James Baldwin and the Art of Empathy

We live in an age of short attention spans and sound bytes, which would seem to suggest shallow imaginations but it might signify something very different: an increased ability to absorb more information in less time. One example of this optimistic interpretation is the fact that we are living in a golden age of poetry. Nothing quite distills the human experience to its essence as well as poetry.

James Baldwin didn’t write a lot of poetry – only one book of his poems was published in his lifetime – but his prose captures the complexity of existence with the same density  as poetry. He once said that “every poet is an optimist. But on the way to that optimism ‘you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all.’ ”

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Portrait of James Baldwin by Bee Johnson

In his novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin suggests that if we are absorbing information more rapidly than our ancestors, we might come to regret it:

It doesn’t do to look too hard into this mystery, which is as far from being simple as it is from being safe. We don’t know enough about ourselves. I think it’s better to know that you don’t know, that way you can grow with the mystery as the mystery grows in you. But, these days, of course, everybody knows everything, that’s why so many people are lost.

There have always been some people who processed information at a higher capacity than others. James Baldwin was one. Here is the information he imagined being absorbed by a young woman on the subway:

I looked around the subway car. It was a little like the drawings I had seen of slave ships. Of course, they hadn’t had newspapers on the slave ships, hadn’t needed them yet; but, as concerned space (and also, perhaps, as concerned intention) the principle was exactly the same. A heavy man, smelling of hot sauce and toothpaste, breathed heavily into my face. It wasn’t his fault that he had to breathe, or that my face was there. His body pressed up against me, too, very hard, but this did not mean that he was thinking of rape, or thinking of me at all. He was probably wondering only – and this, dimly – how he was going to get through another day on the job. And he certainly did not see me.

There are two main characters in If Beale Street Could Talk. One is Fonny, an artist of a different type than Baldwin. This description of the sculptor’s process shows how all of art, like all of love, is one thing:

Fonny is working on the wood. It is a soft, brown wood, it stands on his worktable. He has decided to do a bust of me. The wall is covered with sketches. I am not here.

His tools are on the table. He walks around the wood, terrified. He does not want to touch it. He knows that he must. But does not want to defile the wood. He stares and stares, almost weeping. He wishes that the wood would speak to him; he is waiting for the wood to speak. Until it speaks, he cannot move. I am imprisoned somewhere in the silence of that wood, and so is he.

He picks up the chisel, he puts it down. He lights a cigarette, sits down on his work stool, stares, picks up the chisel again.

He puts it down, goes into the kitchen to pour himself a beer, comes back with the beer, sits down on the stool again, stares at the wood. The wood stares back at him.

“You cunt,” says Fonny.

Hi picks up the chisel again, and approaches the waiting wood. He touches it very lightly with his hand, he caresses it. He listens. He puts the chisel, teasingly, against it. The chisel begins to move. Fonny begins.

The other main character is the narrator, Tish. It might be a bit of a stretch from writer to sculptor, but nothing like a man trying to imagine how it feels to be a pregnant woman. Baldwin’s portrayal might be as close as a man’s ever gotten to accuracy in this scene with Tish and her sister:

 I realize, for the first time, that the bar is loud. And I look around me. It’s actually a terrible place and I realize that the people here can only suppose that Ernestine and I are tired whores, or a Lesbian couple, or both. Well. We are certainly in it now, and it may get worse. It will, certainly – and now something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider’s web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart – get worse. But that light tap, that kick, that signal, announces to me that what can get worse can get better. Yes. It will get worse. But the baby, turning for the first time in its incredible veil of water, announces its presence and claims me; tells me, in that instant, that what can get worse can get better; and that what can get better can get worse. In the meantime – forever – it is entirely up to me. The baby cannot get here without me. And, while I may have known this, in one way, a little while ago, now the baby knows it, and tells me that while it will certainly be worse, once it leaves the water, what gets worse can also get better. It will be in the water for a while yet: but it is preparing itself for a transformation. And so must I.

James Baldwin must have spent a lot of his time writing this novel in contemplation of pregnancy and of the differences between women and men.

