IN NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME, his second book of essays, James Baldwin has done a rare thing. He has related, as nearly as is possible, what it is like to be colored.
He does not seem to have done this consciously. Some of the essays are, of course, directly concerned with color, integration, and all the other topics one might expect in such a book. They are exceptionally well done, but in the main could have been produced by any sensitive commentator, white or black. It is more the essays which deal with matters not usually thought of in reference to color that make the book so remarkable, because Baldwin discusses everything from a peculiar viewpoint all his own.
Thus it is that he visits Ingmar Bergman and sees him as a Northern Protestant, a man reminiscent, incredibly enough, of "the black preachers of my childhood." In Norman Mailer, Baldwin finds a man who cannot give up what Baldwin terms "the myth of the sexuality of Negroes". Richard Wright to him is a tragic figure, a man who, by the time of his death, had estranged himself from American Negroes and who snubbed Africans, and so ended his life "wandering in a no-man's land between the black world and the white."
HIS essay on Wright is, actually, far better than the piece on Mailer, which for the most part consists of behind-the-literary-scenes action that doesn't throw much light on either Mailer or Baldwin. It is further disappointing for the way it glosses over Mailer's controversial wife-stabbing Greenwich Village party last Fall.
The profile of Richard Wright, by contrast, is an excellent and penetrating commentary. Baldwin traces his friendship with Wright from the start of his own first novel, then relates their quarrels and finally Baldwin's disillusionment with Wright in Paris. Negro intellectuals in France all felt that Wright had deserted the American Negro, and that he considered himself above the Africans. Baldwin himself was horrified at the realization that all this was some-how due to Wright's own American Negro heritage, which, after his rise to "acceptance", produced an irreparable breach between Africans and himself and an individual disdain for American Negroes.
I HAVE said that Baldwin is intro-respective. He is also extremely self-conscious, and the combination produce in him a state of near hyper-sensitivity, toward both himself and others. This could be a crippling handicap; and even with Baldwin sensitivity does have drawbacks. One of these is a near-obsession with certain aspects of being a Negro. Probably the most evident is sex: the question of Negro sexuality arises again and again, each time in a new context.
This same hypersensitivity which threatens to drive his mind into obsessive preoccupations is responsible for a most extraordinary acuteness; his interview with Bergman may well be the best short analysis of the Swedish director ever written. Baldwin found him a difficult, cold and rather troubled man, and notes: "I got the impression that Bergman was in the habit of saying what he felt because he knew that scarcely anyone was listening."
AND it is his exaggerated sensitivity which transforms his essays on Harlem and the South from merely well-done jobs to truly polished jewels. Most of the essays on problems of the American Negro are not so exceptional; in them, Baldwin shows himself to be no more than a straightforward, precise, writer; but the emotion which can slip into his words is sometimes surprising, and his work occasionally produces moments of peculiar power.
The result is a series of essays which push, gently--and often, not so gently--toward a single theme: the idea that Negroes want to be treated like men, that they will no longer allow white men to put them in their "place", and that the United States must be prepared to accept the Negro in the North, in the South, and in all the world. It is an important idea in a turbulent world, and few men have been able to discuss it in so eloquent and honest a fashion.