I came to James Baldwin late.
Maybe if I’d come to James Baldwin earlier – a lot earlier – I’d have avoided some of the pitfalls of my life.
Baldwin’s writing – across forms and styles and decades and continents – is consistently wise, constantly powerful and often tinged with a mature, almost anti-American, ability to render erotic experience that feels neither hyper-sexualised nor puritanical.
In 2021, a year near-guaranteed to be barely better than the awfulness of the year just passed, I will be spending the third week of January (maybe a little longer) reading nothing but James Baldwin. I have a screenplay, a novel and a collection of short fiction, and I am thoroughly excited to read them all. I’m being nice to myself. I don’t deserve it, but there’s nothing much mean I can do to myself atm either lol haha!
One Day, When I Was Lost
In 1972, Baldwin wrote a screenplay adapted from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the “collaborative autobiography” written by the Nation of Islam civil rights leader, Malcolm X, and Alex Haley, who would go on to write the iconic bestseller, Roots: The Saga of An American Family.
I didn’t know a huge amount about Malcolm X going into this, other that his major prominence in the civil rights movement and the fact that he was one of the many people assassinated in order to arrest his [eventually ~sort of~ successful] efforts to bring lasting societal change.
Malcolm, tho, (at least according to Baldwin’s screenplay) wasn’t assassinated by white racists, but instead by other black radicals, those who thought that the media savvy, celebrity campaigner had “gone soft”, the attention and money of fame turning the “firebrand” into a more muted figure looking for equivocation rather than revolution.
One Day, When I Was Lost is, of course, about Malcolm X and it is of course sympathetic to him, so I don’t know if Baldwin has exaggerated X’s innocence to the charges of corruption used to “justify” his murder, but whatever the circumstances, Malcolm X has been remembered as a “martyr”.
Baldwin’s version of X’s life was never made into a film (though Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X based its script on the same source text), but it is impressively evocative and characterful with the gentle strokes of cinematic stage direction and dialogue alone.
Baldwin, who is a gifted writer of descriptive prose, doesn’t need it here. He tells us where Malcolm is, what he is wearing, what he is saying, and what he and the people he encounters are doing. Baldwin uses flashback and flashforward to allow Malcolm’s success and fame to bounce off and draw attention to the poverty and precariousness of his childhood. We see the impact of his father’s violent death – a preacher and a good man – and how this proved to the impressionable Malcolm that following the rules was a fool’s path through life.
There’s partying and drug taking and drug dealing, and then – a little over halfway thru the screenplay, a conversion to Islam when in prison. The only part of the screenplay – which may well reflect the book it is based on – that moves crazy fast is Malcolm’s transformation from newly-released ex-con joining “The Movement” to being one of the country’s most famous preachers.
Maybe Malcom X’s rise was meteoric and sudden, but Baldwin’s screenplay skips the intricacies of career development and instead moves us straight to Malcolm as international human rights activist.
The screenplay follows him on Hajj and as he visits universities and governments throughout Africa, and then the soured response from his peers when he arrives back in America. Malcolm X speaks about meeting white Muslims in Mecca and elsewhere on his travels, and how the differences between him as a black man and them as white men evaporated when they were both in Mecca, dressed identically, performing the same worship in the same manner.
Baldwin depicts this statement as if Malcolm’s peers viewed it as heresy, yet Baldwin seems to agree with the statements Malcolm X preaches: that the scourge of racism is the result of deep, systemic inequalities rooted in the capitalistic, quasi-christian social contracts and cultures of “the West”, rather than differences that are inherent between people of different ethnicities.
i.e., the concept of “race” exists because racism does, not the other way round
The only solution is revolution, either way, so I don’t know if killing Malcolm X was a useful thing to do.
Anyway, I took two melatonin thirty minutes ago and they’re finally hitting, so I need to go to sleep.
Also I read a couple of Baldwin’s short stories earlier and one of them – ‘Preexisting Condition’ – was so fucking good that I kept thinking about it instead while trying to write about this.
Goodnight from January 14th
Going to Meet The Man
Jesus fucking Jesus Christ.
This collection of seven short stories contains multiple examples of the best writing I have ever encountered.
The final – and titular – piece is about a middle-aged white man remembering the thrill of attending his first lynching when a child, in order to get an erection to fuck his dull wife and that’s the end of the book. That’s the closing image, which is tough to end on.
But multiple times as I read this book over the past few days (it is now Sunday 17th of January), I finished a story with this overwhelming sense of devastation.
