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Love, Jimmy: Hilton Als and Jacqueline Goldsby in Conversation

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At Work

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Photo: Allan Warren

 

At fourteen, James Baldwin “underwent … a prolonged religious crisis” and discovered “God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell.” At the same age, Hilton Als was given a copy of Nobody Knows My Name and discovered James Baldwin. He then entered into a tempestuous love affair with Baldwin’s work, one that shifted, over the years, from ardent infatuation and reverence to disaffection, settling somewhere in between: “no matter how much I tried to resist my identification with Baldwin,” he writes in his 1998 New Yorker essay “The Enemy Within,” “we were uneasy members of the same tribe.”

Last month, Als discussed Baldwin’s legacy at the Windham-Campbell Prize festival, where he was honored for his work in nonfiction. His interlocutor was Jacqueline Goldsby, a professor of English and African American Studies at Yale. What follows is a sliver of that conversation, published with permission by the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes. —Caitlin Youngquist 

GOLDSBY

When did you become aware of Baldwin’s literary power and his possible influence on you as an essayist?

ALS

Baldwin was very real to me, all the time. It was through Owen Dodson, who was, I think, the second black person to go to the Yale School of Drama, and Baldwin was always a living thing to me because of their relationship. Owen was a great director and was the one who first staged Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner. He had this thing he’d say—he’d call you Negro. When he was upset with black people he’d say, Negroes! And he’d shout it from the middle of his apartment. One thing he shouted about was the memory of Baldwin and his boyfriend living with him during The Amen Corner. The two of them used to have these playwright-director rows, and Baldwin was eating him out of house and home because he had nowhere to live. So my relationship to Baldwin began as a kind of gay catfight.

Owen had the most beautiful library—on Fifty-First Street. It was sorted by author, and he had first editions of everything. You’d pick up a book, let’s say a Truman Capote first book of short stories, and it’d say, Dear Owen, it pleases me that you love the book. Love, Truman. Hope to see you soon. Or, Dear Owen, it was a ten-day marvel. Love, Jimmy. He had the first edition of Notes of a Native Son. Like Amiri Baraka, it was the first time I’d ever seen a man of color on the cover of a book. The second-most influential book cover at that time was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and when you turned the book around, she looked like the people I was related to. But reading Baldwin, of course, changed everything, because I realized you could write in a … there’s no other way to put it, really, except it was a kind of high-faggoty style to me.

GOLDSBY

What do you mean?

ALS

What you learned then as a gay person was how to survive in gay bars, so the language had to be very precise—sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly. The thing that was systematic about the writing was the emotion throughout. That didn’t necessarily mean the idea was going to be consistent. Baldwin wrote in arias of feeling and thought, and when he’d get bored with one idea, he’d go on to another. This took me years of reading to understand. I was so taken by his certainty of feeling—it was the thing that really made me see that it was possible to live a life that had value in literature. One thing I learned from Baldwin, as a writer, was to use singing—the sound of singing—as prose. To make prose sound like an aria, to bring a chorus in, to take actual lyrics and expand on them.

Baldwin proved that if he wrote it down, it could have power beyond the moment. So for instance, in “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy Norman Mailer”—his essay about Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro”—he has these moments only a queen could write. He’s not only embroiled in this idea of patriarchy but also with a brilliant way of putting down the assumptions of power. There’s a moment in that essay where he quotes Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I so drearily was, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions … I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of some mysterious sensuous gal; and dark faces of men behind rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in ancient rocking chairs.

And Baldwin writes, “I would hate to be in Kerouac’s shoes if he should ever be mad enough to read this aloud from the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.” Or when Mailer says to him, “I want to know how power works,” and Baldwin counters with, “I know how power works, it has worked on me and if I didn’t know how power works, I would be dead.”

GOLDSBY

In the 1963 documentary Take This Hammer, Baldwin travels to San Francisco to take in how race is lived, how the urban North is not, as he puts it, “morally distant” from Birmingham. I want to turn to that film now, because it picks up on the ways Baldwin would carry his voice and his analysis of power through feeling. Here’s an extraordinary clip about a topic you’ve written so brilliantly about.

Well I know this, and anyone who’s ever tried to live knows this, that what you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessity, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me. Now here in this country we’ve got something called a nigger. It doesn’t, in such terms, I beg you to remark, exist in any other country in the world. We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always known—I had to know by the time I was seventeen years old—that what you were describing was not me, and what you were afraid of was not me. It had to be something else. You had invented it, so it had to be something you were afraid of, and you invested me with it. Now, if that’s so, no matter what you’ve done to me, I can say to you this, and I mean it, I know you can’t do any more and I’ve got nothing to lose. And I know and have always known—and really always, that is part of the agony—I’ve always known that I’m not a nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? I am not the victim here. I know one thing from another. I know I was born, I’m going to suffer, and I’m going to die. The only way you get through life is to know the worst things about it. I know that a person is more important than anything else, anything else. I learned this because I’ve had to learn it. But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is necessary. Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back. You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.

