The Price of the Ticket
This is a big collection of James Baldwin essays and nonfiction from about 40 years or of writing. I tend to be a bigger fan of James Baldwin’s nonfiction more than his fiction in part because I think the poetry of his brain and language elevates his nonfiction in such a big way. In his fiction, it still works, but it’s less powerful for me.
Some of the not previously printed highlights include
“A Talk With Teachers” – In this essay, we see James Baldwin at his best as a kind of anti-Jeremiah. What I mean by this specifically is his ability to scold people, actually in fairly kind words, for not holding themselves up to impossible standards. James Baldwin was never a formal teacher, but he’s a teacher in many respects obviously. He also just has a clear sense about what teaching is and should be, a way for people to be aware of how to make society what society claims about itself.
“For Sweet Lorraine” – This is a James Baldwin introduction to a collective work by Lorraine Hansberry. What stands out here more than anything is the clear understanding that they were close friends, shared a real love and relationship with one another, and that James Baldwin has a deep respect for her work. I am perplexed by theater a lot of times, and James Baldwin is not, and not at all confused or perplexed by her influence on theater, which through “A Raisin in the Sun” he believes changed theater without question.
“Nothing Personal” – A meditation on American media culture and how it often present de-vitalized versions of life, and how this translates to American existence and the ways in which this intersects with blackness.
“The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King” – An earlier essay about the path that stands before MLK. This is from the early 1960s and James Baldwin has a clear and unvarnished respect for MLK. He is looking forward to the next several years at where he is going. This is a perfectly contrasted essay to later ones that unfortunately have to look back at MLK.
“Negroes are anti-Semitic because they’re anti-White” – The most vexing essay in this collection because it’s the one that most has to be dealt with before moving on. The provocative title slightly undercuts the more thoughtful essay that it initiates. The essay is not about a stance of anti-Semitism among African-Americans, but instead a recognition of the ways that Jews in America function like a lot of other immigrant groups when it comes to relations with Black Americans, where a desire to assimilate takes precedent over compassion. The anti-Semitism that Baldwin talks about her is an immediate reaction to the people in their line of sight of Black Americans and less about a conscientious orientation. That doesn’t mean that the two don’t blend together at times.
” A Report from Occupied Territory” – A deeply sad look at Blackness in America using the language of decolonialism and other resistance language.
“Here there be Dragons” – While his novels deal with it, Baldwin doesn’t spend a ton of space in his nonfiction writing about sexuality and gender. Here’s a more targeted essay about those topics, as opposed to the more obliques discussions in other essays.
Notes of a Native Son
The title essay of this collection tries to reckon with James Baldwin’s sense of who his father was, specifically in his off-putting and near religious obsession. It’s an essay that also speaks to a universal truth: everybody’s dad is the most alien and strange creature they know; except for everyone else’s dad.
The other essays that really stand out in this collection include his reviews of the movies Carmen Jones and Porgy Bess, both of which were directed by Otto Preminger, and do represent a kind of transgressive attempt to put Blackness on the screen in real ways. Baldwin can’t help but feel that missing the mark is almost worse than not doing it in the first place in both movies the raw sexuality of the source materials are sanitized and desexualized to the point of offensive nonexistence. This is partly a directorial issue, as how could Preminger possibly achieve this? But also an issue with the sanitized performances by attractive, but desexed actors. There’s plenty of good reason why it happened, but no justification.
The essays: “Stranger in the Village,” “Equal in Paris,” and “A Question of Identity” circulate around two ideas primarily as James Baldwin is living in Paris. The first question is: how does it feel to be treated as Black, outside of the American context? And, how does it feel to be treated as an American, outside the context of American Blackness? The answers are complex.
The other reviews in this book include a rundown of the weak-sauce success of Ross Lockridge’s Raintree County, a mostly forgotten novel now, that set out to be a Great American Novel (TM). It was hugely successful, but almost immediately after Lockridge’s dies by suicide, something that Baldwin was forced to add an epilogue about in his review.
The other review that hugely stands out is “Many Thousands Gone” Baldwin’s initial review of Richard Wright’s Native Son, a novel Baldwin finds truly vexing (and I think rightly so).
For me, the most important essay in this collection remains “Everybody’s Protest Novel” which tackles the artlessness of protest writing, especially Harriet Beecher Stowe, but also Richard Wright. I found myself reinvigorated by the essay which delves into the awfulness of art that is trying to serve a social goal and purpose rather than be art. I won’t get into details, but needless to say, we still have some of that around. One of my bugbears of current tv, to speak of NOT ART, is when 2022 language crops up into shows about older times. It’s a weird anachronistic occurrence, which I could overlook if it weren’t there to serve a political purpose that strips away the viewing experience.
