Against Miserabilism: Widgery on James Baldwin

Photo by Allan Warren, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Allan Warren, via Wikimedia Commons

James Baldwin's literary life overarches the modern Afro-American movement, against it Eldridge Cleaver's career is a brief meteor. He grew up in the Harlem of the second war, the munitions works of New Jersey, the early days of Greenwich Village. He had worked through five years in Paris and the harrowing writing of his first two novels before he began his political writing in the series of essays about the Deep South and the civil rights organisers with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the early sixties. By the ghetto risings of the mid-sixties he was a veteran, by 1968 and the rise of the Black Panthers judged a has-been. In this decade he lies in retreat in his tent in the south of France, critically and politically defeated. The white critical establishment honoured him with faint praise or mere silence. For the Black Power generation of black intellectuals he became the symbol of the bad old days, the man who never bent his typewriter into a carbine, who was convicted of white envy, assimilationism and cocksucking into the bargain. Rufus, the name of the black anti-hero of Another Country, became a term of abuse.[1]

In 1951 Baldwin had begun his startling career as an essayist with an assault on Richard Wright which sought to dispose of the black novelist, who largely defined the upper limits of what was possible in black literature. Notes of a Native Son finds itself at length so trapped by the American image of Negro life and by the American necessity to find the ray of hope that “it cannot pursue its own implications”.[2] In 1968 Cleaver savaged Baldwin, pinned him mercilessly against the very ghetto doorway he had occupied, robbed him blind of his political possessions. And turning away, sneered in Baldwin's sexual face, that bushbaby face, that he didn't make it because he wasn't enough of a man. Thus, “there is in James Baldwin's work the most gruelling, agonising, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in the writings of any black American writer of note.” And, “It seems that many Negro homosexuals, acquiescing in this radical death wish, are outraged and frustrated because in their sickness they are unable to bear a baby by a white man.” And quite accurately, “Baldwin's essay on Richard Wright reveals that he despised not Richard Wright, but his masculinity. He cannot confront the stud in others – except that he must either submit to it or destroy it.”[3]

Ostensibly the clash was political, about whether Baldwin could deal with the civil rights movement when it came north and called itself Black Power. Whether the man who had found his identity in the Paris cafés was any good in the street was between the black city dwellers and the police, the federals and the army. About how a black writer in the sixties should address himself politically, Cleaver found his political footing just as Baldwin lost his; he was the new kid in town, and in quick and brutal fashion he replaced the leader of the pack. On Wright's death, Baldwin had offered a partial retraction and expressed somewhat disingenuous surprise that his essay had been interpreted as an attack. Maybe Cleaver will one day be able to reread his own carve-up, for it catches in the very ferocity of its misunderstanding and the misguidedness of definitions of what is revolutionary, a terrible, self-mutilating weakness in black politics in the late sixties, the sexual dark side of Black Power. Whereas what is so insightful and enduring about Baldwin's writing is that he has always been driven by a need to understand and unravel sexual politics in relation to the black movement. His own blackness and his class-consciousness are utterly wound up with his sexual identity.

As writers they both engineered the devastation of white America's racial and political values, they were both socialists by any reasonable definition of that tradition (whose virtual abolition in post-war America largely explains their appalling isolation). But Cleaver was unable to extend his indictment as far as himself and in the very process of denouncing the system became almost a parody of its persona and values. More self-important, brash and sexually oppressive in his being than the Jericho he sought, for a while, to trumpet down. Baldwin's writing of the fifties and sixties, reread now as it ought to be, possesses on the other hand exceptional decolonising power. Perception not noticed at the time but now stunning in accuracy, intensity and usefulness. Baldwin was never going to be a Time magazine revolutionary. He deals in difficulties and therefore often helps us to think rather than act. Yet his perceptions can help us find in ourselves and thereby make our political commitment the more enduring because it is deeply wedded to personal understanding. To find this deeply revolutionary Baldwin is to duck past the unpleasant ring of literary barkers, patronise his anguish and idolise him in impossible abstraction. He must be rescued from the New York Times, the not-so-liberal intelligentsia, the black bourgeoisie and probably from himself. Their curious overpraise hung untruthfully in the air; laboured comparisons with Henry James, insincere handshakes of welcome to the Anglo-Saxon literary pantheon, transcripts of trivial interviews with fellow celebrities. One has to trust the tale, not the talk show.

