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International Socialist Review, Fall 1962


Martha Curti

A Bitter Message


From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.4, Fall 1962, pp.122-123.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Another Country
by James Baldwin
The Dial Press, New York, 1962, 436 pp.

Nobody Knows My Name; More Notes of a Native Son
By James Baldwin
The Dial Press, New York, 1961, 241 pp.

Almost every writer must wonder, at one time or another, whether his readers “get the message” he is trying to put across. “The message” in James Baldwin’s two latest books, a novel and a collection of essays, is one which many readers, in particular white liberals, but by no means excluding white radicals, do not want to get. Yet if Baldwin’s feelings about white people are at all representative of the attitudes of large numbers of Negroes, and there is no reason to doubt this, then the white liberals and radicals had better get the message, and fast.

Another Country explores with honest, unsentimental (to put it mildly) penetration various human relationships. All the characters are lonely, and struggle in vain for some kind of love relationship which can give their lives purpose and meaning. Most of the relationships in the book are highly contradictory: a great love and tenderness is inseparably entwined with envy, hostility, and the desire for revenge, which in some cases manifest themselves in the form of violence. This ambivalence is expressed most clearly by the two Negro protagonists – Rufus, a jazz musician, and his sister Ida. Their relationships with their white lovers (in Rufus’ case, both male and female) tend toward mutual destruction, which in the case of Rufus and his Southern white girl friend, Leona, is realized, with Leona going crazy and Rufus throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge.

The question of color pervades the relationships: in all the intimate dealings between black and white there is a basic core of distrust: “Why is that person bothering with me? Are they, whatever they say, using me because of my color?” This is what may shock the well-intentioned white do-gooders – the realization that, despite all their good intentions, they are not trusted, and indeed, serve often as objects of revenge for centuries of oppression. The passion with which Baldwin’s novel conveys this idea can leave no doubt of its truthfulness. Let Rufus and Ida speak for themselves:


“How I hate them – all those white sons of bitches out there. They’re trying to kill me, you think I don’t know? They got the world on a string, man, the miserable white cock suckers, and they tying that string around my neck, they killing me ... Sometimes I lie here and I listen – just listen. They out there, scuffling, making that change they think it’s going to last forever. Sometimes I lie here and listen, listen for a bomb, man, to fall on this city and make all that noise stop. I listen to hear them moan, I want them to bleed and choke, I want to hear them crying, man, for somebody to come help them. They’ll cry a long time before I come down there.”

And Ida:

“‘But, Cass, ask yourself, look out and ask yourself – wouldn’t you hate all white people if they kept you in prison here?’ They were rolling up startling Seventh Avenue. The entire population seemed to be in the streets, draped, almost, from lampposts, stoops, and hydrants, and walking through the traffic as though it were not there. ‘Kept you here, and stunted you and starved you, and made you watch your mother and father and sister and lover and brother and son and daughter die or go mad or go under, before your very eyes? And not in a hurry, like from one day to the next, but, every day, every day, for years, for generations? Shit. They keep you here because you’re black, the filthy, white cock suckers, while they go around jerking themselves off with all that jazz about the land of the free and the home of the brave. And they want you to jerk yourself off with that same music too, only, keep your distance. Some days, honey, I wish I could turn myself into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder. Some days, I don’t believe it has a right to exist.’”

Of all the relationships dealt with, the only ones based upon mutual respect, loyalty, and tenderness are those involving Eric, an actor, and (most of the time) a homosexual; and even Eric cannot surmount the difficulties inherent in cutting the racial barrier. Using the novel as a vehicle of expression – a means which, by the very fact of its existence, intensifies, condenses, and therefore, distorts, to some extent, what goes on in life – Baldwin explores the antagonisms that society forces upon black and white, man and woman. Baldwin’s glorification of homosexuality, however, hardly seems in keeping with the perceptiveness of the book in general. Surely there is just as much, if not more, hostility, envy, and suspicion in homosexual relationships as in any other sort. It is no better a solution to the vexing problems of living in this society than is that of drug addiction, which is enjoying a certain vogue among several current American writers.

Incidentally, Eric is the only character in the book who comes to life. Though the others on occasion do things and have thoughts and attitudes that are convincing, as a whole they do not seem real. Despite this, and a few other minor weaknesses from a literary point of view, the perceptiveness about people and society, and the honesty and sometimes brilliance with which this is presented, make Another Country a book of major import.

