Jimmy Baldwin’s tiny body and enormous hooded eyes recall the Moorish dwarfs immortalized by Velásquez. And his elfin manner and soft voice would be appropriate in the plaything of a Spanish court. But the literary voice of James Baldwin can be an outsize instrument, capable of prophetic rage—as in his celebrated 1963 book The Fire Next Time, a prescient view of a racially torn America.
Baldwin’s public voice has been so insightful and effective that he has just become the third recipient—after playwright Tennessee Williams and dancer Martha Graham—of the prestigious Centennial Medal awarded to “The Artist as Prophet” by New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Next month Baldwin’s latest novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, will be published. Set in Harlem, it is the story of a pregnant girl, Tish Rivers, and Fonny Hunt, her imprisoned lover who has been unjustly accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.
“It’s partly about the price that we all have to pay,” says Baldwin, “and the ways in which we help each other to survive.”
The novel is written in the first person, with Tish telling her own story as directly as if she were speaking into a mirror. “I was scared of doing it that way,” admits Baldwin, “but the third person would have made it too remote. It had to be the girl’s voice.” The 21-year-old Tish, who wants the baby she bears as an affirmation of the life she feels ebbing from the jailed Fonny, speaks with a voice at once passionate and wise. Hear her at the end of a daily prison visit, as a guard leads Fonny back to his cell: “This is always the most awful moment, when Fonny has to rise and turn, I have to rise and turn. But Fonny is cool. He stands, and raises his fist. He smiles, and stands there for a moment, looking me dead in the eye. Something travels from him to me, it is love and courage. Yes. Yes. We are going to make it, somehow. Somehow. I stand, and smile, and raise my fist. He turns into the inferno. I walk toward the Sahara.”
But the reader knows that Tish will survive that Sahara. It is this tone of optimism in Baldwin’s work, despite the frequent darkness of his vision, that probably accounts both for his widespread inclusion on lists of required reading in schools and universities and for the disenchantment of black activists with him.
Baldwin is philosophical about his position, seeing himself not so much as prophet as observer, reactor and catalyst.
He says he wrote Fire when society dictated it. “I was younger then, and it was a certain kind of plea I would not be able to make now,” he says. Lamenting the deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, he asks, “To whom would I make it? Other people have been castrated; other people have been silenced. It is now up to us.”
Baldwin left the United States in 1948 because of racial asphyxiation, blaming “the bigots and the liberals, too.” (“A liberal,” he says, “is someone who thinks he knows more about your experience than you do.”) Since ’48, with frequent excursions home, he has lived in Europe. From this self-chosen exile he published Notes of a Native Son in 1955, perceptive and poignant essays about being a writer, a Negro in America and an American in Paris. It marked him as a major writer at 31.
Now almost 50, Baldwin makes his home in St. Paul de Vence in the south of France. When he was a young man he had sworn to himself—”God, Satan and Mississippi notwithstanding”—that he would be a writer, “and that color did not matter, and that I was going to be free.” With Go Tell It On the Mountain, a haunting novel—and his first book—about a Harlem family riven between lust and sanctity, he began to forge the instrument that would win him liberty.
“I still have to be a writer,” he says, “and it’s hard for me to do that in America. I have to move out to look at my subject.”
James Baldwin’s angry prose had given him a public image devoid of joy. But friends know “Jimmy’s charm and light-hearted ways.” And Jimmy himself reports that he is more relaxed and more in control than he was as a younger, rebellious and ambitious writer. “I can receive and enjoy happiness, the light in somebody’s eyes. A kid gives me happiness—somebody else’s happiness is mine, too.”