“One writes out of one thing only,” Baldwin insists, “one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give."[4]

Baldwin's writing is extraordinarily dauntingly precise and extensive in its effects. But instead of reaching for references to Dickens and Henry James to explain this fluency, it is more honest to see in its black origins, sources which, since black writing is only yet in its infancy, will be largely outside literature but still in the culture of words and feelings: the tartness and irony of the blues, the extreme mixture of self-assertion and self-expression in jazz, the patois of city talk where whole tales are executed in passing gestures, the sternness and self-summoned gravity of the basement pulpit. For it was this physically barren and emotionally eloquent black city world that shaped his prose. The tendrils of his sensibilities had to find their way, undamaged but not unaltered, through the rust and broken bottles of brutal, enclosed city feelings. His everyday experience was not just about being working class in a family perishing of poverty or the son of a father penetrated by an insane and holy anger which was also an absolute hatred of himself. It was not just being poor in a city where everything, absolutely everything, has its price. It is about his own spiritual and sexual identity – great clichés of sixties comfortable bourgeois self-discovery – but ground together remorselessly in Baldwin's work till they hurt. His religious crisis shaped his subsequent disbelieving. It is to the Church he owes the knowledge that through suffering can come understanding, that it is to be welcomed because of the way it forces a refinement of one's sense of self. He proceeds to apply these maxims, at the time when the movements of sexual liberation were unknown and unanticipated, at a time of universal and oppressive normality, to his own homosexuality, or, shall we say, lack of heterosexuality. A conscious black writer is drawn to the left, because the constant experience of the disfavour America bestows on their skin must lead to the questioning of that whole society's claim to be civilised. And for a man, to be “on the left” especially in post-war America was to become more of a man, to stand up, to fight and all the rest of the rhetoric of arousal. But to be homosexual is to lack that very ability “to be a man”. It is to be put into a white room, a plan where Baldwin, writing of another, says, “He was, briefly and horribly, in a region where there were no definitions of any kind, neither of colour nor of male or female.”[5]

In an America in the fifties itself lost in explanations, expectations, advertisements for an impossible self, Baldwin sought, through writing, to discover his real self. Or rather to disentangle it from a series of projections. He was to force this self-discovery at a cruel pitch but then he could never have written about pain without having suffered it, shame without having felt it and self-hatred without being scraped by its sharp edges. Baldwin could be emancipated, he says, from his lack of identity, his hate and self-hatred in two ways: killing it and himself, or exploring it so thoroughly he overcame it. In the nearly untranslatable phrase of Sartre, he “worked himself over”. He forced himself through a kind of North American existentialism – a single-handed liberation – insisting, “Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real world, and the intangible dreams of people will have a tangible effect on the world.”[6]