There’s a piece about a jobbing black actor dealing with his frustration that his white – tho outsider due to their artsiness/politics – theatrical peers don’t believe or understand the level of discrimination he deals with on a daily basis; there’s a piece – I think the best piece of writing about lower middle class life I’ve read since Keep the Aspidistra Flying slash my own work – about a high school teacher who escaped poverty through hard work and education reconnecting with his much younger, heroin addict musician brother, and how the escape they both sought from their childhood left one living a tiny – tho stable – life a short distance from where they grew up, while the other brother lost stability and Christian good behaviour, but found art and creativity and respect and jazz.
It’s a collection of evocative writing, of texts about sex and family, about grief and legacy and about race and racism and micro aggressions and macro aggressions, about work and about money, about alcohol and drugs and travel, about Europe and America, about Africa, about humanity, about life.
Honestly, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, certainly the best collection of short fiction, and I came away from it devastated, moved, overpowered. Baldwin was a superstar. I cannot recommend this highly enough. Find a copy.
I’m going to stick with Baldwin and move onto a novel, tho I will as sure as Fuck be continuing with his oeuvre once bookshops are open again and I can browse browse browse and find some more…
Just Above My Head
This was, simply, beautiful.
The novel opens with a man approaching fifty, thinking about his younger brother’s death two years before. Arthur Montana, the brother, was an international soul star who was found dead in the basement toilets of a London pub. Arthur was gay and this is what prompts the reminiscence: Hall (the narrator) is asked by his teenage son about Arthur’s sexuality, using a potent homophobic slur as he does so.
Hall – a progressive who is unashamed to tell his son that he himself had sex with men during his time as part of a colonial army in the Korean War – gently reprimands his son on the use of language and the judgement it implies, and recalls a recent chance meeting with Red, a childhood musical bandmate of his brother who is now a heroin addict, which leads him to think about Peanut, another member of their gospel group who was violently murdered by white supremacists while touring “the South”.
This opening gives the reader a knowledge of when and how major deaths occur, as well as the names of significant lovers from both Arthur and Hall’s pasts, meaning that Baldwin subverts the novelistic standard of surprising with narrative, even when the novel is framed as memorialising. When we sink into nostalgia, it doesn’t happen in a linear way, and when we are inspired to do so, we often begin by remembering how things end.
The premise of the text is that Hall is writing down his memories of his brother’s and his own lives, their loves and the lives of people around them: a child evangelist with abusive parents; Arthur’s troubled, bisexual, first boyfriend; Hall’s wife, Ruth; Peanut (a pianist and civil rights activist); Sidney (a member of the Kingdom of Islam); and Martha, a girlfriend of Hall’s who leaves him for Sidney and a conversion to Islam.
There is Guy, a rich Frenchman and Arthur’s first white lover; there is Paul, the brothers’ father and a pianist with friends throughout the industry; there is the mother of the child evangelist who dies of a curable disease because she believes her daughter will heal her; there are rivals and colleagues, there are racists who are white supremacists and racists who think they’re not racist and there is music and sex, always music and sex, floating through the novel like joyful narcotics.
Baldwin’s writing is crisp and direct, sex is sensuous and passionate without being either pornographic or fantastical, and the way Baldwin’s characters speak and write about music is some of the greatest critical prose I’ve ever encountered.
I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but it’s one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read: sometimes it’s very funny, sometimes it’s very fun, but it’s always human and humane and though – exactly like in One Day, When I Was Lost – Baldwin skips the textual evocation of Arthur becoming famous, and in fact we only ever get snippets and asides from the time between Arthur deciding to switch from gospel to soul in his mid-twenties and being a global smash hit pop sensation with substance abuse issues and (it’s implied) a very active sex life that never quite satisfies, fifteen years later.
Unlike the screenplay about Malcolm X, though, I wasn’t frustrated by the lack of evocation of Arthur Montana’s career. Baldwin’s novel is about Arthur discovering himself, coming to terms with his sexuality and his desire for fame: the main thread of the narrative doesn’t conclude when he “becomes a star”, but when he falls in love with a piano player he can collaborate with and move beyond the confines of faith-based Christian music.
It’s a stunning, incredible achievement and, like Going To See The Man, contained some of the greatest prose I’ve ever encountered.
It will still take me a few years, but I will read through Baldwin’s oeuvre, and I think I’ll be a better human for it.
Truly, one of the greatest writers in English of all time.
PS: If you’re a Mubi subscriber (which you should be), check out the “new” James Baldwin documentary, Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris.
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