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Whenever Camus is spoken of there is a mingling of personal, moral, and literary judgment. No discussion of Camus fails to include, or at least suggest, a tribute to his goodness and attractiveness as a man. To write about Camus is thus to consider what occurs between the image of a writer and his work, which is tantamount to the relation between morality and literature. For it is not only that Camus himself is always thrusting the moral problem upon his readers. … It is because his work, solely as a literary accomplishment, is not major enough to bear the weight of admiration that readers want to give it. One wants Camus to be a truly great writer, not just a very good one. But he is not. It might be useful here to compare Camus with George Orwell and James Baldwin, two other husbandly writers who essay to combine the role of artist with civic conscience.What occurs between the image of a writer and her work: the same problem afflicts the reception of Sontag herself. Still, she has a point. She writes elsewhere that Camus, as a novelist, attained a different altitude than either Orwell or Baldwin, but I have never been able to unsee that dressing down of all three “husbandly” men, Baldwin in particular, or to entirely dislodge him from her framework. As the years accumulate and Baldwin’s image and moral authority become ever more flattened, ever more frequently appropriated for the preoccupations of the present moment — with the most casual assumption of self-evidence — something in Sontag’s refusal to play along nags at me. In any event, and even though Baldwin, later in his career, wrote that he had “never esteemed [Camus] as highly as do so many others,” I have always found it useful to think of him as a kind of Harlem companion to the scholarship student from Algeria who became — and then failed to remain — his nation’s moral compass, who was blessed with the same gift of preternatural eloquence, and who struggled mightily and elegantly and perhaps vainly to bridge the disparate worlds that he straddled. [insignia] Like Camus, a decade his senior, James Baldwin was born in the first quarter of the twentieth century in squalor, about as far as possible — spiritually if not physically — from the glittering intellectual circles that he would come to dominate. Both young men were total packages, publishing stories, novels, plays, essays, reviews and reportage after having exploded on the scene fully formed in their twenties. Likewise, both men rose to global stardom outside their home countries, specifically in Paris, and peaked at an age when others only start to hit their stride — more or less around forty. Unlike Camus, Baldwin was not exactly fatherless, but it was necessary for him to eliminate one such figure after another to make space in his life for his own prodigious talent. In this sense, he was every bit the “first man” that Camus intended. By the time that Baldwin died of stomach cancer in the sunbaked Mediterranean village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence — not so far from the equally picturesque medieval town of Lourmarin, where Camus invested his Nobel money and is buried—he too was regarded as passé by a generation of readers no longer interested in reconciling differences or avoiding conflict. “Unfortunately, moral beauty in art — like physical beauty in a person — is extremely perishable,” Sontag warned. Baldwin did have the good fortune to have won at least two very influential younger champions in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Toni Morrison. But it was not at all a foregone conclusion that he would become, in the next three decades, nothing less than the pop culture patron saint of an entire generation of black (and increasingly non-black) artists, activists, and writers, in America and beyond. I am referring to the generation that came of intellectual age during the Obama presidency and the Black Lives Matter movement, which defined this decade's response to the spate of highly publicized police and vigilante killings of unarmed African Americans, beginning with Trayvon Martin's murder in Sanford, Florida in 2012. The enormous renewal of attention paid to Baldwin — which, at least until the coronavirus catapulted The Plague back onto bestseller lists around the world, had eluded Camus — has certainly been merited and illuminating. It has also been reductive and disturbing. Poor, black, and not straight — intersectional avant la lettre — Baldwin fits seamlessly, as very few icons from the past are able to do, into the readymade template of our era’s obsession with identity. (Even Sontag, a near-exact contemporary who outlived him by almost twenty years, could not entirely bring herself to admit that she was gay.) Books about Baldwin abound, biographical and literary and political studies, and films too: a cottage industry of Baldwiniana has emerged over the past decade. The most sensational entry in the contest for Baldwin’s halo would have to be Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, his letter to his teenaged son that was formally modeled on the first section of Baldwin's book The Fire Next Time, called "My Dungeon Shook: an open letter to my nephew.” The motor of Coates’ essay was the question that Baldwin debated with Buckley — is the American Dream at the price of the Negro? In his own response to that question, Coates divided America into two essentialized camps, the “Dreamers” and a permanent black underclass. Between the World and Me went on to become one of the most widely read and discussed works of nonfiction in the new century. In the book’s sole blurb, the late Morrison herself enthused: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” More than anything else, that endorsement bound the two men together in the public’s imagination. In his biography of Balwin, which appeared last year, Bill V. Mullen goes so far as to argue that Between the World and Me “was singularly responsible for the rediscovery of Baldwin by the Black Lives Matter movement.” Whether or not that is true, five years out a certain irony is clear: Morrison’s remark and Coates’ success had an even greater impact on the way we perceive Baldwin than the way we do Coates. Despite the hard-won optimism and ardent emphasis on reconciliation and regeneration through love that distinguishes his work, there is an undeniably pessimistic strain in Baldwin that often rings prophetic today. Drawing on this latter element alone, Coates captured and vocalized the profound disappointment provoked by the many limitations of the first black presidency. Between the World and Me, which so frankly and forcefully embodied the rage and justifiable frustration of an historically oppressed people with a rising set of expectations, rhetorically homed in on a single (mostly but not entirely late-phase) blue note in Baldwin’s catalogue of sonorities. If there is a problem here, it is not that Coates’ version of Baldwin rings altogether false. But it is tendentiously selective. It is a simplifying and coarsening distillation of a versatile and multifaceted writer, a supple and self-contradictory writer, into a single dark and haranguing register. In the process we are made to sacrifice a large amount of the complexity that made the author of Giovanni’s Room and Another Country so special and difficult to pin. Baldwin is revered, but he is lost. Consider also that Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. Though a decade in the making, the project arrived at and helped to define the Baldwin renaissance. The film takes as its impetus Baldwin’s thirty-page unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, which he described in a letter to his agent in 1979 as an exploration of race in America told through the assassinations of three prominent Civil Rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Onto this frame Peck grafts footage of Baldwin at roundtables and debates, familiar and jarring archival clips of violent white reaction to Civil Rights progress, such as school and bus integration, as well as contemporary shots of charged police confrontations with activists in Ferguson and elsewhere. There are no interviews with scholars and experts, no talking heads. Peck calculates correctly that Baldwin’s words alone will carry the film (he is the sole writer credited on the project), whether spoken directly or read with understated authority by the actor Samuel L. Jackson. The effect is exhilarating — Baldwin’s language is always captivating and lucid; he needs no translation or amplification. Even the wildly charismatic Jackson refrains from any attempt to compete with the words that he reads, which were written by a former child preacher in Harlem who was one of the few great writers in recent memory to be an equal or better public speaker, a distinction that the film makes thrillingly apparent. Yet I Am Not Your Negro inadvertently makes manifest some of the incongruities between the smooth new radical mythology of the writer and the man as he actually existed and co-existed with the cultural forces and major personalities of his era. Though it purports to tease out important connections — “I want these three lives to bang against each other,” Baldwin writes of the project — we learn very little about the relationship between him and the trio of martyrs he set out to examine in Remember This House. This is both because those leaders, while they knew and understood each other, did not really constitute a fraternity of any sort, and also — perhaps more importantly — because it can be expedient to avoid the complexity and contradictions of Baldwin’s own insecure position within the actually existing black America, to and from which he remained throughout his adulthood a permanent “transatlantic commuter.” Of the three, he may have experienced the most straight-forward fellowship with the Mississippi activist Medgar Evers, the youngest of the group and the first to be murdered. Malcolm X was explicit, however, that what he sought was a “real” revolution, not the “pseudo revolt” of someone like James Baldwin. And Martin Luther King, Jr., as Douglas Field shows in All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin, once balked — in a conversation taped by the F.B.I. — at appearing alongside the writer on television, claiming to be “put off by the poetic exaggeration in Baldwin’s approach to race issues.” It is hard to imagine that he could have been unaware that Baldwin was being denigrated as “Martin Luther Queen” in civil-rights circles. [insignia] Baldwin himself was understandably eager to emphasize