Apprenticing with the Dead: A Strong Dose of Truth (James Baldwin)

The last time that I read James Baldwin’s collected essays (in the Library of America edition) was 2006, on a road trip from Minneapolis to Cleveland to see my mentor, who was active in the civil rights movement and had put Baldwin on the list of African-American Writers You Absolutely Must Read. (It’s a very long list.)

It’s about time that I took up that collection again, but here are the things I remember from the last go-round.

The collection spans Baldwin’s entire career, and I watched his essayist’s voice evolve from addressing a ‘we’ that was white, male, and well-to-do (the presumed audience for literary or political commentary in the 1940s) to personal, lively, and culturally specific. That evolution parallels major changes in American culture, as the civil rights movements of the 1950s through the 1970s brought forth voices from one previously suppressed community after another.

In a single lightning stroke that illuminated my entire family history, Baldwin spoke of the “epic lies we [Americans] tell about our ancestors.” All of the not-quite-rightness I had sensed in family stories, particularly on my father’s side, dropped into place.

He wrote about being asked the same question over and over again, as urban riots became an annual occurrence in the ghettoes of American cities in the 1950s and 1960s: ‘Why are Negroes so angry?’ Which has been updated, on every occasion of protest violent or nonviolent, ‘What do Those People want, anyway?’ Some things have changed — not at all.

In ‘The Price of the Ticket’ he wrote about the devil’s bargain given to European immigrants: abandon your original culture in order to receive the imprimatur of Whiteness. There is a hungry-ghost aspect to Euro-American culture, that constantly seeks far from home, but fears lest it look insufficiently White. Baldwin wrote about the joy of community dancing in Harlem clubs, as compared to what he saw uptown.

I remembered being six years old and being told that my love of bright colors — pink and purple, peacock and ultramarine and kelly-green — was dubious, or questionable … and finally figured out, years later, that they meant it was Colored. My father had deep uneasiness about being White enough … even though on the face of it he was Irish and Scots-Irish, with the permissibly exotic addition of a dash of Oklahoma Cherokee.

Years later, when I saw a photograph of J. Edgar Hoover as a young man, I thought of my father: that wavy dark hair, broad nose, and complexion that turned olive in the summer sun. Hoover was Passing. I am now virtually certain that at least Someone in my family tree Passed as well, and I can well imagine the fear that pursued them down the years given what it was to be other than White in the halcyon days of American apartheid.

I want to live in a country where one does not have to Pass in order to qualify as a human being.

James Baldwin, years after his own death, transmitted to me, through the lightning-strokes of his own ruthless prose, a strong dose of truth about what it meant to be an American writer. He asked troubling questions, and left me to answer them. I didn’t always agree with him — for one, on his estimate of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and so-called ‘protest literature’ generally — but he is one of the dead with whom I have apprenticed. In the literary descent, he and I are both grandchildren of George Sand, via the Dostoevsky connection. I remember to this day Baldwin’s comment that Dostoevsky’s Petersburg poor folk did not read to him as White, but reminded him of his friends and neighbors in Harlem. There are powerful affinities between the Russian and African-American literary traditions, and it’s an interesting sidelight indeed on our literary culture that I came to the artists of Harlem via Petersburg and Moscow.

Finally, I’m posting this essay today, on Martin Luther King Day, because Baldwin’s portrait of King, the view of a contemporary, is so far from the sanitized National Saint that it bears re-reading. Dr. King was a man steadfast in his convictions, who challenged the injustice of his day — and ours — and refused to prostitute spiritual practice to the purpose of keeping ‘order.’ Watching the portrait of this soft-spoken warrior for peace and justice emerge from the notes of a contemporary gave me a sense that such people do not belong only to ages past. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a real human being, with all the failures and flaws of an ordinary mortal, who learned courage in practicing it. His moral stature is attainable by those who strive for it with a single heart.

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