James Baldwin: A Prophet in Exile

Millions of African-Americans migrated from the Jim Crow South in search of a better life.  The North represented The Promised Land—free of the limits on Black mobility and opportunity so rampant in the southern states. In Notes of a Native Son, America’s greatest essayist, James Baldwin recalls there was no milk and honey to be found.

All of Harlem is pervaded by congestion, rather like the insistent, maddening, claustrophobic, pounding in the skull that comes from trying to breathe in a very small room with all the windows shut. . . Harlem wears to the causal observer a casual face; no one remarks that-considering the history of black men and women and the legends that have sprung up about them, to say nothing of the ever-present policemen, wary on the street corners-the face is, indeed, somewhat excessively casual and may not be as open or careless as it seems.  If an outbreak of more of than the usual violence occurs, as in 1935 or in 1943, it is met with sorrow and surprise and rage…

In the face of such a violent existence, religion could offer a safe place.  Though Baldwinleft the church at the age of 17, the signs, symbols and songs never left him.  Prophetic religion served to inform his project for years to come. Hence, the stories and songs of his childhood hold artistic and cultural significance.  In The Fire Next Time, he recounts his conversation experience.

I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis, I use the word “religious” in the common, and arbitrary, sense, meaning that I then discovered God, His saints, and  angels, and His blazing Hell.  And since I had been born in a Christian nation, I accepted this Deity as the only one, I supposed him to exist only within the walls of a church-in fact, of our church-and I also supposed that God and safety were synonymous.

Upon graduating from high school he moved to Greenwich Village. Eventually, Baldwin felt that need that I know all too well: that he must leave the United States. Fifty-seven years before I began my exile, he set sail forParisto be more than just a Negro writer. He followed Richard Wright, and other artists—searching for freedom.  The very place that he left to become a better writer was the very place to which he had to return, existentially, to finish his first novel.  The exilic Psalm 137 being played out on the Seine: Baldwin sat down at his river of Babylon, yea, he wept, when he remembered Harlem.  In a 1961 interview with radio personality Studs Turkel, Baldwin recalled coming to honor his past:

And I finally realized in Europe that one of the reasons that I couldn’t finish this novel was because I was ashamed of where I had come from and where I had been, and ashamed of life in the church and ashamed of my father, ashamed of the blues and ashamed of jazz, and, of course, ashamed of watermelon, because it was, you know, all these stereotypes that the country inflicts on Negroes that, you know, that we all eat watermelon or we all do nothing but sing the blues, and all that. Well, I was afraid of all that, and I ran from it.

Using his religious epistemology, Baldwin made meaning out of the absurdity of being.   Baldwin’s fiction serves as an elegant and elongated description of the prophetic quest for meaning. His creative non-fiction served as terse prescriptive testaments.  Go Tell it on the Mountain, his semi-autobiographical novel, was drawn from the Christmas hymn announcing the birth of Jesus.

 Go tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born

The powerful work describes the life of the protagonist that is very similar to the life of Baldwin.  A child preacher, in search of love from an unloving father, was not at home anywhere.   James Baldwin was a prophet in exile.  By prophet, I mean that his writing and activism called into question the prevailing norms, chastised the democracy and pointed us all to a new way of being.

Abraham Joshua Herschel notes in his book, The Prophets, that: “The prophet is human, yet employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding.  He is neither ‘a singing saint’ nor ‘a moralizing poet,’ but an assaulter of the mind.” Baldwin assaults the conventional wisdom of the day.

He sits in the pantheon of the existentialist prophets—Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. James Baldwin embodied the existentialist quest for making meaning in a world that denied Black folks meaning. No Name in the Street is taken from Job 18:17, “His remembrance shall perish from the earth, and he shall have no name in the street.” His being was in exile from Western democracy.

I know in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West. . . And this meant that in, some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State building, a special attitude.

That “special attitude” was prophetic existentialism—a religiously grounded critique of meaning making in the midst of exile. His existentialist writings are shaped by the constraints of racist and homophobic society and a freedom in exile. While homelessness and namelessness are features of exile, Baldwin turns them on their head to speak his special truth to the world.  When questioned by a report about being born poor, black and gay, Baldwin responded that he “hit the jackpot” because he had started so low in society.  From the place of “lowness,” Baldwin called upon our better angels by naming our demons.  In No Name in the Street, he critiques his childhood faith with democratic fire and prophetic brimstone:

. . . in exactly the same way as the Christian church has betrayed and dishonored and blasphemed that Saviour in whose name they slaughtered  millions and millions and millions of people.  And if this objection might seem trivial, it can only be because of the total hardening of the heart and the coarsening of the conscience among those people who believed that their power has given them the exclusive right to history. If the Christians do not believe in their Savior (who has certainly, furthermore, failed to save them) why, then, wonder the unredeemed, should I abandon my gods for yours?  For I know my gods are real:   they have enabled me to withstand you.

The Fire Next Time sustains Baldwin’s indictment of America and extends to pathological self hate.  In a letter to his namesake nephew, he cautions:  “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.  I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you forget it.”   Baldwin unpacks what it means to be an exile without self love—a state which ate James Baldwin’s father alive.  Baldwin reflects on his step-father, the younger Baldwin’s grandfather.  “Well, he is dead, he never saw you, he had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”

Nobody Knows My Name confronts personal exile and its use in social critique. His early life was so tortured because of lack of love that he so desperately craved from his father.   “Not merely the key to my life, but to life itself.”  With his common agility, he leaps from the private to the public, personal to political, and landed firmly on the ground of being that is love-uncovering and the nakedness of the human experience:

. . . when lovers quarrel, as indeed they inevitably do, it is not the degree of their pigmentation that they are quarreling about, nor can lovers, on any level whatever, use color as a weapon,  This means that one must accept one’s nakedness.

For Baldwin, the experience of love caused one to be free and bound; freedom as in the home of one’s lover’s arms and “a bondage which liberates you into something of the glory and suffering of the world.”  To love yourself is to live in exile, yet be free.

Excerpt from A Prophet in Exile: A Personal Meditation on James Baldwin. Published in The Feminist Wire, August 1, 2011 with permission.

—Rev. Osagyefo Sekou