I finished this collection of Baldwin’s essays shortly before visiting Harlem. But only one of the ten pieces in this selection, “The Harlem ghetto,” deals with his boyhood home and frequent subject. Instead, Baldwin reflects on his exile in Paris and a Swiss village, and the vantage point it affords him on his home of America.
It’s a wonderful collection, introduced by the “Autographical Notes” section in which he explains the evolution of his passion for reading as a young boy to his literary criticism and social commentary as an adult. In the “Notes” section, as well as elsewhere, Baldwin is devastatingly confessional and brilliant: “…the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for.)” (5).
A fascinating theme is Baldwin’s discussion of the paradoxical intimacy between blacks and whites in America. He asserts: “It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society…” (21). Racism in America is produced by this unique history. Speaking about this book to Studs Terkel, Baldwin emphasizes:
“we have created, and no other nation has, a black man who belongs, who is a part of the West. Now, and in distinction to Belgium or any other European power, we had our slaves on the mainland. And therefore, no matter how we deny it, we couldn’t avoid human involvement with them.”
In the Terkel interview, as in the essays in this book, Baldwin brilliantly adopts the pronoun “we” even when describing whites’ attitudes and actions in relation to African-Americans. In this simple but significant move, Baldwin gives authority to his arguments about whites’ beliefs and behavior.
In part because of this proximity, and perhaps, as Freire would argue, by the very nature of human oppression, Baldwin states that “Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves; the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his” (25). Baldwin develops this idea in his excellent “The Fire Next Time,” going so far as to assert that blacks are to liberate whites from white supremacy.
Returning to the point that African-Americans occupy a unique position compared to Africans on the African continent or displaced elsewhere, Baldwin reminds us that
“The African before him has endured privation, injustice, medieval cruelty; but the African has not yet endured the utter alienation of himself from his people and his past” (122). Baldwin’s arguments point to the conclusion that there is an existential dimension to African Americans’ struggle for liberation: “Perhaps it now occurs to him that in this need to establish himself in relation to his past he is most American, that this depthless alienation from oneself and one’s people is, in sum, the American experience” (123). Using the metaphor of a boat on a voyage to express this, thereby powerfully evoking the history of slavery, Baldwin places faith in the future; that with the passage of time, and by “facing their home,” African-Americans will overcome this alienation.
Baldwin’s synthesis of ideas about the American experience has left a huge impression on me. Besides his ideas, there’s a quality to his writing that has also left an impression on me. Since putting this book down and moving on to other books, I find that I miss Baldwin’s voice--I miss the familiar movement of his prose--something that I’ve not experienced with many other authors.