Only a man can see in the face of a woman the girl she was. It is a secret which can be revealed only to a particular man, and, then only at his insistence. But men have no secrets, except from women, and never grow up in the way that women do. It is very much harder, and it takes much longer, for a man to grow up, and he could never do it at all without women. This is a mystery which can terrify and immobilize a woman, and it is always the key to her deepest distress. She must watch and guide, but he must lead, and he will always appear to be giving far more of his attention to his comrades than he is giving to her. But that noisy, outward openness of men with each other enables them to deal with the silence and secrecy of women, that silence and secrecy which contains the truth of a man, and releases it.

James Baldwin’s greatest talent is insight. As skilled as he was at his craft, his words were slaves to his thoughts and they revealed him: thoughtful and kind. In this scene, published the year he turned 50, his young couple, in the throes of first love, share a mean with their friend Daniel:

        Fonny: chews on the rib, and watches me: and, in complete silence, without moving a muscle, we are laughing with each other. We are laughing for many reasons. We are joined together somewhere where no one can reach us, touch us, joined. We are happy, even, that we have food enough for Daniel, who eats peacefully, not knowing that we are laughing, but sensing that something wonderful has happened to us, which means that wonderful things happen, and that maybe something wonderful will happen to him. It’s wonderful, anyway, to be able to help a person to have that feeling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LmrqtD1E7c

If Beale Street Could Talk

Yesterday morning there was a man in the lobby of my office building talking into his phone at an obscene volume. As we rode up in the elevator together – four or five of us – it became obvious that he was not like the rest of us and did not want to be. He yelled into his phone, “Why don’t you make yourself useful and lock up some of the bastards running this city.” As he got off he grunted something disparaging about “civilians” and as the doors closed behind him the woman in the elevator with me could only say “Wow.” 
Maybe he was off his meds.
But on my way to work I was reading If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin and it wasn’t hard to see the loud-talking non-civilian in the elevator as the villain lurking behind a passage like this:
“The same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble and put him in jail. For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free county. You’re suppose to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.”
Some of us are sickened by the daily news reports of the takeover of our government by white supremacists but others might take it as a hopeful sign that we are finally waking up to a situation that has been festering in this country since colonial times.

“Of course, I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody – if it is, God’s days have gotto be numbered. That God these people say they serve – and do serve, in ways that they don’t know – has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were.”
There are people – Virginia Woolf is one, so is James Joyce – whose work makes me feel like they did me a personal favor by becoming writers. James Baldwin is another.

I’m not good at retaining novels. Certain scenes and characters make an impression but most of them fade from my memory soon after I read them. I sink into the dream that is a good book and turning the last page of one is like opening my eyes after a long night’s sleep, grasping at dreams that I can’t keep from evaporating.

So I fold back the corners of pages that I want to re-read even after I’ve re-read them. So I can type up the words and let them skip across the keyboard and my fingertips, so I can feel what it’s like to write this kind of passage:


“I thought of Fonny’s touch, of Fonny, in my arms, his breath, his touch, his odor, his weight, that terrible and beautiful presence riding into me and his breath being snarled, as if by a golden thread, deeper and deeper in his throat as he rode – as he rode deeper and deeper not so much into me as into a kingdom which lay just behind his eyes. He worked on wood that way. He worked on stone that way. If I had never seen him work, I might never have known he loved me.

It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you.”

The Fire Next Time


Anger has its uses. It can be a spur to confronting injustice or a vent for righteous frustration. Anger is like lust: it’s an honest emotion. There’s no time to overthink the impulse. The best you can do is control it and try to deny how insanely good it feels to let it off the leash. But for the most part anger sucks. In my experience it is a spur to self-indulgence and a vent for self-loathing. I felt a lot of anger reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. What kind of monster doesn’t feel anger at lines like these:

I was thirteen and crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.
My anger isn’t focused on Baldwin’s experiences from the 1930s. It feeds on the knowledge of what hasn’t changed, on how black parents still need to warn their children about the dangers of police officers, and on how my contribution to confronting this injustice consists of voting for people who will try to do something and in scribbling these pathetic words. Reading Baldwin’s more considered words help steer me from anger toward something more useful and long-lasting.
I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know – we see it around us every day – the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff – and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.

I sometimes wonder why every black man who sees me doesn’t walk up and punch me in the face. I wonder why a woman I pass on the sidewalk offers me a sweet smile instead of running in fear from a potential sexual predator. That absence of punching and running gives me one of the only know cures for anger: hope. It also offers a chance to learn and to realize that my knowledge is different from others. Mine keeps me from believing that my position in society was achieved by my own merits. Maybe theirs keeps them from believing I am their enemy.