What he discovered in that journey about his blackness, although remarkable, is well known. No one, not Frantz Fanon nor poets of Negritude, have written about racialism so delicately. Baldwin's journalism on the then silent zone of America below the Mason-Dixon line that opened the tin-can closeness of Mississippi, can still catch breath with its controlled vehemence. But Baldwin's sexual convictions, what he has discovered about love, are more cautiously buried, very far in advance of their time. For when Baldwin wrote, “I think that I know something about the American masculinity which most of my generation do not because they haven't been menaced by it in the way I have,”[7] his vantage point is fundamentally different from that of Cleaver, blundering on about his desire for a “political party that would be the vehicle for galvanising this idea into reality by turning black males into men, by setting the standard of what a black man must be and must be willing to do in our time in order to be a man and in order to say he is fulfilling his duties to secure his tribe”. Baldwin has seen that conquering man, and been sexually vulnerable to it, as a woman would be. He understands what a misshapen piece of work such a man would be ... and what a bad lover or leader. In a remarkable essay written for the Paris-based review Zero he wrote, in 1949, “In the truly awesome attempt of the American to at once preserve his innocence and arrive at man's estate, that mindless monster, the tough guy, has been created and perfected, whose masculinity is found in the most infantile and elementary externals and whose attitude to women is the wedding of the most abysmal romanticism and the most implacable distrust.”[8] He knows too well the “Strong Man” who is quite incompetent with a baby, a sadness, or for that matter a revolution.

Baldwin also insisted, at a time when many radical American novelists were quite literally arguing that the conservatism of America was the fault of women who were subtly undermining the masculinity of their men, that there was something fundamentally wrong in the relationship between men and women. He saw heterosexual love as bound to be destroyed by the disparity of the power held within the relationship. And he saw the destructiveness of that relationship going both ways, because both sexes were attempting to possess something of the other, while at the same time were obliged to protect themselves with a sliding screen of stereotypes. And there was no way man could so deny the existence of the woman without diminishing themselves utterly. And he catches that strange white North American incompetence at the emotional, that land of being jostled but not touched, rapped with but not talked to and fucked but never loved which has finally given birth to its own psycho-industry selling relaxation, insight and orgasmic potential, all at the appropriate price. Against all that, Baldwin asks for – demands an unoppressive love, which is not about grappling for possession but responsibly entering another person's being. Such a love was not about sexual gadgets of powerful but separated and unknowing sexual release. Love was a journey people had to make together. It could only commence from a measure of self-knowledge; “Everyone wishes to be loved, but in the event, nearly no one can bear it. Everyone desires love but also finds it impossible to believe that he deserves it.”[9] Such a lovely concept is very clearly about politics because it is about self-knowledge and change. It makes sense of Baldwin's much misunderstood statement, “If the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”[10] As heterosexual men find so hard to accept, the capacity for love is also the capacity for surrender. Read or reread Giovanni's Room and Another Country.[11] Both novels were critically unpopular because they were novels about sexual liberation before those two words had been placed together. They are now ignored as the bookshops quake with studies of every sort of sexual this, that and the other. Baldwin's publishers rejected the former novel “for his own good” and told him to burn it because portraying a love affair between two men was bad for the career of a promising black writer. Robert Bone's review of Another Country is not untypical:

Five orgasms (two interracial and two homosexual) or approximately one per eighty pages, a significant increase on the Mailer rate. Distracted by this nonsense, how can one attend to the serious business of the novel. To most, homosexuality will seem rather an evasion than an affirmation of human truth. Ostensibly the novel summons us to reality. Actually it substitutes for the illusions of white supremacy those of homosexual love.

Orgasms, Mr Bone, author of The Negro Novel in America, feels are not serious. Another critic complains, “Baldwin seems convinced that homosexuality is a liberating force, and he now brings to the subject a certain proselytising zeal.”[12] What happens in both books is something quite different: sexual love, orgasms are described with some social meaning, not mysterious skyrockets and grunts, but condensing physically what is happening emotionally between two people. Homosexuals in both novels happen to be the people on best terms with their own sexuality.

It is gently implied that heterosexual relations are more vulnerable to economic and social camouflage which makes the power relations hard to see. That marriages, in contrast to gay relationships, last after they are sexually dead because they are held into shape by society. But homosexuality is never seen, of itself, as a superior form of sexual life: the life of the gay milieu in Paris is quite unsentimentally shown as being dominated by possession and cash values, variants of the very forces that corrupt heterosexual relationships. In fact both novels really advocate bisexuality, that most unpopular but widespread of conditions.