and even embellish his connection to such extraordinary and sacrificial figures, especially King, but their realities were highly incommensurate on a variety of levels. In his memoir No Name in the Street, in 1972, there is a revealing set piece in which Baldwin writes about buying a nice dark-blue suit for a scheduled appearance with King at Carnegie Hall. Two weeks later, after the latter was brutally assassinated, it would be Baldwin’s attire for his funeral. Early in the Peck film we hear Baldwin worry over his role as a “witness” and not an “actor” in the convulsions of his time, only to resolve the apparent discrepancy by declaring that the two roles are separated by a “thin line indeed.” In his attempts to write himself over that line and into proximity with men like Evers, King, and Malcolm and by extension into the center of the civil rights struggle — to collapse that space between man, action, and work — Baldwin at once underestimated a crucial distinction (as well as his own specialness) while also betraying his insurmountable distance from all of them. Darryl Pinckney, in a review of the Library of America’s edition of Baldwin’s writings, kindled to Baldwin’s comment to a newspaper journalist that he would never be able to wear that suit again: A friend of Baldwin’s, a US postal worker whom he rarely saw, had seen the newspaper story and, because they were the same size, asked for the suit that to Baldwin was “drenched in the blood of all the crimes of my country.” Baldwin went up to Harlem in a hired “Cadillac limousine” in order to avoid the humiliation of watching taxis not stop for him, a black man. His life came into the “unspeakably respectable” apartment of his friend like “the roar of champagne and the odor of brimstone.” He characterizes himself as he assumes he must have appeared to his friend’s family: “an aging, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak.” His friend had also “made it” — holder of a civil-service job; builder of a house next to his mother’s on Long Island. Baldwin was incredulous that his friend had no interest in the civil rights struggle. They got into an argument about Vietnam. Baldwin says he realized then that the suit belonged to his friend and to his friend’s family. “The blood in which the fabric of that suit was stiffening was theirs,” and the distance between him and them was that they did not know this. The story is tortured and yet, regardless of Baldwin’s outrage at indifference or his identification with slain civil rights leaders, there is something wrongly insinuating about his depicting his scarcely worn suit as drenched and stiffening with blood, even metaphorical blood. People still remember what Jesse Jackson’s shirt looked like after King was shot. This slightly frivolous side of Baldwin can just be glimpsed in I Am Not Your Negro (and is almost totally absent from the new hagiography). “I was never in town to stay,” he admits on the film, and after Evers’ death we do hear Jackson read, “Months later, I was in Puerto Rico, working on a play,” as the camera reveals a sparkling beachscape. But he assumes his comparative privilege in No Name in the Street, where he notes that, when King was murdered, he was ensconced in Palm Springs, working on an unrealized screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X. After the emotional and rhetorical shift to Black Power at the end of the ’60s, many of Baldwin’s contemporaries and descendants wrote him off — much the same way that intellectuals and radicals in Algeria and Paris turned their backs on Camus — considering him too enamored of his own voice and far too comfortable in the white world. No Name in the Street, like much of Baldwin’s later output, can be read as a kind of overture to these critics, a capitulation to the new rules of engagement. “I was in some way in those years, without realizing it, the great white hope of the great white father,” Baldwin concedes. “I was not a racist, or so I thought. Malcolm was a racist, or so they thought. In fact we were simply trapped in the same situation.” In actual fact their situations were very different and those differences are worth thinking through — not wishing away — because they help to explain why their worldviews differed, too. Baldwin was in London when Malcolm was murdered. In the epilogue of No Name in the Street, just a beat after he writes that “the Western party is over, and the white man’s sun has set. Period,” he signs off “New York, San Francisco, Hollywood, London, Istanbul, St. Paul de Vence.” Unlike Malcolm X, there were plenty of lovely and welcoming places where James Baldwin could go, Pinckney mordantly notes, “to remind himself that he felt trapped.” Yet he did not invent his own marginality. It is no exaggeration to say that he was in some crucial ways homeless. In 1950, with a reasoning that anticipates the desire of today’s #ADOS movement to disentangle the all-American experience of descendants of slaves from any larger pseudo-biological notion of international blackness — to say nothing of that infinitely fuzzier category “people of color” — Baldwin wrote in his essay “Encounter on the Seine” that “they face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years — an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening’s good will, too heavy and too