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Did I Get James Baldwin Wrong?

Writer James Baldwin at home in Saint Paul de Vence, South of France, in 1985.

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.

In 1984, he told an interviewer for the Paris Review that he "knew what it meant to be white and I knew what it meant to be a nigger, and I knew what was going to happen to me. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier, jumping off the George Washington Bridge."

I wanted to meet the man with such a singular take on what it meant to live abroad. In one of the books my father gave me, Baldwin described the roots of his identity as a unique, roving figure. With no trace of shame, he told the poet Dan Georgakas: "I'm a black, funky, raggedy-ass shoeshine boy. If I forget that, it's the end of me."

As the red MG sped toward Saint-Paul de Vence, I closed my eyes to the distant azure sea and idyllic countryside flashing by and imagined meeting the brilliant consciousness that was Baldwin. I dreamt of the meeting the way jazz musicians dream of sitting in a jam session with the master who influenced their style, hoping to sound out crudely formed thoughts and hear them echo back, perfectly honed and now riding the air forever

I never shined shoes. I was raised in a precariously middle class home. But I recognized the shoeshine boy deep in myself. My Mississippi-born mother knocked into me and my five siblings the hard lesson that we were no better than anyone else. Learning French and earning a doctorate wouldn't change that. Nor would literally buying into the racial and class roles of a society deeply organized around what Baldwin called "black-white madness."

So, for me, Baldwin, the self-described "slave in exile," was the most impossible, volatile and dangerous of all figures. Because of him, I rejected the easy comfort, the endlessly shopping, touristic gaze of superior identity that the other exchange students embraced. He widely critiqued all forms of oppression, forging, perhaps, the foundation of a new order, a new identity, a new consciousness. This was the hope I saw in Jimmy Baldwin.

But James Baldwin, the man I saw on the screen as I watched I Am Not Your Negro, had little of that hope.

He was like the original "slave in exile"

The rear wheels of the English sports car suddenly skidded toward the edge of a cliff and I closed my eyes rather than witness my own death. With athletic reflexes sharpened on even narrower roads in Corsica, my friend recovered. I struggled to find an acceptable, macho way of asking him to slow down.

Still, I could appreciate the beauty that surrounded me. The man I was going to see saw something else. Baldwin shared a view with the original slave in exile, Frederick Douglass. Both lodged themselves firmly in the role of the underdog and spoke on behalf of the oppressed.

Douglass relentlessly identified with – and refused to position himself above – the lowliest of the earth, les misérables, who had been discarded and sacrificed for the sake of European patriarchal identity.

When he traveled to Europe toward the end of his life, Douglass visited more than the great monuments. He chose to tour sites of oppression, narrating an alternative history of the West through the eyes of its victims. Like Baldwin, he went to France and saw more than beauty at the papal palace in Avignon. There, he said it "required no effort of the imagination to create visions of the Inquisition, to see the terror-stricken faces, the tottering forms, and pleading tears of the accused, and the saintly satisfaction of the inquisitors."

Through his imagination and writing, the beaten slave and the murdered heretic melded into one.

Baldwin used his European experience to craft in 1953 one of his most powerful essays, "Stranger in the Village." His visit to the cathedral at Chartres and the crypt beneath helped him to define the parasitic nature of racial identity in a way that came to organize my thinking – and perhaps that of everyone who read and understood him.

"... I am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone and seeming to say that God and the devil can never be divorced. I doubt that the villagers think of the devil when they face a cathedral because they have never been identified with the devil. But I must accept the status which myth, if nothing else, gives me in the West before I can hope to change the myth."

This was the Jimmy Baldwin I thought I knew. This was the man who exposed with surgical clarity the devastating myth of racial identity while clinging to the gospel that the truth would set us free. He had set me free. Before I read Baldwin, for example, Black History Month seemed like a kindly gesture of inclusion made by the larger society. It had not yet occurred to me that omitting African-Americans from the teaching of history in the first place did as much damage to the oppressed as to the oppressor, because it gave them a warped and fictitious sense of reality and of themselves. Baldwin made that point in the 1964 interview with Dan Georgakas.

"I want American history taught," he told the poet. "Unless I'm in that book, you're not in it either."

