Location:Home > sneakers > Did I Get James Baldwin Wrong?

Did I Get James Baldwin Wrong?

Time:2017-02-06 12:19Shoes websites Click:

James wrong Baldwin

In 1983, I was studying abroad in Nice, France, and while other exchange students were flitting from city to city, checking off items on their bucket lists, I craved only one European cultural experience:

I wanted to meet James Baldwin, the mandarin prophet and former boy preacher; the African-American expatriate writer who once used his European exile to explore, defy, and decry the delusional fiction of race that has organized our minds, our possibilities, our world, and now leads us toward the precipice of self-annihilation.

Baldwin changed the way I saw the world and who I thought I was as an African-American within it. He was the first writer to help me see clearly that race was a sickness that devoured both the racist and racism's victims.

That must have been why, on a spring day in 1983, I jumped into a little red convertible MG, top down, driven by an insane Corsican friend; a good-timing lady's man who proceeded to burn rubber around the kind of narrow, twisted, South-of-France mountain roads that had just killed Princess Grace of Monaco. We were headed to Saint-Paul de Vence, where I'd heard Baldwin lived.

My mind reeled back to that trip and that moment of hopeful youth as I watched Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck's documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, which was released for wide distribution on Friday.

In June, 1979, at the age of 55, Baldwin started work on what the filmmaker called a portrait of America as seen through the stories of three of his friends, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. That work, other famous Baldwin passages, and mesmerizing videotaped interviews provide the soundtrack against stunning images that move the documentary from the recent riots near my home in St. Louis, Mo., to footage and photographs taken during the Civil Rights era.

The effect of the film on me was staggering. The despairing James Baldwin on the screen was so different from the hopeful figure I thought I understood.

"To look around the United States today," Baldwin says at one point, "is enough to make prophets and angels weep."

In the film, I deeply felt Baldwin's despair that followed the murders of his friends. But I felt none of the hope that I read in his writings; hope that somehow the struggle against racism could be won.

As I watched the film, I feared that the title of Peck's documentary spoke directly to me, though I had read and reread (almost memorizing) many of the passages from Baldwin's work that actor Samuel L. Jackson incants in a deep, gravely voice that is definitely not my own, and definitely not that of the writer.

I felt implicated when Baldwin said in the film, "I was in some way in those years, without entirely realizing it, the Great Black Hope of the great white father." In my reverent memory of him, had I, too, made him into the "Negro," the "Great Black Hope," who would save America from itself? Had I, too, leaned too heavily for optimism on the man loving friends called "Jimmy"?

The Baldwin of my father's books

I first became aware of Baldwin during my junior year abroad, years after his urgent usefulness as a civil rights figure had passed. My family never understood why I wanted to go to France, though there was a history of African-American intellectuals expatriating there during the Jim Crow years. I was raised middle class and comfortable in a white St. Louis suburb. Jim Crow was a bad American memory by then, and there was overtly nothing to flee. Still, before I left for Europe, my father, who taught African-American literature at a community college, linked me forever to the exiled writer. The night before I boarded my flight, he handed me a stack of books.

Over the coming months, as I read Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, the anthology Black Voices, and the short stories gathered in Going to Meet the Man, Baldwin's voice and thinking transformed even the way I used language. It was magical.

In a eulogy after Baldwin's death in 1987, poet Amiri Baraka defined this magic.

"Jimmy Baldwin was the creator of contemporary American speech even before Americans could dig that," Baraka wrote. "He created it so we could speak to each other at unimaginable intensities of feeling, so we could make sense to each other at higher and higher tempos."

Baldwin had given voice to my submerged thoughts about what it meant to be a black person, indissolubly and meaningfully connected to the larger world. Somehow, I felt that meeting him would also give meaning to my stay in France and help me understand the unfinished business of race relations that still haunted the American imagination.

So when my Corsican friend stepped into the French café where I was peacefully sipping a stream of bitter espressos and asked if anyone wanted to help him test-drive the used car he'd just bought, I was game.

"Let's go to Saint-Paul de Vence," I said, though I had no idea where Baldwin actually lived, or even if he was home.

Thirty years before I decided to risk my life on that trip, Baldwin left the United States for France to save his own life; not from the evils of Jim Crow, but from the ever-more threatening, fixed notions of an identity that he witnessed slowly killing his father and his friends and transforming him into just another unseen and expendable black boy.

Copyright infringement? Click Here!