double-edged ever to be trapped in speech.” In Paris, he discovered what he could not recognize under the specific conditions of racial bigotry in New York City, and what he could never entirely disavow once he had experienced it: “I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I. And I found that my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris.” [insignia] That revelation comes in Nobody Knows My Name, his phenomenal second essay collection: “Like me, they had been divorced from their origins, and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine were African — they were no more at home in Europe than I was.” This is the Baldwin that the new revival has tended to gloss over or outright ignore. It is what distinguishes Baldwin from so many of his contemporaries and ours. This is the mature Baldwin, the wise Baldwin, the Baldwin who seethes at injustice but is not duped by the excesses of radicalism. It is the writer whose message — while not quite tailor-made to sell sweatshirts — is ultimately persuasive and always necessary. There can be an uncanny Benjamin Button-sense to reading Baldwin in chrono-logical order: it can feel as if the young man and not the elder is the all-accomplished, all-knowing sage. Here is that young-old man in his astonishing debut collection, Notes of a Native Son, recalling his birthday in 1943, which also happened to be the day that his father died and his sister was born. Riots in Harlem had erupted after a white police officer and a black soldier clashed in a hotel lobby in a dispute over a woman: Negro girls, white policemen, in or out of uniform, and Negro males — in or out of uniform — were part of the furniture of the lobby of the Hotel Braddock and this was certainly not the first time such an incident had occurred. It was destined, however, to receive an unprecedented publicity, for the fight between the policeman and the soldier ended with the shooting of the soldier. Rumor, flowing immediately to the streets outside, stated that the soldier had been shot in the back, an instantaneous and revealing invention, and that the soldier had died protecting a Negro woman. The facts were somewhat different — for example, the soldier had not been shot in the back, and was not dead, and the girl seems to have been as dubious a symbol of womanhood as her white counterpart in Georgia usually is, but no one was interested in the facts. They preferred the invention because the invention expressed and corroborated their hates and fears so perfectly. Later in the essay, in words he would live by to the end, he writes, “In order really to hate white people, one has to blot out so much of the mind — and the heart — that this hatred becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose.” And he continues, magnificently: “That bleakly memorable morning I hated the unbelievable streets and the Negroes and whites who had, equally, made them that way. But I knew that it was folly, as my father would have said, this bitterness was folly. It was necessary to hold on to the things that mattered. The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction.” I would like to believe that Baldwin never grew out of such views, that he remained an outsider — a peripheralist, as my own father might say — his entire life; and that this is one of the reasons he lived out his final seventeen years in Provence and could never quite bring himself back to America. He paid huge costs to remain semi-aloof, one of which might be the risk of permanent misunderstanding, even in his posthumous homecoming — but I am convinced that this ability to stand apart, this refusal to be completely subsumed and taken over by any group or collectivity, is what ultimately spared him from the all-consuming identity myopia that plagued his era and now plagues ours. He was not a Black Muslim or a Black Panther, he observed, “because I did not believe all white people were devils and I did not want young black people to believe that.” The simple decency of that sentence still holds the power to shock. It is the kind of correct-to-the-point-of-seeming-naïve insight that puts me in mind of Camus, the belief of a naturally humane and moral man, which we are desperately in need of in this age of opportunism and distrust. [insignia] None of this is to imply that Baldwin was ever less than lucid about the nature and tenacity of American racism. Baldwin in his nobility was nobody’s fool. One of the most powerful sequences in I Am Not Your Negro is instructive about what makes him, today, such an irresistible figure. Here at last we see him in crackling black-and-white in the company of two of the three martyrs. Here we encounter the “conjunction of man, action, and work” of which Sontag spoke. On a panel moderated by the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier — there was so much aggregated brilliance and iconography assembled there! — a weary-look-ing King and an implacable Malcolm appear as dignified props for an immensely thoughtful Baldwin, who speaks stirringly of the “vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority.” Peck cuts to recent black-and-white images of contemporary American police on a war footing, storming through the streets of Fergu-son. “I’m terrified at the moral apathy,” Baldwin says, “these people have deluded