At the heart of his thought, I surmised, was the skinny, black shoeshine boy, popping and snapping his rag as he looked up knowingly into the clouded eyes of a customer who didn't see him back, whose world deliberately and perilously didn't include him. Baldwin helped me realize that such a customer (who almost believes his shoes shine themselves) is as unreal to himself as the invisible shoeshine boy is to him.

Like Jimmy, I thought the dawning of this realization in white people would be our salvation, that somehow, if we could understand it, if we put the right words to it, if it is stated clearly, we could come to see the error of our ways. Getting people to realize this about themselves embodied the hopefulness I read in in his work.

But after I watched I'm Not Your Negro, I wondered if my image of Baldwin – of Jimmy – was inaccurate. In the film, he invokes the shoeshine boy when he explains that he rejected membership in the NAACP because of its "black class distinctions that repelled a shoeshine boy like me." But in this latest rendering of Baldwin, there is little of the Christian humanist hope; the Great Black Hope of reconciliation through mental emancipation. Instead, the film moves James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. much closer to the militant ideas of Malcolm X; the notion that change could only come through violent confrontation.

"Malcolm was one of the people Martin saw on the mountaintop," Baldwin says cryptically in the unfinished essay about his friends. He acknowledges that he and Malcolm X "were simply trapped in the same situation."

The James Baldwin of this film doesn't seem to believe in reconciliation triggered by the exploding of myths.

"Well, I am tired," Baldwin says in the film. "I don't know how it will come about. But no matter how it comes about it will be bloody. It will be hard."

He asked me to call him "Jimmy"

The medieval, hilltop village of Saint-Paul de Vence, was a beautiful, walled hamlet, and as the red MG slowed to match the scenery, I wondered what it must be like to be a writer living in such a place. My friend seemed unmoved. No village outside of Corsica held any beauty for him.

We stopped the car, and I accosted shoppers at a flower market and disturbed men as they played leisurely games of pétanque on the hardened dirt. I asked if they could tell me where James Baldwin lived. They seemed puzzled. They thought I was asking about James Bond, who maybe lived around there, too, and drove a red sports car.

The trip was a sad (and terrifying) failure. And while I did not die that day, I didn't meet Baldwin, either. That would come four years later, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and he was invited to speak during Black History Month. A student had been asked to drive Baldwin around and invited me to go along. This ride was calm, slower, on wider streets.

Baldwin looked like his pictures, though he was dressed in a surprising, cutting-edge, tailored suit. He was kind and smiling, and like most writers, shy and reticent. We drove him to dinner and then to give his talk, after which he fielded questions about Alice Walker, The Color Purple and African-American women writers who air black America's dirty laundry. "What's wrong with airing dirty laundry?" he characteristically asked. "Besides, I think it's healthy."

Later that night, I finally had my chance to jam with Baldwin. I sat next to him in a rundown lounge on the south side of Chicago. He listened distantly as the jukebox played Billie Holiday, a friend he would join in the hereafter just a few months later. Regretfully, I did too much talking, and my words simply dissipated into the air. Who could compete with Lady Day?

When I stiffly called him "Mr. Baldwin," he asked me to call him "Jimmy."

"Jimmy," Amiri Baraka says in the film, "always made us feel good. He always made us know we were dangerously intelligent and as courageous as the will to be free."

He could do that while surgically dissecting the malignancies of racism in his homeland. At 29, Baldwin shook the American consciousness with the prescient "Stranger in the Village," where he spelled out the dangers of what is now called American exceptionalism:

"I do not think ... that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world — which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white-- owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us — very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will — that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."

It was a call to consciousness. Now, those warnings, coming from the James Baldwin of I Am Not Your Negro, sound more like the fulfillment of a despairing prophecy.

The film resounds with this sense of imminent catastrophe, pronounced in Samuel L. Jackson's ponderous reading, with little of the mannerisms or hopeful affect of Baldwin's younger persona — or of the withdrawn, 62-year-old man I met in Chicago. The cumulative effect of the film and its arrangement of sound and image is the emergence of a figure defined by such potent words as "trapped," "bitter," "enemy," "vengeance," and "helpless rage."

There seems little escape for Americans.

"These people," Baldwin says, "have deluded themselves so long, they really don't think I'm human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means ... they have become moral monsters."

It's a sobering conclusion. With the specter of police shootings, violent protests, nativism, and the resurgence of white supremacy following the November election, I fear he was right.

Stephen Casmier is an associate professor in the Department of English at Saint Louis University.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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