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A Black Man Talks to The White World

From the Shelf

By Paul S. Cowan

For the past decade James Baldwin has been using American little magazines to set forth a network of ideas about the relationship between Negro and white, and between man and man, in this country. Because the experience he speaks from is so often beyond the boundaries established for our own lives, his conclusions are often difficult for white audiences to apprehend. Recently, as popular magazines have grown more willing to publish his work, Baldwin has appeared to be increasingly conscious of the gap between his readers and himself; and now, in the Nov. 17 issue of the New Yorker, he has published an article which carefully attempts to bridge it.

To convey his arguments to his readers Baldwin has adopted a style that falls somewhere between the impressionistic, internalized prose he is accustomed to writing and the more detailed, objectified articles his audience expects to read. The essay is considerably longer than Baldwin's usual pieces; his use of detail is somewhat more precise, and his arguments somewhat simplified. Yet its title, "Letter From a Region of My Mind," instantly sets it off from other forms of New Yorker reportage (this is no "Letter from Paris," for instance). And the world it describes is one that few other New Yorker writers--or readers--would ever think of entering.

Baldwin sets out to popularize a particularly complicated and immediate problem. His role is analogous to Edmund Wilson's attempt in the 1930's, to introduce an audience, confused by the depression, to the complexities of Marx and Lenin. But unlike popularizers of academic subjects, Baldwin is discussing men and not their books. While Wilson was essentially a scholar, Baldwin is essentially a novelist. His problem is to bring to an uninitiated audience a complicated form of first-hand experience; to present his novelist's perceptions in a medium where they will have immediate political consequence (without oversimplifying his observations, or turning his art into propaganda).

It is impossible here to do more than suggest what Baldwin takes thousands of words to explain in his New Yorker essay. The first section of the article dwells on the Harlem of the author's childhood, describing how the perpetually tempting violence, the personal tensions and longings of the ghetto filled him with such deep fears and desires that he could find solace only in the church.

His own overwrought reasons for joining the church, and his equally intense motives for abandoning it, are used to give us a feeling for the narrow, degrading set of experience on which an American Negro must base his most important decisions. Then he tells of the problems that confront a Negro who decides to quit Harlem. He generalizes his own experience into a description of the relationship between a sensitive Negro and the ominous white world that surrounds him, and of Christianity and the Africans who adopted it.

Baldwin's crucial point--"one that seems impossible for you to understand," he said to a group in Cambridge recently--is that the white world has not yet been able to accept the Negro as a fellow human being. This is because "The white man's unadmitted--and apparently, to him, unspeakable--private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro." It is this attitude that pervades the rest of the essay, explaining Baldwin's attraction to the Black Muslims, his reasons for rejecting them (because "I love a few people and they love me, and some of them are white, and surely love is more important than race"), and his almost hopeless plea that white America accept the Negro in order to fulfill its own potential; in order, indeed, to survive.

Now it is not easy to evoke for white readers the pace of Harlem life, or to clarify for them the attitude of a man who has emerged from the ghetto. To do so, even before the most sympathetic of audiences, Baldwin must adopt an unfamiliar mode of writing, must continually attempt to find new ways of expressing old thoughts--and then must pray for an intelligent reading and an adaptable audience.

You can see the gap between Baldwin and his audience by examining the advertisements that surround his prose. On one page, for instance, Baldwin insists that white Americans, equating Europe with "civilization," envied those "more elegant European nations that were still untroubled by the presence of black men on their shores." Yet, he continues, if we are not to share in Europe's decay we must "accept ourselves as we are, bring new life to Western achievements, and perhaps transform them." Then this phase of the argument reaches a climax:

The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro; it is not too much to say that he who was rejected must now be embraced; and at no matter what the psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in this country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his. And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way. Hence the question: do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?

Two large advertisements surround this column of print. On the right, bottled expensively, is an elegant perfume: "Superb fragrances," it promises its buyers. The names below have their appeal, too: "Baroness," "White Shoulders."

To the left of Baldwin's piece is a travel ad for Nassau and the Bahamas. An elegant white couple are standing in a well-manicured garden, near a tame sea: "where the islands are dressed to the nines." The reader of the advertisement is assured that "International night owls fill the Bahamas with merriment. VIPs from Europe and America make this their watering place. Wits and Beauties. Princes and tycoons. No velvet rope ever enclosed a more glittering assemblage."

To give his arguments their widest hearing Baldwin must write for people receptive to this kind of advertisement. No writer expects to convince all of his readers. The New Yorker has as intelligent an audience as any popular magazine in this country, and many of its subscribers are as far removed from the world of "princes and tycoons" as they are from a world where people ask if they should be "integrated into a burning house." But the fact remains that Baldwin's arguments must confuse and threaten any white man who reads them. For his ideas challenge white society's inalienable right to good housing, good schools, and good jobs--if the corollary of these "rights" is the Negro's continued subjugation. Since these opportunities have made most New Yorker readers able to afford and understand the magazine, one wonders how easily they could accept Baldwin's terms and cooperate with Negroes in this country.

Another Essayist

Baldwin has already devoted a good deal of time to discussing about these things, and it now appears that his efforts may be damaging his own writings. Edmund Wilson, in the 30's, was affected by the tension between himself and his society to the point of suffering a nervous breakdown, as Baldwin had also done in the 1950's. But Wilson, while attempting to clarify things for himself, produced some excellent first-hand journalism as well as some first rate academic work on political and literary subjects. Re-reading these works now we sense a mind that was continuing to advance, a point of view that matured from year to year taking along whatever readers could follow it. Baldwin, on the other hand, often seems to be committed exclusively to the task of clarifying things for his readers rather than developing his own perceptions.

Baldwin, of course, is affected directly and constantly by the racial problem in the United States whereas Wilson had enough status and money to survive the depression without great loss. To insure his own survival as well as the survival of his entire community and country, Baldwin obviously feels, he must explain what he has seen to the satisfaction of most of his readers.

But how great is the cost? Wilson, at least, was setting forth his analysis of books and of a current economic situation, observations that can conceivably be translated into political terms. Baldwin is attempting to use his novelist's perception of human relations as a basis for social change; obviously a more difficult task.

There has been very little development in the thinking behind his essays over the past several years. In fact, it often appears that he is simplifying his observations to make them more comprehensible. Although he has evidently made a distinction in his own mind between his role as a novelist and his role as a publicist it is unlikely that the two tasks can remain separate in practice.

The temptation to become a propagandist must seem overwhelming to Baldwin, especially since few people can write so articulately as he about the complications of race. But it would be a shame to see his are compromised to a political necessity.

[ED. NOTE: Yesterday's editorial Implied that the Deanship of Harvard's Graduate School of Education had somehow contributed to the low status of the post of Commissioner of Education. This was a typographical mishap; the editorial should have said that Dean Keppel's Harvard post has helped to make his influence felt--an influence we hope the Commissioner's office will not neutralize.]

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