Leo Proudhammer, a 39-year-old, black, successful actor, suffers a heart attack on stage. This prompts him to look back on the events and people that shaped him, from growing up poor in Harlem to trying to make it big in the theatre as a young man, and from his turbulent relationship with his older brother Caleb and his long lasting liaison with the white actress Barbara to his affair with the young revolutionary Christopher.
The way James Baldwin dissects race relations in America may be unparalleled in its meticulousness and clarity. If you still do not understand the minefield black people had, and still have, to navigate every day after reading one of Baldwin’s books, then there is probably no hope for you. He lays out in detail how the country itself is trapped and weighed down by the burden of history, and how racism appears to be coded into the very DNA of its people because the knowledge of its workings is almost intrinsically passed from one generation to the next. The most remarkable parts of the book are about Leo growing up, and even as a young boy having all this awareness of race and skin colour, and of how inescapable the situation is. There is a moment where he is on a train and suddenly notices that there are only white people around him, and not only can his fear be viscerally felt, but the realisation to what a degree a child is and, for its own safety, has to be aware of skin colour is chilling.
There are also two run-ins with the police described, one as a child and one as a young man, where he is targeted because he is black. These encounters happened in the 1940s and 1950s respectively, but they could also have occurred yesterday in the exact same way which drives it home how little has changed in regards to the police and their conduct. Leo, however, wants to overcome the obstacles surrounding him and become a stage actor; he succeeds, but the burden of his own experiences and the history of “his people”, as the black population is called by one of his white admirers, cannot be lifted by this success. The divide is omnipresent, and straddling it all too easily leads to enemies on both sides.
These aspects of the book are so impressive that it is even more jarring how much of a letdown other areas are. The plot is rather pedestrian overall and, on top of that, severely disjointed because Leo’s story is told by covering only some of the important events in his life; we never learn much about how he made it to this level of success, for instance. Due to the focus on a few parts of Leo’s life, some scenes are drawn out to almost an excruciating degree, and furthermore, despite all the verbosity and obsession with detail, the characters never come to life. Although Baldwin made me understand Leo’s plight perfectly, he never managed to make me understand Leo himself. The issues at hand are projected onto a character that is only a stand-in for the problems plaguing society which makes caring for him difficult, except in a few instants like the aforementioned incident on the train.
The three supporting characters fare even worse, especially Barbara. She is the offspring of a well-off Kentucky family that has the casual racism and ignorance of its own privilege down pat, but it is never explained how she moved away from that, or how the relationship with Leo impacted her life. Christopher is an incarnation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but other than that, he is handled like an afterthought. The most complex of all the characters is probably Caleb who, after having fought in WWII, undergoes a transformation from a troubled teenager to a preacher that wants to save his brother, but he as well is given too little room to make an impact.
Although of uneven quality and overall a somewhat unfocused book, I nonetheless recommend it because the flaws don’t override the fact that Baldwin is a master of his craft who covers important topics in a profound and impactful way. The insight he provides in this book on racism and the invisible frontier it has erected is too valuable to ignore, especially if that frontier is to be torn down for good.
CBR12 Bingo: Shelfie