In Nobody Knows My Name many of the same problems are dealt with from another perspective. The sickness of society which is so graphically portrayed in personal terms in Another Country is here illustrated from more of a social framework. The essays deal with a variety of subjects: the Negro student movement, the Muslims, Africa, the problems of the writer in general and the Negro writer in particular, the South, Harlem. Portraits of people abound – the Negro boy who singlehandedly was “integrating” a Southern white high school; the cops; and other, less important people, like Andre Gide, Ingmar Bergman, Richard Wright, Norman Mailer. Baldwin’s views on the Negro question are best expressed in a pair of essays: Fifth Avenue, Uptown, on Harlem, and East River, Downtown, on the UN riots following the death of Lumumba. A few of Baldwin’s remarks may serve as a temptation to read them all:

On the housing projects:

“The projects in Harlem are hated. They are hated almost as much as policemen, and this is saying a great deal. And they are hated for the same reason: both reveal, unbearably, the real attitude of the white world, no matter how many liberal speeches are made, no matter how many lofty editorials are written, no matter how many civil-rights commissions are set up ... Whatever money is now being earmarked to improve this, or any other ghetto, might as well be burnt. A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence.”

On the cops:

“The white policeman standing on a Harlem street corner finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world.”

On the Lumumba demonstration:

“What I find appalling – and really dangerous – is the American assumption that the Negro is so contented with his lot here that only the cynical agents of a foreign power can rouse him to protest. It is a notion which contains a gratuitous insult, implying, as it does, that Negroes can make no move unless they are manipulated.”

On white liberals:

“Negroes know how little most white people are prepared to implement their words with deeds, how little, when the chips are down, they are prepared to risk. And this long history of moral evasion has had an unhealthy effect on the total life of the country, and has eroded whatever respect Negroes may once have felt for white people.”

On Cuba:

“I very strongly doubt that any Negro youth, now approaching maturity, and with the whole, vast world before him, is willing, say, to settle for Jim Crow in Miami, when he can – or, before the travel ban, could – feast at the welcome table in Havana. And he need not, to prefer Havana, have any pro-Communist, or, for that matter, pro-Cuban, or pro-Castro sympathies: he need merely prefer not to be treated as a second-class citizen.”

On “waiting”:

“The time is forever behind us when Negroes could be expected to ‘wait.’ What is demanded now, and at once, is not that Negroes continue to adjust themselves to the cruel racial pressures of life in the United States but that the United States readjust itself to the facts of life in the present world.”

On paternalism:

“Men do not like to be protected, it emasculates them. This is what black men know, it is the reality they have lived with; it is what white men do not want to know. It is not a pretty thing to be a father and be ultimately dependent on the power and kindness of some other man for the well-being of your house.”

On freedom:

“Let me point out to you that freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take ...”

These are not merely bright sayings, well-turned phrases, as their quotation out of context might imply. Every one of them is a conclusion, based on much concrete experience and thought: enough of the concreteness appears in the essays to make the conclusions absolutely convincing.

It would be easy to become irritated at the intrusion of Baldwin himself in most of these essays. After all, the discovery of James Baldwin’s identity is the task of Baldwin himself, and, as such, is of little interest to anyone else. One cannot deny, however, that Baldwin’s ideas and attitudes are of unquestionable importance to all of us; that these ideas can exist only through the instrument of Baldwin as a personality; and if such a self-consciousness is a necessary predecessor to these ideas, so be it. As Baldwin himself says more than once, it is impossible to face in others that which you can’t face in yourself.

These two books can best be understood and appreciated in reference to each other. Both the essays and the novel are honest, as honest as Baldwin knows how to be – honest at the risk of alienating the majority of Americans (but in this respect, Baldwin had nothing to lose anyway), and even when his honesty leads, as it somethimes does, to an unflattering picture of himself. In his essay on Mailer he makes this explicit as the task of the writer:

“I think we do have a responsibility, not only to ourselves and to our own time, but to those who are coming after us. (I refuse to believe that no one is coming after us.) And I suppose that this responsibility can only be discharged by dealing as truthfully as we know how with our present fortunes, these present days.”

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