i. the illusion of a mirror / the mirror of an illusion
In the fall of 1957, James Baldwin made his first trip to the Deep South. In complex ways and for even more complex reasons, he was returning to a place he’d never been before. Soon upon his arrival, he found himself surrounded by mirrors. “Everywhere he turns,” wrote Baldwin in “Letter from the South: Nobody Knows My Name,” “the revenant finds himself reflected.” For the readers of the Partisan Review, he recalled his first impressions: a northern Black man arriving in the South “sees, in effect, his ancestors, who, in everything they do and are, proclaim his inescapable identity.”
Possibly because Baldwin arrived in the South after a prolonged sojourn in Europe, and possibly because his vision was calibrated to framing redemptive confrontations, he continued: “And the Northern Negro in the South sees, whatever he or anyone else may wish to believe, that his ancestors are both white and black. The white men, flesh of his flesh, hate him for that very reason.” Completing the scan of his new environment in a way that forecast a strange, maybe perilous, trip through what for him would be a kind of no man’s land, Baldwin wrote: “On the other hand, there is scarcely any way for him to join the black community in the South: for both he and this community are in the grip of the immense illusion that their state is more miserable than his own.”
In ways beyond what Baldwin could tell himself at the time, certainly in ways beyond what he could confide to a determined and isolated 17-year-old Black boy integrating Central High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, to say nothing of what he could relate to the rather carefully terrified white principal of the school, Baldwin had been led back to the United States, and to the South for the first time, by a near-lethal misery that had closed in upon him over the past year or so. Over the course of his career, Baldwin would write plenty about misery, and he’d publish many pieces about his first and many subsequent trips to the South. He’d decode many fantasies Americans hold about one another and themselves, all of them, as he’d write in “Letter from the South,” owing “everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people.”
In the face of all of this, a few details of Baldwin’s experience and his work from those years become fascinating to consider. Not the least fascinating are the silence-breaking and possibly mirror-shattering letters he wrote to family and friends from North Carolina and Alabama in October 1957. From examining Baldwin’s attempts to make sense of how the personal and historical dimensions of his experience come together, we can glimpse moments of clarity about our contemporary lives and world and what, as he put it, “prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be.”
ii. “history, jeering, at her back”
Rapt theatre audiences in 2016 encountered moments of Baldwin’s life, including elements of his first trip to the South, via the affecting voice of Samuel L. Jackson reading Baldwin’s words in Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro. In one such moment, Jackson reads from Baldwin’s inimitable and still little-understood 1972 memoir, No Name in the Street. As he speaks, Jackson revivifies a most interestingly mistaken memory of Baldwin’s. Baldwin recalls correctly that, in “the fall of 1956,” he covered the First International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists for Encounter magazine. The conference was held at the Sorbonne from Wednesday, September 19, through Saturday, September 22. Baldwin’s article describing the conference, “Princes and Powers,” would be published by Encounter in its January issue in 1957.
But the searing memory from the historic conference that September week in Paris 1956 that Baldwin recounts in No Name in the Street, and again in I Am Not Your Negro, couldn’t have happened. He wrote:
One bright afternoon, several of us, including the late Richard Wright, were meandering up the Boulevard St.-Germain, on the way to lunch. . . . Facing us, on every newspaper kiosk on that wide, tree-shaded boulevard, were photographs of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by the mob as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, North Carolina . . . with history, jeering, at her back.The trouble is that Dorothy Counts and three other Black students (Gus Roberts, Girvaud Roberts, and Delois Huntley) all entered their different, previously all-white schools in Charlotte in September 1957. The photo of Dorothy Counts that Baldwin remembers striking him so powerfully in Paris in 1956 was taken on September 4, 1957. By that time, Baldwin was already in New York. He would embark on his first trip to the South five days later. Before Baldwin arrived in Charlotte a few weeks after that, Counts’s father would already have withdrawn her from Harding High School. Writing in No Name in the Street, likely in 1970 or 1971, Baldwin—then living in St. Paul de Vence in the South of France and recalling events across the violent tumult of the 1960s—remembers the moment vividly nonetheless.
The photo made me furious, it filled me with both hatred and pity, and it made me ashamed. Some one of us should have been there with her! I dawdled in Europe for nearly yet another year, held by my private life and my attempt to finish a novel, but it was on that bright afternoon that I knew I was leaving France. I could, simply, no longer sit around in Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody else was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.In fact, Baldwin’s recollection is full of accuracies that revolve around the impossible cue for the memory itself. Baldwin did remain in Europe after the Paris conference, “held by [his] private life” and so on. But the key here is Baldwin’s notion that he “could, simply, no longer . . . ” In fact, there was almost nothing simple about Baldwin’s position in Europe, less so in his move to return to the United States and go on a tour of the South and the nascent—but also ages-old—revolution coming to the surface at the time. One can’t call Baldwin’s move a decision because there was really no basis upon which to make it.
Baldwin knew he was leaving France, but it wasn’t the photo of 15-year-old Counts that had prompted this knowledge; the cause was diffuse, a shadowy and painful gauze. No wonder Baldwin’s mind seized upon that photo and credited it in hindsight as the cause of a decision—likely as much a desperate leap as it was a decision—that occurred a year before the photo was taken.
“There was almost nothing simple about Baldwin’s position in Europe, less so in his move to return to the United States and go on a tour of the South.” By 1972, when No Name in the Street came out, Baldwin was attempting to describe an almost impossibly complex mesh of personal and political fears and commitments, motivations, and desires, which, in 1956, he hadn’t had a vocabulary to describe. Even in 1972, reviewers failed to interpret the book. Most were confused by what they saw as Baldwin’s refusal to acknowledge the great progress made over the preceding decade, a period Baldwin recalled as a slaughter covering a profound national moral abdication. The other main point of the reviews was a truly simple-minded matter. Baldwin had mistaken a quotation by E. M. Forster for one by Henry James. Reviewers fixated upon the error as if to cover their confusion by clutching at least one fact they could verify with certainty. So much for trivia.
In truth, in 1956, Baldwin felt himself gripped by a pain he had no word for, one that seemed to contradict all he’d assumed about an artist’s struggle for success and much of what he thought he’d known about how to be a person. No, Baldwin’s return to the United States during the summer of 1957 and his three-week tour there in October of that year were many things, but they were most certainly not so he “could, simply” do, or “no longer” do, anything at all.
The keys to the complexity of Baldwin’s position circa 1956–57, and to the relationship between politics and the creative imagination, between the public and personal life, lie in the details. These details exist, at times masked even to their author, in Baldwin’s published work from the era, as well as in incredible letters he wrote to family and friends from the South during October 1957. In order to explore this complexity, we must peel the photo of Dorothy Counts from its place masking the details. But first, to establish a paradigm of sorts, we’ll look at a previous instance where the simple causes and motivations Baldwin recalls mask complexly resonant details of experience in conflict with history. ... [mehr] https://lithub.com/why-james-baldwin-went-to-the-south-and-what-it-meant-to-him/