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyway, mothers – know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred.

A large and fascinating section of The Fire Next Time concerns a dinner party that Baldwin attends at the invitation of Elijah Muhammad, founder of The Nation of Islam. Muhammad witnessed three lynchings before turning 20. That’s the kind of thing that can make you believe white people are devils.
Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginning – and neither can this be overstated – a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not realize what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him – for that is what it is – is utterly gratuitous, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils.
I told Elijah that I did not care if white and black peo
ple married, and that I had many white friends. I would have no choice, if it came to it, but to perish with them, for (I said to myself, but not to Elijah), “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?”

I knew two or three people, white, whom I would trust with my life, and I knew a few others, white, who were struggling as hard as they knew how, and with great effort and sweat and risk, to make the world more human. But how could I say this? One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief. All my evidence would be thrown out of court as irrelevant to the main body of the case, for I could cite only exceptions.

I don’t know if other white Americans share my experience that something changed with the election of Barack Obama. In ordinary interactions with strangers who are black – passing on the sidewalk, holding a door, asking directions – I felt a more relaxed communication, more like what I would experience with strangers who are white. I can only hope that the tragedy of Trump’s election hasn’t caused too much harm to our common humanity until we can again find a president who represents the better angels of our nature.
Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and we know we cannot live within.

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Like all of Baldwin’s writing The Fire Next Time transcends the beauty and genius of his words, to share his unique insight into our common hopes, fears, and mortal lives.
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earnone’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.

Giovanni’s Room – Sex

 

Sex is a difficult thing to write about. Too graphic and it reads like porn, too tame and the writer seems inexperienced or, worse, fearful. The Literary Review gives out an annual prize called the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for lines like this one from 2017 “winner” Christoper Bollen:

The skin along her arms and shoulders are different shades of tan like water stains in a bathtub. Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.

James Baldwin would never be in the running for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. His sex scenes are as clear-eyed as the rest of his writing. Giovanni’s Room is the rare book that includes both gay and straight sex scenes. Not only that, but they’re told from the perspective of the same character, the narrator.
Giovanni’s Room is not a book about sex or sexuality but like his contemporaries Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, Baldwin’s protagonist is up to his eyeballs in it. Here are some excerpts of David with Giovanni:
He locked the door behind us, and then for a moment, in the gloom, we simply stared at each other – with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard. I was trembling. I thought, if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.
I was in a terrible confusion. Sometimes I thought, but this is your life. Stop fighting it. Stop fighting. Or I thought, but I am happy. And he loves me. I am safe. Sometimes, when he was not near me, I thought, I will never let him touch me again. Then, when he touched me, I thought, it doesn’t matter, it is only the body, it will soon be over. When it was over, I lay in the dark and listened to his breathing and dreamed of the touch hands, of Giovanni’s hands, or anybody’s hands, hands which would have the power to crush me and make me whole again.
What kind of life can we have in this room? – this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together anyway? All this love you talk about – isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me.

There is an inherent conflict in writing about sex. Sex is the most private of acts, and writing is the art of keeping nothing private. In writing about sex with men, Baldwin deals with an obvious social taboo. In his scenes with women David uncovers a different set of controversial consequences, in scenes with a one-night stand named Sue:
She came back with two great brandy snifters. She came close to me on the sofa and we touched glasses. We drank a little, she watching me all the while, and then I touched her breasts. Her lips parted and she put her glass down with extraordinary clumsiness and lay against me. It was a gesture of great despair and I knew that she was giving herself, not to me, but to that lover who would never come.
There were a great many things she wanted to say, but she forced herself to say nothing. I could scarcely bear to watch the struggle occurring in her face, it made me so ashamed. “Maybe you’ll be lonely again,” she said, finally. “I guess I won’t mind if you come looking for me.” She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated, but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety – as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.

