MATTHEW SPECKTORJames Baldwin cc Allan Warren 1969
He missed the first class. In fact, he missed the first three. In his place came an emissary, a small, solemn fellow who cocked his head and closed his eyes and explained how Mr. Baldwin has been detained in Paris. I was nineteen, and had only a cursory understanding of who “Mr. Baldwin” really was. I’d read Giovanni’s Room, and passages of The Fire Next Time had been drilled into me by a zealous Marxist high school teacher, but really I was fascinated, and not a little appalled, by whatever it was that allowed someone to blow off his own students so comprehensively. “Mr. Baldwin” was late. In fact he would show up only five times during the semester’s allotted sixteen weeks, so what was I doing sitting in a classroom with someone I won’t name, but whose own credits amounted (at least as I measured them then) to a single novelization of a famous Blaxploitation movie? This wasn’t the person I’d come to study with, for whom I took a thirty minute bus ride every week from my own campus to Mt. Holyoke College’s. There were fifteen people in the class, three from each of the five schools in our consortium. We’d been chosen by lottery. And week upon week, we’d go and we’d wait and at last James Baldwin’s factotum would come in and apologize, sort of, for the great man’s absence.
I don’t really remember anything about his classes, this substitute’s, except that they involved a great deal of silence and contempt. His, presumably, for our soft, white entitlement, and mine, entirely premature, for his failure to be someone famous. My entitlement was my contempt, in other words, which made his fully justified. I recall the whole mode of those classes as being essentially oracular, and though whatever he said, this oracle, this substitute prophet, is lost to time, he seemed to spend the few hours every week closing his eyes and intoning something, various things, about the Art of Fiction. I do not remember turning in any writing, those first few weeks. I do not remember being asked for any. This class was, nominally, a workshop, but it became for a while a sort of dispiriting, faithless church. We were told things about how to write. We wrote them down, I think. These words were, by implication, Baldwin’s. But we never knew for sure.
Eventually, he came. At the beginning of the fourth week, I straggled down the waxy hallway and found — for whatever reason, I was early — James Baldwin, standing on the threshold of his own classroom as if he were confused about whether he should enter it. There was no one else there. And of course, I recognized him, slowed down so that I could light a cigarette, which at the very least would prevent me from doing or saying something stupid, would give me something to do besides ogle the famous writer. He came over and he took my hand and he cupped it between both of his own so that he could, likewise, use my match. He didn’t say anything. And he didn’t release my hand for a good fifteen seconds. The moment had a frieze-like quality, and was also a form of automatic seduction. I was charmed, by someone whose charm felt general. He took me in, by which I mean turned those bulbous eyes in my direction, and then introduced himself finally. It was an intimate moment without any intimacy in it. I’m not sure I’ve ever mattered less to another human being.
The Day I Finally Met Baldwin
The 1960s opened propitiously for me, and for my country, Nigeria. In 1960 Nigeria freed itself, at last, from British colonial rule. I published my second novel, and proved to myself that the first one was not a flash in the pan. The fact that a senior executive from the Rockefeller Foundation in New York knocked at my door in Lagos, with the offer of a travel grant, I think, proves the point. Where would I like to go? I said, “East and Central Africa,” and it was done. Two years later UNESCO came along with its grant. This time, I elected to go to the U.S. and Brazil. In UNESCO files, the purpose of their grant was to meet writers and study literary trends. Privately, I wanted to see how the African Diaspora was faring in their two largest concentrations in the New World. I was curious about America, because the British colonial education I had received took pains to put America down. One of my teachers in high school was fond of reading out editorials written by Nigeria’s leading nationalist, who, apparently, wrote very bad English. And my teacher linked this deficiency of the Nigerian to his American education, which was, of course, totally inferior to the British brand, and featured such subjects as dishwashing.
Needless to say, American books and writers did not feature in my education, with one exception: it was called Up from Slavery, by Booker T. Washington. And so, when I encountered Baldwin’s books, they blew my mind. I wanted very much to meet this man with the fearlessness of Old Testament prophets and the clarity, eloquence, and intelligence of ancient African griots. Unfortunately, Baldwin was not in the U.S. when I arrived, but in France. The organizers of my program apologized, casually, and went ahead to arrange for me to meet those who were around. I went to Rutgers University and met Ralph Ellison in his poky little office. He was okay. But I had a sense that it was not a happy meeting. He seemed so anxious to establish that Europe contributed a good deal to his identity, that Beethoven was as much a part of it as jazz. Why was he telling me? Everybody knows that. Or did I look somehow like a kidnapper on the prowl?
No one else I met quite gave me the same feeling: Langston Hughes, Paule Marshall, Amiri Baraka, then called LeRoi Jones, and others. By the way, I also met Arthur Miller, who graciously took me to lunch and spoke enthusiastically about the new Lincoln Center.
My chance to meet Baldwin finally came almost two decades later, in 1980. My joy no doubt triggered the rather untypical flamboyance with which I greeted him: “Mister Baldwin, I presume.” You should have seen his severe countenance crumble instantly into boyish happiness. The occasion was an annual conference of the five-year-old African Literature Association, meeting that year in Gainesville, Florida. The association had invited Baldwin and me to open their conference with a conversation. Everything was going swimmingly. The tone was joyful and also serious. With typical hyperbole, Baldwin called me his buddy, a brother he had not seen in four hundred years. The packed auditorium exploded in gleeful applause and nearly missed the terrible aside: “It was never intended that we should meet.” What he said about my novel Things Fall Apart was quite extraordinary. He read it in France, he said. It was about people and customs of which he knew nothing. But reading it, he recognized everybody: “That man, Okonkwo, is my father. How he got over, I don’t know, but he did.”
Halfway into our conversation, a mystery voice broke into the public address system, and began to insult Mister Baldwin. The geniality vanished. Some of the stalwarts in the audience rushed out to guard the exits. For a fraction of a second, Baldwin seemed nervous. But he quickly recovered his composure, stood erect and defiant, and began to reply to the intruder. “But Mister Baldwin will have his say; white supremacy has had its day.”
Looking recently at an amateur video recording of that strange evening in Florida, I took note, for the first time, of one unfulfilled prophecy from Baldwin. He said there were only twenty years to a new century. And he said he would be there, because he was stubborn. But, as we all know, he did not make it. He did not even make it to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which had invited him and me for the fall semester in 1987. Our conversation had been stopped for good.
Or has it?
Literal-minded people have always had trouble with the language of prophets. As when Baldwin says to his nephew, “You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, / My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”
A bitter critic accused Baldwin of encouraging Black Nationalist automatons in the belief that they were descendants of kings and queens, and should therefore uncritically identify with Africa. Baldwin did not advocate uncritical identification with anything. All his life he bristled with critical intelligence. He had a problem with Africa, which he called the African Conundrum. At one point in his life, he compared his African heritage most adversely with the heritage of humble Swiss peasants. “Out of their hymns and dances came Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory—but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.” Those are not the words of uncritical advocacy. The difference between Baldwin and some of his critics is that he was not scared of anybody or anything. He was not even scared of Africa."