Monday, August 3, 2009
"I PICKED THE COTTON..."
JAMES BALDWIN b AUGUST 2nd 1924
"I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."
it's hard to believe now but there was a time when our "public intellectuals" could debate issues in an intelligent way in public forums cordially. the gap between this debate held in the 60s & something you might see on cnn now is depressing, especially when you consider the miniscule distance we've come on this particular issue.
baldwin had various things going against him back then. first & most obviously, he was black. second, he was gay. third, as he himself liked to point out, he wasn't a very handsome man. he was, however, brilliant & articulate & talented. i think the latter more than made up for the former.
i thought ralph ellison's invisible man was the great novel of black experience but after that singular achievement i had baldwin as the go-to black writer. richard wright didn't do it for me. baldwin brought a sense of jazz & gosphel rhythms to his prose which, at its best, electrified it. his early novel, another country, showed just how confusing things must have been not only in 50s nyc bohemia but in the country as a whole. giovanni's room was one of the first mainstream novels about the gay experience at the time.
i think his lasting contribution will be his books of essays. angry & defiant & speaking righteously from a superior moral position, baldwin's insights into race & sex & america are incomparable. i loved norman mailer's work back then but i think baldwin blows him away. mailer was clever when baldwin was incisive; he was detached when baldwin was engaged. mailer could never summon up the moral authority or eloquence of a rabbi but baldwin was always in a sweaty pulpit of a southern church on a sunday morning. a modern jeremiah, he wanted justice & redemption & the sinners punished & the meek to inherit the earth. he preached fire & brimstone; mailer was all cool jazz.
"I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain."