Authors: James Baldwin
One of the wonders of coming back to
after such a long time is how “current” Baldwin is. That might sound like a cliché, but in so many instances in our lives we learn that some clichés are built on things solid and familiar and timeless. “Journey to Atlanta” is but one of a hundred examples in
. What also comes across, again, is how optimistic James Baldwin was about himself, his world, black people. Even when he describes the awfulness of being black in America, he presents us with an optimism that is sometimes like subtle background music, and sometimes like an insistent drumbeat. But through it all, with each word—perhaps as evidence of a man certain of his message—he never shouts.
—Edward P. Jones
June 29–July 5, 2012
The author is grateful to the following publications for permission to reprint material that first appeared in their pages:
for “Carmen Jones” (which appeared in the January 1955 issue as “Life Straight in De Eye”), “The Harlem Ghetto” (February 1948), and “Equal in Paris” (March 1955);
for “Notes of a Native Son” (November 1955) and “Stranger in the Village” (October 1953);
The New Leader
for “Journey to Atlanta” (October 9, 1948);
for “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (June 1949), “Many Thousands Gone” (November–December 1951), and “A Question of Identity” (July–August 1954); and
for “Encounter on the Seine” (which appeared in the issue of June 6, 1950, as “The Negro in Paris”).
It was Sol Stein, high school buddy, editor, novelist, playwright, who first suggested this book. My reaction was not enthusiastic: as I remember, I told him that I was too young to publish my memoirs.
I had never thought of these essays as a possible book. Once they were behind me, I don’t, in fact, think that I thought of them at all. Sol’s suggestion had the startling and unkind effect of causing me to realize that time had passed. It was as though he had dashed cold water in my face.
Sol persisted, however, and so did the dangers and rigors of my situation. I had returned from Paris, in 1954, out of motives not at all clear to me. I had promised a Swiss friend a visit to the land of my birth, but that, I think, has to be recognized as a pretext: it fails to have the weight of a motive. I find no objective reason for my return to America at that time—I am not sure that I can find the subjective one, either.
Yet, here I was, at the top of 1954, several months shy of thirty, scared to death, but happy to be with my family and my friends. It was my second return since my departure, in 1948.
I had returned in 1952, with my first novel, stayed long enough to show it to my family, and to sell it, and, then, I hauled on out of here. In 1954, I came back with
The Amen Corner,
and I was working on
—which had broken off from what was to become
Actually, ’54–’55, in spite of frightening moments, and not only in retrospect, was a great year. I had, after all, survived something—the proof was that I was working. I was at the Writer’s Colony, Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, when my buddy, Marlon Brando, won the Oscar, and I watched Bette Davis present it to him, and kiss him, on TV. The late Owen Dodson called me there, from Washington, D.C., to say that he was directing, at Howard University, a student production of my play. I went to Washington, where I met the late, great E. Franklin Frazier and the great Sterling Brown. Howard was the first college campus I had ever seen, and, without these men, I do not know what would have become of my morale. The play, thank God, was a tremendous seven-or ten-day wonder, playing to standing room only on the last night, in spite of a reluctant, not yet Black faculty (“This play will set back the Speech Department by thirty years!”), a bewildered
(“What do you think Negroes in the North will think of this play?”), and the fact that it was not to be seen again for nearly ten years. And I had fallen in love. I was happy—the world had never before been so beautiful a place.
There was only one small hitch. I—we—didn’t have a dime, no pot, nor no window.
Sol Stein returned to the attack. We had agreed on nine essays, he wanted a tenth, and I wrote the title essay between Owen’s house and the Dunbar Hotel. Returned to New York, where I finished
Publisher’s Row, that hotbed of perception, looked on the book with horror and loathing, refused to touch it, saying that I was a young
writer, who, if he published this book, would alienate his audience and ruin his career. They would not, in short, publish it, as a favor to me. I conveyed my gratitude, perhaps a shade too sharply, borrowed money from a friend, and myself and my lover took the boat to France.
I had never thought of myself as an essayist: the idea had never entered my mind. Even—or, perhaps, especially now—I find it hard to re-create the journey.
It has something to do, certainly, with what I was trying to discover and, also, trying to avoid. If I was trying to discover myself—on the whole, when examined, a somewhat dubious notion, since I was also trying to avoid myself—there was, certainly, between that self and me, the accumulated rock of ages. This rock scarred the hand, and all tools broke against it. Yet, there was a
somewhere: I could feel it, stirring within and against captivity. The hope of salvation—identity—depended on whether or not one would be able to decipher and describe the rock.
One song cries,
“lead me to the rock that is higher than I,”
and another cries,
“hide me in the rock!”
and yet another proclaims,
“I got a home in that rock.”
“I ran to the rock to hide my face: the rock cried out, no hiding place!”
The accumulated rock of ages deciphered itself as a part of my inheritance—a part, mind you, not the totality—but, in order to claim my birthright, of which my inheritance was but a shadow, it was necessary to challenge and claim the rock. Otherwise, the rock claimed me.
Or, to put it another way, my inheritance was particular, specifically limited and limiting: my birthright was vast, connecting me to all that lives, and to everyone, forever. But one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance.
Therefore, when I began, seriously, to write—when I knew I was committed, that this would be my life—I had to try to describe that particular condition which was—is—the living proof of my inheritance. And, at the same time, with that very same description, I had to claim my birthright. I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.