 And in scenes with his girlfriend Hella that get into the thicket where sex intertwines with love and family:

I kept kissing her and holding her, trying to find my way in her again, as though she were a familiar, darkened room in which I fumbled to find the light. And, with my kisses, I was trying also to delay the moment which would commit me to her, or fail to commit me to her.
“For a woman,” she said, “I think a man is always a stranger. And there’s something awful about being at the mercy of a stranger.”
“But men are at the mercy of women, too. Have you never thought of that?”
“Ah!” she said, “men may be at the mercy of women – I think men like that idea, it strokes the misogynist in them.
“You know, I’m not really the emancipated girl I try to be at all. I guess I just want a man to come home to me every night. I want to be able to sleep with a man without being afraid he’s going to knock me up. Hell, I want to be knocked up. I want to start having babies. In a way, it’s really all I’m good for.” There was silence again. “Is that what you want?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve always wanted that.”
I turned to face her, very quickly, or as though strong hands on my shoulders had turned me ar
ound. The room was darkening. She lay on the bed watching me, her mouth slightly open and her eyes like lights. I was terribly aware of her body, and of mine. I walked over to her and put my head on her breast. I wanted to lie there, hidden and still. But then, deep within, I felt her moving, rushing to open the gates of her strong, walled city and let the king of glory come in.

The relationship between sex and love can be a complex one, or it can be as simple as it is natural. Love can be eternal, it can evaporate in the fire of lust, or it can slowly and irrevocably wither.  It’s probably best not to dwell too much on the last option, but Baldwin does: 
Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love. It is a remarkable process. It is far more terrible than anything I have ever read about it, more terrible than anything I will ever be able to say.

Giovanni’s Room – Paris


 

Even though I do it myself sometimes (like now), I have a problem with people who can write fiction when they write non-fiction, because fiction is art and non-fiction is…something else. Non-fiction can tell you the truth, which is important, but fiction does something much better: it points to the places where the truth is hiding and lets you tell it to yourself.

The best writers write about the thing we call human nature (because we don’t have better words for it), and few write about it as well as James Baldwin. Take this observation from his novel Giovanni’s Room:

Behind the counter sat one of those absolutely inimitable and indomitable ladies, produced only in the city of Paris, but produced there in great numbers, who would be as outrageous and unsettling in any other city as a mermaid on a mountaintop. All over Paris they sit behind their counters like a mother bird in a nest and brood over the cash register as though it were an egg. Nothing occurring under the circle of heaven where they sit escapes their eye, if they have ever been surprised buy anything, it was only a dream – a dream they long ago ceased having. They are neither ill- nor good-natured, though they have their days and styles, and they know, in the way, apparently, that other people know when they have to go to the bathroom, everything about everyone who enters their domain. Though some are white-haired and some not, some fat, some thin, some grandmothers and some lately virgins, they all have exactly the same, shrewd, vacant, all-registering eye; it is difficult to believe that they ever cried for milk or looked at the sun; it seems they must have come into the world hungry for banknotes, and squinting helplessly, unable to focus their eyes until they came to rest on a cash register.

The pulsing undercurrent of the novel is the heartbeat of Paris. Baldwin writes eloquently about the City of Lights and its inhabitants:

The city, Paris, which I loved so much, was absolutely silent. There seemed to be almost no one on the streets, although it was still very early in the evening. Nevertheless, beneath me – along the river bank, beneath the bridges, in the shadow of the walls, I could almost hear the collective, shivering sigh – were lovers and ruins, sleeping, embracing, coupling, drinking, staring out at the descending night. Behind the walls of the houses I passed, the French nation was clearing away the dishes, putting little Jean Pierre and Marie to bed, scowling over the eternal problems of the sou, the shop, the church, the unsteady State. Those walls, those shuttered windows held them in and protected them against the darkness and the long moan of this long night. Ten years hence, little Jean Pierre or Marie might find themselves out here beside the river and wonder, like me, how they had fallen out of the web of safety. What a long way, I thought, I’ve come – to be destroyed!

The line between writer and character can get a little blurry in first-person fiction and knowledge of the author kept tripping me up and I would sometimes see David as a black man in my mind’s eye. To remedy this confusion Baldwin wisely describes David in the first paragraph this way:

My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faces away from Europe into a darker past.

Because the characters in Giovanni’s Room are white and the setting is Paris, the book does not dwell on American racial inequality the way much of Baldwin’s non-fiction does. It does dwell significantly on another of his well-known themes: sexuality.

Tomorrow: Giovanni’s Room – Sex