Nobody Knows My Name – Some highlights:
“Faulkner and Desegregation” – This essay is a response to Faulkner’s famous remarks about “Wait”(ing) for reforms to take effect. A later essay that Baldwin writes says that waiting is useless because one only has one life to live. It’s interesting here because while I have no fault whatsoever with Baldwin frustration with Faulkner, he is dealing with a drunk-addled Faulkner of the 1950s and not the much more sympathetic and sharp Faulkner of the early novels. I think that Baldwin often allows his new sentiment to color his interpretation of the past writing. This is a fair response, but not always a honest reading.
“In Search of a Majority” – In which Baldwin looks at the concept of the majority in light of a lot of talk about “minority rights”.
“The Male Prison” – A response to late Andre Gide novels in which the French writer is reckoning with his own closeted sense of being.
“Notes for a Hypothetical Novel” – I don’t really like when Baldwin talks about being a writer because he’s universalizes his own experience in an almost imperious way that is off putting.
“Alas, Poor Richard”- A reflective essay on the death of Richard Wright, their shared history, their shared ex-pat status, and Baldwin’s almost guilt at savaging Native Son. It’s a longing essay more than anything.
“The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” – A response to Norman Mailer, partly to the essay “The White Negro” in which Mailer discusses the coming understanding that the world doesn’t give a shot about him, something that Baldwin thinks that only a white man of 30 could write (with the idea that every Black man would already know this innately) but also to the perplexing reaction to Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, in which his impressions of several contemporary writers are concerned, including Baldwin. Baldwin is reacting specifically to the question of why someone he considers a close friend would use a book to assess his writing without talking to him about it first.
The Fire Next Time – You already know this one I assume. The book is broken into two essays, one short and one long. The short essay is a direct letter to a nephew of James Baldwin and looks at the ways in which white supremacy is entrenched in wider culture. The second, longer essay is probably the best, most distilled description of systemic racism that we have, balancing content with accessibility. While he focuses heavily throughout on the role that the protestant church helped to usher in the structural racism and how the Nation of Islam is responding to it (and this whole section is clearly contained within a context that I fear is lost to time somewhat).
No Name in the Street – So many of James Baldwin’s nonfiction works are sermons. The Fire Next Time is the most direct version of this, but that was rooted in a discussion of religion, and as I’ve already mentioned works as a kind of Jeremiad, something Baldwin ends up saying in another essay. This book length essay, which is about 1.5 times as long is a more directly political sermon on American racism. This is a post assassination of MLK book and also, importantly post civil rights. One of the effects of the civil rights movement is that it’s relative success was reinscribed as total success as a way to further damage Black people. What I mean by this was the the civil rights movement was falsely (by white people) taken as total victory as a way to close the conversation. So the rise of the Black Panthers and BLA and then the move toward internalizing racial oppression, moving toward the war on drugs, was one of the next moves of white supremacy. So this sermon is much more bleak and angry as a consequence. Baldwin warns readers that to speak of violence is not to condone it, but in the law and order era of American politics, violence is a very popular (and still is) scapegoat for racial oppression.
The Devil Finds Work – Even though it’s much more specific and targeted, and maybe also because it was a new read for me, I enjoyed this long essay the most from the rest of the collection. Here Baldwin begins by thinking about some of his early experiences with film. It begins with a memoir-like reading of a Joan Crawford film, discusses popular films over the next 40 years and then lands of a reading of a recent film. The core of the book is his look at several specific films: The Defiant Ones, Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and The Exorcist. The last one kind of comes out of nowhere, and the criticism is less incisive than the others, but does offer an interesting meditation. What ties the firs three together of course is both the roles played by Sydney Poitier, but also the films’ subjects and their specific discussions of race. The widest way to describe Baldwin’s criticism is that they offer race fantasies to white audiences, not unlike Birth of a Nation, but in reverse. A constant thread for Baldwin is about American’s refusal to let themselves see the world and see themselves. He believes that most Americans live in a fantasy world constructed in such a way to support their mostly childlike view of themselves, the country, and morality. So the three films function as fantasy-making for the well-meaning white audience. As is true in other Baldwin film essays where Black actors play significant roles, Baldwin laments the waster talent and the waster opportunity to explore complexity for the sake or reassuring platitudes.