or don't get him. He fell out of favor. Some of it was the time. While he was radical for the '50s and '60s, black nationalism was in fashion. He fit in the space between DuBois and King in some ways," says Rooks. "So he fell out of favor. We lost him. But there is no one like Baldwin who has the breadth. He was a straight-up, slap-dash genius. He had so much to say about post-civil rights blackness. So I hold him close."

It was back in those early post-civil rights days, when everything was up for grabs and so many were reimagining themselves, that the young poet Quincy Troupe first encountered James Baldwin. "I was a fire-breathing militant and Jimmy, well, he was a Martin Luther King man."

Their first face-to-face meeting was at a party at actor Marlon Brando's house, high up Mulholland Drive. Lots of liquor-sharpened edges and softened inhibitions, Troupe says, and before he knew it, he was in Baldwin's face:

"We got into this argument. He was nonviolent; I wasn't about all of that 'turn the other cheek.' I'd knock the sucker out." Things escalated. They were separated, and the party wound down. But as Troupe was heading out, he felt an insistent finger grinding into his back. " 'Young man. I
love your energy. But you are wrong. Absolutely wrong. Absolutely wrong. Absolutely.' "

It was the beginning of a friendship that would span two decades and two continents. It would be Troupe who would conduct the last interview with Baldwin before his death at his home in France in 1987, putting together a tribute in book form, "James Baldwin: The Legacy" two years later.

"He was always clear and in the moment," recalls Troupe. "He was on high moral ground. You couldn't touch him. You could either ignore him or argue with him, but he was right about so much. He always started with himself, using himself, his body, as a metaphor and then moved out — to the world."

In that way, he's left not just a legacy but a template for going on. Reading Baldwin, says Rux, was like fitting into his written cadences as though they were footsteps.

"I recognized the landscapes he was painting. He was using the 'we' and adamantly including himself. He made … an entrance and stood there. He would not walk away."

The political and the personal were inseparable, as was his writing from his activism. His gift was his ability to write clearly about the nuances and subtleties of race and racism. He found a language to talk about the space that divides.

In a time of strained or empty rhetoric, eulogized Toni Morrison, Baldwin "replaced lumbering platitudes with upright elegance…. [you] un-gated [language] for black people so that in your wake we could enter it."

Frustrations later in life

There was always work to do. And Baldwin was his own stern taskmaster.

"People pay for what they do," he wrote, "and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead."

So Baldwin stayed busy. But living part time in Europe and a shift in the political climate had yet another impact on his presence. In his later years, "Politics got more conservative with Nixon and Reagan — with Carter squished in there later," says Troupe. "It was 'now we need a new Negro to tell us what's going on.' Even among African Americans it shifted. People started reading the women's literature that was on the rise. Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor."

While it was cancer that took his life, those closest to him say he suffered too from a heavy heart. That he was frustrated with the country's progress, America's inability to take a deep look at itself and read between the lines of all the qualify- ers and small print appended to the American Dream.

"He was, in a sense, looking for a miracle," says Stein. "It was a miracle that happened in our own friendship. I wasn't white. He wasn't black. He wanted us to think about each other as human beings. The one race he cared about was the human race."

These days, many go to Baldwin's works as a place to get nourished, not just fed. "I really just wanted to honor him," says Don Jackson, who is coordinating the conference in Pennsylvania. "When I was a young child struggling with racism, my sexuality, I knew it wasn't OK to talk about it. Baldwin was the only one I let into my world. He became my invisible mentor. He just really spoke to my spirit."

"You know how some writers literally write in colors?" asks Rux. "His are … beautiful, spiritual tones of grays. It became a large part of how I looked at the world and write about myself in the world.

"I knew that I wanted to do that one day. Baldwin was locating all the rooms in my house, even the ones that I hadn't gotten to. I think that was the greatest gift. It was a guided tour to the rooms you hadn't yet walked into."

A black man's voice for all of America

James Baldwin's writing was as much a cry for the human race as for civil rights — he was never able to separate the two. His pleas are as resonant now as they were 50 years ago. Love was always at the heart of his beliefs. Here is a sampling of Baldwin's writing through the decades:

"A person does not lightly elect to oppose his society. One would much rather be at home among one's compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. And there is a level on which the mockery of people, even their hatred, is moving because it is so blind: It is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction. I think black people have always felt this about America, and Americans, and have always seen spinning above the thoughtless American head, the shape of the wrath to come."

— From "No Name in the Street," 1972

"We are all androgynous … because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair and so, very often, do I.  But none of us can do anything about it."

— From the 1985 essay "Here Be Dragons," from the collection "The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985"

"Vivaldo put one arm around Rufus and pushed him ahead into Benno's Bar…. The bar was terribly crowded. Advertising men were there, drinking double shots of bourbon or vodka on the rocks; college boys made terrified efforts to attract the feminine attention but succeeded in attracting each other …. Black and white couples were together — closer now than they would be later, when they got home. These several histories were camouflaged in the jargon…. Only the jukebox spoke…."

— From the novel "Another Country," 1962


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