The conundrum of color is the inheritance of every American, be he/she legally or actually Black or White. It is a fearful inheritance, for which untold multitudes, long ago, sold their birthright. Multitudes are doing so, until today. This horror has so welded past and present that it is virtually impossible and certainly meaningless to speak of it as occurring, as it were, in time. It can be, and it has been, suicidal to attempt to speak of this to a multitude, which, assuming it knows that time exists, believes that time can be outwitted.
Something like this, anyway, has something to do with my beginnings. I was trying to locate myself within a specific inheritance and to use that inheritance, precisely, to claim the birthright from which that inheritance had so brutally and specifically excluded me.
It is not pleasant to be forced to recognize, more than thirty years later, that neither this dynamic nor this necessity have changed. There have been superficial changes, with results at best ambiguous and, at worst, disastrous. Morally, there has been no change at all and a moral change is the only real one. “
Plus ça change
,” groan the exasperated French (who should certainly know), “
plus c’est le même chose
.” (The more it changes, the more it remains the same.) At least they have the style to be truthful about it.
The only real change vividly discernible in this present, unspeakably dangerous chaos is a panic-stricken apprehension on the part of those who have maligned and subjugated others for so long that the tables have been turned. Not once have the Civilized been able to honor, recognize, or describe the Savage. He is, practically speaking, the source of their wealth, his continued subjugation the key to their power and glory. This is absolutely and unanswerably true in South Africa—to name but one section of Africa—and, as to how things fare for Black men and women; here, the Black has become, economically, all but expendable and is, therefore, encouraged to join the Army, or, a notion espoused, I believe, by Daniel Moynihan and Nathan Glazer, to become a postman—to make himself useful, for Christ’s sake, while White men take on the heavy burden of ruling the world.
Plus ça change.
To say nothing, speaking as a Black citizen, regarding his countrymen, of
friends like these.
There is an unadmitted icy panic coiled beneath the scaffolding of these present days, hopes, endeavors. I have said that the Civilized have never been able to honor, recognize, or describe the Savage. Once they had decided that he was savage, there was nothing to honor, recognize or describe. But the savages describe the Europeans, who were not yet, when they landed in the New (!) World, White, as
the people from heaven.
Neither did the savages in Africa have any way of foreseeing the anguished diaspora to which they were about to be condemned. Even the chiefs who sold Africans into slavery could not have had any idea that this slavery was meant to endure forever, or for at least
a thousand years.
Nothing in the savage experience could have prepared them for such an idea, any more than they could conceive of the land as something to be bought and sold. (As I cannot believe that people are actually buying and selling air space above the towers of Manhattan.)
Nevertheless, all of this happened, and is happening. Out of this incredible brutality, we get the myth of the happy darky and
Gone With the Wind.
And the North Americans appear to believe these legends, which they have created and which absolutely nothing in reality corroborates, until today. And when these legends are attacked, as is happening now—all over a globe which has never been and never will be White—my countrymen become childishly vindictive and unutterably dangerous.
The unadmitted panic of which I spoke above is created by the terror that the Savage can, now, describe the Civilized: the only way to prevent this is to obliterate humanity. This panic proves that neither a person nor a people can do anything without knowing what they are doing. Neither can anyone avoid paying for the choices he or she has made. It is savagely, if one may say so, ironical that the only proof the world—mankind—has ever had of White supremacy is in the Black face and voice: that face never scrutinized, that voice never heard. The eyes in that face prove the unforgivable and unimaginable horror of being a captive in the promised land, but also prove that
trouble don’t last always:
and the voice, once filled with a rage and pain that corroborated the reality of the jailer, is addressing another reality, in other tongues. The people who think of themselves as White have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant.
Or—as they are, indeed, already, in all but actual fact: obsolete. For, if trouble don’t last always, as the Preacher tells us, neither does Power, and it is on the fact or the hope or the myth of Power that that identity which calls itself White has always seemed to depend.
I had just turned thirty-one when this book was first published, and, by the time you read this, I will be sixty. I think that quite remarkable, but I do not mention it, now, as an occasion for celebrations or lamentations. I don’t feel that I have any reason to complain: emphatically, the contrary, to leave it at that, and no matter what tomorrow brings. Yet, I have reason to reflect—one always does, when forced to take a long look back. I remember many people who helped me in indescribable ways, all those years ago, when I was the popeyed, tongue-tied kid, in my memory sitting in a corner, on the floor. I was having a rough time in the Village, where the bulk of the populace, egged on by the cops, thought it was great fun to bounce tables and chairs off my head, and I soon stopped talking about my “constitutional” rights. I am, I suppose, a survivor.
A survivor of what? In those years, I was told, when I became terrified, vehement, or lachrymose:
It takes time, Jimmy. It takes time.
I agree: I still agree: though it certainly didn’t take much time for some of the people I knew then—in the Fifties—to turn tail, to decide to make it, and drape themselves in the American flag. A wretched and despicable band of cowards, whom I once trusted with my life—
friends like these!
But we will discuss all that another day. When I was told, it takes time, when I was young, I was being told it will take time before a Black person can be treated as a human being here, but it will happen. We will help to make it happen. We promise you.
Sixty years of one man’s life is a long time to deliver on a promise, especially considering all the lives preceding and surrounding my own.
What has happened, in the time of my time, is the record of my ancestors. No promise was kept with them, no promise was kept with me, nor can I counsel those coming after me, nor my global kinsmen, to believe a word uttered by my morally bankrupt and desperately dishonest countrymen.
says Doris Lessing, in her preface to
African Stories, “while the cruelties of the white man toward the black man are among the heaviest counts in the indictment against humanity, colour prejudice is not our original fault, but only one aspect of the atrophy of the imagination that prevents us from seeing ourselves in every creature that breathes under the sun.”