As a book-loving black, literary homo-thug who writes openly about life, sexuality, society, the innumerable consequences of white terribleness and the absence of Teen Summit in post-Y2K childhood development (hint: They’re doomed), I’ve always felt that Sir James Baldwin occupied a peculiar space in my world. I’ve always known that his work was important to literature and that his voice and perspective were especially special to black folks because Uncle Jimmy had a gift and was phenomenal at using his words to tell it like it really is.
Other book-loving writerly people I know often use superlatives in their praise about his work. But beyond that time in high school when I bulls—ted my way through a book report on If Beale Street Could Talk and the occasional brief essay over the years, I had never really read Baldwin at length. The reverence that shapes so many discussions of his work had me feeling that I was missing out on a major rite of passage in my writerly growth, particularly as I struggle and stress my way through this book of essays I’m cooking up. I needed some inspiration, so I figured it was time to take the plunge and spend some time with a wordsmith many of my fellow chocolatey, homo, writer homies adore so fiercely.
When I posted on Facebook a few weeks back about wanting to dive into Baldwin’s work, at least five people recommended The Fire Next Time as a starting point for me, lover of a wonderful essay. More people than expected said they preferred his essays to his fiction by far, so I intended to start there. But I went with Go Tell It on the Mountain, his 1953 semiautobiographical rage fest of a novel set on an eventful Saturday in 1935 Harlem, because it was available at the library the day I was ready to start the journey. I was sold by the third sentence of the first page. “If his essays are better than this,” I texted a friend after finishing the second page, “I need to find a job that will pay me to read James Baldwin books and run the fan club full time. Any suggestions?”
Sir Baldwin’s words sing on the page. His explanations and descriptions are so lyrically precise that they leave no room for ambiguity. He perfectly captured the ridiculousness of the fire-and-brimstone and fear-based approach to parenting that I observe in aggressively churchy family members, and how blind faith renders otherwise brilliant and capable people sheeplike and disconnected from reality. His attention to detail is a wonder to behold, and even in all of his expansive rambles, his sidebars and embellishments are smart and relevant and flavor the writing in an enhancing but not overwhelming way. It felt effortless. It’s a pity I’ll never get to eat chicken and deconstruct Sister Act 2 with him.
Thanks to train delays and frequent voyages for food and adventure, I finished the novel in a few days and dove right into the cleverly titled Collected Essays, an addictive and massive assemblage of his nonfiction work, edited by Toni Morrison.
You remember, in the beginning of the video for Janet Jackson’s “If,” when the doors burst open and the curtains unfurled, announcing her arrival amid the fanfare, and she strutted regally down the stairs to f—k s—t up with the rest of the gang? That’s what his book’s “Autobiographical Notes” felt like for me. What an introduction. “Why is this five-page bio better than most damn books I read by contemporary writers?” I asked that same friend while browsing fonts for this “Uncle Jimmy” tattoo I want to get on my neck.
In one section that had me nodding aggressively on the train, he wrote this:
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way, and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.
It was like discovering an artist and everything you hear by that artist makes you twinkle with delight, as if the work were produced entirely for you. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel”—when, after dismantling and peeing on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s entire physical, ideological and literary existence, he wrote that the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin “was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer,” in reference to the book’s painfully dense intellectual shallowness—my soul let out a powerful Prince-like squeal. I’ve been known to maul a woefully misinformed white scoundrel (or two) on the page, so to see him artfully nail her raggedy ass to the wall, one obnoxiously “benevolent” strand of hair at a time, with such artistry, lyrical precision and nimbleness? It felt like motherf—king praise and worship.
I adore that he was equally unflinching in his critique of his people. In “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” he writes about the famed Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte’s on-screen collabo, Carmen Jones. He felt that the production benefited from a lack of white folks, saying that “this seals the action off, as it were, in a vacuum in which the spectacle of color is divested of its danger.”
Inside, I was like:
… but I had to keep it together because I was on the train.
He said that the diluted version of blackness presented via the set, costumes, dialogue and mannerisms was “spotless.” Of Dorothy and Harry and the fam, he wrote this: “[T]hese are exceptional Negroes, as American, that is, as you and me, interpreting lower-class Negroes of whom they, also, are very fond, an affection which is proven perhaps by the fact that everyone appears to undergo a tiny, strangling death before resolutely substituting ‘de’ for ‘the.’” He felt the “Negro speech [was] parodied out of its charm and liberalized, one may put it, of its force and precision.” And that the characters suffered from their “remarkable vacuity, their complete improbability, their total divorce from anything suggestive of the realities of Negro life.”
And on Dorothy’s performance in the film: “One feels—perhaps one is made to feel—that here is a very nice girl making her way in movies by means of a bad-girl part; and the glow thus caused, especially since she is a colored girl, really must make up for the glow which is missing from the performance she is clearly working very hard at.” Damn.
While appreciating Carmen’s cultural significance, he could still point out that the film reflects the “blank, lofty solemnity with which Hollywood so often approaches ‘works of art’ and the really quite helpless condescension with which Hollywood has always handled Negroes,” both of which still make it hard out here for representation-hungry pimps.
I was there on the D train surrounded by Lena Dunhams and such, swooning like a motherf—ker.
A friend in that original Facebook post said that reading Baldwin would open me up creatively. I’m five essays into the damn book, and I already want to write his biopic and get back to work on my memoir. Reading and raving, I sometimes feel late to a party that’s been going on forever, but I reckon anytime is the right time to discover this man’s magic.
Alexander Hardy is an Afro-Panamanian writer, foodie and teacher who divides his time between plotting meals; running his blog, the Colored Boy; and slinging words across internet land on sites like Gawker, Saint Heron and Very Smart Brothas, where he works as a senior writer. Follow him on Twitter.