A Philosophy Without Antagonism
The Price of the Ticket Collected Nonfiction 1848-1985 By James Baldwin St. Martin's Marek; 690 pp.; $29.95
James Baldwin is an idealist, but he does not think in terms of black and white--or even in terms of Black and White. He stands apart from all the other writers on his subject matter. He is the personal philosopher of a movement of activists, poets and anti-white sociologists who himself falls under all three categories. The Price of the Ticket is an important collection because it illustrates the processes of transformation that Baldwin went through to establish his philosophy, a philosophy that ultimately denies the validity (though not the reality) of antagonism between Blacks and Whites.
If the theme of brotherhood gives this book its direction, it is because that same idea has guided Baldwin's own life. In his writing and in his life he perceives that man pays a deadly price whenever he seeks to dominate another because the other invariably rises up to destroy his oppresser. The oppresser can never hope for a moment's peace. His enemies are constantly behind his back, waiting for an opportune moment to grasp at the tyrant's throat. Baldwin makes it his self-appointed mission to convince people, Black and White, that the price of class antagonism is not worth its benefits--benefits which in the end come only to nothingness.
The young Baldwin took a while, however, to transcend his own confused hostility toward his oppressers. This collection makes a valuable attempt to resurrect some of of his earlier material, the raw data out of which his humanitarian theory would be constructed. In these early pieces, especially "Journey To Atlanta" of 1948, we see a brilliant but young Baldwin trying to grapple with the immensely complex problems of race relations. He claims justly that, "The Progressive Party...has not made any great impression in Harlem," but he has nothing to suggest beyond that failure. He weighs the consequences of the overt racism of the South against the patronizing paternalism of the North and is unable to come up with many answers. His youthful pieces provide a vivid and insightful description of what the problems of race really are, but they do not propose solutions.
However, Baldwin soon began to look beyond this wall of prejudice by looking inward. Two of his more famous essays, "Equal In Paris" and "Notes Of A Native Son," record Baldwin's first efforts to delve into his own nature, to rid himself of his own prejudices and preconceptions, and to develop his own philosophy free from the influences of his heroes and predecessors. The former describes not only Baldwin's first experiences outside this country, but also his first realization that he himself is intrinsically an American no matter where he chooses to live. The latter is a magnificent and poetic catharsis, an attempt to rid himself of the demons of self-hatred which he personifies in his own father. In "Equal In Paris," Baldwin describes his transformation: "In some deep, black, stony, and liberating way, my life, in my own eyes, began during that first year in Paris, when it was borne in on me that this laughter is universal and never can be stilled." It is here that he ceases to be a brilliant but amateur sociologist and becomes a philosopher.
By coming to terms with himself, Baldwin was better able to come to terms with the problems of race. It gives him an objectivity, which he calls "sardonic distance," that is absent in most men who write on similar subjects. Through this self-analysis, Baldwin rids himself the slavish mentality of ressentiment which hinders the judgement of Black separatists and turns them into unknowing racists. Baldwin is one of the the few writers of any color who is free of racism. When he writes that, "Unless one supposes that the idea of black supremacy has virtues denied to the idea of white supremacy, one cannot possibly accept the deadly conclusions a Muslim draws," Baldwin is beginning to formulate the ideal of one humanity composed of many different parts--parts that cannot be at odds if the whole of humanity is to survive.
However, Baldwin's ideal did not come without its own price. The price for his newfound humanity was his friendship with his boyhood idol, Richard Wright. Perhaps the most heartbreaking essay of the lot is "Alas, Poor Richard," the chronicle of their split. In it, Baldwin describes Wright's anger over a perceived insult and gives his hero's feelings full credit. Baldwin acknowledges his own insensitivity in using Wright as a "springboard" for his own ideas, but he refuses to let his culpability shake loose his convictions. He concludes: "The war in the breast between blackness and whiteness, which caused Richard such pain, need not be a war. It is a war which just as it denies both the heights and depths of our natures, takes, and has taken, invisibly, as many white lives as black ones. And, as I see it, Richard was among the most illustrious victims of this war.
Having exorcised these ghosts, Baldwin has gone on to a remarkable career of activism, not encouraging riots and the use of force but rather education and constant reminders of the brotherhood of man. Included in this collection are his three book length essays--"The Fire Next Time," "No Name In The Street" and "The Devil Finds Work"--which serve as poetic manifestos of his theory. In his essay on Alex Haley's Roots, Baldwin delineates his attitude towards activism: "Each of us, however unconsciously, can't but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us. Well, we can perish in this vehicle, children, or we can move on up the road." The collection concludes with one of its weaker essays, "Here Be Dragons," but the piece is still a fitting (and certainly chronological) ending: an essay about the validity of homosexuality which was published in between two Playboy spreads. Baldwin is well-known for cropping up in ironic places to send his message of tolerance all the more powerfully.
As is apparent, The Price Of The Ticket is more biography than political manifesto. Indeed, the collection of early Baldwin articles is a fantastic addition to the study of how his present philosophy has emerged. The latter half of his career, especially the longer essays which are available in other forms, could have been edited. One wonders how many of Baldwin's former neighbors in Harlem can afford the book's thirty-dollar pricetag. But the biographical importance of this collection outweighs any criticisms about its format. It is rare thing when a human being progresses as far as Baldwin--from clumsy uneducated prose to vivid poetry, from confusion and despair to strength and spokesmanship, and from the resentful mind of a slave to the humanitarian outlook of a true leader. It is a rarer thing still when the public is allowed to witness the birth of such a great philosopher.