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‘I’m the last witness – everybody else is dead’: Colm Tóibín on James Baldwin

James Baldwin
James Baldwin: ‘I’m the last witness – everybody else is dead’ Credit:  Anthony Barboza

As an acclaimed film adaptation of James Baldwin's novel If Beale Street Could Talk opens in cinemas, Colm Tóibín remembers a writer of rare wit and intelligence

Robert Silvers, the late editor of the New York Review of Books, once told me that he commissioned an essay from James Baldwin in the 1960s when working at Harper’s magazine. As the deadline approached, Baldwin could not be found. Eventually, when Silvers called around to Baldwin’s apartment late at night and found the writer at home, he anxiously let Baldwin know that the piece would be needed first thing in the morning at the very latest.

Baldwin had to admit that the essay in question had not even been begun. What he suggested was that Silvers make himself comfortable on the small single bed and he would set to work. If Silvers would be kind enough to fall asleep, Baldwin said, as soon as he woke he would have the essay at the agreed number of words.

What was remarkable, Silvers remembered, was how polished and considered the piece was, the piece that had been written at speed through the night. At dawn, he went back to his office happy. Baldwin had delivered.

In those years James Baldwin came in many guises. He was the brilliant novelist and short story writer, the pure artist. He was the finest essayist and prose-stylist of his generation. He was a social animal, who moved with ease between Paris and the United States, a superb wit in possession of a sparkling intelligence. And he was a civil rights activist, a magnetic public speaker. He loved a camera and an audience.

Writer James Baldwin in New Orleans Credit:  Steve Schapiro

Being all of these things made it hard for Baldwin to be in one place at one time and made it difficult for him to finish every project he began. Raoul Peck’s documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, is based on the bones of one such project. In 1979, Baldwin committed to writing a book about three of his civil rights friends who had been murdered – Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.

The book was to be called Remember This House, but Baldwin never got beyond 30 pages of notes. It is left to Peck in his documentary to tell the lives and early deaths of Baldwin’s three friends, with Baldwin as both witness and participant. Because Baldwin made many television programmes and was involved in debates which were recorded, Peck had a vast and valuable archive to work from in the editing room. 

The film’s voiceover, in which Samuel L Jackson reads from the manuscript of Remember This House, also introduces Baldwin to a new generation of Americans who are disturbed by the gap between black and white which still exists. Peck sets footage from the civil rights period – the time in which Evers, King and Malcolm X lived – against footage of more recent strife, such as the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, to show how much has changed, and then how little.

James Baldwin began with a very great subject: the drama of his own life matching or echoing against the public drama. The eldest of a large family, he was born in Harlem in 1924. His adopted father, a preacher, died when he was 19. “A few hours after my father’s funeral,” he wrote in Notes of a Native Son, “while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem… As we drove him to the graveyard, the spoils of injustice, anarchy, discontent and hatred were all around us.”

Baldwin also began with certain influences. He listed them in Notes of a Native Son: “the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech – and something of Dickens’ love for bravura”.

He adapted the tone of the great masters of English eloquence: Francis Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, William Hazlitt, Emerson and Henry James. He brought, he wrote, “a special attitude” to “Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral of Chartres, and to the Empire State Building… These were not really my creations; they did not contain my history; I might search in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use – I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle and the tribe. I would have to appropriate those white centuries, I would have to make them mine.”

James Baldwin Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

By appropriating what he wanted from English prose, Baldwin learned not only a style but also a cast of mind: one that used qualification, the aside and the further sub-clauses as a way to suggest that the truth was brittle and easily undermined. His style could be high and grave and reflect a glittering mind; he could also be hilariously funny and bitingly sharp. His thought was embodied beautifully in his style.

His work was also fired by a need to understand. When he worked in a defense plant in New Jersey during the war, he learned that “bars, bowling alleys, diners, places to live” were closed to him. The tone in his early essays was not simply political; he was not demanding legislation or urgent government action. He did not present himself as innocent and the others as guilty.

He sought to do something more truthful and difficult. He sought to show that the damage had entered his soul from where it could not be easily dislodged, and that the soul of white America itself was greatly stained. He shook his head at the possibility that anything other than mass conversion could change things. He had not been a child preacher for nothing.

James Baldwin gets comfortable to write Credit:  Bettmann

At the age of 24, Baldwin left New York and moved to Paris. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in Paris,” he told The Paris Review, “but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under.” In 1959 he wrote: “I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the colour problem here... I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or even merely a Negro writer.”

Over the next six years, which were spent mostly in Paris, Baldwin produced his novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, some of his best stories, and his first book of essays Notes of a Native Son, made up of pieces mainly published in Partisan Review, Commentary and Harper’s.

Soon after the publication of Giovanni’s Room in 1957, Baldwin travelled to the American South to write about race. It is important to note the impact this first journey had on Baldwin, the terror he felt and the dread, and the sense too that, no matter how freely he lived in Paris and New York, his destiny and the destiny of his country was being worked out in bitter dramatic confrontation in the South.

James Baldwin in 1964 Credit: Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films

As a novelist, he should have turned and run because a large amount of serious imaginative energy was about to be taken up by the civil rights movement. It is easy to feel that he should have gone back to Paris and spent the rest of his life creating fictions in a peaceful environment, that he should have followed events as they unfolded by reading about them in The Herald Tribune while sipping a drink at the Deux Magots.

But Baldwin’s imagination remained passionately connected to his family and his country. It was inevitable that someone with his curiosity and moral seriousness would want to become involved; and inevitable that someone with his temperament would find what was happening all-absorbing, as Raoul Peck’s film makes clear.

Baldwin remained independent in these difficult years, toeing no party line. Although during his time in America in the 1960s there were long nights spent drinking whisky and “being a social animal of nearly manic gusto”, what he remembered most were the murders of people he knew, people he had marched with and worked with. 

“To save myself,” he told an interviewer in 1970, “I finally had to leave for good… I suppose my decision was made when Malcolm X was killed, when Martin Luther King was killed, when Medgar Evers... were killed. I loved Medgar. I loved Martin and Malcolm. We all worked together and kept the faith together. Now they are all dead. When you think about it, it is incredible. I’m the last witness – everybody else is dead. I couldn’t stay in America. I had to leave.” He spent much of the last 20 years of his life in France, where he died in 1987 with his brother David and Lucien Happersberger, who had been his lover, at his bedside.

Part of Baldwin’s enduring power is that he was not a political thinker. He was interested in the soul’s dark spaces much more than in the body politic. His essays are riveting because he insists on being personal, on forcing the public and the political to submit to his voice and the test of his experience.

“All art,” he wrote, “is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.”