ALS

A number of years ago, there was a book published by Randall Kennedy called Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, and the reason it didn’t work, to my mind, was that it made the word a political and a social construct as opposed to going back to where it began, the ways it entered our homes. When I think about the word now, I think about Baldwin because it was used by his father to describe him. When Baldwin’s having this conversation, I hear him finally being able to speak to his father—to the figure who did not want him to speak—and that was his first experience of power. I think he made the argument broader because of who he was by then, but he was also avoiding where the word came from and how it shaped him—the n-word was at home. He’s saying these words to help us, to father us and brother us and mother us, but I don’t think he ever lost the sense of what his father gave him—that he was that, and that was ugly, black, gay, mamma’s boy. When he’s speaking like this, I don’t hear him as a lecturer, I hear him as a son, talking to the father who’s no longer in the frame. In a documentary of his, Baldwin says, I fought my father so hard, I’ve never been afraid of anyone else in this world. That’s not entirely true because he became embroiled in needing approval, from Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad and so on. I think the subtext of all of those great essays from the sixties is the search for what he later calls Richard Wright—“alas! my father.” A lot of people don’t come out of that tragedy producing twenty books and loving people, and his ability to be intimate is questionable because of those scars, but he used all that marked him as different as strengths.

GOLDSBY

I’ve heard you make the distinction, as so many readers do, about Baldwin’s early work versus his later work.

ALS

I think one of the things that started to hinder Baldwin as an artist later on was that he became really aware of power, so he wanted it, too. But if you look at the work before that, before The Fire Next Time put him on the cover of Time magazine, it was much more intimate, and a much more internal conversation.

GOLDSBY

There’s a quote from O’Connor’s “The Regional Writer” that I thought was so wonderful—“An identity is not to be found on the surface.”

ALS

Yes, and she has another great line buried somewhere. She says the American Negro “is a man … of great formality, which he uses superbly for his own protection and to insure his own privacy.”

GOLDSBY

Baldwin, too, thought very hard about the necessities of private experience, private life, of the internal, as you describe. I actually find the formlessness of the novels after Another Country to be part of the point. He’s trying to figure out how to push the novel form into new relations with other forms, whether it’s song or theater or photography or cinema.

ALS

You’re amazing. No, that’s amazing. I didn’t think of it that way, that he was bringing in his various frustrations with other mediums to the form, for instance he always wanted to make films. You’re right, they might be scenarios of a certain kind about the effort of trying to do that sort of work. Particularly Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.

GOLDSBY

Let’s look at a second clip from the same film, where Baldwin is talking to a group of young men about how they perceive their prospects for citizenship.

INTERVIEWEE

There never will be a Negro president in this country.

BALDWIN

There never will be a Negro president in this country, why do you say that?

INTERVIEWEE

We can’t get jobs, how are we gonna be a president?

BALDWIN

But I want you to think about this. That there will be a Negro president of this country. There will not be the country that we are sitting in now. But if you say to yourself, There never will be a Negro president of this country, then what you are doing is agreeing with white people who say you are inferior. It’s not important, really, no, whether or not there is a Negro president, I mean, in that way. What’s important is that you should realize that you can become the president. There’s nothing anybody—anybody—can do, that you can’t do.

GOLDSBY

In Baldwin’s long essay “No Name in the Street,” he reflects back on his career and is quite self-knowing and critical of a system that would reward his talent and so systematically and structurally disempower others. But we do have a Negro president, to use Baldwin’s term.

ALS

I don’t think the Obamas are going to erase the feeling of being disenfranchised, but it makes something else possible, other than the story of degradation. There’s a story of intimacy now—of couples, people of color, who can come together and have these kinds of conversations. That’s what’s become more possible during this administration. In many scenes from this film, no one is having a dialogue with Baldwin—it’s so painful for me that I often can’t watch, because he’s being talked at. What this administration has done, more than anything, is sort of release us from the idea that one has to be better than the other in order to have a conversation. They’ve given white people permission to say, I don’t understand. And I think that’s been a huge relief for most people, because then you don’t have to come to the table with any preconceived notions, or you’re freed from the responsibility of having a preconceived notion about who x or y is. I think they’ve freed people of both colors to say, I don’t know. That’s made the culture more interesting to me, anyway, because I’m much more interested in the questions than the answers.

GOLDSBY

Baldwin writes so much, across his essays and fiction, about the necessity for Americans to embrace their sensuality—what Audre Lorde would call the erotic as power. You’ve given some thought to Michelle Obama, too.

ALS

Baldwin talks a lot about the idea of physical beauty and acceptance, and how as a boy, he was often chided by his stepfather as being ugly. There’s an amazing line in The Devil Finds Work where he says, “My father said, during all the years I lived with him, that I was the ugliest boy he had ever seen, and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him. But it was not my father’s hatred of my frog-eyes which hurt me, this hatred proving, in time, to be rather more resounding than real: I have my mother’s eyes.” It’s one of the most beautiful and complex few sentences about identification and the ways power works—describing someone to marginalize and belittle them. So his relationship to this idea of beauty is very powerful.

Michelle exists in a world where language is equivalent to the power of her presence. In 2008, after the election, the Obamas went to the White House to have dinner with the Bushes, and there on the front page of the New York Times was Michelle Obama in a red dress, with a booty—she had a booty. And I started to think about the ways the literature of the years preceding Michelle had been about the black girl not having a chance because of how America treated the black female. We have The Bluest Eye, we have Daddy Was a Number Runner, we have Ann Petry’s The Street, we have any number of novels and essays about this idea of unattractiveness, given the American status quo. But would these novels still be possible today? Because she is now possible.