Rufus, the central figure in Another Country, is a musician based on a close friend, Eugene Worth, with whom Baldwin joined a socialist organisation and who later, like Rufus, flung himself from a New York bridge. Rufus is invaded by a terrible loneliness, a corroding estrangedness from which he can only escape in violent attacks on his few close friends and in revengeful intercourse, painfully described, with a white southern girl. All his friends let him down, all are haunted by his intensity and shamed by his suicide, all unable to reach across the forces of racism. His catastrophe sends out waves of uncertainty, forces everyone to strip off another layer of illusion. Rufus's sister continues his indicting presence but it is Eric, a gay actor, who can teach, by sexual means, Rufus's mourning friends what love is: to give oneself, to surrender openly. He is capable of acting non-oppressively with men and women against the painful vengeance-ridden sexuality of the first part of the book. It is not like the conventional homosexual novella of the period where gay love is largely conventional in its emotions if different in gender, nor the chirpy but shallow lesbian-picaresque adventure novels of the modern women's movement like Rubyfruit Jungle and Kinflicks.[13] It is also quite different from the sexual sadism and mysogyny present in Norman Mailer's novels of the period – reread if you can face it An American Dream – whose profanity covers over the Manhattan Jew and the New England Protestant dislike of gays and suspicion/mystification of women.[14] Rather Baldwin is dealing in areas of sexual uncertainty common to both sexes condensed in this passage from Another Country into the face of Eric:

It was the face of a man, of a tormented man. Yet, in precisely the way that great music depends, ultimately on great silence, this masculinity was defined, and made powerful, by something which was not masculine. But it was not feminine, either, and something in Vivaldo resisted the word androgynous. It was a quality to which great numbers of people would respond without knowing to what it was they were responding. There was great force in the face, and great gentleness. But, as most women are not gentle, nor are most men strong, it was a face which suggested, resonantly, in the depths, the truth about our natures.

To illustrate quite how advanced was Baldwin's vision, one can contrast the self-abasement of the gay Australian novelist, Colin MacInnes, reviewing Giovanni’s Room in 1963.[15] MacInnes died tragically of cancer in 1976. His novels of black London are themselves underestimated; they are unique pictures of a certain London at a certain time. After apologising for even mentioning the “tiresome topic of the homosexual dilemma”, MacInnes writes with great caution what Baldwin was stating with such force:

We may see a parallel, which I hope any coloured readers will excuse, between the "homosexual problem" and the "Negro problem". The plain fact about both is that neither is: the Negro is not a problem to himself, but to the racialist; the “problem” of queerdom resides in the heart of the queer-haters and those who, being queers, either glorify the commonplace or deny their own inner natures.

Giovanni's Room was planned quite deliberately to be about the implications of being bisexual, and the first draft was based around the case of Wayne Lonergan, a man rejected twice from the army as a homosexual and then was found involved in a bizarre sexual murder with an heir's wife, which suggested he was no stranger to heterosexual love either. It was to be called Ignorant Armies. Giovanni, one of Baldwin's favourite books, contains no black characters and is set in Paris. It is about sex and class, about America and Europe, and about the emotional incompetence of white American man once his interpreted ideas of sexual identity with their hygienic compartments are dissolved. David is terrified by the room in which he is physically overwhelmed by the Italian waiter, Giovanni, but what he hates is what is being sexually awakened in him and Giovanni's insistence on feeling. Giovanni simply has an acute sense of what is love and what is not; David's life has been arranged to avoid pain, emotional inconvenience, to reach always for sexual safety.

There is in Baldwin's heterosexual male characters a certain endemic emotional cowardice. They are separated from each other by an inner emptiness to which women are privy but are enjoined to secrecy about. Baldwin shows them vanquished in their attempts to express anything to each other as they meet in public, with too much pride resting on their intactness, unable even in extremity to reveal the feelings that they, in private, thrash against their female companions.