themselves for so long that they really do think I’m not human. It means that they have themselves become moral monsters.” Now the screen floods with color as nostalgic mid-century shots of an all-white beauty pageant, and young white women frolicking in spotless ensembles against a radiant blue sky, wash over the viewer. The dissonance of the juxtaposition is excruciating, undeniable. How are we ever to find our way out of this conundrum? Baldwin hit upon some of the answers. Late in life he seemed to return to a complex understanding of struggle that contrasts with the victim-oppressor binary to which the discourse that overtook him adheres. “It seemed to me that if I took the role of a victim then I was simply reassuring the defenders of the status quo,” he told The Paris Review shortly before he died. “As long as I was a victim they could pity me and add a few more pennies to my home-relief check. Nothing would change in that way. . . . It was beneath me to blame anybody for what happened to me.” And in “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” his essay in The New Yorker in 1962 that became The Fire Next Time, he was even clearer. “For the sake of one’s children, in order to minimize the bill that they must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusion,” he wrote. “And the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion,” he continued. “I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.” [insignia] A dozen years later the Israeli-Palestinian writer Emile Habibi coined the wonderful term “pessoptimist” for the title of a satirical novel. I cannot think of a better way to describe the mottled sensibility and variegated conscience that Baldwin brought to black American life and letters. He was repulsed by the stark, cliché-ridden, and fatalistic “Afro-pessimism” that we have become conditioned to espouse, and to tweet; nor was his understanding of race anything like the Panglossian self-hating optimism for which contemporaneous critics such as Eldridge Cleaver excoriated him. To reduce him to either pole in Habibi’s paradox is as irresponsible as it is boring. A great deal hangs on the proper interpretation of James Baldwin’s work and legacy. Even more than Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr., and certainly more than Ralph Ellison, his principal African American rival in talent, James Baldwin has become one of the primary arenas in which the most urgent questions — the meanings of the past, the possibilities of the future — of black American life are being contested today. These are not idle feuds. The stakes of getting his reputation right extend well beyond literary disputations. Last May, the excruciating videotaped killing of George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old black man in Minneapolis on whose neck a white police officer kneeled for nearly nine minutes, was yet another brutal and galvanizing cause for pessimism, as Baldwin would rightly have told us. It is at once astonishing and unbearable that our society (and not just white society, as George Zimmerman and other killers “of color” grimly attest) can still produce so many instances of appalling cruelty and injustice, instances which disproportionately target blacks. And yet even as we condemn such evil, our indignation cannot support a total or unending negativity. Baldwin would have admonished us about this, too. It would be just as disastrous a misjudgment of the schizophrenic American reality to argue that nothing (or next to nothing) has changed, that “lynchings” continue to define the black experience some two decades into the twenty-first century, as it would be to dismiss the very specific and incontrovertible familiarity and dread with which so many black Americans viewed that stomach-turning footage from Minneapolis. What is so challenging — but all the more essential for its difficulty — for its absurdity, you could say — is to keep in mind two competing ideas simultaneously. The fight for justice must not end merely in blind revenge or catharsis. The struggle demands not just fury and resentment, but also hope and wisdom. In maintaining such ambiguity, in defending such complexity, we are left with a single abiding truth: evil is always with us because it is one of the permanent conditions of humankind. Black people — like all other peoples forced to recognize up close the mixed-up character of life, its inextricable tangle of lights and darks — must become connoisseurs of pessimism and optimism to equal degrees. In his moral and intellectual capaciousness, Baldwin models this pessoptimistic mentality on and off the page. In this way his work (as opposed to the compressed and glib image that we are increasingly sold) is mimetic of American reality itself — plenty of which may turn out to be irreconcilable in the end, but none of which is ever enough to justify a single response in every season. Whatever our way out of our racial pain, it will be complicated and fitful and without fully satisfying once-and-for-all resolutions. Much like the context that created him, it is not necessary or even desirable to admire everything that James Baldwin said or did. But he exists to discomfit us, and to call us beyond tidy conclusions and easy emotions. He is forever inconvenient, which is why he is exactly what we need.