I’m Reading James Baldwin For The First Time And I’m Falling In Love With His Work
As a book-loving Black literary homothug who writes openly about life, sexuality, society, and the innumerable consequences and byproducts of White Terribleness and the absence of Teen Summit on post-Y2K childhood development (hint: they’re doomed), Sir James Baldwin has always occupied a peculiar space in my world. I’ve always known that his work was important to literature and that his voice and perspective were especially special to Black folks, because Uncle Jimmy had a gift and was motherfucking phenomenal at using his words to tell it like it really is. Other book-loving writerly folk I know often use superlatives in their gushings about his work. But beyond that time in high school when I bullshitted my way through a book report on If Beale Street Could Talk in high school and the occasional brief essay over the years, I had never really read Baldwin at length. The reverence that shapes so many discussions of his work had me feeling like I was missing out on a major rite of passage in my writerly growth, particularly as I struggle and stress my way through this book of essays I’m cooking up. I needed some inspiration, so I figured it was time to take the plunge and spend some time with a wordsmith many of my fellow chocolatey homo writerhomies adore so fiercely.
When I posted on Facebook a few weeks back about wanting to dive into Baldwin’s work, at least five people recommended The Fire Next Time as a starting point for me, lover of a wonderful essay. More people than expected said they preferred his essays to his fiction by far, so I intended to start there. But because it’s what was checked in at the library the day I was ready to start the journey, I went with Go Tell It On The Mountain, his 1953 semi-autobiographical ragefest of a novel set on an eventful Saturday in 1935 Harlem. I was sold by the third sentence of the first page. “Shit. If his essays are better than this,” I texted a friend after finishing the second page, “I need to find a job that will pay me to read James Baldwin books and run the fan club full time. Any suggestions?”
I couldn’t put the motherfucker down. The writing was vivid, dense, astoundingly nuanced, and elaborate. Reading those first few pages gave me the same rush I got from reading A Million Little Pieces by James Frey as a sixteen-year-old newish writer who managed to become editor of our high school’s paper. That book was important in the development of my creative voice, as Frey’s brutal and masterful book showed me it was okay to be outlandish and to take creative risks on the page, because that wildness and those quirks are both distinguishing and memorable. Go Tell It On The Mountain, like A Million Little Pieces, speaks to my own writerly sensibilities; I connect most with work that is dynamic, evocative, lively, clear, and soulful, rather than flat, clunky, and dry.
Sir Baldwin’s words sing on the page. His explanations and descriptions are so lyrically precise that they leave no room for ambiguity. He perfectly captured the ridiculousness of the fire-and-brimstone and fear-based approach to parenting I observe in aggressively churchy family members and how blind faith renders otherwise brilliant and capable people sheep-like and disconnected from reality. His portrayal of Gabriel and Deborah’s passionless marriage and his articulation of Gabriel’s vicious contempt for her and her humility was some of the best, most lucid writing I’ve ever read. His attention to detail is a wonder to behold and even in all of his expansive rambles, his sidebars and embellishments are smart, relevant, and flavor the writing in an enhancing but not overwhelming way. It felt effortless. It’s a pity I’ll never get to eat chicken and deconstruct Sister Act 2 with him.
Thanks to train delays and frequent voyages for food and adventure, I finished the novel in a few days and dove right into the cleverly titled Collected Essays, an addictive and massive assemblage of his nonfiction work, edited by Toni Morrison.
You remember in the beginning of the video for Janet’s “If,” when the doors burst open and the curtains unfurled and blew wildly announcing Her arrival amid the fanfare, baldheaded Asian women and pre ho-shit debauchery, and she strutted regally down the stairs to fuck shit up with the rest of the gang? That’s what his book’s Autobiographical Notes felt like for me. What an introduction. “Why is this five-page bio better than most damn books I read by contemporary writers?” I asked that same friend while browsing fonts for this “Uncle Jimmy” tattoo I want to get on my neck.
In one section that had me nodding aggressively on the train, he wrote:
“Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way, and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.”
And he kept dropping bombs of excellence that still apply today. On art’s influences, he wrote:
“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.”
It was like discovering an artist, and everything you hear by them makes your bootyhole twinkle with delight, as if their work was produced entirely for you. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” when, after dismantling and pissing on her entire physical, ideological, and literary existence, he wrote that Harriet Beecher Stowe (writer of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) “was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer,” referring to the book’s painfully dense intellectual shallowness, my soul let out a powerful Prince-like squeal. I’ve been known to maul a woefully misinformed white scoundrel (or two) on ze page, so to see him artfully nail her raggedy ass to the wall, one obnoxiously “benevolent” strand of hair at a time with such artistry, lyrical precision, and nimbleness? It felt like motherfucking praise and worship.
And I’ve already become one of those people who quotes Uncle Jimmy in bluntful fellowship with the homies and posts Baldwin excerpts on social media. This must be how Rachel “The Racial Stowaway” Dolezal felt when she discovered coconut oil and fatback.
I adore that he was equally unflinching in his critique of his people. In “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” he writes about the famed Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte onscreen collabo, “Carmen Jones.” He felt the production benefitted from a lack of white folks, saying that “this seals the action off, as it were, in a vacuum in which the spectacle of color is divested of its danger.”
He said the diluted version of Blackness presented via the set, costumes, dialogue, and mannerisms was “spotless.” Of Dorothy and Harry and the fam, he wrote, “these are exceptional Negroes, as American, that is, as you and me, interpreting lower class Negroes of whom they, also, are very fond, an affection which is proven perhaps by the fact that everyone appears to under a tiny, strangling death before resolutely substituting “de” for “the.” He felt the “Negro speech [was] parodied out of its charm and liberalized, one may put it, of its force and precision.” And that the characters suffered from their “remarkable vacuity, their complete improbability, their total divorce from anything suggestive of the realities of Negro life.”
And on Dorothy’s performance in the film:
“One feels—perhaps one is made to feel—that here is a very nice girl making her way in movies by means of a bad-girl part; and the glow thus caused, especially since she is a colored girl, really must make up for the glow from the performance she is clearly working very hard at.”
While appreciating Carmen’s cultural significance, he could still point out that the film reflects the “blank, lofty solemnity with which Hollywood so often approaches ‘works of art’ and the really quite helpless condescension with which Hollywood has always handled Negroes,” both of which still make it hard out here for representation-hungry pimps.
I was there on the D train surrounded by Lena Dunhams and such, swooning like a motherfucker.
A friend in that original Facebook post said that reading Baldwin would open me up creatively. I’m five essays into the damn book and I already want to write his biopic and get back to work on my memoir. Reading and raving, I sometimes feel late to a party that’s been going on forever, but I reckon anytime is the right time to discover this man’s magic. I’m thankful that I came across this work now, and have the mental bandwidth, ysears removed from that lazy book report, to fully appreciate its wonder, insight and value. This book is just under 900 pages. That’s a lot of Black excellence to power through. Expect tons of obnoxious, dick-riding rambles henceforth.