Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

James Baldwin, _No Name in the Street_

THERE HAS BEEN a lot of indirection in my reading of Baldwin. This book came out when I was a senior in high school--so why am I reading it only now?

My parents had copies of some of the early books, Another Country and The Fire Next Time, around the house while I was growing up, and I remember having had a sense that they were important, but I never more than glanced at them. Then, in high school, I read Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice, as one did in those days, and Cleaver's sneering dismissal of Baldwin was enough to persuade me that I needn't bother to start with Baldwin now. The revolution was coming any day now, after all.

The revolution was still behind schedule and I still hadn't read Baldwin when I got to graduate school. My catch-up reading in those days was more along the lines of Piers Plowman and Of Grammatology. But one semester, I had a section of Freshman Comp to teach.  The essay anthology I adopted included Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," so that's when I first read him...and I was a convert before I finished the first page. I still think it's one of the greatest American essays. The other selections on the anthology were very nearly as strong--"Equal in Paris," "Stranger in the Village."

So, over the next few years, I got around to the essay collections Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows my Name as well as the early novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room. And then I considered myself done. I'm not sure why.  I suspect it had a lot to do with the relatively chilly reviews the later work received as it appeared, which usually conveyed the idea that Baldwin was a writer whose moment had passed.

It took I Am Not Your Negro to get me back on track. I decided to try the later work I had skipped in the 1980s.

No Name in the Street appeared in 1972. It was a sequel, in a way, to The Fire Next Time, but never became the touchstone that book did. Easy to see why--in early 1963, a writer as gifted as Baldwin was could still just about able to hold the disparate elements of the civil rights movement in a single focus, still maintain a belief that the right words at the right time could make the difference. By 1972, we had seen the March on Washington and the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, but also black power, the urban riots, the Panthers, the assassinations, Viet Nam, the election of Nixon, the depredations of COINTELPRO...a plague of plagues, in short, and no one writer was going to be able to make sense of it all.

But that sense of being overwhelmed is what makes No Name in the Street powerful. That feeling that a surge of energy too vast to handle has passed through the culture, and thereby through an individual sensibility, left it scorched, brittle, wobbling, but still standing, still articulate--the feeling that one gets from Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On or Joan Didion's The White Album or Renata Adler's Speedboat--that's what haunts No Name in the Street and makes it memorable.

Baldwin attempts a  few times to scale the rhetorical heights again, as he did in The Fire Next Time, but it's the more idiosyncratic, more personal passages that stand out. Baldwin, not recognized as a VIP, is lost in the crowd surrounding the church at MLK's funeral. Baldwin tells the media that he will never again wear the suit he wore to that funeral, and so is contacted by an old neighborhood friend who says, hey, can I have the suit, then?--and Baldwin delivers the suit. Hanging out in Hollywood, working on a screenplay about Malcolm. Discussions with the non-too-scrupulous lawyer Baldwin has fired for his friend Tony Maynard, framed for murder.

It's a diffuse book, a strange book, but a great book. We even find out what Baldwin thought of Soul On Ice--and it turns out that Baldwin is kinder and more insightful about Eldridge Cleaver than Cleaver ever was about Baldwin.

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