Taking its cue from recent scholarly work on the concept of time in African American literature, this essay argues that, while both James Baldwin and Malcolm X refuse gradualism and insist on “the now” as the moment of civil rights’ fulfillment, Baldwin also remains troubled by the narrowness assumed by a life, politics, or ethics limited to the present moment. In his engagement with Malcolm’s life and legacy—most notably in One Day, When I Was Lost, his screen adaptation of Malcolm’s autobiography—he works toward a temporal mode that would be both punctual and expansive. What he proposes as the operative time of chronoethics is an “untimely now”: he seeks to replace Malcolm’s unyielding punctuality with a different nowness, one that rejects both calls for “patience,” endemic to any politics that rests on the Enlightenment notion of “perfectibility,” and the breathless urgency that prevents the subject from seeing anything beyond the oppressive system he wants overthrown. Both thinkers find the promise of such untimeliness in their sojourns beyond the United States.
The escalation of systematic, if random, violence in the contemporary world frames the concerns of the article, which seeks to read Baldwin for the present. It works by a measure of indirection, arriving at Baldwin after a detour which introduces Chinua Achebe. The Baldwin–Achebe relationship is familiar fare. However, here I explore not the shared congruence between their first novels, but rather focus on their later works, in which the reflexes of terror lie close to the surface. I use Achebe’s final novel, Anthills of the Savanah, as a way into Baldwin’s “difficult” last book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, suggesting that both these works can speak directly to our own historical present. Both Baldwin and Achebe, I argue, chose to assume the role of witness to the evolving manifestations of catastrophe, which they came to believe enveloped the final years of their lives. In order to seek redemption they each determined to craft a prose—the product of a very particular historical conjuncture—which could bring out into the open the prevailing undercurrents of violence and terror.
Based on a recent, archival discovery of the script, “But Amen is the Price” is the first substantive writing about James Baldwin’s collaboration with Ray Charles, Cicely Tyson, and others in a performance of musical and dramatic pieces. Titled by Baldwin, “The Hallelujah Chorus” was performed in two shows at Carnegie Hall in New York City on 1 July 1973. The essay explores how the script and presentation of the material, at least in Baldwin’s mind, represented a call for people to more fully involve themselves in their own and in each other’s lives. In lyrical interludes and dramatic excerpts from his classic work, “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin addressed divisions between neighbors, brothers, and strangers, as well as people’s dissociations from themselves in contemporary American life. In solo and ensemble songs, both instrumental and vocal, Ray Charles’s music evinced an alternative to the tradition of Americans’ evasion of each other. Charles’s sound meant to signify the history and possibility of people’s attainment of presence in intimate, social, and political venues of experience. After situating the performance in Baldwin’s personal life and public worldview at the time and detailing the structure and content of the performance itself, “But Amen is the Price” discusses the largely negative critical response as a symptom faced by much of Baldwin’s other work during the era, responses that attempted to guard “aesthetics” generally—be they literary, dramatic, or musical—as class-blind, race-neutral, and apolitical. The essay presents “The Hallelujah Chorus” as a key moment in Baldwin’s search for a musical/literary form, a way to address, as he put it, “the person and the people,” in open contention with the social and political pressures of the time.
“It is only in his music [. . .] that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear,” so wrote James Baldwin in “Many Thousands Gone.” Throughout his career, James Baldwin returned to this incomprehension of African-American experience. He continually privileged music in his literature, crafting his own literary blues to address it. Baldwin’s blues resonated even more powerfully and painfully for its emotional and geographical dislocation. In this article, Rashida K. Braggs argues that it was the combination of music, word, and migration that prompted Baldwin’s own deeper understanding. Exploring her term dislocated listening, Braggs investigates how listening to music while willfully dislocated from one’s cultural home prompts a deeper understanding of African-American experience. The distance disconcerts, leaving one more vulnerable, while music impels the reader, audience, and even Baldwin to identify with some harsh realities of African-American experience. Baldwin evokes the experience of dislocated listening in his life and in “Sonny’s Blues.” Braggs also creates an experience of dislocated listening through her video performance of Baldwin’s words, thus attempting to draw the reader as well into a more attuned understanding of African-American experience.
This piece presents a brief overview of the “James Baldwin: Transatlantic Commuter” conference, which was held at the Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier, in Montpellier, France, from 5–7 June 2014.
The author travels to St.-Paul-de-Vence, the site of Baldwin’s final decades, with the intention of understanding expatriation and/or exile more deeply. The intention of this visit is to fill in some of the gaps in Baldwin’s official biographies, which do not tend to dwell on his time spent in Provence as much as his time in Paris, Turkey, New York, and elsewhere. By interviewing a woman who knew Baldwin well during those years, the author manages to add new layers to his understanding of Baldwin’s late years, but finally arrives at the understanding that writing (rather than analyzing) is the main goal of the expatriate writer. Inspired by Baldwin’s muse, he stops contemplating his subject and gets to work, finally connecting the act of writing to expatriation by doing it.
The skyline of New York projects a dominant presence in the works of James Baldwin—even those set elsewhere. This essay analyzes the socio-spatial relationships and cognitive maps delineated in Baldwin’s writing, and suggests that some of the most compelling and intense portrayals of New York’s psychogeographic landscape vibrate Baldwin’s text. In The Price of the Ticket (1985), Baldwin’s highly personalized accounts of growing up in Harlem and living in New York map the socio-spatial relationships at play in domestic, street, and blended urban spaces, particularly in the title essay, “Dark Days,” and “Here Be Dragons.” Baldwin’s third novel, Another Country (1962), outlines a multistriated vision of New York City; its occupants traverse the cold urban territory and struggle beneath the jagged silhouette of skyscrapers. This essay examines the ways in which Baldwin composes the urban scene in these works through complex image schemas and intricate geometries, the city’s levels, planes, and perspectives directing the movements of its citizens. Further, I argue that Baldwin’s dynamic use of visual rhythms, light, and sound in his depiction of black life in the city, creates a vivid cartography of New York’s psychogeographic terrain. This essay connects Baldwin’s mappings of Harlem to an imbricated visual and sonic conception of urban subjectivity, that is, how the subject is constructed through a simultaneous and synaesthetic visual/scopic and aural/sonic relation to the city, with a focus on the movement of the body through city space.
This is the first English language publication of an interview with James Baldwin (1924–87) conducted by Nazar Büyüm in 1969, Istanbul, Turkey. Deemed too long for conventional publication at the time, the interview re-emerged last year and reveals Baldwin’s attitudes about his literary antecedents and influences such as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen; his views concerning the “roles” and “duties” of a writer; his assessment of his critics; his analysis of the power and message of the Nation of Islam; his lament about the corpses that are much of the history and fact of American life; an honest examination of the relationship of poor whites to American blacks; an interrogation of the “sickness” that characterizes Americans’ commitment to the fiction and mythology of “race,” as well as the perils and seductive nature of American power.
From the time of his early adolescence until his death, traveling was one of, if not the, driving force of James Baldwin’s life. He traveled to escape, he travelled to discover, and he traveled because traveling was a way of knowing himself, of realizing his vocation.