And that, finally, rather than his homosexuality, is why Baldwin is so threatening to Cleaver's politics. For although they share an understanding of how North American capitalism operates, they differ about why and how to fight it. Cleaver is apparently to the left with muscular talk about the struggle, a fast line in sexual insults and quotes from Che Guevara. But although he saw the need for working-class organisation, this sort of tough talking appealed most to the male radical students, the clientele of Ramparts magazine. And its politics were intensely individualistic. The revolution became an act of will undertaken as a proof of manhood, and in defence of the helpless, the women and children. When you see Cleaver speaking or on film, he's still operating on the skills of the streets and the prison yard; the parries, the thrusts, the put-downs, the victorious smile as the opponent is lost for a reply. In one particular film interview, a white radical, Bob Scheer, aids and abets this performance with equal egotism but perfectly judged and ingratiating sense of inferiority ... even in Algeria Eldridge is the Black Prince. The hapless pair then stumble round the Algiers streets with that gracelessness peculiar to Americans overseas. But Cleaver's conversational arts are about how black men are absorbed in presenting an exterior. He and Scheer's duet is about the false manhood of men who would do anything to avoid coming to terms with each other. And when that heady individualism falters, as it did for so many of the celebrities of the black revolt, it falls asunder. Because it doesn't understand itself, it can't afford to pause lest it would disintegrate. However much it talks of class-consciousness and collective resistance, the message is plundered of meaning by the isolation of the speaker. In the case of Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton it has resolved in right-wing and nationalistic directions. Baldwin speaks much less explicitly but in a more profoundly political way of a different kind of strength and leadership which has more in common with the initial organising methods of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the early days of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and women's liberation. So to him black groups who were absorbed by hostility to whites, are paying an ironic tribute to their oppressors by remaining defined by them. For Cleaver and Carmichael, for black to be beautiful it had to be feared. Baldwin just remarks, drily, “Black is beautiful, and since it's beautiful you haven't got to say so.”

Originally published in Achilles Heel, 1976

Excerpted from Against Miserabilism


[1] James Baldwin, Another Country (Dial Press, 1962)

[2] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Beacon Press, 1955)

[3] The three quotations preceding this footnote all come from Eldridge Cleaver’s memoir/essay collection, Soul on Ice (Ramparts Press, 1968).

[4] James Baldwin, Autobiographical Notes (A.A. Knopf, 1953); republished in Notes of a Native Son (1955)

[5] James Baldwin, Another Country (1962)

[6] James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (Dial Press, 1961)

[7] James Baldwin, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy Norman Mailer”, Esquire (May 1961)

[8] James Baldwin, “The Preservation of Innocence”, Zero 1.2 (1949)

[9] James Baldwin, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (Dial Press, 1968)

[10] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Dial Press, 1963)

[11] James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (Dial Press, 1956)

[12] Robert A. Bone, The Negro Novel in America (Yale UP, 1958)

[13] Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle (Daughters, 1973)

    Lisa Alther, Kinflicks (Knopf, 1976)

[14] Norman Mailer, An American Dream (Dial Press, 1965)

[15] The son of singer James Campbell McInnes, Colin MacInnes used both spellings of his last name, though the latter is what he is more commonly known by. MacInnes was actually born in London in 1914, but lived in Australia from 1920 to 1930.

About the author: David Widgery was born in London in 1947 and died in 1992. He lived and worked as a socialist doctor in the East End of London for twenty-two years. He was the author of six books: The Left in Britain 1956 – 68 (1976), Health in Danger (1979), Beating Time (1986), The National Health (1988), Preserving Disorder (1989), and Some Lives!: A GP's East End (1991). He was a regular contributor to the New Statesman and SocietySocialist Worker and The British Medical Journal as well as writing occasional articles for numerous underground and socialist magazines and journals. He also wrote articles for theGuardian and Observer newspapers.  

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